Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Walk in the Woods New York City Entry #21

Back in the waning days of the Communist empire, I was invited to Poland to give a series of lectures. This was a heady moment as the Poles were preparing for the first of their elections that would bring Solidarity to power. It was the best of times and the worst of times. The empire was collapsing with a gasp.

One late spring weekend my hosts drove to one of their favorite parks for a hike, a day to be culminated with dinner at a small restaurant, located in one of the small castles that dot the countryside around Lublin. When we arrived, famished after a day of walking, they were informed to their considerable chagrin that the restaurant had run out of meat. No goose, rack of lamb, sirloin, or even sausage, chicken gizzards, or beef tongue. All that was left were mushrooms. And that was our dinner: mushrooms.

It was one of the most heavenly meals that I have eaten. If the kitchen was out of meat, it was not out of cream, dill, or inspiration (or vodka). Sixteen years from my travels, memory of reminds me that whatever others might say about leaden Polish cuisine, such complaints don't register with me.

Greenpoint (or, as it once was pronounced, Green-pernt) now has no shortage of meat - or of Poles, young or old. Greenpoint is Polish New York. This little village neighborhood, just across the East Village, has enormous charm (particularly the area north and west of Nassau and Manhattan Avenues; it is industrial close to the river). I don't assess bakeries, but the three I tried, all pass muster.

Unlike French restaurants in Manhattan, there are few comparative evaluations of Greenpoint restaurants. Not all chefs are created equal, but we don't know about the Point's equivalents of Ducasse, Keller, Colicchio, or Takayama. Only some cuisines get Peopled.

For my late Sunday "linner" I selected Lomzynianka ("home cooking in the heart of Greenpoint"; pronounced Lahm-zhin-YAHN-eh-ka, according to Eric Asimov who reviewed it in 2002). The chef of honor is J.J.J. Grzelczak ("Janina"), and I gladly forgive her for what to non-Pointers seems an excess of J's, just so long as she keeps cooking. She is the girl from Lomza for whom the restaurant is named.

The decor bows to the fantastic. Hanging from the ceiling are lines of artificial flowers and curlicue ribbons, given the space the air of a bower as designed by a ethereal eccentric. There are not many rooms where a stag's head with tinsel hanging from its antlers feels right, but it does here. If for no other reason than its magic setting, Lomzynianka stands apart from its competitors.

Dinner began with a plate of lightly pickled carrots, sauerkraut, cucumbers, and red cabbage. It was a subtle amuse bouche, preparing us for a Polish meal that, not surprisingly, was short on roughage.

I selected the Red Borscht with Dumplings. Borscht comes in several styles (and not always with beets, as in white borscht), sometimes more of a chowder. I was served a crimson broth, as bright as any consomme of which Daniel Boulud could imagine. I could taste the beef stock, the beets, perhaps a little dill, salt, and not much else. The dumplings, little tortellinis with chopped mushrooms - ah, Polska! - became more intensely pink with each moment in their bath.

My main course (perhaps three main courses) was the Polish Platter (three pierogies, kielbasa, bigos, stuffed cabbage, and mashed potatoes). The one complaint that Asimov leveled at Lomyynianka was their "powdery mashed potatoes." Perhaps critics matter, because this afternoon the mashed potatoes were thicker and chunkier than they had any right to be.

The pierogies (farmer's cheese, potato and cheese, and mushroom and sauerkraut) were fried to a crisp and golden perfection. I can't claim that other local restaurants don't make excellent pierogies, but I can't imagine that they could be better.

The stuffed cabbage was filled with more rice than I am used to (and of course, the pork is not a touch that one might find in Williamsburg down the road). I grew up with stuffed cabbage in which a sweet and sour cabbage is dominant; here the seasoned rice is more prominent. It was satisfying and all-too-filling.

Bigos is often considered the Polish national dish, and like so many stews it may be the final resting place for leftovers (and a noble home). This bigos was a stew of heavily boiled beef with dill and sauerkraut. I felt that the stew lost some of its character as a hunter's dish by the amount of cooking. The tastes was sturdy, but the texture was softer than my preference.

The kielbasa was very nicely peppery, no doubt purchased from one of the many local butchers in the area.

I excused myself before dessert, and missed the blintzes that come highly recommended.

Polish cuisine is robust, hearty worker's food (Polish elites, like so many other culturally uncertain elites - including Americans - often embrace French cuisine). My experience in the forest and on the streets is that when Polish dishes are properly made, even humble platters can be platonic.

646 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn (Greenpoint)

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