Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cafe Polonia

Cafe Polonia came to Salem a few years ago, and boy was I excited. Now, Polish cuisine may seem a little bit out there. How many times have you looked up at your spouse with a moment of euphoric "aha" sentiment and shouted "I need a dish of hunter stew and I need it now!" Well, neither had I. But Polish cuisine is comfort food at its finest. A cold winter day, a steaming hot serving of smoky sausage, served over a delectable heap of meaty, spiced sauerkraut will cure that chill that is seemingly unshakable. Add a good dark beer, and you've got a recipe for building a little bit of bulk to last you through the winter...and believe me, that's a good thing. The little cafe sandwiched among a fairly recently formed restaurant row on Washington street is a gem of homestyle meat and potatoes deliciousness.
Cafe Polonia's Intimate Dining
It's a pretty small restaurant. Maybe about twenty little tables, and lots of natural light. The blond wood and Polish decor is a little kitschy, but simultaneously completely welcoming and adorable. The restaurant glows at night, and the fast, friendly service makes you feel like a regular from the first second that you walk through the doors. On busier nights, they even occasionally have an accordion player, busting out polka tunes or holiday music. Unfortunately, I've been in the restaurant on a weeknight, and felt like it wasn't getting its due. There aren't enough people coming here, especially considering that they've got the most undeniably delicious food stuffs that anyone can find in Salem... and good beer! Good, delicious, interesting imported beers in fact. Just the other day, the bigger half ordered and enjoyed a Zywiec porter from  Bracki Browar Zamkowy in Poland. I'd recommend a couple of these to wet your whistle.
Blood Sausage Appetizer
But what to order as far as food? To start, there are many options. You may want to go for the salmon and caviar potato pancakes. The potato pancakes are a delicious savory, crispy platform to sink ones teeth into, complemented by the individual pop of each teeny orb of caviar, and of course the briny saltiness of a slice of cold-smoked salmon. But if you're game for something, well, a little more gamy, the blood sausage appetizer is fabulous and enough to share between four people if you're light eaters, or to split between two if you're my type of eater. The blood sausage is minerally and earthy. It has the rich flavor of liver, and of course that irony meat eater payoff of the blood that they use for the hearty appetizer. It's amazing to spread onto the rather dense, thin-sliced bread that they provide for every table. I'm also a big fan of the schmaltz spread that comes with the bread. A little blood sausage, a little schmaltz and you've got yourself a real kick of a teaser to bring out the better part of your appetite.
The Polish Plate
So what to order for a main? Well, we've gone several times as it's thankfully located a drunken stumble from where we live, and have found that the one dish that at least one person of your party should order is the Polish plate. I order it just about every single time. I think one other time I ordered the duck main entree, and it was a mistake on my part. While it was delicious, I stared longingly across the table at the Polish plate, ordered by a fellow diner. The polish plate is four fold.
Kielbasa on Hunter's Stew
First, you've got a kielbasa sausage, smokey, and grilled to perfection with a classic snap of the skin.
Amazing Pierogies
Next, you've got the selection of pierogies. Order them pan fried, because if you've ordered this dish, you aren't concerned about the extra calories (and you shouldn't be... you're perfect just the way you are). There's one stuffed with shredded pork, another stuffed with lightly pickled, tangy sauerkraut, and another stuffed with silky smooth potato. Finally, the pièce de résistance of pierogi land is the sweet cheese dumpling. It's savory on the outside, crispy and panfried with butter, but then there's the creamy cheese, touched with a hint of sweetness throughout. What an amazing pierogi. Come to think of it, if you are going to order an appetizer for a table of picky eaters, you might want to request a whole bunch of these cheese pierogies. But I digress... onto the rest of the Polish plate.
Stuffed Cabbage
Third, you've got the best version of stuffed cabbage that I've ever had. You know you've had stuffed cabbage that could second as a duck pin bowling ball. These damn things are light, a perfect mixture of fluffy rice and savory pork packed just tightly enough into a softball-sized satchel of blanched green cabbage. To add insult to injury, they smother the entire stuffed cabbage in a tangy, super smooth tomato sauce.
Hunter's Stew
Finally, I know it's difficult to get excited about sauerkraut. But this is the ultimate sauerkraut dish. The hunter stew that they serve across the entire platter of the Polish plate is amazing. Some of the best sauerkraut you've ever had has been stewed with large chunks of pork, juniper berries, clove and other spices. it's savory and porky, and of course tangy. The warmth of the stew really takes away the boredom of the winter and serves to refresh your palate as you nibble on all the other offerings.
Cafe Polonia is a gem of Salem, and we need to rally around this restaurant as having wonderful, homey, warm-you-up cuisine. Everything they serve there feels home cooked and cared over. Nothing is fussy, and anyone I know could find something they would fall in love with on this menu. Please give it a try, and become a regular. I'll see you there.

Cafe Polonia
118 Washington Street
Salem, MA 01970

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