Ivan the Kozak is one of the more original restaurants in Hong Kong. Operating since 2001 in its previous location off of the Pottinger steps, it moved to Wyndham Street a few years ago, in the spot formerly occupied by the New Orleans-themed restaurant, Restoration. Its flashing retro sign can be easily spotted above the throngs of evening revelers that crowd the street below.
The restaurant is run by (the not coincidentally named) Ivan Wang and his Ukrainian wife. Their twenty-something son helps out too, along with a staff that mostly hails from Ukraine and Russia. All of this lends an air of authenticity that is reinforced by Ivan’s kitschy, quirky — but endearing — décor. Just outside the entrance is a life-sized plaster man in traditional Cossack garb sporting an impressive handlebar mustache. Inside, the plush red interior is graced with a wall-length photograph of the Kiev skyline, certainly not seen elsewhere in Hong Kong. It creates a surprisingly homey air for a place not a stone’s throw away from Lan Kwai Fong’s mass entertainment zone.
These quirks and kitsch are a draw, but the reason to come back is the food. It centers around traditional dishes from Ukraine and Russia, with influences from elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Think hearty meats, fish, dairy, and potatoes — the type of cuisine you would indeed encounter traveling through the region.
The restaurant also has an unusual (for Hong Kong) wine list featuring wines from Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Hungary, as well as beers and ciders from the Ukraine, and not one, but four types of craft beer from Lithuania. For the non-alcoholically inclined, Ivan also serves a relaxing Ukrainian herbal tea in a flowery ceramic pot that makes for a good counter-balance to the rich food, especially on a damp, cool Hong Kong winter’s eve.
I visited Ivan the Kozak a few times recently and was able to try a good sample of Ivan’s signature appetizers and main dishes. For a cold appetizer, I recommend the signature “fur coat” (HKD78). Served as a squat tower, this traditional salad of chopped herring is covered with layers of diced onions, shredded carrot, and beetroot, then decorated with a lattice of sour cream. The result is a fresh-tasting blend of smooth textures and a creamy finish. It’s a nice way to balance heavier meat-based mains.
For hot starters, the traditional pork pirogi (HKD88) and the borsch (HKD68) are classic Ukrainian options. Pirogi are essentially the Eastern European version of Asian dumplings. The pork-stuffed pirogi at Ivan the Kozak are boiled in water and served topped with chopped parsley and sour cream for dipping. It’s a simple, and delicious, dish. Ivan also serves the dumplings stuffed with potato and mushroom or cheese as an alternative.
Borsch (or borscht) is a sour soup common in Eastern Europe — and usually associated with the Ukrainian version, like that served at Ivan the Kozak, with its beetroot base and robust red color. The beet broth at Ivan is enriched with a mix of vegetables and pork, and topped with another dollop of sour cream. A vegetarian version is also available. It’s a simple classic.
There are also a number of classic dishes in the mains section of the menu. Some standouts include the braised duck breast with apple (HKD208), the traditional chicken Kiev (HKD188), and the signature Ivan the Kozak (HKD198). The duck breast is one of the more elegant mains on the menu, and comes nicely plated: Slices of duck prepared to a medium finish with a slightly crisp skin are arrayed next to mildly tart apple rings and flavored with a delicious sauce of mixed berries. It’s a well-balanced dish, with the strong flavor of the duck nicely offset with the sweetness of the cooked berries.
Chicken Kiev, named for Ukraine’s capital, is a traditional dish from the Russian Empire that consists of boneless chicken rolled around cold butter, coated in a bread crumb batter and fried or baked. On cutting open the piping hot fried chicken roll at Ivan the Kozak, the butter stuffing leaks out and you know you are in for a rich flavor. What distinguishes the Chicken Kiev here from others I have had in Hong Kong is the quality of the batter, which has a light and crisp taste to provide some balance to the buttery interior.
Last but not least is the dramatic, self-named dish called Ivan the Kozak. The menu describes it as “pork ribs marinated in vodka and honey following a medieval recipe.” While I can’t attest to the medieval origins, I can certainly verify the use of alcohol, some of which is added at the table and set aflame for a dramatic, straight-from-the-’70s experience. The result, though, is delicious. The pork ribs are tender, and the strong, vodka-tinged honey marinade is addictive. The portion is ample.
The menu at Ivan the Kozak is set up like a traditional Western menu with appetizers and mains meant to be eaten separately, per course, per diner. Nonetheless, I think it’s a restaurant where food can easily be shared so that friends can sample a cuisine that is not otherwise readily available in Hong Kong. It’s not the place to go for a diet, certainly — but for some hearty food, a cozy atmosphere, a convenient location, and moderate prices, it’s a good bet.
Ivan the Kozak is at 1/F Parekh House, 63 Wyndham Street, Central
Open Mon to Fri noon-midnight, Sat & Sun 6pm-midnight
Reservations: +852 2851 1193
MTR: Central, about 5 mins walk
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for 22 years, 16 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, nine half-marathons, completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker and won the U.S. National Debate Tournament way back in 1991.
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