“You want to go to the Tumksi for pierogi?” She sounded as if she didn’t quite believe that’s what I really wanted.
But I hadn’t had jao zi in months. And what are pierogi but the dumplings I so enjoyed in China by another name, in another culture?
My tendency on my first night back in Wroclaw is always to “go home for pierogi.” Originally “home” meant the Hotel Jana Pawla II, where I lived my first summer here and became addicted to the talerz pierogi, or pierogi plate, a mix of dumplings stuffed with meat, potato and cabbage, topped with savory minced bacon that flavors the entire dish. In later years I somewhat shifted my loyalty to the Tumski, where the pierogi are lightly fried. Since the Tumski is closer to where I’ve lived these last three times, it’s become the default choice, especially since its riverside terrace is such a pleasant place to while away a summer evening. In the fall, the giant umbrellas have been folded and the door is firmly shut, but the old-Poland dining room is warm and cozy. (The Tumski is building a restaurant barge next to the terrace. I hope that won’t ruin the outdoor ambience.)
This year I feel as if I’ve eaten far less Polish cooking than usual, possibly because I’m the only one here and not having dinner, along with post mortem on the day’s class, with other teachers almost nightly. It may also have something to do with the fact that the restaurant closest to the Opera House, Pod Zielony Kogut (Under the Green Rooster) is strictly limited to pizza and salads, though very good ones. The three P’s – pizza, pasta and panini – have become inescapable throughout Europe these last few years. Oddly, though, at this writing I’ve made it to my beloved Pronto Pizza only once. It may have something to do with the fact that it, too, has disassembled its terrace by the fountain on the crescent-shaped plaza behind the University of Wroclaw, where I like to sit out in the soft evening light and read The New Yorker while enjoying a pizza diavolo, Greek salad and a glass, maybe two, of South African white. Like the Tumski, Pronto’s tiny dining room, just six tables for four each, feels extra-welcoming when the cooler weather sets in, warmed as it is by the pizza oven, and the table by the door with the lamp in the window turns out to be a fine spot for reading.
You know you’re becoming a regular at your local milk bar when you don’t have the right change and the cashier says you can owe her a zlot until tomorrow. Such was the case last week at Imbir, next door to our program’s office building, Waganowa 9. Except for a small canteen in our classroom building, it’s the only handy place to eat in this former factory area, but the food is cheap and good. Imbir serves pierogi in various forms, as well as nalesniki (pancakes) with your choice of stuffings (in summer I order the fresh raspberries), stuffed cabbage, and fish on Fridays. I favor the filet z kurczaka, a simple, lightly breaded chicken cutlet dotted with sesame or sometimes pumpkin seeds that is about as good as fried chicken gets. (I’ve had the same dish at a very nice sit-down restaurant on the Rynek, and it wasn’t nearly as good.) If I’m extra-hungry on a given day, I order frytki; if I’m being good, a heaping dish of Polish salads – carrot, cabbage, cucumber, though never beet for me – from the salad bar. New this year: prepackaged green salads with corn, kidney beans, black olives and a protein, egg chicken or smoked salmon — a light meal for a Pole, an appetizer or side salad for us. The cook apparently cannot bear to send out a plate naked except for the chicken, so on the days I don’t have frytki, she garnishes it with a leaf of bibb lettuce.
Since my garret has no cooking facilities, I’ve faced the terrible hardship of having to eat all meals out, revisiting favorite haunts and trying new places, many of them international. I notice several new sushi places and an Indian grill, none of which I’ve tried. I’ve barely been to the Rynek, the market square so carefully restored after the destruction of World War II, and when I did go there, I found some distressing changes. If the place that served the wonderful salad plate with beef tenderloin, covered with smoked cheese, is still there, I failed to find it; I know roughly where it was, but it may have changed ownership, cuisine and menu. Also apparently gone was Ready, part of a chain that was a reliable source of generous but inexpensive plates of kebabs, gyros and souvlaki. Something called Greco had taken its spot. When I went inside, though, I found that the name was the only thing that had changed – not the interior, not the food, not even not the multipage plastic menus. They’re the same ones that have been there all along, just a little worse for wear.
