Somewhere between bites of duck Canton and the sea bass wrapped in a crispy jacket of sheer potato, I looked up as the door swung open to the Choice restaurant in Bryn Mawr as a customer stepped into the glass foyer.
He wasn’t there for dinner, he told co-owner Iryna Hyvel. Instead, a fistful of ribbons bloomed from his hand like a pom-pom of azure and gold — the colors of the flag from Hyvel’s native Ukraine. He handed them to her as a gesture of support, thinking perhaps she might share them with her other customers.
“I’m blessed that I am surrounded by such wonderful people and customers who are always trying to cheer me up and support us as much as they can,” said Hyvel.
Her usually cheerful demeanor suddenly dimmed at the mention of Russia’s brutal invasion of her homeland. Her parents and other relatives remain in the western region surrounding Lviv. And they worry about the missiles that were falling onOdessa, the Black Sea port city where Iryna and her husband, chef Volodymyr “Vlad” Hyvel, worked before returning to the United States in 2017 to open the Choice.
You would not know simply from looking at the large menu here, which ranges from ceviche to teriyaki, steaks and foie gras-enriched French cuisine, that this restaurant is owned by two Ukrainian families, including Iryna’s brother Igor Hanushchak and his wife, Maryana. Igor and Vlad have been friends since kindergarten. (”We’ve had this [restaurant] plan for a long time!” Vlad jokes.)
Borscht for Ukraine
Customers get a clue to the backstory at the end of the meal when the Hanushchaks’ 11-year-old daughter, Elizaveta, delivers blue-and-yellow flyers listing the desserts and notice of the restaurant’s borscht fundraiser.
You’ll want to buy pints of it to-go. The deep ruby broth has a balance of beet sweetness and tang, with tender morsels of chicken and shredded veggies lacing it with soulful depth. The $10 fee goes directly from the Choice to various sources of Ukrainian relief, from volunteer groups providing essential supplies to living expenses for friends who’ve been displaced, like Vlad’s former sous-chef at the massive banquet hall he once ran in Odessa that’s now being used to feed the army. They’ve raised over $5,000 so far.
“It’s very difficult to work right now because emotionally I’m just far away. My mind, my thoughts, are in Ukraine,” says Iryna. “But we need to work. We need to earn money to help right now more than ever. I feel responsibilities.”
For Vlad that means pursuing his true culinary passions. And though he’s well-versed in Ukrainian classics like vareniki dumplings, stuffed cabbage and the fried barabulka red mullets he served by the thousands at a vast beachside restaurant that fronted his banquet hall, his affinities now lie with the food he cooked for years at restaurants in London and New York.
Nobu in London, where he rose to sous-chef over the course of six years, and Bond Street in Manhattan, gave him a deep appreciation for Japanese flavors, while time spent at Le Cirque, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges in the late 2000s inspired his enthusiasm for classic French techniques.
“Let me first tell you about the sauce!” is Vlad’s reply every time I ask him about a dish, before he dives into details of the days-long preparations that often go into his specialties, like the duck Canton, which gets dry brine-cured before it’s poached in honey water then roasted to a crisp. The orange-scented coffee caramel sauce that glosses that bird is a multi-day process in itself. A labor of love he surely relishes.
“I enjoy what I’m doing so much it’s like living in a dream,” says Vlad says of cooking for his 50-seat dining room — as opposed to the banquets for 700 he oversaw in Odessa. He revels in doing the butchering to maximize yield, patiently steeping his stocks, and studying his cookbook library of 1,000-plus tomes to refine presentations. “I’m working seven days a week and I would work eight days a week if it was possible.”
Vlad’s tastes lean toward well-practiced Asian fusion classics (Ye Olde miso-sauced Chilean sea bass!) and vintage nouvelle cuisine that benefitted from its own Asian influence, like his ode to sea bass “en paupiette.” The dish was created by the legendary Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque in 1986, after new access to Japanese mandolins unlocked the key to slicing potatoes into the paper thin sheets used to wrap fish inside crisp tubes that could be placed over creamy leeks and a red butter sauce that begins with reducing wine to a tenth of its original volume.
