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Pork-a-rama Walnut Creek: Chopin Cafe and Polish Wine (from Burgundy)

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  • Melanie Wong Oct 3, 2005 03:38 AM
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Inspired by rworange's ecstatic posts about the Polish food at Chopin Cafe, Francesc and I decided to revive the Pork-a-rama quest and sausage marathon sweeping through the East Bay's Eastern European hide-a-ways.

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Our last stop was DJ's Bistro in Concord for Czech food (linked below). Next we met for Sunday supper in Walnut Creek to sample some Polish. Francesc, the Don of Walnut Creek, said he had passed up Chopin many times when shopping at Lunardi's. The lace curtains had been a barrier for him.

We started with a cup of soup. Francesc's borscht was as good as described. But even better was my vegetable soup of the day, a light yet very flavorful potage of fresh vegetables. I didn't want to fill up on liquid, but I had to drink it all. The light tanginess in the aftertaste was refreshing and restorative. The dinner rolls were good, and we appreciated that the four rolls were all slightly different shapes and sizes, showing that they were handmade.

We ordered an assortment of pierogi, two of each kind. These were topped by lucite-like, dark brown carmelized onions and some chopped fresh parsley. The crimps on these handmade dumplings were just like the ones made by a potsticker mold. We didn't know which was which, so we established a protocol of cutting a dumpling into halves and sharing it so that we could be sure we'd both tasted the same thing. The filling in the meat ones were a little dry and lean but tasty nonetheless. The potato and cheese didn't do much for me. The sauerkraut/cabbage was good, and the best one was the mushroom filled with a variety of dried and fresh mushrooms.

Francesc had the kielbasa, shown in the upper right of the photos below. Somehow the arrangement of his plate reminded me of Groucho Marx. The pair of sausages had the fancy cutwork as described. These are housemade and we loved the freshness of the cure and the balance of the subtle seasonings even though adulterated with chicken and not pure pork. Later when Eva came out from the kitchen, Francesc complimented her on her skill with this saying that he makes sausages himself and could recognize a masterful recipe. The accompanying sauerkraut was almost too fresh, not having much fermented character, and was still crisp.

I had the bigos shown on the lower right. While it won't make me forget Alsatian choucroute, it did turn my head. My first bite was a soft piece of pork skin and it got better from there. The chunks of pork and sausage were tender but still held onto their own flavors and each mouthful tasted different from the next. Paprika tinged the sauerkraut orange and added a smoky back note. The mushrooms used were very good quality and packed with flavor. The sauerkraut and cabbage had very good texture, just yielding to the bite without being mushy, and the mild tang was welcome contrast to the porcine flavors. The overall dish had many layers of meaty and earthy tastes with good depth yet was surprisingly greaseless and left a light impression. I hadn't imagined that something called "hunters stew" could feel so healthy. The mashed potatoes were good too.

I'd brought a wine from my cellar, 1998 Domaine Heresztyn Morey-Saint-Denis, 1er Cru, “Les Millandes”, a souvenir of a visit to the cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy. The family immigrated from Poland in the 1930's and is one of the top producers of "Les Millandes". I had been stumped as far as what wine to drink this evening, and the finesse of this red Burgundy was matched step for step by our two entrees.

For dessert we had the crepes with raspberry sauce. I loved how the hot molten cheese oozed out of the crepe packets. The raspberry sauce was nice but I could do without the canned whipped topping.

There was only one other party in the restaurant the whole time we were there. With the small size of the room, it just felt all that more intimate rather than isolated. We enjoyed the Chopin piano concertos played softly in the background. All in all, it was a fine meal and a good experience, particularly for the price.

Chopin Cafe & Restaurant
1574 Palos Verdes Mall
Walnut Creek 94597
925-256-8658

P.S. The rest room has a nice reading library though I didn't spend enough time in there to make use of it.

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  1. m
    Melanie Wong

    On Saturday I stopped in Berkeley for a breakfast bite at newly opened Kolo Kitchen. The "kolos" are based on Czech kolaches, according to the website.

    The savory ones had just come out of the oven. I was lucky to catch them, as a microwave is used to reheat them at other times. Bad form.

