Tucked away in a cluster of shops behind Hamdan Street in Al Markaziyah area sits a little restaurant that most people know about only by word of mouth. The Russian Kitchen House Cafeteria, one of Abu Dhabi’s best-kept secrets, is the brainchild of Iryna Hlushko, a Ukrainian musician who came to Abu Dhabi 10 years ago for her music career. She met and married a man from Egypt and then learnt she was pregnant with their first child. To carve out a spot she could call her own in her new country, she opened Russian Kitchen House just five months after arriving in the capital.
It’s important to mention that the food at Russian Kitchen House is primarily Ukrainian. When Iryna went to the municipality to get a licence for her Ukrainian restaurant, she says, “They asked, ‘Why Ukrainian? Nobody knows Ukrainian.’ They gave us advice to call it Russian food.”
It was good advice. The restaurant is mere steps away from the Russian Embassy and it does offer dishes from Russia, but for the most part what you’ll find here is Ukraine’s most beloved food.
When Iryna opened her restaurant, she didn’t have money to hire staff so she asked her mother, Anna, who taught her how to cook, for help. Mum didn’t hesitate. “I came here to help for only two or three months, just to open this cafeteria,” Anna recalls. “But when I came here, I saw how difficult it was. How could I go and leave her here in a new country?”
Ten years later, Anna is still here. She left behind her life in Ukraine – and her career as a maths teacher – to become the head chef at the restaurant. At 59, she spends her days in the kitchen cooking up Ukrainian specialities such as her flavour-packed solyanka (spicy and sour soup) and varenyky (dumplings stuffed with cabbage, potato, or cheese).
If you’re not familiar with this food, you might be hesitant to try a dish called cabbage dumplings, but throw those inhibitions aside. The food here is rich, with layers of flavours that are easy to love. When asked what spices are used, Anna says: “A little black pepper. Sometimes coriander powder”. That’s it. The richness in taste comes from how the food is cooked and how seemingly unrelated foods are paired together. The solyanka includes beef, pickled cucumbers, black olives, sour cream, mushrooms, parsley, dill, lemon and more. It’s anything but boring.
But, despite its success, you won’t find Michelin stars at the Russian Kitchen House. You won’t find it on a list of 10 must-visit eateries in Abu Dhabi. You could easily walk by it and not even notice it. The exterior of the restaurant is decidedly nondescript, but that changes when you step inside. It’s small and unrefined, but warm and welcoming. The dining room has fewer than 10 tables squeezed together, but it feels cosy, not crowded. The walls are brick red. Tables are topped with blue and gold linens. There is one television tuned to a Russian station. This could easily be any Russian grandmother’s house.
And that might be the reason why this restaurant has thrived in a neighbourhood where other shops couldn’t survive. “Ten years ago, it was a very good area. It was clear and it was nice. It’s a Russian area. There was another Russian restaurant, a Russian supermarket, a Russian video store, Russian jeweller ... everything was here,” says Iryna. The jeweller and Russian Kitchen House are the only ones left.
When asked what makes the food – and the restaurant – so special, Anna simply replies, “This is special Ukrainian food”. She is modest, but Iryna is quick to give the head chef credit: “She makes common Ukrainian food, but she cooks very tasty food. Some people can make the same thing, but it’s not very tasty. She knows how to make it tasty.”
Anna then adds, with a hint of pride: “This is home-made food. How we do it at home, we do it here.”
Iryna says she wants to open a second location, but she now has a full-time job teaching music (she stopped cooking at the restaurant five years ago) and two small children. She’s concerned she won’t have enough time to push it forward. If it does happen, it surely couldn’t be harder to find. Could it? Iryna laughs and says: “Maybe it’s a little hard to find us, but those who really want to find us will find us.”
If you don’t want to look too hard, just get to the Russian Embassy and call the restaurant. Anna will come and get you. Because that’s what grandmothers do.