Smolen and Milan
March Madness tends to make me think of making the rounds of beer bars. I’m not sure why that’s the case but I did it last year and this past weekend I was back at it. Over the last year 2 bars have opened up at the edges of Park Slope that seemed interesting, Double Windsor and Draft Barn.
I figured if I was going to hit both of these places on a single evening I needed to be well prepared, and what better way to do it than a pilsner at Smolen and a plate of goulash at Milan’s, a Czech restaurant conveniently located next door.
Both of these places are located in the South Slope, an area that has managed to resist the worst of the Slope’s gentrification. It doesn’t have the central Slope’s earnest glossiness.
Smolen is a forbidding place from the outside. It doesn’t help that the bar is closed and gated during the day. Like a vampire, it rises up to do it’s business after the sun goes down.
Inside, the bar is bright. Really, really bright. Which is probably a good thing. At least you know that it’s clean. It’s laid out as one big room with a pool table on the right. I ordered a Pilsner Urquell and was rewarded with a perfect fresh tasting pint served in a clean glass. When a bar looks like Smolen this is not something to be taken for granted. Even better, it was $3.50. Your drinking dollar will stretch far here.
This is a Polish bar. You can tell this because there are 2 pictures of Pope John Paul II at both ends of the bar. There were also twin Polish plaques on either side of the cash register and a statue of the Blessed Virgin atop it. To the right of the cash register is a large statue of a black elephant. Nice tusks.
You might get the feeling that Smolen isn’t friendly but that’s not the case. There was a small but pleasant crowd there when I visited and I didn’t feel unwelcome at all. But it’s also a place that doesn’t get lots of patrons from outside the immediate neighborhood. When they see a new face they want to know who you are.
As I was finishing my beer the bartender asked if I was “local.” I said “Yes and no – I come from the other end of the Slope.”
“Oh, you must drink in O’Connor’s.” He was right; O’Connor’s is Smolen’s Irish twin, a blue collar no-nonsense shot and a beer establishment. Evidently there is a Dive Bar Circuit and he recognized me as an occasional rider.
On to Milan’s.
It’s a small and cheerful place with green checked tablecloths. The top of the table was covered in glass and underneath there was a sign advertising the Czech Slovak American Farmers Club. I took this as a good omen. A better omen was the big glass of pilsner with a rich creamy head that I saw the waiter deliver across the room. I ordered one and it was as good as it looked.
It’s a small restaurant and 3 other tables were occupied when I was there. I was the only one there who wasn’t Czech. It’s that kind of place.
I had a healthy appetite by this time so I got right to work. I ordered the bean and sausage soup to start. It was fine for what it was but I’ve had better versions elsewhere.*
Then things got a lot better – I ordered the pork and sauerkraut goulash with dumplings. This was just excellent, with plenty of chunks of pork surrounded by a creamy subtly spiced gravy. Mixed in were bits of sauerkraut. I thought this might not work when I saw it on the menu but the occasional shreds of cabbage added a pleasing al dente texture to the dish. The portion size was heroic; I ate only one of the 4 dumplings just so the cook wouldn’t get offended but really, they were entirely superfluous.
This dish doesn’t have lots of eye appeal and probably would benefit by having a little bit of sliced scallions sprinkled on top. Otherwise it was perfect, a crazy bargain at $10. If they served it at DBGB at half the portion and double the price Sifton would have genuflected and the hipsters would be lining up to eat this.
By that time I felt ready to tackle the Double Windsor.
Pictures of Smolen and the Double Windsor - http://www.flickr.com/photos/64756738@N00/sets/72157623672001486/show/
708 5th Ave
(between 22nd St & 23rd St)
710 5th Avenue
710 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
530 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
Smolen Bar & Grill
708 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
The Double Windsor
210 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, NY 11215
The pork and sauerkraut goulash (Segedinský guláš) at Milan's remains among my favorite things to eat on a cold night. My GF and I returned last Friday when the temperatures were in the low 40s and a light rain was falling. I sniffed the air. Goulash weather.
We had been there once before about 6 weeks ago. The results were mixed. She had the a sausage plate that was unexciting. I, of course, had the pork goulash. I had given her a taste at the time and she liked it.
On Friday we both had the goulash. She took her first bite.
"This is *great*. Fantastic."
"Well, sure. I gave you a taste last time and you really liked it."
"Yeah, but this is *really* great."
"But you had a taste last time. You already knew it was great."
At that point I had a moment of food clarity. It's one thing to have a couple of bites of something. It's quite another thing to have a whole plate to yourself to enjoy with no restrictions at all. Sometimes that's exactly what you need in order to appreciate how truly great a dish is.
It really is that good. Porky, of course, but the thick sauce is creamy and peppery and rich and subtle all at the same time. There's a bit of sauerkraut combined with the meat that makes a nice counterpoint to the richness of the other ingredients. There are also whole black peppercorns in this dish but they have been simmered to a tender softness while retaining a bit of their peppery bite.
Because I can sometimes be a glutton I ate all of mine. My GF took half of hers away. Tomorrow night she will taunt me by eating it for dinner.
Our starters were fine but not life changing. I had the bean soup with smoked meat. The overall flavor was fine but I wished the broth had been a bit thicker and some more meat would have been welcome. My GF had the pirogi which she described as "nicely filling."
But that pork goulash. My God, that's good.
710 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
re: Bob Martinez
re: squid kun
I hope you and Polecat enjoy it as much as we did.
Bad news about Smolen, the shiny Polish dive bar located next door to Milan's. It closed last summer and has turned into something called Mary's Bar. I count that as a loss. If you feel like a few beers before or after dinner I strongly recommend Korzo, just down the street between 19th and 20th St.
At Milan's itself they serve Staropramen, fresh and carefully poured. The thick white head on each glass is a thing of beauty.
667 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
708 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11232
Re-reading my original post I realized that I didn't say that my favorite version of sausage and bean soup is the one served in the members dining room of the Rudar Soccer Club in Astoria. It’s richer that the one served at Milan and the portion of sausage is far more generous. There’s also the thrill of eating in a secret restaurant – there is no sign posted outside. Hey PDT, take that.
Rudar Soccer Club
34-01 45th St, Queens, NY 11101
A while back Milan's had signs promoting a concert in Queens by a Slovak Beatles cover band that had won some international Beatles impersonators contest.
Will calling a Slovak restaurant Czech cause an international incident these days?
I enjoyed my one meal at Milan's a couple of years ago, but I'm still working it off.