Polka Café serves up honest (and delicious) Polish fare
By Bernie Whitmore
I’d wager that most of us have acquaintances who love to drop the f-word, especially when it comes to dining. “Fabulous” is everything to these people; they love to rave about extravagant dining experiences, elegant dining rooms, astounding vintages and sumptuous meals costing fabulous amounts of money.
But for many of us, travel and dining memories are made of different stuff. Some our fondest memories were planted by unusual experiences that had little to do with money or luxury. Finding pleasure in the unexpected is so rewarding, it becomes addictive. And it can happen anywhere.
For many of us ~ I put myself first in line here ~ Polka Café is a most unusual experience.
It wasn’t till a couple of years ago, on a trip to Warsaw, that I discovered the merits of Polish cuisine. Every meal was an exciting experience. The richness of flavors and range of cuisine astounded me. So when I was asked to visit the Polka Café, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even heard of it.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the funky experience you get when you venture into Polka’s dining room. Some call it austere. I call it full sensory assault, starting with the synth-pop of Yanni Live at the Acropolis blasting from a big-screen TV near the doorway.
The dining room was nearly empty, and there was no one ready to greet my friend and me. So, I went exploring. A stereo system (with turntable!) anchored one end of the room, with LPs scattered about in stacks. Other areas were arranged in tableaus of quasi-antiques harking from various periods: Colonial Americana, Colonial Revival and, weirdly, neo-Hooterville. Murky stemware hung from the ceiling of what appeared to be a non-functioning bar (Polka Cafe is BYOB).
Of all of this stuff, the most relevant ~ and, perhaps creepiest ~ was the statue of Mr. Kielbasa. Hand-carved, this is a meat-man made of one huge sausage sporting plaintive eyes and fearsome teeth. His tubular body sprouts jaunty appendages wielding a trident. Years of accumulated greasy dust had lent the statue a smoky patina. It was truly a treasure.
We sat down and waited until the proprietor arrived to greet us in a gruff manner that seemed to derive from English being his second language. As the evening ensued, he came to crack an occasional smile. And when the subject of kielbasa came up, his demeanor warmed to downright friendliness as he told of making and smoking the sausage right there on the premises to sell in the restaurant and at regional fairs.
We started with a cucumber salad, a Spartan affair of sliced fresh cucumber spears sprinkled with oil and a dusting of black pepper. A forgettable beginning, indeed, but the appetizers would set the evening back on track.
I daresay our appetizer choices targeted Polka Café’s specialties. Placki Ziemniaczane (potato pancakes, three to an order) were each the size of a butter dish, tender in the middle and fried perfectly crispy golden-brown at the edges. They were served with a large dab of sour cream. Some cooks grate onion into the potato; Polka’s seemed to be pure potato that, for lack of preservatives, had turned a bit gray. They were pure, honest peasant fare that had us raving.
Our other appetizer was Kielbasa z Grilla (grilled kielbasa). If your kielbasa experience has been limited to steamed or pan-fried, well, you aren’t really “experienced.” Grilling brings out an amazing depth of flavor. And the chef achieved a perfect layer of char that reminded me of my most cherished Warsaw dining experiences. I speared the crustier of the two sections for myself. They came with sauerkraut, whole-grain mustard and slices of French bread.
If we’d stopped there, I would have considered the evening a success. But we forged on with an order of Pierogi z Mięsem (meat pierogis). Consider them ravioli’s northern cousins; Polka stuffs its pierogis with cabbage, meat or cheese and dresses them with chopped sautéed onions and oil. The meat stuffing was mundane, but the pale pierogi dough was light and delicate.
Far more interesting was our plate of Gołąbki (aka ‘glumpkies’). These were two large rolls formed with layers of steamed cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice. They were served on a dish pooled with a tomatoey broth. Though I enjoyed mine, for my return trip I’ll venture into goulash territory.
Dessert appeared exotic enough. A coconut custard pastry was crazy-drizzled with chocolate syrup and then lavished with fluffy whipped cream. The cream alleviated some of the dense crustiness we soon encountered. It wasn’t till my friend flipped over his chunk that I discovered the tell-tale foil imprint of the classic Table Talk snack pie. Very resourceful.
After returning from Poland, it seemed everyone wanted to know, “What made you go there?” Well, I don’t rightly know. But it’s a place you soon learn to love. So I honestly reply, “For the sights, the people and the food … they’re wonderful!”
I think that also sums up why I’d return to Polka Café Restaurant.
169 Millbury St., Worcester