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Sep 8, 2004 09:29 PM

old krakow (long)

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as mentioned before, upon reading kurlansky's book 'salt' i got the idea in my head that i had to try bigos (polish hunter's stew). since my colleague happens to be from poland, i mentioned this to him, and he suggested we try it at old krakow, the polish resto in sf. the idea must have had appeal to a few other oddballs in the bay area, as eventually 8 folks and a baby found their way there last night, including a headstong yet charming pair of soon to be former chow lurkers, and 2 folks who honorably took bart from the east bay on a spare the air day.

first, the atmosphere was one of old world warmth. not fussy, ostentatious, or cold, it felt like what i will have to imagine to be a grandmother's well kept home in the old country.
the polish waitstaff was expecting us, and kept us happy with their warm hospitality throughout the evening despite additional guests dropping in.

specific food comments on the various dishes i'll leave to those who tried them, but my own general comments i'll put forth right here. basically, let me say that polish food is, in a word, unchallenging.

after a hot labor day weekend of madly orbiting around a kaleidescope of equatorial cuisines (indian, thai, west african, and latin american), to land on a humble tuesday evening in babushka's rocker before a plate of stew and mashed potatoes was a gastronomic shock. kind of like rock climbing all day, then slipping on your rappel, falling back with your heart in your throat, then landing with fatalistic wince... in a barcalounger.

seasonings are simple and understated, textures are gently scolded into docility. archetypical comfort food. this is not bad, just different. different in a throwback dimaggio kinda way.

now let me go further out on this dwindling limb and say that while i can hardly blame a relatively polar and continental region for having a monochromatic culinary illumination (see mongolia), there is room to hope that an old culture's creativity might flow, among other places, through the kitchen. in poland's case, i believe to some extent that it did.

given poland and eastern europe's geographical handicaps with respect to spices, herbs, and vegetables, salt was used to control fermentation, which in turn provided longevity and flavor. this was displayed on our menu in the forms of pickles, pickled herring, and of course, kraut (the basis of bigos). i couldn't get anyone to back me up in an order of the herring, so i focused on the potato and pickle soup, and of course the bigos.

i am ethnically shanghainese, and it's easy for me to choose stewy, tender braised dishes. unfortunately, i was a little disappointed with this one. for me, the small chunks of meat were a little dry and overcooked, and the kraut was a little too soft and overcooked. i couldn't escape the impression that this had just been sitting in the pot a bit too long. i'm told the kraut shouldn't be served too salty or acidic, and it was not, but somehow i expected a little more of an edge from it. finally, it was served on a plate quite a few notches cooler than steaming hot. i prefer bowls for such things, as they keep the food hotter and facilitate spooning up of the sauces.

the daily special potato and pickle soup was quite literally descibed as 'electrifying', and when compared to everything else we tried, i would have to say that it was. the salty and sour pickle flavors gave this a lot more zip than the other dishes, and the creamy texture from the potato was nice too.

my final peeve was that the table bread was baguettes, which while fine left me hoping for something darker and from east of the rhine to soak up the sauces.

but let me close by saying that the overall experience was really nice, due in large part to the wine, service, and company. interestingly, the table chatter included an appreciation of polish piety and slavic literary arts (conrad and nabokov). we all felt richer for our little exposure to polish culture.

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  1. Nice report. I ate a lot of Polish/Ukranian/etc. home-style food in what is now the East Village when I lived in NY ca. 1961-62 and could have told you that it can't stand up to the weather of this weekend. Try it when it's snowing outside.

    "Ethnically Shanghainese?" I humbly submit that "Shanghainese" is a religion, not an ethniciity.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Gary Soup

      did that include 'kiev' in the east village?
      i like that place. good cheap pierogies at all hours of the night.

    2. Oddball former chow lurker here…

      I agree with most of Ed’s comments regarding the food in that it was unchallenging, taken on its own. However, I had a great time at the dinner…the folks were interesting and varied, and the conversation stimulating. The staff was wonderful…very attentive, understanding, and kind.

