A little taste of Poland: Café Polonez
I learned this song in my third grade music class. I remember laboriously copying the unfamiliar yet lyrical words from the blackboard in my neat schoolgirl handwriting. Schnitzel schnitzel – I repeated the word, learning the feel of it. What was it, I wondered and my teacher’s explanation of It’s an Austrian dish didn’t quite satisfy. Watching the Sound of Music, though magical, didn’t provide any further clues. That night when my mom asked me what I wanted for dinner, I replied with absolute conviction: Schnitzel!
Now, my mom is an excellent cook. She has all the qualities that are the trademark of any good cook – excellent instincts, an amazing palate and a keen interest in learning new things. She can make any dish her own, operates largely without recipes and sometimes even makes up stuff based purely on what the name sounds like. So imagine my surprise and dismay when she was dumbfounded at my exclamation. This was before the days of Google (seriously, how did we manage?) and Schnitzel was just too exotic a name for her to even make something up. So that was that and I soon forgot about it.
When I came to Toronto, I was pleased to discover that like Bombay, this city was also a melting pot of cultures. Italian, Greek, French, Polish, Indian, Chinese – different communities and neighborhoods were the patchworks that gave the city its unique identity. And the food! Steak and frites, wood-fired pizza, souvlaki, shawarma, dimsum, sushi – it was all there for the eating!
Last week during my visit to High Park, I decided to drop by Café Polonez – a long-standing Polish restaurant in Roncesvalles. I have always had a soft spot for family-run establishments, and as I took my place by the sunny window, I already felt comfortable. The waiters chatted with the patrons, and people ordered in rapid-fire Polish without consulting the menu – always a good sign. I, too, had already decided what I wanted – pierogies (stuffed dumplings) which I’d had before and loved, schnitzel (escalope coated in bread crumbs and fried) which I had to have (if I need to explain why, I know you’re not really reading!) and apple strudel (which is one of my favorite desserts). I love reading menus though, and a look did waver my decision a bit – borscht, goulash, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage rolls – it all looked so good, but I decided to stick with my earlier choices.
The pierogies arrived first, half of them stuffed with shredded pork and the other half with potato and cheese. The perfectly seasoned filling was a superb fit for the soft dough. And topping it with the accompanying onions and sour cream just made it divine.
The schnitzel was next and though I had ordered the “half-portion”, the serving size and all the colors on my plate, made my eyes widen. Between the Polonez Schnitzel (topped with mushrooms) and the Weiner Schnitzel (topped with a sunny-side egg), I’d opted for the latter. The egg was just the way I like it – perfectly crisp below and runny in the center. And the schnitzel was a revelation – crisp and juicy at the same time, with no sign of grease. And the sides – crunchy coleslaw, sour sauerkraut, slices of lime, shredded beets and mashed potatoes. My only gripe was with the potatoes – not fluffy and under-seasoned. But given the quality of the rest of my meal, this was a minor complaint.
The grand finale was the apple strudel and the plate was so beautiful to look at, I almost didn’t want to decimate it. Almost. The taste lived up to the delicious whiffs of apple and cinnamon, the cool ice-cream a perfect counterfoil to the warm strudel. I would have liked it to be crisper, but maybe that was because I let it sit for so long (I needed a break!).
Full and satisfied, I left smiling, swinging my bag of pierogies (yes, I eat a lot, but even I could not finish all that). And I’ve already added them to my own list of favorite things.
P.S. I debated with myself before putting up this post. I do not think I’m accomplished enough to publish reviews, I don’t usually have the opportunity to visit these places more than twice, I haven’t tried everything on the menu. In these pages, you won’t find traditional reviews; I just like to share delightful food experiences, and some incidentally happen at restaurants.
P.P.S. I pay for all my food, and I do my ‘reviews’ anonymously… It’s not difficult to be anonymous when nobody knows you.
More information and reviews:
Café Polonez at yelp.ca