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Sunday, February 25

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We went to Staropolska on Brian's suggestion. He'd been to this little Polish restaurant on Milwaukee south of Belmont many times, and lovingly described the "yesteryear feel" of the place: men talking gruffly at the bar, the thick wooden chairs, and the utter plainness of everything. There's a door from the bar section up front into a Polish deli next door, where presumably most of the meat and produce comes from. There's no ornament to the place or the food.

Brian, Naz, Cinnamon and I had ample time to peruse the menu while we waited for Anne -- who went to the other Staropolska way out west on Belmont. This is good, authentic Polish food, the solid stuff peasants ate. We ordered drinks, then finally flagged down our server and ordered our meal, when we learned Anne would be another 15 minutes.

Brian ordered mushroom soup. "It was brothy and the mushrooms weren't immediately recognizable, but the flavor was so rich I wish I had just had a big bowl of that," he said. "At Staropolska, the soups are real standouts. If you ate those and nothing else, you would leave happy."

He was less pleased with his "Breton-style Beans," not because they didn't taste good -- they did -- but because they weren't vegetarian. "I ordered beans naively supposing they wouldn't have meat -- wrong! The stew of beans and small bits of sausage was tasty and very filling, but not amazing. For $4, I had quite a full tummy, which is worth noting."

Cinnamon started with sauerkraut soup, which was made with a very flavorful broth and small chunks of smoked pork in addition to the namesake ingredient. The kraut wasn't too vinegary, and it was a thicker soup than she expected. It hit just the right spot.

She soon wished she hadn't gotten the soup when she saw how large her "Hungarian style" goulash was. Large pieces of tender beef stewed in a wonderful gravy with excellent sliced button mushrooms. "I almost wish there was less beef and more mushrooms because the mushrooms were so good," she said. The goulash was served with a little shredded cabbage salad and a large scoop of mashed potatoes -- which didn't have any cream or butter or spices mixed in with them. They were bland by themselves, but Cinnamon loved them mixed with the soupy goulash.

Naz ordered a plate of sauerkraut, cheese and potato pierogi. His roommate is Polish and he's partaken in many of her family's gatherings, so he's tried pierogi of all kinds. He thought Staropolska's were outstanding. "The sauerkraut was good -- what I've had before," he said. "The potato was actually flavourful for a change compared to more bland offerings. The cheese was not the yellow american kind, but rather a ricotta or cottage sweet type cheese which gave a sort of desert like taste to the variety in front of me." Cinnamon tried one of his cheese pierogi and thought the mildly sweet cheese would be a great substitution for the often too-sweet ricotta in a cannoli. She was surprised they didn't give him a plum sauce to dip them in.

He also ordered some potato pancakes. They turned out not to be as bland as he expected, which meant he didn't have to use the ramekin of applesauce that accompanied them.

Wanting to sample the widest possible range of foods, I got the Polish Plate (as did Anne). It came with a grilled kielbasa on a bed of sauerkraut, a golabki (cabbage roll stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and rice) and some pierogi -- as well as a scoop of the same bland mashed potatoes.

The kielbasa was incredible, more flavorful than any I've ever had. Garlicky and succulent, I wished I got more than half a sausage. The sauerkraut was very mild, different from the German variety I'm used to. Together, there was no need for mustard (which is good, because I wasn't brought any). The stuffed cabbage was OK -- it was smothered in a tomato sauce that Brian said looked like molé, which gave it a little zest, but otherwise it was about as good as you'd imagine rice and ground beef wrapped in cabbage would be. However, my opinion may have been influenced by the amazing kielbasa. Anne, on the other hand, barely touched hers, saying it reminded her -- in a bad way -- of the ones her grandmother always made.

Naz and I also ordered beet salad, and Brian got coleslaw -- each was 75 cents. The sweet and slightly sour beets were grated and served cold, and proved a refreshing change of pace from all the heavy food. Brian didn't like the coleslaw salad -- he found it too mayonnaisey and too sweet. He preferred the regular cabbage salad served as a garnish with our entrées.

Cinnamon thought understanding Polish would be a big asset at Staropolska; although the menu was in English with Polish below, there were many items that could have used further explanation. Brian has some advice for those who don't speak Polish: "While the waitress might pretend she doesn't understand what drink you want, if you ask nicely, you'll get what you want. My vodka tonic was lovely and at $2.75, quite a steal too."

We left the restaraunt at 9 as they cleaned around us, and the street that was bustling with activity two hours earlier was now shuttered and deserted as if it was midnight. Certainly not a hopping part of town, but the late-night neon would be worth an after-dinner stroll.

Staropolska Restaurant & Deli is at 3028 N. Milwaukee Ave. Open 9am to 9pm every day. Call 773/342-0779 for a reservation or more information.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Andrew Huff.

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