Ukrainian-owned restaurants to support in Batumi – Culinary Backstreets

In February 2022, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, having already occupied parts of the country since February 2014, Georgians reacted with anger and solidarity. Drawing parallels to their experiences with the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi residents staged huge rallies outside parliament, gathered humanitarian aid to send to Ukraine, opened their homes to refugees, made solidarity borscht, and posted signs in their restaurants and other businesses saying Russians were not welcome.

The mood a few hundred miles west in the rainy city of Batumi in March was more subdued – the protests were smaller (the city is smaller), and while Ukrainian flags and anti-war slogans covered the city, we saw none of the anti-Russian, even anti-Putin placards, posters and graffiti had proliferated throughout Tbilisi. This is despite the fact that Batumi, which at least according to the latest census, has the highest proportion of Ukrainians in any Georgian city. It seems that everywhere you turn you come across a diverse offering of Ukrainian-owned restaurants, bars and cafes, including but not limited to: Manufactory 1993, which serves upscale food canoe (sweet or savory baked pie) and wine; affordable home cooking in Як вдома (“Like at home”); the cute and sturdy Chocolatte Coffee-Room; Chips & Salsa Creative Dance Cafe; Uncle Feng’s, a classic of Chinese cuisine; Party Bar 11; Bez Mezh by the beach and Mexican-themed Esco-bar.

Camera-shy and interview-shy Як вдома’s owner hails from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which has been the subject of constant missile strikes since the beginning of the war, and would have lost nearly two-thirds of its population of about 1.5 million. The restaurant serves, as the name suggests, home-style Ukrainian and Soviet cuisine at affordable prices, especially given its location in the charming but touristy Old Quarter of Batumi.

During a recent busy lunch hour, we settled on a plate of the best handmade mushrooms and potatoes vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) we’ve never had, with a refreshing Korean carrot salad on the side for some vitamins and a lovely glass of rose compote (a popular drink throughout the region made with fresh or dried fruit and large amounts of sugar), while other tables had classics like buckwheat, Vinaigrette (a salad of beets and potatoes) and cutlets with mashed potatoes. Our waitress, who is originally from Kyiv and didn’t want to share her name, said she moved to Georgia six years ago because she “wanted to understand how people live in other countries.” She added that the restaurant, covered in cheerful murals depicting a festival in Ukraine in better days, provided free food to refugees, feeding around 50 to 60 people each day. She said the best way for Batumi residents to support the displaced and Ukraine would be to donate food, such as pasta, oil and sugar, to humanitarian efforts and people who organize themselves. to feed their communities.

Just down the street is one of the most unlikely hits of the Ukrainian restaurant scene: Uncle Feng’s, our favorite Chinese restaurant – and until recently the only one in Batumi. With a lot more bell pepper and paprika than we’ve come across in Chinese restaurants elsewhere, the food is delicious if not possibly precisely what you’d get in a restaurant in China, and if you ask for spice be prepared to sweat a little. If you still need more heat, Ungle Feng’s Chilli Oil is a go-to.

We go there every time we are in Batumi, as it is the perfect antidote to the bread and cheese world of Georgian cuisine, and I’m afraid we always order the same things: fried chicken salt and pepper, chicken noodles and cucumber salad, extra spicy. Each dish is enough food to feed two, so after sharing this feast and a few beers, we always leave stuffed, warm and satisfied.

All the food is prepared by owners Alexei and Tamara Reznichenko, who learned to cook Chinese dishes from the Chinese owners they bought the restaurant from five years ago. Alexei and Tamara moved here seven years ago with their two daughters, fleeing their hometown of Alchevsk, one of the largest cities in Luhansk Oblast, where a Russian-backed breakaway state was established after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. As Alexei puts it, “The war didn’t start now, nor a month ago – it started eight years ago.”

Tamara says she noticed an influx of Ukrainians in Batumi, but not their friends back home – as the couple are from Lugansk, most of their friends had to flee years ago. There aren’t many official numbers yet, but she’s hearing more and more Ukrainians speaking out on the streets, and she says they’re helping newcomers adjust to life in the city.

They aren’t very optimistic about the near future: Tamara says she thinks the war will go on for a bit longer, and Alexei says “The army won’t solve this problem”. They don’t know if they will ever return – the towns have been destroyed, and they have settled in Batumi: they have a successful restaurant, their daughters, one of whom plays the flute at the local conservatory, both have learned Georgian… Tamara says that although moving was difficult, Batumi is a “very good place to raise children”, and that the local children were particularly welcoming towards their children. However, due to the situation in Luhansk, even before this year they could not see their parents and grandparents who remained there.

For now, they say people looking to help Ukraine and Ukrainians in Georgia should donate to humanitarian or financial aid groups and share information about what is happening in Ukraine. Alexei points out that they also fled the conflict, so there is an easy way to help a refugee family: “Come and be customers!”

In the morning, a few blocks from Uncle Feng’s, the Old Batumi Classic Chocolatte belonging to Ukraine is often crowded. The small cafe serves an important function as one of the few places that opens at 9am – it’s exceptionally hard to find breakfast in town, so omelettes, waffles, syrnyki (sweet Ukrainian cheesecakes) and espresso machine are popular, and its lovely outdoor seating area makes it an equally nice spot for an affordable pasta or vareniki lunch. The normally gregarious and chatty owner was too busy for interviews when we stopped by recently – besides being the only receptionist in a full cafe, at the time he was dealing with the Georgian tax service.

As Tamara Reznichenko said of Uncle Feng at the end of our interview, “Life goes on, no matter what.”

Note: Some interviews have been translated from Russian.

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