Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Chicken in Kiev

One of the reasons I've not blogged recently - in addition to my unadulterated laziness, obviously - is that we've been off to Eastern Europe once again - this time to Ukraine.

If you're into ghost towns and urban exploration the reason for visiting this part of the former USSR is fairly obvious - to see the remains of Chernobyl and Pripyat inside the Exclusion Zone.

While the Ukranian government officially don't allow tourism, meaning that any excursions there are spuriously designated as scientific or ecological visits, it's a hotbet of urbex tourism, and not hard to see why - as ghost towns go, Pripyat is unprecedentedly spectacular.

 Not pleasant
The same can't be said of the food there - the only place for visitors to dine within the 19 mile exclusion zone is the cleanup site workers canteen, which has the look and feel of a prison or hospital eatery. And the charm.

The four course lunch provided - there was no choice in the matter - was substantial but fucking horrible, consisting of an indifferent, watery borscht, a squishy smoked ham salad, a disgusting fried chicken fillet with gloopy mash, and a dried fruit fritter made with potato flour and served with sour cream. Ugh.

I didn't worry all that much about the possibility of the food being radioactive because I hardly ate any of it.

The tourist office had said that we might want to take a packed lunch - despite lunch being provided. I now understand why!

The Real Deal

Fortunately, the food in Kiev, where we were staying, is rather more edible. 
The city even boasts three brewpubs, though the beer is decidedly lacking in variety, and consists universally of a range of lagers ranging from pale-and-tasteless to brown-and-over-malty, with the occasional wheat beer thrown in.

I was expecting more garlic
It was in one such brewpub, the Arena Beer House - modelled on American style bars with exposed brewing equipment and multiple  screens broadcasting sports - that Mrs B-V got to sample a genuine Chicken Kiev. Or Kyiv. Or Київ.

The fact that words can be written in any one of three ways - Westernised, Ukranian spelling / International alphabet, and Ukrainian spelling / Cyrillic alphabet - makes it incredibly hard to navigate ones way around the city, by the way, as maps and street signs all use different renditions.

Anyway, the Chicken Howeveryouspellit seems to be a dish primarily aimed at tourists who think themselves experimental but aren't, as, it has to be said, the filling was rather bland and probably less garlicy than you'd find in a Tesco's Finest Chicken Kiev.

I'd gone for the Pork neck shashlick, which bore only a passing visual resemblance to the shashlicks found in Indian restaurants, but was no less tasty. The barbecued meat was smoky, tender and full of flavour, having clearly been marinated for a very long time. 

It came up with fresh hummous, a chilli sauce, flatbread, salad and garlic and rosemary fries, and was damn good. A lot like the pork souvlaki one finds in Greece, and thoroughly recommended, should you ever go to the Arena beer house.

Shisha pipes are also surprisingly popular in the City and seem to be available in several bars, so we rounded off our meal with a tasty pipe of watermelon tobacco.

Where and What Else?

One place where we did manage to eat something deeply garlicy was the Shato brewery where you can pick from a special beer snacks menu while you drink your pale-and-tasteless or brown-and-overly-malty lager.

Ear ear
Like many former Soviet countries, deep fried black bread with smushed garlic is a speciality and this time they haven't dumbed it down for the tourists.
Crispy pigs ears were also on the menu, but were a disappointment compared to those I'd tried in Tallinn a few years ago. However, the 'peasant sausages' proved to be an agreeable blend of offal and herbs, and the fried cheese would go well with almost any beer.

You'll probably want to drink some vodka - known locally as Horilka - when you visit this part of the world - if possible go for a small obscure local producer, or homemade if you can find it. As well as being cheaper than the big name brands, these have a fresh, creamy flavour and grainy aroma and make for far better neat-drinking than the mainstream vareties that taste only of alcohol.

On the street you will find people dispensing 'Krak' an almost non-alcoholic beery drink made from bread. With it's low carbonation and frothy head, it has the look of a pint of real English bitter, with a sour edge, offset by artifical sweetening. Strange, but not unpleasant.

Oh, and right by the Mussorgsky-inspiring 'Golden gate' - which is neither golden nor a gate - there's an Italian restaurant that does an absolutely killer Osso Bucco with Parmesan mash.

Don't expect the good food in central Kiev to be cheap. While Ukraine is fairly poor, and prices in shops and from the street kiosks are low (40-50p for a half-litre bottle of water or beer) it's clear that bars and restaurants are only affordable to the wealthy elite, and prices are almost comparable with London at current exchange rates.

Tables in restaurants stand empty, while outside it's one of the most crowded cities (and certainly the most congested metro system) I've visited.

Is it worth a visit? Well, I like ticking off countries and am fascinated by ghost towns, so it was a no-brainer. The food and drink is hit and miss, but it's interesting and varied and you get to tell your friends you've been to Chernobyl!

Just remember to listen to the guy at the tourist office when he suggests taking a packed lunch!

1 comment:

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