      Cutting to the chow, I started the meal with half of my friend’s cucumber salad—which was excellent. (Of course I have a thing for cucumbers, so a cucumber salad would have to be really bad for me to consider it anything less than excellent.) The dressing was creamy and flavorful and had plenty of fresh dill in it.

      Next came the mushroom soup, which was quite good, and very mushroomy …not too thin and not too thick.

      I also had a bite of another appetizer, Kielbasa, which was house-made of chicken and pork. I had a bite and thought it was good—quite unlike the usual Kielbasas. This one seemed much more chickeny than porky or beefy.

      I had the special of the day, which was an assorted plate of various Polish specialties. The plate had chicken meatballs and a golabki (stuffed cabbage roll) and came with mashed potatoes and a side of beet salad. There was a choice of tomato or mushroom sauce; I chose the mushroom sauce. The two scoops of mashed potatoes were quite dense, and they held their shape throughout the meal (they looked like they were made with an ice cream scooper). I thought the chicken meatballs were tasty, though quite large (their size matched the round mashed potato balls). The stuffed cabbage was, well, your basic stuffed cabbage (cabbage stuffed with ground beef and rice, cooked for along time so the cabbage gets really soft)… The mushroom sauce was a bit disappointing in that it appeared to look very similar to the mushroom soup, only slightly thicker. Taken on it’s own, I don’t think I would have been disappointed, but since I had already had the soup, somehow I thought the mushroom sauce would be substantially different from it. It wasn’t. The beet salad was delicious. It was made of fresh beets (not canned). But like cucumbers, the beets would have had to have been really bad for me to consider the salad less than excellent, since I love beets too (even the canned ones)!

      For dessert I ordered the poppy seed roll cake, which is a dessert usually served around the holidays. It came out quite warm (almost hot). I thought it was good…lots of poppy seeds with an almond essence that permeated the cake.

      On a side note, though we didn’t keep with the Polish tradition of passing around bottles of vodka, I was floored by the generosity of the hounds who shared little nuggets of treasure from their personal cellars. Thanks again for the luscious libations!

      I think for Polish food, Old Krakow is very good…but I agree that Polish food in general is not particularly challenging. Of course it should be noted that we are also very jaded here, where we have an amazing variety of different foods/cuisines available in a very small area, that are reasonably priced and easily accessible. There is a nostalgia/tradition aspect to Old Krakow as well. So the food will probably remain much the same, as it has for quite some time…very traditional.

      In my opinion, the most important ingredients to a good meal are the people around the table who share it (and how spicy, interesting and fresh the conversations are)… so in that respect I give our meal at Old Krakow a thumbs up.

      Thanks for making my first chowdown one to howl about!

      2 Replies
      1. re: Anne in SF

        I can't tell from your post if you've had a lot of Polish food before. I agree that it's not a challenging cuisine (less so than Szechuan or Indian, more so than Nicaraguan?), but it's unfair, IMO, to judge Polish food by Old Krakow. I have had very tasty Polish food and I find Old Krakow's to be one-dimensional by comparison.

        Unfortunately we have few other points for comparison around here.

        1. re: bernalgirl

          Polish food expert I am not. While I have been to Poland, most of the food I had while there catered to tourists' tastes. And while I've taken my own stab at making golabki, authentic it was not (think of the meat as a mixture of more ground chicken/turkey and a less beef, with brown or wild rice, cooked with a tomato sauce, but certainly not for hours).

          Yes, there are not a lot of other Polish restaurants to compare it to... or Polish food festivals either (unlike Greek food festivals or Armenian food festivals). Probably the best Polish food examples would be found in the home cooking of those of Polish descent, since it's a cuisine based on tradition, and many of the dishes that we ate at Old Krakow typically require lots of multi-step preparation and cooking time beforehand. Plus there is that whole love in the finger oil thing.