Such retro dishes resonate with the largely older Main Line crowd that reliably fills this cozy dining room each night with their BYO bottles of vintage Ridge and Opus One. The obvious reason is that Hyvel’s food, which he describes as Euro fusion, is undeniably delicious, the product of his life as a chef citizen of the world. Sweet scallops are one of his all-star apps, wound inside crispy threads of kataifi phyllo, dabbed with wasabi aioli and a scoop of tobiko roe, and paired sweet jewels of Japanese yamamomo bayberries.
Two soft shell crabs fried to a delicate crisp in a dusting of corn starch anchor a simple but magnetic starter over a corn salsa that’s hard not to love, even if the corn and soft shells are still both out of season. It’s always a good time for a chopped liver course, either Vlad’s creamy chicken pâté or the silky rounds of poached foie gras torchon that arrive over toasts dabbed with fig jam. Vlad, who prides himself on little kitchen waste, can also turn luxury leftovers into their own reward, as evidenced by the pan-fried gyozas stuffed with minced filet mignon (leftover from the tartare), and enriched with foie gras trim alongside a ponzu dip.
Vlad’s imagination has also been sparked by multiple vacations to Miami, which explains the various ceviches that are a refreshing way here to start, from the diced lobster served in oyster shells splashed with gingery soy, to the generously portioned ceviche of striped bass. That dish, which tosses the fish in an electric blend of Peruvian aji amarillo paste and lime, plus crunchy slivered almonds for texture, comes ringed by a creamy blend of coconut and melons that tastes like a tropical gazpacho. Another starter of deep-fried artichokes paired with crab meat, olive oil and capers, brought the conversation right back to Europe.
Vlad’s improvisations don’t always work. His fricassee of Brussels sprouts and asparagus in a spicy lemon soy sauce was very tasty with the octopus. But the chopped octopus itself was completely overshadowed. A one-pound rib eye was served dramatically on a big butcher block board with a pair flavorful sauces. But it was disappointingly chewy considering the price ($45) and its prime-grade pedigree.
The Choice, so-named Iryna because its storefront is wedged between two other restaurants and the choice should be obvious (unless I’m craving some of those excellent shrimp tacos from El Limon), says Vlad answers the rare misfires with professional hospitality. I overheard them comping a diner at a neighboring table for venison chops they didn’t care for and left largely uneaten — although they never complained.
But Vlad doesn’t have many misses. The tender lamb chops, whose slender bones are bound in twine for dainty gripping, get marinated in a puree of brassicas (Brussels sprouts, and sometimes broccoli) before they’re grilled with a finishing glaze of spicy Peruvian peppers scented with cumin. A meaty hunk of halibut, which gets perfectly sautéed and over a raft of haricots verts, is lavished in a buttery white miso cream sauce and slivered almonds. Pure fish luxury.
Our branzino, meanwhile, came with two crispy-skinned fillets sandwiched over crispy potato balls and ragout of mushrooms with a creamy sauce that reminded me, for one of the rare moments here, of the stroganoff vibes I’ve encountered at more overtly-themed Ukrainian restaurants in Northeast Philadelphia. The sauce is inspired, in fact, by something Vlad’s mother made for him as a child in Ukraine, albeit now updated with subtle currents of fresh fish fumet and fennel.
As much as I enjoyed Vlad’s ceviches, sashimi and nicely-rendered odes to French classics, something about these comforting evocations of home, reimagined with extra finesse for the Hyvels’ appreciative Main Line audience, resonated even more deeply. Perhaps especially at this moment. I wish there was more.
And Iryna gets it, too.
“Of course we need to do that now, to show people,” she said, noting they’ve talked of a full-on Ukraine Night fundraiser in the near future. “We’re trying. But so far we’ve had so little time. The restaurant thankfully is very busy.”
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
845 Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, 484-383-3230; thechoice-restaurant.com
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, until 9 p.m.
Street parking only.