Name: Kozak Ukrainian Restaurant
Location: 1 West Cordova St., Vancouver, B.C.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $24; mains, $8 to $34
Additional information: Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. Friday and Saturday); reservations recommended; takeout and delivery (UberEats).
Food choices are political. And since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, people have been pouring into Gastown’s Kozak Ukrainian Restaurant to eat blue-and-yellow “Patriot” perogies chased by “Glory to Ukraine!” shots layered with curacao and advocaat.
The new restaurant and bakery, which opened in September, has been so overwhelmed by the influx of support, the kitchen is having trouble keeping some of its more popular and labour-intensive dishes (stuffed peppers, pork cabbage rolls, napoleon cake) in stock.
“Sorry, we’re out of that too,” our gracious servers kept apologizing over two recent visits for lunch and dinner.
Like many, I went to Kozak as an act of solidarity, expecting to find a modest mom-and-pop shop serving rustic, homestyle fare. Instead, I discovered the most polished Ukrainian restaurant in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland – quite possibly all of Canada. And no shortage of great food.
Kozak was fortunate to have inherited the mid-century modernist bones of the fine-dining Bauhaus restaurant, which was formerly owned by filmmaker Uwe Boll. (After a long legal feud, the landlord abruptly terminated his lease two years ago.)
The interior is simpler these days. The marble tabletops and Breuer-style chairs have been replaced with wood. And the brutalist concrete walls have been warmed up with colourful Ukrainian folk art.
But the fighting spirit is strong. A Ukrainian flag is festooned across the open kitchen, a fundraising jar for humanitarian aid sits on the bar, filled to the rim. And in the men’s bathroom, a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin is strategically positioned next to the drain of a urinal basin.
This is the third and most ambitious restaurant for owners Irina Karpenko and Sergiy Kuznietsov. In 2013, the couple came to Vancouver from Kyiv (where their families have chosen to remain during the war) and soon began selling their traditional baked goods at farmers markets under the name Solodko Bakery. They later opened a café in New Westminster and a casual eatery in East Vancouver, where they now mill their own flours, make terrific sourdough bread and routinely sell out of their Brooklyn-style chocolate babka.
At the new Gastown location, they created a full-service restaurant (with a small bakery on the side) that offers a larger menu for lunch and dinner and a high-level bar replete with a sophisticated natural wine program – curated by Mr. Kuznietsov.
The menu mostly comprises classic Ukrainian staples. There are a few nods to local tastes, including vegan cabbage rolls filled with mushrooms and kidney beans, which are small, tightly rolled and smothered in a nicely balanced tomato sauce. And some more generic fine-dining flourishes at dinner, such as confit duck on a bed of braised cabbage and lamb shanks deglazed with Jagermeister.
But for the most part, Kozak serves Ukrainian comfort fare in large portions for decent prices, elevated by great ingredients (largely organic, local and free-range), professional technique and beautiful plating.
Executive chef Alex Orlenko must have really impressed his teachers at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. He went straight from student to teaching assistant to corporate chef of the catering department. Since then, he has worked at Tavola, which might have been where he learned to make his perogies as thin and silky as fine tortellini. And Heritage Asian Eatery, under opening chef Felix Zhou, who always impressed me with the fine-dining finesse he applied to a casual counter-service eatery.
A similar rigour can be found at Kozak.
The borsch is super refreshing, made with a beautiful clean broth slightly sweetened by beets. The latkes are fortified with reincorporated liquid starch that drains out of the shredded potatoes and exquisitely fried to a golden crisp in fresh oil. Syrnyk (cottage cheese pancakes) are light, airy and drizzled with tart black currant preserve.
And the perogies, wow, you could make an entire meal out of the perogies with their medley of flavours – from vibrant dill-and-potato to savoury sour cherry – all deftly pleated, firmly packed and fried to a perfect, non-greasy crisp or boiled to a satiny finish and garnished with caramelized onions sautéed to the precise sweet spot before they burn or tip into candy.
You could have the chicken Kyiv, which is sensationally tender with butter and air-fried to a crackle. But you can get that dish anywhere.
Why not try the wonderful cured-fish platter, generously loaded with pickled anchovies, cured herring, lightly salted gravlax and fatty smoked mackerel? Or banosh, a cornmeal porridge folded with oodles of butter, sour cream and salty Macedonian feta?
Whatever you do, save room for the tremendously tall Medovyk honey cake layered with sour cream. And finish up the night with shot of nalyvka, a housemade, sour-cherry liqueur. I do wish glory to Ukraine, but this lovely drink was more my style than the blue-and-yellow shooters.
The late-night crowd gets a little loud, especially when The Hardkiss, a beloved Ukrainian rock band, is blaring in the background. But the boisterous vibe is well suited to Gastown and pitch-perfectly defiant for this terrifying war.
Go to Kozak. Show your support for Ukraine. But don’t forget about this restaurant because it is one that will thrive on its own merits and is worth visiting anytime.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.