          Might I also offer that if we had lots of Polish vodka to wash everything down with, our reviews of the food might be quite different...;o)

      2. Just awakening from a long slumber in the barcalounger . . . many thanks, ed, for putting this together. The company was a pleasure, especially to have Andrzej, a Polish ex-pat, plus a 3rd gen at the table for color commentary. On the ride to the BART station, Andrzej began to recite Pan Tadeusz, the poem describing bigos. Here's the poem from "Salt" -

        The bigos is being cooked. No words can tell
        The wonder of its color, taste, and smell.
        More words and rhymes are jingling sounds, whose sense
        No city stomach really comprehends
        For Lithuanian food and song, you ought
        To have good health and country life and sport.

        But bigos e'en without such sauce is good,
        of vegetables curiously brewed.
        The basis of it is sliced sauerkraut,
        Which, as they say, just walks into the mouth;

        Enclosed within a cauldron, its moist breast
        Lies on the choicest meat, in slices pressed,
        There it is parboiled till the heat draws out
        The living juices from the cauldron's spout,
        and the air is fragrant with the smell.

        ~ Adam Mickiewicz, "Pan Tadeusz", 1832

        Having read this before dinner, maybe my hopes were too high. Sadly, the bigos at Old Krakow fell far short of this mark. Is the failing the dish or the cook? I have to believe that Polish food can offer more than what Old Krakow serves up.

        The bigos at Old Krakow was lifeless. Made only with plain cabbage without any of the sauerkraut the restaurant is alleged to make itself or pickled plums or other fruits. The gray chunks of beef and pork had given up their souls long ago and the two scoops of mashed potatoes were watery and tasteless. I picked at some of the pieces of kielbasa (I agree that the sausage was good) and mushroom, but nothing else appealed. Basically it was a big pile of overcooked veggie-mystery meat mush devoid of distinctive aroma or flavor.

        The pierogis - a sampler of the three kinds - were better than the ones I had at Chopin. I liked the sauerkraut filled ones the best, but I wouldn't order them again. The mushroom soup was monotonal. It was a nice note, but the one note tired after one sip. As Anne mentioned, the mushroom gravy on the day's special was the same base with more cornstarch to thicken it and a big dose of MSG. From a bitesize sample, the chicken meatball was tasty, enhanced by MSG. The brown gravy on the beef rolls also had a good size glug of MSG.

        Among the desserts, the Polish-style cheesecake, dryer and crumbly, was nice even with the fake-o chocolate sauce squiggles. The poppyseed cake, heated in the microwave, was rubbery and dried on the edges with the almond extract overwhelming the poppyseed flavor. The cheese-filled crepe, made to order, at least didn't taste stale. For the price gouging on those desserts, couldn't they use real whipped cream instead of the canned stuff?

        The "electrifying" pickle-potato soup special was my favorite thing. At least it was pleasant and offered some semblance of interest. There was a tendency to hyperbole from our charming server and on the menu descriptions. Was there anything on the table that tasted "insanely delicious" as promised?

        The room was picturesque and our server was very accommodating. Yet, there was a dishonesty in the cooking that I can't quite forgive.



        1. February 17th, Saturday, 2007

          A rather mild evening, warm for West Portal. I had a fun but distracting dinner at Old Krakow, and the focus was not on food, so I apologize in advance.

          Overall, I went with low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.

          ".....the atmosphere was one of old world warmth. not fussy, ostentatious...." It was a charming place filled with diners who looked, dare I generalize, like tourists from Poland, including festively adorned big babushkas who looked grouchy even while laughing.

          Zupa dnia - a small cup of pickle and potato soup. Refreshingly good, a perfect start. $3.95

          Pierogi sampler - 1)Cabbage and mushrooms, 2) meat, 3) cheese and potatoes "Ruskie". I actually liked them all. Skin was al dente, tasted all right, but too thick for me.

