Kozak Mamai restaurant review
By Paul Miazga
I remember my first time at Kozak Mamai rather well. Five years ago I sat down on the summer terrace with my friend and co-worker Lena for a late-summer supper. It was my first day in Kyiv and the collection of sights and sounds I’d had proved just slightly overwhelming, including the meal. I remember the food being good, the price not exorbitant and feeling rather satisfied overall. Our waiter, clad in a traditional Ukrainian tunic and pants, provided amicable service and moved about the terrace taking other patrons’ orders, skillfully side-stepping musicians playing local folk music. It was then and remains now one of the few independent Ukrainian-themed restaurants in the city.
Fast-forward to the present: I returned to Kozak Mamai just over the weekend to see what I’d been missing all these years, if anything. I’m surprised that I have not been back to the restaurant for so much as a serving of borshch, that standard beetroot soup, since. Mind you, as much as I like Ukrainian food, having been raised on it my whole life, it’s not something I tend to seek out; I know what I like and how I like it, and as often as not I make it myself rather than go out.
Friday evening the restaurant was very busy, the nasty weather having obviously brought many diners out of the cold. I figured at 9 p.m., however, I would miss the typical supper rush and have the place largely to myself, but I soon found myself waiting for a few minutes at the entrance until they found a place for me in a small room off the main hall.
Not being in the main dining hall, where it can be quite boisterous with musicians mixing with the wait staff moving to and fro, the restaurant reveals subtle details: the paintings of Cossacks, not to mention the ceramic plates and jugs, musical instruments, decorative linens and other items lend Kozak Mamai an air of respectability that other Ukrainian restaurants here lose – the kitsch factor garnered from thatched ceilings, life-sized cows poking out from walls and immodestly dressed waitresses often woefully overdone.
Ukrainian food is rich and hearty, with plenty of meat, cabbage and potatoes in a variety of dishes, and Kozak Mamai does have a lot of meat dishes on the menu. I had homemade sausage and cabbage rolls the first time I ate here, so I tried to stay away, at least from large portions. Meat doesn’t have to be central to a Ukrainian meal but often is by default, so I ordered the borshch, a bean and mushroom salad, meat-stuffed varenyki, with a glass of mors to wash it all down. I don’t like drinking wine or beer with Ukrainian food. Vodka is about the only drink that feels right, but I wasn’t in the mood for vodka on Friday.
My server brought a portion of fresh, warm bread with the usual garlic butter and classic salo (pig fat) spreads that were also warm, rather than stiff and ice cold. Too often in Kyiv the staff at the priciest, most elegant restaurants don’t have enough common sense to take a few portions of butter out of the cooler for the supper hour, meaning that the diner’s soft, warm bread turns to threads of cotton with the onslaught of a knife laden with cold, hard butter. A real annoyance and I was happy to avoid it.
The borshch happened to be of the eastern variety (more cabbage and tomato than beetroot), with an orange color and typical sourish taste. I was hoping for the western Ukrainian variety, which is hard to find in Kyiv; perhaps my upbringing has conditioned me to prefer the deep red colour and slightly bolder taste of the western variety. Perhaps it’s just that my girlfriend, who is from eastern Ukraine, had just made her style of borshch just the week before and I didn’t find anything remarkable in what I had at Kozak Mamai. The salad came when I had half the soup finished and all the pampushky (soft dipping bread) with it. The soft, almost plush pampushky were excellent, I might add. If someone said they had come fresh out of an oven, I would’ve believed it and been happier for it.
The salad was filling, a change from the usual fresh vegetables drizzled in oil, but hardly worth writing home about (is any Ukrainian salad with mayonnaise all that unique?). Some time elapsed before a server replenished my fresh bread supply, and then the varenyki came with a nice side serving of sour cream.
My preference with varenyki is for them not to be served in a bowl, though they invariably are. Water collects at the bottom of the bowl, making them soggy and watering down the sour cream and making them messy to eat. This happens everywhere and it really annoys me. I digress. After the soup, bread and salad I realized I’d had my fill. When ordering at KM, take a soup or a salad with a main, but not both unless you don’t intend to order more; it’s quite a lot of food. I finished the varenyki, which I quite enjoyed, but then asked myself, Why hasn’t any Ukrainian chef thought to modernize the Ukrainian kitchen? What about searing the varenyki and serving them with a spicy oil and garlic dressing? Or a cream sauce with some sort of Georgian herbal influence?
My meal at Kozak Mamai came to a rather disappointing conclusion, however.
A friend I’d invited came to join me for tea while I had an espresso to finish the meal and while we were chatting I asked for the bill and offered my Afisha magazine discount card (the restaurant offers a 10% discount with it). He took it, brought back the bill, which I paid, and then we waited for the change. A full 20 minutes went by and still the change had not been brought. We went to the door, coats on and ready to leave, and then specifically asked for the change. Reluctantly, our server went to get it. Another five minutes or so we waited. When he finally returned, he handed the bill slip to the hostess and remarked to me (through her!) that the wait staff has to live off their tips.
Normally here I leave a 10% tip for when service is good and the food satisfies, but in the face of this I decided instead to offer him mere pocket change, about 3 percent, and told the hostess to tell him that if he’d let me decide what to do with the change he’d have gotten a bigger tip.
After-thoughts: Diners should expect to spend from Hr 100 to Hr 150 ($20-$30) for most meals, including drinks, at KM. It is not an expensive restaurant, especially being located in the heart of the downtown. The menu is extensive and main dishes average Hr 45 ($9) in price. Live music plays every night, and tables can be booked for larger gatherings (12-20 people; call in advance to book).
12:00 - 24:00