In recent weeks, despite the political and now financial crisis in Ukraine, a few new restaurants and bars have opened in Ivano-Frankivsk. This blog has looked at an intriguing Soviet theme pub and a new burger bar in a fake “old” building. I have also considered the impact of tensions and conflict with Russia on shopping habits, including a boycott, with my post also covered in this excellent article by Mark Byrnes for The Atlantic.
This post looks considers a new Italian restaurant in the city, Fabbrica, which opened on Thursday, finding that it may have found a formula for avoiding the worst of the effects of the collapsing hryvnia and financial crisis. It serves Italian food but using exclusively Ukrainian ingredients (aside from the coffee and chocolate, of course), milling its own flour on the premises and thus making its own pizza dough and pasta fresh to order in the open-plan restaurant. The staff can be seen through the window milling and making the bases of the main dishes. The staff, it has to be said, are also very well informed about the dishes that are served, even if it turns out not all were available.
The restaurant belongs to the 23 Restorany group, whose aim is to open up 23 restaurants and cafes. This is their fifth endeavour, with the other four including the city’s best coffee shop, an excellent cake shop and bakery, a restaurant that focuses on waffles and also a summer pop-up cafe. Owing to its owners and their existing ventures’ popularity, Fabbrica was bound to be popular. Still, the staff made a song and dance – quite literally – out of the opening. Each night, with a trained choreographer and star of Ukraine’s Got Talent as well as Ukraine’s So you think you can Dance?, among the staff, towards the end of their shifts the staff will launch into a dance. The local press were also impressed by this gimmick, although some commentators here were less convinced.
The restaurant is, like Royal Burger, housed in a somewhat controversial new development. This building is completely new, although it began as a ‘renovation’ of an existing building several centuries old. One elderly man lived in a semi-bulldozed flat for quite a few months before finally giving way. Thankfully, this building is quite tasteful and makes no pretence to replicate the previous architecture. It sits fairly easily on a small square between the Town Hall Square and the city’s synagogue.
Me and my wife went along to Fabbrica last night, not to see the singing and dancing, but to get some food. We had our hearts, well bellies, set on pizza but when we ordered – and not when we got the menus – we were told that there would be no pizza for about two hours. The amount of dough required had been seriously underestimated, while it seemed to me some of the milling equipment was playing up on this second night. So, we ordered two soups, one pasta dish and a salad. The soups were brilliant, one chunky tomato and vegetable soup, and one pea soup with fresh pasta. The salad was decent – tomatoes, rocket, bread crackers and oil, but maybe lacked some cheese or olives, giving it a bit of savoury saltiness. The pasta dish – fresh wholemeal tagliatelle with Ukrainian forest mushrooms – was superb. Likewise, the juice drinks made of sea-buckthorn berry and another less maintstream Ukrainian fruit were wonderful.
However, the pasta dish was not my first choice – not only because there was no pizza – but because I had wanted a different dish which was not available. Likewise, we did not have dessert as the two non-ice-cream desserts were already sold out by 9 pm. Obviously, new restaurants will have teething problems, but not having enough cutlery or any small jugs to serve milk in for coffee seems like a major oversight for such experienced restaurateurs. It seems, however, that a major part of the difficulties faced in this exceptionally busy new restaurant were caused by its leading concept, namely the fact that it produces its main ingredients for its relatively small menu on site and fresh. Another problem with its open plan form, which gives the restaurant its Italian “factory” name, is that it’s extremely loud, with the music playing only audible when the milling equipment shuts down. Or when you visit the fancy toilets.
Perhaps we were just unlucky with the time we arrived, just after 8 p.m. on Friday, with no pizzas available, half the pasta dishes unavailable and the desserts running out. So our experienced contrasted greatly with this laudatory review from a local blog.
Anyway, this is enough of the restaurant review – summary, Fabbricca makes excellent food but needs to improve its logistics and service quickly – and I’ll place this restaurant, which uses almost exclusively Ukrainian products, in the socio-political context.
The use of only Ukrainian ingredients for Fabbrica’s Italian food is not driven by some patriotic urge. Many outsiders of certain political persuasions reading about Ivano-Frankivsk and seeing the words “exclusively Ukrainian” will assume some kind of nationalist undertone. But there is none of that here. Using Ukrainian products where possible right now makes great economic sense having invested what looks like a huge amount in fitting out this restaurant while charging prices lower than comparable places in the city centre or even further outside. The most expensive pizza is around 40 UAH, so about $3 or £2 right now, while pasta dishes are even cheaper, about 35 UAH at most. The beer is produced in Ivano-Frankivsk, Panske, and costs 15 UAH, standard for that brand.