          Rolada z kaczki (duck rolada) - I had no problem with this dish. It must have been a good night. The duck was perfectly juicy, the apple and plum stuffing was delicious. Potatoes the size and shape of unscalloped madeleines - nothing special there, just comforting. A big mound of red cabbage on a separate small plate. I liked it even though it was mushy and not crunchy. $18.95.

          Nothing exciting like kiszka, but these stood out on the menu - flaczki (beef tripe soup $4.75), sok z czarnej porzeczki (black currant juice $2.25), sernik (Polish cheesecake $4.95).

          I left Old Krakow full and satisfied.

          3 Replies
          1. re: grocerytrekker

            Horrible, awful Polish cheesecake. Maybe the worst I ever ate ... dry enough to suck all the saliva out of your mouth. Sometimes on the weekends, Sekor's Polish Deli on Geary makes Polish cheesecake. That's what it should taste like. They sell black currant juice too.

            The pickle soup and the pierogi are the better options at Old Krakow. Not best of their class, just better than most of the menu. The one thing I like on Old Krakow's menu is the coffee. It tastes like the coffee my grandmother made.

            I'm glad Old Krakow didn't turn you off of Polish food ... my main objection to the place ... people think that is what Polish food tastes like. If you are ever in Walnut Creek, go to Chopin for good Polish food.

            1. re: rworange

              Really, that bad?
              Now I am curious. Perhaps I should try the cheesecake to see how bad it is. The only reason we didn't have dessert was that we were already too full.

              Actually, the duck dish impressed me enough to make me go back and try the other stuff, except the price seems a bit unreasonable.

              You seem to imply that this was my intro to Polish food. I don't appreciate the fact that I have to convince anyone I happen to like Polish food. Do I need to display my "credentials"? Most probably I was introduced to it in Chicago (could have been a wedding in Cleveland) but like many foods you enjoy, you forget exactly where you first had it. The east coast does seem to have better Polish food, although I recall Warszawa in L.A. wasn't bad, either.

              I have no problem letting you own the cuisine only because you have a nice Polish grandmother, although nice Polish grandmothers are more common than you think. A Polish (math professor) family who bought my car in Ithaca not only took care of the rest of my belongings which I couldn't get rid of in time, they went out of their way to entertain me. I can't forget the family's warm hospitality or the mother's apricot cookies.

              1. re: grocerytrekker

                Get the coffee with that cheesecake. You'll need something to wash it down with. Please report back. Hope it got better. Also, hope you will compare it to Sekor.

                No one was requesting your creditials or any implication. Too much was read into my post.

                The posts all over the web talk about Old Krakow and the comment is usually ... yeah, ok ... but we really don't care for Polish food. To me, this isn't a good example of Polish food. That's all.

                It is no different than the thousands of posts about Asians complaining that a restaurant isn't good in it's category compared to the great examples they are familiar with.

                My inlaws are Central American ... and with all the Chowhound recs ... the Central Amercian joints I refer them too ... the places that ring my chowbells ... make them give me that "poor deluded gringo" look.

                Which is fine. I enjoy the food, but when I eat at the places they like in terms of Central American, they are usually insanely delicous.

                So, I was just saying Chopin is closer to the real thing. You can take that for what you will, try it or not.

                Nice to hear the duck was good. I don't like duck so it is not something I'd ever order on the menu. If you shush out more good dishes I hope you'll report about them. I personally have thrown all the money I'm going to on Old Krakow ... having had almost everything on the menu ... unless I hear there are new owners or a new chef. My cravings are better satisfied at Chopin.

                I don't get the whole grandmother spiel. It is just that I like the coffee at Old Krakow because it tastes like my grandmothers. I don't even know if that is a good thing or not. IMO, it was the only crappy thing she made so it is a qualifier. It is just a memory/comfort thing for me that takes me back into her kitchen.