Six years ago, when he first set foot on the Kingdom as a tourist, Vitaliy Popik never thought he was starting a new chapter in his life.
Popik, who had managed a few big restaurants, including Jungle Cat Kiev in Ukraine, had a blast during his stay in Cambodia in 2014 and eventually decided to come back.
“I love this country, the people, culture, nature, and climate,” says the 60-year-old Ukrainian in his native language as a friend translates.
Popik started Jungle Cat, a Ukrainian eatery, in 2015 in Sihanoukville. It later expanded to Phnom Penh’s Bassac Lane. In February, Jungle Cat moved to the riverside, much like the original in Kiev, which is located by the Dnieper River.
The name of the restaurant alludes to his love for felines.
“In the restaurant in Kiev I have 28 cats. In the first restaurant I opened in Ukraine, I had a really big jungle cat, which my friend gave me as a gift about 14 years ago. My restaurant is named after this animal,” he says.
Popik designed the restaurant himself to imbue it with a Ukrainian feel.
“It is like you are sitting in the garden of a Ukrainian home,” Popik says about his restaurant in Phnom Penh.
“What makes it unique is the fact that you can eat traditional Ukrainian food in a traditional Ukrainian environment.”
All customers are treated to a drink on the house as soon as they sit down. Cherry Moonshine is the most popular tipple, especially among the ladies. The drink is imported from Ukraine, Popik points out.
Jungle cat serves a wide selection of Eastern European dishes, mainly Ukrainian and Russian.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years,” says Popik, who is himself a chef.
“I like making tasty food that makes people happy. Seeing people enjoy my food makes me happy. It is my passion,” says Popik, noting that he started learning how to cook as a teenager.
Jungle Cat has an affordable menu, mostly in the $3-$4 range. There is nothing above $7.50.
The menu has 13 different salads, including Eastern European variations, and classics from the West like Caesar or Greek.
The Old Kiev salad ($5) – featuring eggs, cheese, mayonnaise, meat, mushrooms, onion, and smoked chicken – comes highly recommended.
For intrepid foodies, the Shooba ($4.50) – with its pickle herring dressing, boiled vegetables and mayonnaise – is a tempting option.
Soup is an essential element of Eastern European cuisines. At Jungle Cat, the star soup is Borscht ($6.50), a bright red soup made of beetroot.
Those seeking to experience traditional Ukrainian fare might try Solyanka ($6.50). Born in the Eastern European nation in the 17th century, this sour soup with meat and pickles comes with a serving of sour cream and fresh dill.
“We use local products but follow traditional Ukrainian recipes,” says Popik.
Main courses are priced $4.50-$7 and come with a side dish and homemade sauce.
One of the most popular entrees is Goulash ($6), a delicious pork stew seasoned with paprika and other spices.
Meat eaters will enjoy the salted pork lard with garlic ($3), and the smoked meat cold cuts ($4.50), among others.
Pickled herring with spicy union ($4.50) is also a popular option. Pointing to the silverfish on his plate, Popik says: “This is Ukrainian herring, a fish that you don’t have in Cambodia.
“We import it from Ukraine every two days. When people from Eastern Europe see that we have this is the menu, they are elated.”
The restaurant offers grill and BBQ selections of pork, sausages, vegetables and fish with a sauce of your choice ($2-$8).
Dumplings and pancakes ($3.50-$6) are, of course, on the menu. Varenyky are dumplings made by wrapping pockets of unleavened dough around a savoury or sweet filling and cooking them in boiling water, whereas Pelmenis ($5.50), from the Russian and Kazakh cuisines, contain chicken or beef wrapped in thin dough.
“My most popular dishes are Borscht and Solyanka, barbecue pork and dumplings,” he says.
The dessert options ($4 to $5.50) include Napoleon mille-feuille (Russian pastries filled with vanilla and custard cream), apple pie, pancakes and ice-cream with honey.
Jungle Cat serves around 150 customers daily, mostly expatriates and tourists.
“A lot of Europeans come to the restaurant. We see a lot of Ukrainians and Russians because they’re familiar with the Jungle Cat name. We also have many Australians customers and even a few Cambodians.”
Jungle Cat Ukrainian Restaurant is located at No 8, Street 110, Phnom Penh. Opening hours are from 11am to 11pm. For more information, visit their Facebook page @JungleCatPP or call 070 289 644.