In a way, I suddenly feel like I’ve cheated myself: for my first two stops on the United Nations of Food (NYC) tour, I’ve sampled cuisines from countries that I’ve already visited. Pretty lame, huh?
About six years ago, I spent a long weekend visiting an old friend in Krakow, Poland. Unless you’re Polish, you probably have never thought that Polish cuisine could possibly be anything all that impressive. You might have a vague suspicion that knishes and pierogies and (if you’re really smart) Polish sausages have their roots in Poland, but that’s probably about it.
But contrary to popular belief, you can actually get some outrageously tasty, varied cuisine in Poland. I ate myself into a very happy stupor during my brief time in Poland. Sure, we ate great pierogies, but also some amazing stews, goulashes, breads, kebabs, sausages, fresh hams, and salads. Yes, salads. I have a vague memory of a trip to a cafeteria that specialized in several dozen different types of salads, including a seemingly infinite number of variations on lentils, beets, cabbage, kohlrabi, and tomatoes. That was pretty exciting stuff, especially considering that I was backpacking through Eastern Europe in January.
So I saw some good reviews of Greenpoint’s Karczma online, and decided that I should give it a shot. The place has an over-the-top Polish countryside theme, complete with a fake wooden wishing well and waitresses in traditional Polish peasant garb. All of the furniture was made of very large, manly slabs of dark wood, much like a few of the “traditional” places I visited in Krakow (which invariably catered primarily to tourists—I don’t think that most Polish restaurants necessarily look like some stereotypical cartoon image of the Polish countryside).
The bad news is that I came into Karczma with high expectations, thanks to the online reviews and my own experiences in Poland. I was far from disappointed, but I wasn’t completely thrilled, either. We started with a bowl of white borscht ($3.50), served in a very tasty fresh bread bowl. This particular borscht apparently had nothing to do with beets, which would deeply perplex the Russian branch of my family. It was a sausage, potato, and ham-based concoction that was vaguely reminiscent of a porky, creamless version of the potato-leek soups that frequently appear in American and continental restaurants. The soup was served with a small side of pureed potatoes garnished with chopped ham, which added a nice heft to the borscht. No complaints so far.
Our main courses involved some serious meat and potatoes. I ordered the Plate of Polish Specialties ($10.50), which had a pair of fried potato pancakes, a big chunk of kielbasa, three good-sized pierogies, some stuffed cabbage, and a
cabbage-based mush called hunter’s stew. A good dish overall, but some bits were better than others. Fried potato pancakes (nearly identical to the potato latkes that mom used to make) are always tasty—it’s awfully tough to make fried potatoes taste bad. The big hunk of sausage was also a safe bet—it lacked the nice little kick of its Ecuadorian counterpart, but I wasn’t expecting anything different. The pierogies were fresh and tasty, but not astounding. The hunter’s stew looked and tasted like a dark blob of slightly burnt, warm cole slaw. Not a winner. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.
Since I ordered the combo platter, I forced my buddy Ryan to order something different. He chose the Spicy Beef Goulash ($8.50), which was a monstrous plate of stewed cow, served with a side of potato pancakes and pickes. The goulash
didn’t have any particular flair to it—just beef, in a perfectly reasonable, non-spicy reddish stew. It was a massive quantity of food, and that’s a good thing. It was tasty, and that’s a good thing. Again, no complaints.
From a food perspective, I would give a solid thumbs-up to Karczma. The food was good. Actually, I’d even say that the food was very good, with the exception of the hunter’s stew. But if I wasn’t writing a wordy blog post about it, I would completely forget about the meal within a few weeks. It was good, but not astoundingly unique or mind-blowing or groundbreaking in any way. Worth the trip to Greenpoint (Karczma is located one block from the Greenpoint Ave. station on the G line, which hardly ever runs when you really want it to) if you’re curious about Polish food, but not a must-see if you have no particular reason to crave Polish food.
I do have to take a quick potshot at the service, however. The waitresses in their cute little peasant outfits were efficient, but I had a funny feeling that they hated us for no particular reason. I didn’t take it personally—they probably acted like they hated pretty much everybody, except for people that they very specifically did not hate. This wouldn’t stop me from coming back, but if you’re sensitive to service styles, you wouldn’t be too happy here.
And if you get excited about vegetables, you also wouldn’t be too happy at Karczma. The only crappy part of our meal was the hunter’s stew—which happened to be the only thing that actually contained vegetables. Basically, meals at Karczma generally consist of meat and potatoes, accented with just enough cabbage to push everything else through your bowels. So if you’re ready to get your meat-and-potatoes fix, you’ll leave here with a smile and one hell of a food coma.
Karczma Polish Restaurant
136 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn
Subway: Greenpoint Ave. station (G train)