    I tried the ham and havarti (left) and the sweet Italian sausage and cheese (right). As befits Berkeley, the quality of the ingredients in the filling is very good and generous too. The sweet fennel in the sausage didn't go well with cheddar cheese. The ham and havarti was a great flavor combination, and I liked how the cheese had a nice pull when you bit into it.

    However, the bread dough was lacking. Even when served right out of the oven at their peak, they're chewy and not the tender, airy, delicate bites I'm craving. The bread part doesn't have much flavor of its own unlike kolaches I've tried from Texas or Minnesota. I also bought a cherry/cheese one to try. This one had cooled off and the bread was actually dried out and tough.

    I would dearly love to see a local kolache shop. Hopefully these are opening jitters and things will improve. I'll try it again in a couple months.

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    9 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      They resemble no kolaches I'd ever seen; nor could my Czech spiritual and menu advisor from Nebraska identify them as such. Rather more like the offerings at the franchise opportunity linked below.

      Notes: I walked in after closing and was given several complimentary kolos, which "we'd just throw 'em out anyway." They are proud of baking fresh every day.

      I honestly could not tell any of the four different ones I tried apart. Probably because they had cooled.

      They weren't bad cold, except in comparison to hot. I suspect they'd keep for a couple of days, and would make pretty good backpacking snacks. Better than cold MREs, at least.

      Link: http://www.kolachefactory.com/

      1. re: Shep

        I've been wavering on going to Kolo Kitchen cause of the "just throw it out" issue. The owner won't let staff give the leftovers to the homeless or even eat them themselves. This may be true of most places(?) but I know it specifically for Kolo and it rubs me wrong.

        1. re: wg1

          Veering slowly off topic, here, I hesitated to mention the comps, because I figured if the word got out that they would be bumrushed at closing time by throngs of "bargain hunters". Maybe that's also the owner's concern.

          1. re: Shep
            m
            Morton the Mousse

            Good point. Berkeley is notorious for closing time bargain hunters (and in some cases, dumpster divers) at bakeries, farmer's markets etc. I can understand why the owner would be wary of freebies hurting his business.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse
              m
              Melanie Wong

              It's a shame that the owner hasn't figured out a way to donate the end of day inventory to a food bank or other charity that would distribute it to the needy.

      2. re: Melanie Wong

        From the photos, the rolls look like they came from Pillsbury.

        1. re: oakjoan

          They taste a little better, though, slightly sweet. They remind me of baked bao, or Easter bread.

        2. re: Melanie Wong

          Being Texan by marriage, I am very familiar with the kolaches that abound in Texas Hill Country. I checked out this place soon after it opened given my history and familiarity. Like many things Californian, kolos were good, but not the real thing. Some Berkeleyfied rendition perhaps, but not the real Texan thing, and I imagine not the real Czech thing.

          1. re: Miele Maiale

            I believe this spot has closed.

            This summer I tried kolaches a couple times in Prague . . . neither was very good, i.e., dried out dough and sugary sweet, authentic though they may be.

        3. With the weather cooling to normal and after reading your report, I made my way back to Chopin and have tried everything except the beef stroganoff and mashed potatoes.

          The potato salad is simply the best in the Bay Area of any ethnicity. The potatoes are finely diced, yet don’t lose their shape. Mixed in are peas, parsley and finely chopped carrots and onions. It’s all about balance with none of the add-ins taking away from the potato flavor. For me, it is worth a drive to when I have a potato salad craving.

          The cutlets are a pork version of wienersnitzel. Any version I have of a breaded cutlet – pork or veal will be measured by this dish. Any wienersnitzel I’ve tried in the past was a disgrace compared to this.

          Dipped in savory bread crumbs and fried, it was surprisingly a light, elegant dish with the pork tender and juicy. The fried potatoes were not what I was expecting, slices fried with onions. Instead they were two potato halves deep fried, yet greaseless with a crisp exterior.

          I liked the sauerkraut that came with it and had bits of bacon. Unlike your dinner, it wasn’t crisp which led me to ask if they made it in-house. The answer was no because you need a special room for that otherwise the fermenting smell takes over everything. I’m thinking they may rinse the sauerkraut well before using it in cooking to remove some of the brininess.

          If there is any dish that will take me back home, it is the bigos. When I need my Polish fix, this is what I will be ordering. The recipes I always see are venison or game based and we never ate anything like that.

