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old krakow (long)

ed | | Sep 8, 2004 09:29 PM

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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