What is Ukrainian food? The country birthed such beloved Slavic dishes as beetroot borscht (more accurately “borsch”, the T being an English invention) and vareniki (boiled dumplings). Yet its culinary tradition is so closely interwoven with that of its massive neighbour that even now, most Ukrainian-owned restaurants in Berlin simply call themselves “Russian”, assuming (probably rightly) that German diners might get confused otherwise.
But you can have a great Ukrainian meal in this city – if you know where to look. Like behind the red velvet curtains at Pirouette in Prenzlauer Berg. From the outside, nothing prepares you for the hearty Ukrainian experience that awaits here: not only the delicious blini and dumplings handmade by Chernivtsi-born chef Uliana, but also the homey atmosphere, filled with chatter in Ukrainian and Russian. The crew from Ukraine Hilfe Berlin e.V. has made the place their ‘wartime’ headquarters, and two families with kids – the recently arrived relatives of owner Slava Lukyachenko – are happily feasting on the soup of the day, a solyanka.
The name of the place, and the many photos on the walls, hint at Slava and her husband Roman’s past. Both are dancers who met at the Kyiv ballet before moving on to Berlin’s Friedrichstadtpalast, where they performed for over a decade before deciding to hang up their slippers and move on to something “more relaxing”.
And so, during the break between Corona lockdowns in June 2020, Pirouette was born. Now they serve cocktails, vodka and a surprisingly vegan-friendly menu – reformed by Slava’s daughter – that includes animal-free borscht (€6.50) and cabbage, potato and/or mushroom vareniki (€6.90-€7.90) alongside pork or beef pelmeni (€9.90-10.90), humongous burger plates and egg dishes for breakfast. Start and end with the blini (pancakes), either savoury with cream cheese and lox or salmon roe, or sweet with everything from Nutella to orange liqueur, for a convincing Ukrainian take on the “Crepe Suzette”.
Over in Neukölln, Drei elefanten also boasts a chef from Chernivtsi – owner Ange- lika Gumz – and a plethora of vegan and veggie options. Gumz, who moved here with her German husband over 20 years ago, eats little meat herself. In fact, she originally opened Drei Elefanten as a more generic vegetarian café, until the pandemic hit a few months later and she pivoted to play to her strengths. One of which, naturally, is borscht (€6.50) with the most tender bits of beef (or beans) in a deep, comforting broth that tastes of zero shortcuts.
The hand-folded vareniki, served on their own or in a creamy mushroom or spinach-walnut sauce, may be a shade pricier than at Pirouette (€8.50-10.90) but come with cabbage slaw and a Korean-style morkovka (carrot salad) piquant enough to surprise the Germans next to us. A handful of more Neukölln-y brunch dishes remain on the menu, like shakshuka and a vegan panini with cashew pesto, but there’s nothing hip or fancy about Gumz’s cooking – and her café is all the better for it.
Like Slava across town, Gumz has been over-extending herself of late, trying to keep her business afloat while caring for her elderly mother and hosting newly arrived acquaintances. She also provides free and discounted meals to the ever-growing refugee community, which more fortunate Berliners can help subsidise by throwing in a little extra for their food – a simple, and simply delicious, way to do one’s part.
Drei Elefanten Donaustr. 104, Neukölln Daily 10-22