Today, $1 costs over 13 UAH, while a month ago it was about 10, and at Christmas it was just over 8. £1 costs 22 UAH now, whereas even a couple of weeks ago it was about 18, and before Euromaidan was about 12. (In 2008 £1 was worth 8 UAH, $1 worth 5 UAH). The currency has been destabilised by political events and the threat of war, but also by the fact that the artificial measures of the Yanukovych regime to keep the currency stable and artificially low have been exposed. The problem now is that the currency seems to be in freefall and certain goods are becoming very expensive, so almost everything that is imported or valued in dollars. Bananas are now prohibitively expensive, while fuel is also very pricey.
Fabbrica seems to have hit upon a very good idea, as its low prices should be able to be sustained for some time, as its new menu will not be immediately affected by the rising costs of importing goods, although it may feel the knock-on effects of rising fuel prices that affect farming. Equally, it may suffer from a loss of Ukrainian consumer confidence – but now that UAH are increasingly worth less and earnings will not easily fund foreign holidays or shopping trips to Poland, then it makes sense to spend locally. In restaurants and cafes so far, I’ve yet to notice a huge rise in prices, with even coffee remaining the same price throughout the crisis. In shops, though, it’s a different matter.
The supermarket chain Furshet advertises that it is operating using the old 8 UAH/$1 exchange rate, but only for 150 top products. These products, though, seem largely concentrated on Ukrainian-made goods, including canned fish and wine, which are not significantly affected by the collapsing hrynia. In the meantime, bananas, foreign wine or salmon, are now unaffordable for someone earning in UAH.
However, if you do have some foreign currency – or want to come on holiday to Ukraine right now – it can be super cheap. Looking at our local quality wine and spirits merchant it turned out that some excellent Scottish single malt whiskeys, including Old Pulteney and Bruichladdich, are now cheaper than in the UK or even at duty free. Local, good quality vodka, is now about 30 UAH for a half a litre (£1.50), so for £10 you could quite easily kill yourself drinking. If you go to electrical stores, there are some bargains to be had, including 32 inch Samsung TVs for just over £100 or LG vacuum cleaners for £30 ($50). Here, the claim that 2013 prices remain in place is actually true. I think that unless every customer were lucky enough to come armed with a GBP denominated credit card the store would struggle to shift much stock. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to buy a new TV but we did get an electric toothbrush for £10, which costs £17 on Amazon UK or £35 from Boots. So, basically, if you want something cheap, or a cheap holiday, come to Ukraine before prices are upped and start to reflect exchange rates.
In other news, Easter is coming and so various traditional events are taking place around the city, some of which are now informed by the current situation in Ukraine. As my wife and I were walking from the market after doing some shopping today, we saw a small group of people led by a priest and including a man in a wheelchair, walking through Sheptytsky Square. It turned out that they were about to complete their pilgrimage around the city and reach the fourteenth station of the cross, signalled by the poster next to the lady in the blue coat.
The poster featured the text that Jesus was Laid in the Tomb, the fourteenth station. It was also accompanied by the faces of the Heavenly Hundred, so those killed on the Maidan in Kyiv, showing that some see the deaths of those people as a sacrifice which should bring about the resurrection of the Ukrainian nation, or at least salvation from evil. The small group carried a Ukrainian flag, too, and a banner which proclaimed ‘Our weapon is praying for Ukraine’. What struck me about this scene was that the black Range Rover was parked, illegally, right in front of the 14th station/ shrine to the Heavenly Hundred. Its owner had evidently no concern for the content of the poster in front of him. And this behaviour confirmed my faith that the more expensive your car, the more selfish, inconsiderate and boorish your behaviour.
Removing my tongue from my cheek now, I realise that there is some degree of incongruity between these everyday posts from western Ukraine and current events in eastern Ukraine, where the fate of the Ukrainian state may well be being decided. It is obviously worrying for me, my family and my friends here – particularly since we have close family living in Crimea (who did not dignify the “referendum” with their vote). But the aim of my blog is to look at what’s going on here in Frankivsk, and my perspective obviously reflects a certain position of privilege: being able to get out of the country whenever I please, knowing I won’t be here forever, and having some disposable income.