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...
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