A purposely tongue-in-cheek cover photo there since most of the city looks like a 'picture perfect postcard'. However, a little bit of a wander out of the main circles and you'll find buildings like this strewn around like forgotten seeds.
Odesa was a place I had always been intrigued by, the name just gave off this unknown vapour that sent my head dizzy. Curled up there in that little pocket of the Black Sea just a short flight away from magical Istanbul. As fate would have it, my plans were to fly from the aforementioned paradise (Istanbul) to Chisinau, Moldova. However, after spending hours and hours on Skyscanner, I randomly found out that the flight to Odesa was 3 times cheaper and there was a direct train from there to Moldova. Rarely making plans, or even booking too far in advance, I managed to secure a ticket for a couple days ahead and squeezed the last juice out of Istanbuls lemons before heading North.
The bus dropped me off about 1 kilometer away from my Airbnb and with a bit of sign-language and simplified English I managed to get directions. Ivana, my host, was waiting for me and took me up to see the apartment. It would do. She then asked if I was hungry and liked Georgian food, to which I replied "Absolutely". "Come, I drive". We got into her red sports car and hurtled off at top speed, for one block. She stepped on the brakes and shouted: "There, EAT!". Arguments were futile, so I thanked her, closed the door and headed in for some Khinkali's.
Sufficiently stuffed, the rest of the day was spent in the sunshine sipping exhorbitantly cheap beers and chatting with two guys from Cameroun who had lived here for 10 years and couldn't speak of it highly enough.
Two weeks sped by in a blur of sightseeing (Theater, Opera House, Potemkin Stairs, Vorontsov Palace, City Garden etc), relaxing in the sun, exploring side-streets and alleyways, local markets, being recommended a Pho place that turned out to be good, watching films inside when the rain started punishing, watching the football at Mick O' Neills and happening upon a fantastic bar that would be my resting place for the remainder of my time in this slightly odd, but beautiful city.
I ended up leaving Odesa after much longer than planned, and headed to Transnistria, but after 2 weeks took the train back again to spend some more days there before travelling to Lviv by night-train. It is a cosy city with a slightly sad undertone since there are multitudes of older men hoping to find love in this city of stunningly beautiful women. The problem is they are 70 and all staring at 18 year olds, and nobody is going to fall in love with you unless your wallet is stacked high. I guess some marriages of convenience come out of it inevitably, but you can't help but feel these men are chasing a dream that doesn't exist.
Being a small town in a rather bizarre location I didn't have the greatest expectations about the food scene in Odesa, but I was proved wrong. The city not only has a burgeoning bar/cocktail scene, but has just about enough variety to make it live-able if you were thus inclined. For me, being a visitor, it definitely kept my attention for the time I was there and I was treated to some delicious meals.
Borscht. Of course! Kumanets is a sort-of medieval looking acid trip, filled with uniformed servers who walk around smiling (tho inside they rage) attending to your needs with the silliest of hats. The dishes are pure Ukrainian here and bus loads of locals and tourists ram themselves in through the cattle-gates and splay out on a table ready to infect the air with gluttony.
I arrived fashionably late. 3pm. The place was almost deserted, so I had my choice of where to sit and chose the most isolated spot. Borscht! Dumpling! Beer! Borjomi! was my chant, and in the lesser part of a half hour my wishes were fullfilled. The borscht here truly is one of the best I have tried anywhere in Eastern Europe / Former Soviet Union. The dumplings had a grainy, mealey texture to them so I slid them out of view and concentrated on not letting my beer get warm with the sunny rays peeking from behind clouds.
Tip: Of course, get the borscht!
Having spent an immeasurable amount of time in Georgia, and most of that spent eating Khinkali's, I was delighted to hear my Airbnb host explain that the best in town was literally a block away. I raced down there (Read the story), was forced to sit in the brightest, most public seating area (much to my dismay), yet proceeded to get served functionally good Khinkalis and a decent saperavi for the price of a hot cross bun.
The servers were lovely but the place seriously needed some 40w bulbs instead of 100w. It was like eating in a flashlight.
Momoyama Ramen ($$)
I know... I know... Odessa, Ukraine? RAMEN? WTF?
After gorging myself silly in Kadikoy for 2 weeks straight, I just had to have a bowl of Ramen to restore peace and order in my soul. I was googling frantically the night before I flew to Odessa and noticed they had a spot that did Momo's & Ramen. How could I not try?
Situated downtown, about 3 blocks from my Airbnb I ventured out on a blistery midday (perfect for ramen), and sat in the far corner, opposite to where the 20 or so other people were busy laughing, watching their iPhones and engaged in conversation. I found a corner with no neighbours and a wall to stare at. The bowl arrived. It looked rather odd, broccoli floating on top (I had asked for them to omit the corn, which they did) and all sorts of veggies that normally don't end up in a bowl of Ramen.
