Leave all preconceived notions about borscht at the door! I feel compelled to shout this, because at Avondale newcomer Anelya, the borsch (no “t” in Ukrainian) upends the thin, staunchly utilitarian soup you or I may have known. Homaging the style of Poltava in central Ukraine, it’s lush and harmonious, gently sour yet bearing sweet campfire notes from charcoal-dried pears; the addition of rich, gamey duck tames its telltale earthiness.
Like the rest of the menu at Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim’s exceptional restaurant, this humble dish both nourishes and teases with the thrill of discovery, less a chef’s reimagining of Ukrainian cuisine than a chef-led illumination of what’s long been there—and long suppressed—now joyously released. It makes Anelya the sort of restaurant you can’t wait to see evolve, but also one you want to greedily take in while it’s exuberantly new, and tell all who’ll listen to do the same.
Anelya opened in October, born partly of misfortune, as chefs/co-owners Clark and wife Kim closed its casual prix-fixe predecessor Wherewithall last May following a collapsed sewer line—after barely surviving a prolonged, Covid-era closure. But it afforded them a blank slate of sorts to unpack Clark’s Ukrainian cooking roots, which he’d begun researching during the pandemic. Chicago is home to only a handful of Ukrainian restaurants, despite being the city with the second-largest population of Ukrainian immigrants.
Clark’s grandmother, Anelya Ochatchinskiya, was born in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine. He tells me that she endured the Holodomor famine resulting from Soviet policy as a child, then World War II, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1946. After Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Clark started hosting pop-up dinners at Wherewithall to shed light on Ukrainian cuisine and fundraise for nonprofits aiding Ukrainians. His friend Marina Yakush, who came to Chicago as a refugee last year, helped serve and cook. She has since facilitated introductions to seven other Ukrainian refugees who (with Yakush) form Anelya’s culinary hivemind alongside Clark and Kim, fusing seasonal, generational home cooking and modern techniques with urgency and heart—and a lot of Google Translate.
Anelya’s bar looks much like the old space, with grayscale tile floors, pendant lights and half-exposed tin-print ceilings. The cozy, 50-seat dining room is dressed in exposed brick and forest green, accented by colorful fabrics and trinket plates. Eccentric, carryover felt light fixtures now hold moody colored bulbs, rendering the food blessedly un-Instagrammable.
Perhaps you peruse the blue-tinted menu while sipping a teacup of the bright, floral A Reflection cocktail, featuring dark rum, fernet and brandy, cold steeped with chamomile; or Piana Vishnya, a tart, spicy nip of cherry-infused brandy that’s my runaway favorite of Anelya’s spirit infusions.
Before long, the server wheels out the tower of nibbles known as zakusky in a celebratory, vintage flourish to test your self-restraint (for two diners, three will more than suffice). There’s a jar of roasted carrot pashtet—sweet, smokey and rich—thick enough to stand a fork up in and lovely smeared on nutty Publican toast. Four small bricks of oily herring are brined till supple, tasting gently sour and piquant with a chorus of crushed alliums that laze with them in their salty bath. There’s a pair of springy deviled eggs with tarragon mayonnaise, draped with vinegary anchovies and dotted with cuminy nigella seeds, and two tiny beef- and rice-stuffed peppers in a delicious pool of what tastes like liquefied paprika. There are wedges of head cheese edged in clarified aspic that savors of the pure, carnal, salty essence of pork.
Ochatchinskiya made head cheese in Soviet Ukraine, too, boiling it in a metal drum atop a makeshift coal oven on the rare occasions her family secured a pig’s head. This was Clark’s favorite story as a kid: resourcefulness amid darkness and cultural erasure, like the stuff of superhero tales. To replicate the dish at the restaurant, he leaned on line cook Ivana Sainiuk, a former lunch lady in Ukraine with a “three-Michelin-starred chef”-esque gift for this traditional terrine.
“She skims it probably 1,000 times until you have this crystal-clear consommé,” Clark says. “I’m, like, depending on all these women from different parts of the country to teach me their regional dishes.”
Some bites read as universal comfort, like potato varenyky with salty jowl bacon in a warm, golden emulsion of saffron sauce. Likewise the kolvasa—coarsely ground pork sausage seasoned with whiskey in the style of the Ukrainian-Polish borderlands—is prescriptively brackish with house-made kraut, punctuated by tacky jewels of dried fruit. Alas, whimsically conical stuffed cabbage with chestnuts and mushrooms in garlicky coconut sauce tastes one-note. Sturgeon meatballs likewise seem an ill-suited prep for this lean and mild fish, overpowered by a magnetic tomato and honey sauce and a decadent mound of mashed potatoes. But then I’m bowled over once more by an unassuming composed broccoli salad with green raisins and pistachios that punches back fiercely thanks to a baharat spice blend of orange zest, heady cardamom and clove.
Seesawing between comfort and novel delight absorbs me well beyond the point of fullness, yet to skip dessert here would be a mistake. The Napoleon arrives as a delicate tower alternating paper-thin pastry dusted with powdered berries and clouds of black tea-scented cream, like an oversized mille-feuille. It’s impossible not to destroy it with the single thrust of a fork. Indulging messily in Clark’s final, sweet homage to his restaurant’s namesake, I’m overwhelmed with emotion I can’t quite place: Is it nostalgia maybe? Or catharsis?
“There’s moments where I’m cooking this food and I’m moved to tears,” Clark says. “I don’t know where the emotion comes from. But I feel down to my nerves and bones that I’m Ukrainian. And this is my story to tell.”
In turn, the rest of us can simply bear witness to these edible legacies alive in the here and now and pass them on—even shout if we have to.
The vibe: This dark, 50-seater leans decidedly cozier than its bright predecessor, with green walls and homey accents like vintage trinket plates and colorful Ukrainian fabric upholstery. Walk-ins can post up at the sultry bar amid the candlelight and leafy plants.
The food: Modern meets traditional Ukrainian—fulfilling, heavy on root vegetables, oily fish and grains, and often sporting a sour edge from naturally fermented ingredients. Try to order at least one item from every section, broken into zakusky (small plates), broth, dumplings and noodles, vegetables, fish and meat, sides and desserts.
The drink: Spirit-forward cocktails are seasoned with infusions, bitter aperitifs and house-fermented kefir. Knowledgeable staff will guide you through the all-Eastern European wine list. A few favorites by the glass include the mineral, salty Črnko "Jareninčan” Welschriesling from Slovenia and lush, Chardonnay-like Bodrog Bormühely from Hungary. Spirit-free drinkers can opt for kvass, a traditional house-fermented beverage resembling kombucha.
Time Out tips: In the bar, the four stools overlooking the kitchen are all available for walk-ins, like an unofficial chef’s table. Anelya also sees the most reservation cancellations on Saturdays, meaning walk-ins have a good chance at scoring a table, says Clark. For reservations, he suggests booking two weeks out.