          This dish was more like what we call kapusta (a general term for cabbage) where you have the sauerkraut, cabbage, and porky meats cooked together depending on availability. It could be kielbasa, pork spareribs, pigs feet, etc. On Chrismas Eve there is a meatless version that is mainly sauerkraut, dried mushrooms and butter. The Chopin bigos was like a combination of the best of both of these versions. Some of those mushrooms in it were dried Polish mushrooms which added the extra flavor dimension. I haven’t tasted pork like that in decades. You can go home again, sort of.

          I never considered the pierogi might be made using a machine to press them together because of my grandmother’s pierogi. I always read on Chowhound about the care that goes into the folds of some Chinese dumplings. Well, my grandmother was like that about pierogi. She was just a perfectionist about the crimps and they were uniform and perfect. Really no one in the family could match her. When I was nine and I was in the kitchen watching her, even at that age I knew I could never do that in a million years. Wish I did pay more attention though. She also did this fancy roll type of edge that I’ve never seen anyone duplicate.

          While the pierogi are the best restaurant version in the bay (not saying much, eh) , the fillings could have been a little less one dimensional. We just did cheese and usually the sweet version of cheese, so for me, that was my favorite, followed by the beef and then the sauerkraut/mushroom. I took half home to fry up in butter the next day, which is really when pierogi are their best.

          The rum cake is really moist and loaded with rum.

          I would avoid the potato dumplings though unless this is something you grew up with (I didn’t). The dumpling I took home, once it cooled, had more of a potato texture. It was like dense, boiled mashed potatoes with every last bit of moisture drained out. Microwaved it was better, but still too heavy and bland to interest me.

          The rolls have been inconsistent. I don’t think they are baked every day. Some days they are exceptional and other just ok.

          Thanks for the pictures and I’m glad you enjoyed the meal. Oh yeah, in the bigos, I noticed they used normal smoked kielbasa instead of the house-made version. I was at Polish Deli in Palo Alto on Saturday and it was a little funny. A customer comes in and asks if they have kielbasa, so Martin asks “What kind?” The customer says “Polish kielbasa” and he says “Kielbasa is just the Polish word for sausage and can mean any type of sausage”. I never knew that.

          6 Replies
          1. re: rworange
            m
            Melanie Wong

            I'm glad you liked the bigos. The sauerkraut was very mild making me think it was a blend of fresh cabbage and cured. The tang was in the background, just enough to lighten the impression of this dish, which would otherwise feel heavier due to the meats. Francesc did ask me if there was any national insecurity about using paprika, which I guess is associated more with Hungary.

            A potsticker press isn't much of a machine. More like a utensil, as shown by the photo below I found on the web. Handy for crimping empanadas, ravioli and other things.

            Image: http://store1.yimg.com/I/houserice_18...

            1. re: Melanie Wong
              m
              Melanie Wong

              Saturday Francesc and I met for lunch at Babushka, where we had been turned away before. The interior is trippy. After the other diner left, I asked Len to turn on the disco ball and lights for the karaoke stage (upper left photo) for maximum atmosphere. Later a real life babushka wandered in who turned the TV on to some sort of period Russian drama.

              An order of the meat platter was a given. Where we had trouble deciding was appetizer and salad section of the menu. Francesc asked Len if he could make a sampler for us. He agreed, though he said it would not be easy.

              The upper right photo shows the salad/appetizer sampler plate. Our favorite thing was the marinated mushroom -- those two brownish blobs are whole grudzya that Len said come from New York. Not vinegary but just a little tanginess weaving through the herbal notes, these were delicious and had a firm, almost crisp texture. The carrot shreds, cut in a Japanese-like spiral, were spicy and I swear I picked up a whiff of the floral aroma of Sichuan peppercorn/sansho. The red colored salad was the chunky Babushka eggplant with a candied sweetness from the tomato paste. The right side of the plate was chopped mushrooms in a garlicky mayonnaise. This was ultra-rich. The first two bites were sublime, but more than that became stultifying. The top of the plate was a weird salad called Olivier with a dice of bologna, potato, peas, carrots, and pickles in a thick mayonnaisey dressing. To the left was a crab and egg salad with some interesting spices, again too rich to eat more than a taste, but it was my least favorite anyway. Oddly, Len didn't include a Russian beet salad. We enjoyed this with the fresh rye bread.