Putting my predjudice aside, I sipped the broth.... actually pretty ok. Dashi-Shoyu-ish flavour. The noodles were far overcooked an mushy, the pork tasted good but was just regular stewed pork and had no marinade flavour. The egg was actually superb, very well cooked and marinated nicely. Shockingly enough, this was a better bowl of ramen than I have had anywhere in Oslo (shame on you), so never discount a place based on it's location.
If you're ever in Odessa.., Try it.
Curry House ($$)
Like Ramen, good Indian food is difficult to get in geographically challenged places. Fresh coriander, spices, herbs are all easier to get these days but in the past it was a stumbling block on the authenticity of most places out of reach.
I decided to chance it once again, since I had been suffereing intense Indian food withdrawals for weeks now. I googled and found this spot that was a convenient walk away and decided to throw caution to the wind and get stuck in.
The owner was sitting outside training his staff, and jumped at the opportunity to begin to explain the dishes to me. I politely interjected and relieved his fears by telling him I grew up in India. His fears of miscommunication then perhaps lapsed into fear of delivery. However, they were quickly allayed when I was served an authentic, delicious tasting curry on the streets of Odesa.
Life never cease to amaze.
The achingly hip exterior kept me away for a full week. Yet after so many glowing reviews from locals about their borscht I swallowed my pride and hit my stride down the 5 blocks from home. It was sunny so I decided to park my posterior outside, a plan that turned to mud when the concrete truck pulled up and started its noise-concert. I headed in, just as my soup arrived. It was perfect. Perhaps the only negative was the amount of fat on the meat but that seems to get bonus points in these parts.
Curiosity got the better of me and i'll admit, I ate at 3 khinkali places the first week... just to know. Overall Khinkal'nya was the best in terms of flavour and texture, but one thing that Kinza had going for it was the Kharcho soup. If you're feeling a little down, come and let the bowl give you a needed hug. You really don't need to bother with the khinkali's here, just pop in for a soup and pop over the street for a cherry tincture!
Mau Auhb ($)
As chance likes to play its flute from time to time, I was sitting at the local watering hole complaining about my dire need of a healing bowl of Phô, when suddenly Christina (a local art student) piped up and mentioned that there was a great spot, it was just a long way out of town.
Distance has never put me off racing for a bowl of soup, so I hailed an Uber and set off to the market where the stall was. After getting lost twice, I found the tiny alleyway and managed to order my food with the help of google translator from English to Vietnamese. The cooks were both from Vietnam which is always preferable, and the owner (a rather portly Vietnamese man) was shocked that I had visited Vietnam so many times.
The food was bang on what you could expect, and more. The broth was rich and deep, the beef was so-so, the noodles and garnishes were on point and I literally slurped my way through it way too fast and ended up bloated and dejected by the side of the road (ok I exaggerated a tad). For those who love Pho and with a bit of time to spare in Odesa, head out here and try it!
I don't know the name properly, or the address but the instructions were to head to Uzbek Kitchen and its next door. Get googling!
Where to drink
This place became my go-to while I was in Odesa. Firstly because of the couple pictured, and secondly the clientele. Many a night was spent sitting chatting with Arthur and Linda whilst playing songs from their iPhone and trying to annoy the opposite bars techno party. To find this place, you just walk down the main street (Derybasivska St), find Texas BBQ Grill, turn left into the alleyway, and walk to the end of the row of bars. This one will be on your right. If you end up standing in front of shaved head men punching a coin-operated punchbag you have walked 5 meters too far. The thing to do here is get a cold beer, have a shot or three of their vodka concoctions and settle back for a cosy night.
Like at ABV in Manila, you literally walk into a burger bar (Coopers Burgers) and upstairs in this case (as opposed to the fake wall and fake elevator in Manila) if you are hoping to find quenchables. The bar does a great 2x1 on Mondays which I accidentally found out by chance. The interior is quite trendy, but the bartenders are professional and friendly and you can drink your sorrows away for under 10 euro here. Tell me where you can do that in most parts of Europe.
The original one I believe is from Lviv, but I first tasted its grandeur in Odesa. They have outlets sprinkled all over the Ukraine now, showering people with tart, strong cherry tincture at a price everyone can afford. There are always heaps of people outside balancing glasses on the tables and getting to know their compatriots. Its one of the best places to feel like you are on holiday. Helplessly in love with it.
Mick O'Neils (24hrs)
In my 41 years on earth, I don't think I have ever recommended an Irish bar to anyone. Most of the time they are generic, expensive, full of piss-heads. This one is all of that, however, they are open 24 hours and the kitchen is too. So if you have been hankering for some fish n chips or a burger at 2am, this is your spot.
The other massive plus is they show all the football games and you can pop in early and reserve a table. The outdoor seating area is great in the spring-time too for some people watching.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.