In the center of Dnipro, on “Executive Committee” Street, stands a building that was constructed in 1867. For decades it contained several floors of meeting rooms, a synogogue, and a basement apartment for the rabbi.
When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in the Second World War, Nazis bombed this building… but the rabbi had gathered members of the congregation in the basement, and there, they withstood the attack.
All that to say: this submerged room, lined in brick, and renovated over the last 6 months, has some serious survivor credentials. And it’s now home to Svitlo Cafe & Bar, the passion project of creator Vladyslav Lysenko and MasterChef finalist Ivan Kozyr.
Lysenko had run a very successful egg distribution business in Kyiv when Russia invaded – and in those first weeks of war his warehouse, with all his stock, was destroyed. But as the old adage goes, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs… and it gave Lysenko the freedom to try what he’d always been passionate about: food. So he packed up his family and returned to his hometown of Dnipro.
There, while serving in a volunteer kitchen providing meals to Ukrainian troops and war refugees, he connected with Kozyr, already a bit of a star in this country, known for his television-ready cooking and lumberjack looks. Together they decided to do the impossible: open a restaurant in the middle of a war. Which is why Lysenko called it Svitlo, Ukrainian for “light” – because he wanted “to give people some light in this very dark time.”
The menu is full of elevated takes on classic Ukrainian dishes. There’s borscht, served with dumplings and housemade smoked sour cream. What reads “chicken pate in a gelatine with cherry, olive tapenade and bread” is actually an appetizer worthy of Heston Blumenthal: a visual trick that looks like a platter of large cherries in soil.
The chicken Kyiv is one of the best iterations I’ve ever had of the dish, served on a bed of Jerusalem artichoke puree with crisp parsnip chips.
But the real piece de resistance is the Borscht Burger. Now, Kozyr isn’t the first to invent such a thing, at least according to my cursory google skills, but his version, deconstructing the flavors of borscht and adapting them to the burger, is skillful. There’s beet, there’s garlic, there’s sweetness, there’s dill, there’s the underlying umami of the meat. And even the McDonald’s-thin fries that come with it are served with homemade sauces: ketchup, sweet chili, or BBQ. As is normal in Ukraine, all burgers here (and there are at least 4 options) come with a snazzy pair of black gloves so the juices don’t drip all over your skin.
The cocktail list is thoughtful and the bartender Misha talented – they make the most out of both local liquors and local flavors. A Ukrainian drinking the “Cucumber Garden Sour” was brought right back to his grandmother’s allotment – full memory recall brought on by the smells and tastes of the cocktail.
And for dessert? I’d recommend a not-too-sweet Napoleon, or a lemon cheesecake topped with meringue.
If you find yourself in Dnipro… go toward the Light.
Svitlo Care & Bar; 11 Vykonkomivska Street, Dnipro. Svitlo-cafe-bar.ps.me @svitlo.cafe.bar