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3333 E. Colfax Ave.
The Draw: Delicious Ukrainian and Eastern European dishes; a small but far-reaching wine list
The Drawback: A tiny space that can be frustrating for walk-ins
Noise Level: Low
Don’t Miss: The borscht, dumplings, bread service, infused vodkas
As a kid, I would silently groan when my mom would plunk down a steaming bowl of magenta borscht for dinner. Teenage angst in full effect, I was convinced that no one I knew was being force-fed anything resembling beet soup. Fast-forward several decades and Molotov Kitschen & Cocktails, a new Ukrainian and Eastern European enclave on East Colfax Avenue, has me not only thinking about borscht anew, but also craving it.
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As our server explained it, there are a million and one versions of the soup, all dependent on time and place. Not all are rib-sticking, not every bowl is served hot, and many don’t even feature beets. Borscht’s origins are Ukrainian, and that makes it a perfect centerpiece for Molotov’s menu: The restaurant, which took over To The Wind’s diminutive space in mid-January, is chef-owner Bo Porytko’s ode to his Ukrainian roots. His grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Eastern European country after World War II, and he learned to cook with his grandmother. Porytko is quick to point out that the restaurant isn’t named for one-time Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov but for the handmade weapon that’s long symbolized opposition and that everyday Ukrainians have been deploying since Russia invaded the country in early 2022.
The 40-year-old chef’s menu is tightly edited: eight small plates, including borscht, a handful of entrées, and two desserts. The beauty of Porytko’s cooking—perhaps you’ve experienced it at Misfit Snack Bar—is its twists on flavor and texture, and my initial taste of his borscht is proof. On my first visit, I noticed that, instead of using beets, Porytko spun his broth from dehydrated (and rehydrated) sour cherries, and while the color was the signature pink, the soup’s consommé was a savory, nuanced play on the red, tannic fruit. Three uszka (dumplings traditionally filled with mushrooms) anchored the bowl, along with meaty slices of trumpet mushroom. It’s dishes such as this that lend credence to Porytko’s 2023 James Beard Foundation nomination for Emerging Chef.
A month or so later, the menu had changed, and the borscht listed was a smoked chicken and nettle iteration with dill, cilantro, and radishes. “Sorrel is a huge part of the Ukrainian diet,” Porytko says. “We switched that out for nettles because we thought it would be fun to do something locally foraged.” The dish, which I enjoyed on what felt like Denver’s first real spring day, was a revelation: It tasted of green, of sunshine, of a season unspooling. The dill-chicken broth was decanted tableside from a small rooster pitcher. Pomp and circumstance, perhaps, but not in a pretentious way; instead, the ceremony felt like a generous handshake.
In truth, the whole space—just 20ish seats—feels that way. The china is a mix of modern tableau and Old World sentimentality; bowls ringed with pink rosebuds make it feel like you’re slurping soup at Grandma’s table. A vast collection of cuckoo clocks decorates the open kitchen, and a large flower installation recalls a Ukrainian headdress worn at weddings, at harvest festivals, and as a symbol of resistance. A small wooden shrine holds the booze—from a delightful Greek sparkling rosé to infused horilka (vodka) ranging from a lush honey black currant to a clear-your-nostrils horseradish.
Borscht is the order of the day—Porytko assures it’ll be the rallying point of every menu—but Molotov’s dumplings should take equal billing. At times that means pelmeni: small spelt pillows stuffed with smoked duck pâté and blanketed with a tarragon béarnaise. Other times you can expect varenyky, which are similar to pierogi and served atop a lusty dill hollandaise and thinly shaved ribbons of pork fatback.
Mains, from a stuffed rabbit Kiev plied with herbed paprika butter and brandished with carrot soubise to a whole pan-seared trout with an herby cream sauce and jumbo lump crab, are built for sharing around the table. When there are missteps here, they are minor, such as cabbage rolls stuffed with wild mushrooms and buckwheat that tasted slightly muddy and not at all bright like the rest of the menu. Some of the entrées—the smoked bone-in pork chop with farmer’s cheese or bison short ribs, both served with charred cabbage—can land heavy, especially in the heat of a mile-high summer. But if you lean into the accompaniments, such as the strawberry adjika, a spicy pestolike condiment for the short ribs, and the zingy poppyseed gastrique for the chop, you can taste the freshness.
No one should leave Molotov without an order of bread, which you’ll want to keep at the table for the whole meal. My hope for you is that the salt-flecked marbled rye with trout roe compound butter is on the menu. Pair that decadence with a bowl of the borscht and I believe you, too, will relish the warmth and hospitality of Porytko’s newest venture.
In many countries in Eastern Europe, tables are loaded with plump dumplings, salty cheeses, and meats with heady spices like fenugreek and caraway—a showcase of the region’s vibrant cultures. Read on to find out where to taste those flavors in the Denver area.
Show us someone who doesn’t like dumplings, and we will show them hinkali. These Georgian-style nibbles are similar to Chinese soup dumplings, in that they are imbued with beef and broth, but are wrapped in a thicker dough. Masha and the Bear, a predominantly Russian cafe, serves them in a spicy tomato sauce. 12101 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora
Cascade Eastern European Cuisine
Khachapuri is Georgia’s famed cheese-laden bread. At this unexpectedly fancy, family-owned Aurora spot, the chewy bread, which is boat-shaped and somewhat akin to pizza, is stuffed with cheese and often topped with an egg, prosciutto, and fresh herbs. 2630 S. Parker Road, Aurora
Think of south Denver’s House of Bread, an Armenian cafe specializing in Eastern European baked goods, as the embodiment of the two birds, one stone idiom: Here you can order hinkali and khachapuri. Get the latter with cheese, eggs, and stewed tomatoes. 2020 S. Parker Road