Why you should care
You can find really good noodles in the strangest of places.
It’s a breezy summer evening, and the setting sun is casting its final glorious rays onto Kiev’s cozy, green side streets. But I’m badly sweating in a basement kitchen tucked into a nondescript courtyard, the clanging of pots piercing the stuffy air as I slurp up an almost unimaginably large bowl of ramen.
Knees shifted awkwardly to the side along the stiff bench seat, I struggle to stay comfortable as the tangy broth, hearty noodles and succulent cabbage swirl down my gullet. It doesn’t help that a group of would-be diners is hovering near the entrance — only several feet away — waiting for us to finish. It’s not what you’d call an ideal dining experience, except for one thing: The food is delicious. Welcome to Noodle Vs. Marketing, a low-key ramen shop whose stripped-down simplicity and no-nonsense approach to flavor could change Kiev’s burgeoning food scene.
The brainchild of chef Zhenya Mykhailenko, a tattooed, slightly mischievous 32-year-old with thousands of hours of line experience, the eatery is a defiant response to the city’s restaurant culture. Having spent much of his 20s cutting his culinary teeth in Los Angeles kitchens, Mykhailenko returned to his native Ukraine in 2014 to find the effects of the Soviet legacy — with its bland, utilitarian cooking style — were still felt more than two decades after independence.
It’s a single-item eatery that does just one thing really, really well.
Today, Ukraine’s capital is increasingly cosmopolitan, sprinkled with sleek cafes and swanky eateries that draw hip crowds with cash to spend. But very few, Mykhailenko believes, feature truly adventurous, high-quality cooking. “Most of the food that’s trendy is created by rich people who go abroad, come back, find really poor cooks and tell them, ‘OK, I saw this amazing thing in a bar,’” he says. “‘You’ve got to try and cook this — watch this video.’” Taste, in other words, is secondary to style.
Noodle Vs. Marketing isn’t authentic, a fact Mykhailenko seems curiously keen to advertise. He says he’s never been to Asia, nor had he ever even cooked the classic Japanese dish before opening the shop last year. But none of that matters, he says. Commitment to quality preparation is what counts. The ingredients are fresh, and most are locally sourced; the noodles are made in-house by hand. The cooks are expertly trained and purposefully placed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with the customers. It’s a single-item eatery that does just one thing really, really well. Ditching the bells and whistles also allows for lower prices ($3-$4 per bowl).
Mykhailenko is taking his concept citywide this year, with single-item joints featuring bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) and burgers in the offing. Yet because Ukraine — a land of meat and potatoes, where dill is the preferred seasoning — is still adjusting to more exotic dining trends, this stuff isn’t for everyone. Actually, finding locations off the beaten path is part of the plan. “Probably,” Mykhailenko says with an impish smirk, “those who find us are the only ones who deserve to eat here.”