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Magnetic Poles 

Wednesday, Feb 18 1998
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On a return visit, TJ and I tried the red borscht ($3/$5), a light, sweet-sour beet broth topped with crisp fresh parsley, with soothing tortellinilike dumplings of thick pasta filled with mildly spiced ground meat. We sopped up the last drops with wheaty peasant bread from the multiflavored bread basket. The soup du jour that night was a warming, hearty puree of white beans with chopped potatoes and carrots and minced bacon floating in the thick broth. Since we'd returned without vegetarians to horrify, we lived dangerously and essayed beef tartare ($8.50), a culinary version of spectacularly unsafe sex. In traditional fashion, a delicious mound of salty, peppery top-quality raw minced beef was capped with a raw egg, accompanied by a ramekin of soy sauce and surrounding garnishes of chopped onions, marinated mushrooms, and chopped pickles. You mix it up as you like. We loved it to death and lived to tell the tale.

Poland's best-known dish is bigos, "hunter's stew." There's no single recipe for it, TJ remarked on our visit with Dawn and Steve: It's made during hunting season from whatever meat you've got, but it usually includes sausage. "The prize catch is the elusive short-horned kielbasa," I said. "Right," said TJ, "you have to kill 'em with a slingshot so you don't bruise them." When TJ's father was growing up during the Depression, bigos was like the "stone soup" of folklore -- it was a community feast, and every family put something in. At the end of the evening, each family got to take home a hunk of raw game-meat, usually venison. The restaurant's version ($10), big enough to serve three, had small chunks of beef, pork, and kielbasa mixed into a great delicious mess o' wloszczyzna, including light and dark cabbage, onions, mushrooms, and sauerkraut in a tomato-touched sauce. I found it more exotic than the Spanish, Moroccan, and Thai dishes I'd eaten during the past several weeks; it reminded me of a chileless version of Nigerian beef-and-greens stew. Alongside was a hillock of dense dairy-free mashed potatoes smoothed with their own cooking water.

TJ ordered stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce ($12; for another buck you can get mushroom sauce), which also came with the vegan mashed potatoes. The pair of rolls, as overstuffed as Victorian armchairs, were each the size of a Solidarity workman's fist. Inside dark green leaves (perhaps savoy), the filling of ground beef and fluffy rice had an earthy nip of caraway seed, and the marinaralike tomato sauce was gently sparked with black pepper and perhaps a touch of clove. "It's not like my Nonna's," said Dawn (my ex-cousin-in-law-once-removed) as she tasted a splash of the sauce. "Your Nonna's version was the same one your Aunt Rosa taught me how to cook," I said. "That's the Russian-Jewish version, sweet-sour, tangy, with a lot of cloves. Polish cooking is obviously really different from both Russian food and Slavic-Jewish cooking -- even Polish-Jewish. My father was born about 80 miles northeast of Krakow, but his sisters cooked more like your Nonna than like this food." TJ, meanwhile, was in hog heaven, the stuffed cabbage a close replica of his Nonna's rendition.

Dawn had the vegetarian pirogi ($10), raviolilike dumplings with the thickish house pasta dough, half of them stuffed with mushrooms, the other half with a refreshingly light (honest!) cabbage filling. Steve had the substantial Polish crepes filled with a savory mushroom mixture ($10). The wine list is short but adequate and reasonable (most bottles in the low $20s, with sufficient by-the-glass choices, including a very well-suited Fetzer Gewurz); even more appropriate are the tasty Polish beers, Okocim and especially the well-balanced Zyweicbeer.

On the return visit, we ate Polish "wrapps." Duck roulade ($14) had wonderfully rich, greaseless braised duck breast rolled around a sensual stuffing of apricots, prunes, and carrots. It came with a side dish of tasty braised red cabbage, and with an assortment of plain boiled vegetables, including a couple of new potatoes that were fully boiled and then roasted crisp. "That's the bad side of my grandma's cooking," said TJ. "The vegetables were always boiled dead -- all the flavor along with the nutrition goes down the drain with the water." We also had Zrazy, stuffed beef. ("Whoa, it's the Cattleman's Special!" said TJ.) The meat was stuffed with minced bacon, pickles, green pepper (making the dish a sort of an inside-out stuffed pepper), and yet more shredded beef, all braised in a meaty sauce. It came with a covey of small white torpedoes -- potato dumplings, weighty but nicely seasoned. Alongside was a salad of cooked beets and slivered red onions that sent TJ into small ecstasies.

Although half of each giant meat dish had to come home with us, we suffered for our craft and tried desserts. After such enormous meals, we couldn't really appreciate the weighty cheese-stuffed crepes (with a bittersweet chocolate sauce that night). The tall lemony cheesecake, however, was remarkably light and barely sweet, a fusion of an airy Italian ricotta cheesecake and a New York pot-cheese version. An apple pastry was also refreshing with a crisp crust and the apples tender-firm, united by a heavy but not oversweet syrup.

We were both so thrilled by Old Krakow, we decided to try it at home. Two days later TJ came home with 10 heads of cabbage and a 5-gallon crock. Guess the garage is gonna stink for a while.

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Naomi Wise

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