For chef Johnny Clark, a Ukrainian American who leaped into action when the Russian military invaded the country in February 2022, Anelya is a profoundly personal project. The Avondale restaurant opens today at the former Wherewithall space, and Clark and wife Beverly Kim are throwing a party of sorts, celebrating Clark’s late grandmother, Anelya Ochatchinskiya, and her 100th birthday.
Wherewithall was designed to complement the couple’s Michelin-starred Korean restaurant, Parachute, down the street. But the pandemic struck and so did plumbing issues. The silver lining of the casual prix fixe restaurant’s closure in May 2022 was that it gifted Clark and Kim a blank canvas, one where they could teach Chicago a little bit about Ukrainian culture.
Clark grew up in awe of Ochatchinskiya, who endured great trauma through the World War II era and sought refuge in the U.S. in 1946. Clark is determined to cultivate pride and joy in local Ukrainian communities and they’ve staffed the team with Ukrainian refugees. “I think [the restaurant] is going to mean a lot to a lot of people,” he says. “I just want it to be a fun environment — I think that’s what my grandmother would have wanted. She wouldn’t want to ever focus on the negative, she’d want it to be fun and not about all the terrible things, and the war.”
After visiting Ukraine for the first time in April, Clark says he learned a great deal about the suppression of Ukrainian cooking in the Soviet Era, as well as a renaissance that began among the nation’s chefs after the country declared independence in 1991 that has only grown in the decades since. He seeks to reflect both historical foods and contemporary approaches in a menu that begins with a zakusky cart — a wheeled tower of small plates. The cart is stacked with items like salo, or cured pork fat with fresh garlic, and biber dolmas. Dumpling and noodle options include plump varenyky with saffron, potato, and jowl bacon, as well as baked lokshyna layered with black truffle and cheese.
Borscht, arguably the most well known Ukrainian dish, also makes an appearance. Clark is well aware that bad borscht experiences can make diners hesitant, but he is confident that his version, made with smoked pears in the style of Poltava in central Ukraine, will transform them into fans. “I hope this can be a place where people are proud to bring their friends or family and show them borscht is not disgusting — it’s actually very delicious.”
The wine program strikes a similar note with a lineup of exclusively Eastern European wines sourced from countries from the Czech Republic to Georgia. Clark has woven in a few Greek wines as well, having observed a crossover between Greek and Slavic cuisines. It’s a region that many in the U.S. don’t immediately associate with winemaking, and the team hopes it will open their eyes to the possibilities beyond beer and vodka.
Anelya bears some marks of its predecessor but is designed to evoke a darker, cozier feeling. The middle island is gone, but Wherewithall’s exposed plaster walls, which remind Clark of places in Kiev, remain as a tribute to the building’s past lives. The main dining room, however, has undergone significant changes including a forest-green coat of paint and an open floor plan that seats 50 between two-top tables and four booths.
Clark says he and Kim were wary of putting a theme park-style “costume” on the space, instead striking a balance between Ukrainian aesthetics and modern restaurant design. Kim calls it “babusia-chic,” a kind of hip grandmother vibe that integrates Ochatchinskiya’s penchant for displaying vintage plates and spoons for guests to admire, as well as Ukrainian fabrics to add softness and dimension.
Amid a whirlwind of preparations for the restaurant’s debut, Clark says he’s had to compartmentalize his emotions around Ochatchinskiya to make sure every task is addressed. On the cusp of the opening, however, he’s begun to let himself consider what she’d say about her namesake restaurant.
“She probably would pinch me or smack me or something, ‘Why did you do that? Why did you name it after me?’” he says. “But I know she would be very flattered and proud.”
Look around inside Anelya and explore its menu in the photographs below.
Anelya, 3472 N. Elston Avenue, Open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tyuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.