First, a warning – or at least some perspective.
Service levels in Ukraine are just different from those encountered in most of (Western) Europe. An ‘adjustment’ is necessary, otherwise very few places will meet ‘expectations’. When doing my preliminary research, I encountered several (actually ‘many’) reports of tardy, inefficient (and similar adjectives) service – and yes, the observations are true, but if one approaches as ‘different’ then sometimes the food can be well-prepared, despite what might be considered service lapses.
In particular, the ‘tradition’ of bringing all parties meals at the same time is rarely honoured. Food comes out of the kitchen ‘when it is ready’ – on several occasions there were ‘huge gaps’ between the serving of different parties dishes (in the worst case over 60 minutes). Also, plates are generally cleared away as soon as one finishes – regardless of the status of other diners at the table.
Payment is also ‘a variation’. Assuming credit cards are accepted (which they are at most upper-scale places), there will be two separate bills/checks; one for food, the other for all liquids (including water, coffee). Neither will enable a gratuity to be added – all tips are in cash.
So, on to the restaurants (roughly in order visited).
Another detour before the food itself. For some reason, many places in Lviv feel the need for a gimmick – I felt as if a deranged Disney had developed the restaurant scene here. Examples (by no means complete) include:
A medieval restaurant with a live goose (penned) in the dining room
A ‘chimney sweep house’ with a car parked on the roof so he can get to work over the rooftops.
A ‘most expensive restaurant’ which has a false ’sitting room’ entrance and servers dressed in masonic garb (and a 90%off voucher which you need before attending the restaurant).
A ‘bunker’ that ‘only serves members of the Independent Ukrainian Army (you will be interrogated before being granted admission – the password may (or may not) be “I hate Putin”.
A place named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – purportedly the servers offer to whip you during the meal.
On to the gimmicks I actually visited:
Arsenal – gimmick is no plates or cutlery – you eat with your hands off a paper covered wooden table that you share with other patrons. Plus (purportedly) only a single menu item - rack of ribs, cooked on a rotating wheel over a wood fire (they do actually have a few other items if you insist). This is participatory food. There’s a communal tap to rinse your hands before and after. The ribs themselves were ‘OK’ – with that volume they can clearly obtain good quality meat. But the cooking of the ribs is erratic – some are charred, some barely done. Seasoning seemed random. Despite being cooked over wood, surprisingly little smoke content – I’m guessing relatively short cooking time and probably boiled first as no dripping fat flare-ups. Texture was good, with still some ‘bite’. Great with beer. One person had fish – and the smell of that one portion swamped the aromas from the multiple rib orders. A salad came wrapped in flat bread. And the postscript – massive MSG reaction later.
Coffee Mine – gimmick is a café that features a ‘coffee mine’ – you’ll need a hard hat to tour the cellar where they mine the coffee beans (if you visit this, do it after a salt-mine visit; the parody is actually quite good). Coffee was ‘acceptable’ – the beans were mostly Central American and South American – neither area is among my favourites – but a fun time.
Vintage Nouveau – gimmick ‘the best wine list in Ukraine’ – indeed a good list – pity that 3 of the 4 wines I attempted to order were out of stock. Finally let them recommend wines. The food was pretty good but portion sizes were bizarre. A crayfish carpaccio appetizer was excellent, but needed a microscope. The soup (beef tongue and coconut) was fantastic – and big enough to serve two people. Potato pancakes were ‘filling’. A couple of ‘millefeuilles’ were layers of maybe 3-5 levels which worked well texturally (think maybe crackers, rather than pastry) but even those didn’t survive intact by the time they reached the table from the kitchen – they had slid or toppled over. Overall one of the better meals in Ukraine.
(OK, not on everybody’s itinerary, but the home of the top ice-cream in Ukraine (purportedly) and the Space Museum (home of the ‘father’ of the Soviet space program).
Primavera (Hotel Reikartz) – we arrived after dark so, considering my unfamiliarity with the town (and language), decided to eat at the hotel. A duck carpaccio had a paste of foie gras; the rack of lamb was OK and duck with caramelized apples was filling. Lots of wine – which was cheap! Serviceable, but not really memorable.
Dining Room Hotel Rus – we had received a ‘tip’ that this hotel had a ‘special Chicken Kiev night’ each Thursday, so ‘when in Kiev……’. For some reason the restaurant was closed to customers despite the sign showing it was open, but we were assured the same menu was available in the lounge/bar. This meant eating on low tables – but if it is the best, so be it. There were 3 of us – two ordered the Chicken Kiev [aside: take care with this dish, which is essentially chicken breast stuffed with butter; when first broached one can experience a butter fountain]. Each came in a sort of ‘toast wagon’, which is intended to absorb the butter, although there was still sufficient to provide a butter lake for the vegetables. The third order appeared about an hour later – long after one of the participants had retired for the night. Sadly, the culinary low point of the trip.
Lunch at a [name lost] two storey restaurant just north of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery/Cave complex on Lavrska (about 150 meters north of the bus stop ( NOT Kupol, which is all Google can find)) – a pleasant meal with adequate service. Similar fountain of Chicken Kiev, but served on a softer toast. Good beer!
PetruS-ь – The service level here was closer to western standards, although still random – just shorter interruptions. The food was solid – a Carpathian mushrooms dish (highly recommended) was both huge and satisfying, being served in a small cast-iron pan. Rapans (think sea-snails, harvested in the Black Sea) in a cream sauce were also a highlight. The dumplings (vareniki) were OK and the veal tongue with teriyaki sauce was an interesting twist – not really improving the basic ingredient. However, overall a creditable attempt with fantastic appetizers.
Café Illi (Illy), Petra Sahaidachnoho St, 33,(I think, thanks to Google) – it has the Illy logo outside on the sign) – went there twice – not just for the coffee, but particularly the salted caramel tart (it wasn’t called that but I don’t recall the Ukrainian name) – it’s a fairly solid round tart absolutely loaded with nuts. And the tastiest caramel tart since Tokyo, about 10 years ago.
Kanapa – trendy ‘modern’ Ukrainian cuisine in an old wooden house, overlooking a ravine park. Reservations essential. This is as ‘modernist’ as it gets – expect foams and gels and service approaching western standards. This was top of our ‘wanna go’ list and indeed is worth a visit. Prices are high by Ukraine standards but cheap by western comparisons. Sometimes technique overtakes taste – a trio of pates/rillettes (rabbit, smoked duck, pork tongue) had great variations in texture but were gilded with brightly coloured gels that didn’t really improve the flavour. But their home-baked bread was great with these.A roasted duck salad was beautifully presented with a variety of textures and greens, lifted by a caramelized millet. A specialty was a box of ‘savoury sweets' that we shared for dessert. Sadly more gimmicky than tasty and just not worth the price (even by western standards). Yes, this is easily the most creative place we found in Ukraine – but a postscript – the dreaded MSG reaction a few hours later. P.S. If good weather, ask to be seated in the ‘secret room’ – a balcony overlooking the ravine.