              The meat platter (lower left) didn't have the tongue among the assortment promised on the menu. It included cervelat, Alpeno, and Russian special. The Alpeno reminded me of a more tart and less cured salame toscana. The Russian special was a very smoky and moist back bacon.

              In the background of the same photo, the liver pate' topped with the ubiquitous fried onions turned out to be the best of the dishes. Molded onto the plate, the texture was actually quite soft and loose, almost like a stiff pudding, and not too smooth and homogenized. It wasn't over-enriched with any cream, butter, or schmaltz, and had great clarity of flavor. The chicken livers were very fresh and not muddy-tasting, and there was a certain sweetness from browned onions and spices incorporated into the blend.

              I had ordered the 25-sausage soup, solyanka, and I made Len promise that it would have all 25 types in my bowl. I'm sure that it did and more, as I could barely poke my spoon into the near solid "soup". It was so fully packed with cubes of sausage, I exclaimed to Francesc, "This isn't soup, it's a bowl of meat --- look this spoon stands up by itself!" Ignoring the tacky black olives, I liked this very much but only on a colder and more wintry day than we've had yet. I had a couple mouthfuls, then had the rest packed up to take home. It has turned into a solid mass under refrigeration.

              As if this were not enough food for a Siberian winter, Len brought out a complimentary plate of lamb and chicken shish kebab for us to taste. If you like ultra-gamey lamb, this one is for you. The chicken was deliciously juicy and nicely grilled.

              For beverages, I had the mixed wild berry juice which was very good. It had a natural taste without tutti-frutti artifice. Francesc asked him to choose a dark beer for him, and we liked the St. Petersburg No. 4 very much.

              We enjoyed our meal here though only the liver pate' was truly special. The other things were good and hearty. Part of the positive experience was taking in the obvious pride that Len takes in his place. Francesc had restrained me from asking him for the bossa nova tunes. I came here expecting to dance, but I guess we'll have to crash one of the Russian weddings here to take a turn under the disco ball.

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              1. re: Melanie Wong

                >>> I guess we'll have to crash one of the Russian weddings here to take a turn under the disco ball <<<

                Or we could have a chowdown here and hounds could cha cha under the disco lights to Russian pop.

                Just a reminder to people in the area that there are two nice light chicken turnovers available for lunch. Len calls them piroski, but they are just baked flakey turnovers.

                Well, glad to see you are still alive and well after all that heavy food. No wine with this? Did you recognize any of those Eastern European wines? I'm not a fan of Russian salads in general, so it was nice to have the virtual taste.

                Very funny picture of the soup, literally the spoon stood up in it. If you are ever in the area of Reneta's in Campbell, they have the same soup.

                Len really does take pride in his food and is very pleasant. Nice to read about some of the other offerings on the menu.

                1. re: rworange
                  m
                  Melanie Wong

                  There you go, a little cha-cha might awaken his inner dancing fool.

                  The other thing we were curious about was the smoked fish platter --- would love to hear from anyone who's tried the selection at Babushka. Forgot to mention that while we didn't order any dessert, Len gave us samples of a Russian chocolate. It was a chocolate covered crunchy wafer.

                  No wine for us at lunch because we still had a full day's itinerary ahead of us. Not only was Francesc charged with educating me about sausages and porky things, but he had to take me shoe shopping. (G)

                  Next we dropped by the cleaners to pick up his shirts, then he swung by the Banyan Tree in Pleasant Hill for me to give the menu a look-see. The Malaysian-Singapore offerings are as extensive as others have posted here. I was especially interested in the fish head curry, which they told me is made with a rock cod noggin, but that has to wait for another visit.

                  We headed south taking the scenic route through Alamo. In the midst of the suburban strip mall weekend arts and craft show booths, red neon letters spelling out P-R-I-M-E caught my eye and I yelled, "Stop the car - that butcher sells prime beef!" Francesc chuckled saying, "Why do you think I came this way? I wouldn't foist any ol' meat market on you." We were in front of Lawrence's Walnut Creek Meat. He explained that it was an old-time butcher originally from Walnut Creek (see photo below), that had relocated to Alamo.

