5 Mykhalchuka St,
+38 032 245 2284
by Tartine Amis AKA ‘The Ukrainian Sex Bot
As the onetime easternmost outpost of the Habsburg crown lands, Lviv is justly celebrated for its café culture. Attending the 2015 Lviv Media Forum for four days provided me with the perfect opportunity to indulge in the town’s tradition of Austro-Hungarian inspired culinary decadence. I had also been warned before coming – correctly it turns out – that Lviv had been transformed since my previous visit five years ago. The stitching together of ever-tightening links to Poland and the European Union, as well as investments in infrastructure made ahead of the Euro 2012 football tournament, have markedly transformed the city centre. Despite the war
raging on the other side of the country, this provincial and relaxed town remains by most measures the most ‘European’ in Ukraine. Yet, much here remains as it always has.
The various multi-confessional churches of this most pious of towns are all still full to the brim with fervent pilgrims. In the midst of war the city is even more staunchly patriotic than usual: there are off duty soldiers in uniform everywhere, and every third person is wearing a Vishivanka or a Ukrainian flag pin. Pro-Ukrainian political parties and volunteer battalions raise funds and distribute their literature on most street corners. Next to the central prospect’s statue of Taras Schevchenko, children boxed with a stuffed dummy of Vladimir Putin to the gleeful roaring of the adult crowd. Yet, the amount of Russian that one hears spoken in the street is a testament to both general increases in tourism and the large numbers of Russophone refugees transposed here from the East and Russian occupied Crimea. Leaving my hotel outside of the main Greco-Catholic church on the way to breakfast, I came across a military brass band performing final rites for a soldier recently killed in fighting outside of Lughansk.
There are also the ever present groups of Polish day trippers. Polish license plates are everywhere. By my rough calculations about a third of the people sitting in the opera house when I attended ‘Moses’ by the composer Myroslav Skoryk, were speaking Polish. The opera, based on national poet Ivan Franko’s long poem, appropriates the narrative of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert to symbolize Ukrainians’ aspirations for freedom from Russian subjugation. For his part, the Russian-Israelite oppressor who serves as your correspondent had spent at least forty days wandering in search of a proper strudel. That strudel, as well as myriad other tasty morsels could be had in the Smakolyk café, located on a picturesque corner of Mykhalchuka and Nalyvaika Streets. Smakolyk is Lviv’s best effort at a modern health-oriented style café. The café is situated in a light, glassy and modern aperture, a quick two minute jaunt from the opera house. Its spare, Swedish décor could belong to a café in any European capital. It is alcohol-free, vegetarian-friendly, and its advertising promises fresh organic ingredients brought lovingly from neighbouring Carpathian villages. The calorie counts are marked on the menus – an exceedingly progressive (if not almost a futurist) practice by post-Soviet standards
My omelette with generic Ukrainian cheese sprinkled with parsley and brown bread was well seasoned but otherwise forgettable. This was followed by a simple Bulgarian inspired ‘Shopski’ salad of freshly diced cucumbers and tomatoes in olive oil topped with salty goat milk Brinza cheese (close in flavour and texture to gorgonzola). It was inspired by Galicain peasant food, but was nonetheless excellent.
My companion had the fresh yoghurt and strawberry jam spread (jars of jam and preserves are also sold on the premises). The onsite bakery is oatmeal cookie and cake oriented, but the most‘Ukrainian’ things on offer are the miniature apple ‘xustinkas’ – tiny apple-filled pastries named after knotted Ukrainian head scarves. The Polish poppy seed and fig makivnyk pastry is considered a speciality, and crumbles perfectly in one’s mouth.
The strudel of honey glazed walnut was crispy and tart, dappled with heavy cream. It is possibly worth invading Ukraine to get one.
In short, the café is an excellent modern adaptation of Western Ukraine’s distinctive culinary mélange of German, Polish, Jewish, and Slavic cuisines; an intriguing modernist update of the numerous Strudel Hauses where one can drink Viennese coffee while reading favorite son Leopold Sacher-Masoch. Also, unlike many other parts of Ukraine (and the Soviet lands to Kiev’s east) where the Soviet mentality is more deeply ensconced, Lviv does not have a culture of waiters being aggressively snide and insulting while taking one’s order. Whether one appreciates this very un-Soviet politese is much like one’s choice between spinach-stuffed strudel or the traditional apple variant: a matter of taste.