When Stefan Soltys got the first table booking for Little Odessa via a notification on his phone, he almost ran his car off the road.

“I was so geed up,” he says. “It was from a Ukrainian woman who had heard about our Eastern European focus. I wanted to explain we weren’t doing ultra-traditional food but she stopped me and said, ‘Look, if I wanted that I would go eat at my babka’s.’”

And so sums up Stefan and older sister Sofia’s new venue: a cosy wine bar doing food inspired by, but not mimicking that of, Hungary, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. It’s more in line with their Ukrainian heritage than their other business, Frances Food & Coffee.

Borscht and pierogi (dumplings filled with potato and cheddar), the dishes most steeped in tradition, took classic French-trained chef Nathan George a few goes to perfect. Others have a subtler Eastern influence: dill and vodka salmon tartare, buttermilk-braised pork loin with prune jam, and Hungarian placki (like a potato pancake).

“People are quite surprised the food still has a lightness to it,” Stefan explains. “Obviously the pierogi is still heavy – those things are bulletproof. We played around with the recipe, but in the end we decided we just wanted it like we had it growing up.”

Stefan worked the bar at New Gold Mountain and now defunct fine-diner Virginia Plain, so drinks are his forte. Sofia handles things on the other side of the bar. Wines are mainly Australian but a rogue Romanian pinot noir and a Georgian tsistka (an indigenous white grape) keep to the theme. There’s also genuine Czech Budvar pilsner (aka the original Budweiser); a selection of cocktails; and Domain Disznoko, a sweet wine from the Tokaji region of Hungary.

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The impressive American-oak bar and shelves (where spirits sit comfortably alongside house-pickled vegetables) is modelled on Venice’s renowned Harry’s Bar. A large painting on a World War Two canvas army tent is a family heirloom; it depicts the siblings’ great uncle and his comrades, each with their arms around their dream screen girls. It’s been in the family for decades, as has hospitality. The siblings’ parents founded Carlton’s Paragon Cafe, and before that, Cafe Paradiso.

Little Odessa
Rear 247 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9417 0526

Wed to Fri 5pm–late
Sat & Sun 11am–3pm, 5pm–late