                  Lawrence's has a few picnic tables outside for customers of its deli and grill menu. The sausage selection is from Caggiano of Petaluma. While there are some beautiful cuts of pork, the topic of our tour, beef is clearly the star player of this butcher's case. Hamburger and hot dog buns from Lafayette's Cakebox Bakery are also offered

                  Lawrence's Walnut Creek Meat
                  (925) 838-0505
                  225 Alamo Plz # B
                  Alamo, CA 94507

                  Image: http://www.ci.walnut-creek.ca.us/imag...

                  1. re: Melanie Wong
                    m
                    Melanie Wong

                    Pushing ahead, we stopped in Danville to take a walk along the main drag, Hartz Ave. This was my first time in this town. It has a surprising number of bars and drinking establishments for a town of its size.

                    I had a chance to do my shoe shopping at Hartz and Soles, but deferred purchasing until I could check out Nordstrom later. We browsed at the Wine Sellars, and I picked up a bottle of inexpensive Napa Valley Semillon that I've yet to open.

                    I got excited once more on spotting the Danville Bakery. A Swedish-American friend makes the trek here from Concord to buy birthday cakes for her family. She recommends the princess cake. Sadly the individual slices of princess cake were already sold out, so I didn't get to try one. The regular princess cake has the traditional green marzipan frosting. The bakery also makes a "European princess" with Amaretto in it (shown below) that has a pink marzipan exterior.

                    Francesc bought a chocolate-dipped almond horn for us to nosh on. We were expecting something more cookie or shortbread-like. Instead this was closer to a toffee-like candy packed with roasted almonds. A surprise and very nice.

                    We made a stop at the local branch of Kinder's. Francesc said the sandwiches at the original were the best, but it didn't have any seating. Again, beef takes center stage here, but he said the ribs aren't half bad.

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                2. re: Melanie Wong

                  Link:

                  -----
                  Babushka Russian Deli
                  1475 Newell Ave, Walnut Creek, CA 94596

            2. Just ate there with 3 other folks. Great service; personable and accomodating. Kielbasa was great, without being too spicy or making my breath smell like death. The natural (cold) sauerkraut was awesome. My (I hate everything) nephew was sized up by the waiter and offerred a chicken cutlet that he loved.

              I highly recommend Chopin.

              5 Replies
              1. re: ChewChewChew

                Thanks for the update. Chopin is a sweet spot, glad you tried it.

                -----
                DJ's Bistro
                1825 Sutter St, Concord, CA 94520

                Chopin Cafe
                1574 Palos Verdes Mall, Walnut Creek, CA 94597

                Lawrence's Walnut Creek Meat
                225 Alamo Plz, B Alamo, CA

                Danville Bakery
                221 Hartz Ave, Danville, CA

                1. re: ChewChewChew

                  It closed a while back! Then a wine shop opened in the spot and it closed as well.

                  1. re: shantihhh

                    Which place closed?

                    1. re: shantihhh

                      You don't mean Chopin Cafe, I hope? Friends of mine said they went (and loved it) within the past month or so...

                      1. re: abstractpoet

                        Scared me too. I just called and Chopin is open for business. Lunch service begins at 11am today.

                        Ninth Annual Chowing with the Hounds Picnic! October 3rd, 2009, details and registration info
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/652687

                        Chowing with the Hounds Picnic, 2008 Report.
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/560808

                        Recipes from the 2008 Chowing with the Hounds Picnic!
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/560850

                  2. I shop at the Lunardi's acros the parking lot most days and last week I noticed that there appeared to be some work occuring at Chopin similar to work that was done a few months ago - or so I thought. Last night I actually paid a litlte more attention and apparently a car drove into the front of the place last week and caused some damage to the integrety of the exterior of the building. The sign on the door indicates that the place is closed at the moment with no indication on the length of this closure.

                    Like I say I shop close by most days so I will try and keep an eye out for any updates if they post any.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: rob133

                      Thanks for paying attention and sharing here. It's a terrific place, so please keep us posted on on what's going on. I'd noticed some press mentions of Chopin Cafe around the time of a local Polish festival.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Well it looks like it opened again over the weekend, the caution tape was removed and while there are still boards up covering one area the chairs, tables and menu were all outside again.

                        Also noticed that new metal barriers were installed in the parking lot to stop any more cars driving through windows!