At Pasaz Grunwaldzki, the shopping mall where I sometimes go to the Multikino if my movie of choice isn’t playing at the Helios downtown, I decided to pay a return visit to the Wok Restauracja, where I enjoyed a fast meal last year. It serves small dishes of Chinese dishes cooked freshly and quickly, under the rubric “The Authentic Taste of China.” Well . . . no. This year has raised my standards for Chinese food almost impossibly high. I ordered fried rice, “lotus stalk salad” and spicy beef. “It’s very spicy,” the waiter warned me in English, not knowing whom he was dealing with. Very spicy? Not even close. The lotus salad consisted of julienned carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and a few limp slivers with the texture of white asparagus from a jar, in a slightly sweet pickle dressing that is a staple here; the white stuff could, just conceivably, have been canned lotus root, but it bore no relation to the crisp vegetable I grew to love in China. The fried rice was better than the generic version that comes on the $6.95 lunch plate at Empire Kyoto on Columbus Avenue, but the Fried Rice Master of Xiangtan would cringe.
Bistro Parisien, known to the New School Practicum Class of ’07 as “the French place,” closed for renovations last summer just as my time here was beginning. It has now reopened, but I’m afraid we’ll have to cherish our memories. It has abandoned smoky old-time French atmosphere and gone upscale, with white tablecloths (though paper napkins), wine glasses waiting on the tables, and walls painted scarlet and white, hung with vintage photos of Paris. A neat magazine rack has replaced the window bin of French books suitable for mealtime reading. The salads we so loved have been replaced with new salads – hard-boiled eggs instead of warm poached ones, bits of undercooked bacon instead of chunky golden lardons, no homemade potato chips lining the bowl. The French onion soup was too full of bread for my taste – but then, the creamy mushroom soup at the Tumski was too full of tiny dumplings, more like spaetzle, for my taste, which suggests that maybe the Poles like their soup filleed with carbs. I arrived too late one night to try the nalesniki, which you’d think would be called crepes in a French bistro, but then, the staff doesn’t speak French. I have a feeling I won’t be back for the crepes anytime soon, despite the generous amuse-bouche of excellent herbed, marinated olives and the solicitous staff.
Just around the corner from the art academy where l’m living is Abrams’ Tower, which I’d heard touted last year as source of wonderful Mexican food. I had previously sworn off Mexican food in Poland (as I have bloody marys) after a meal in which the salsa was essentially ketchup and it was not clear what the meat in the fajitas was – possibly pork. Abrams’ Tower is owned by a Californian, so I had some reason for hope. The tower itself is 13th-century defense tower; the food is the best Mexican food I’ve had in Poland, which, sadly, isn’t saying much. The mojito tasted just fine and, in a country where wine is served in 20-milliliter portions, came in a 16-ounce glass with plenty of ice cubes. As for the nachos: the homemade tortilla chips were very good, but the little finely grated cheese that had been melted on top of the pile had already congealed, and the salsa and sour cream – no guacamole in sight — were ice cold. My chicken burrito was more like a smallish soft taco, and the two chicken taquitos that accompanied it were like spring rolls. The best thing on the plate was the spicy side of black beans, and the Mexican salad that was supposed to come with it didn’t. I had been hoping to become a regular there, since it’s so close to home, but I haven’t made a return visit.
Nor have I been back to Convivio, but that’s no fault of the restaurant. This lovely, if slightly formal, Italian restaurant is in the old Dominican convent near the Galeria Dominikanska mall that some years has a streetside café, some years doesn’t. All I ordered was pasta and a glass of wine, but the penna alla siciliana was cooked to perfection, with plenty of eggplant cubes, giant capers and cherry tomatoes. It was preceded by a roll so fresh from the oven that I burned my thumb when I dug in to break it. Simple as it was, my meal was magnificent – and on a Friday night, I was the only one there. I hope Convivio stays in business until next summer, when it should be delightful to dine on the adjacent off-street terrace.
Saturday was a poorly plotted day, nutrition-wise. I had just a banana and a leftover nalesniki z dzem (jam) from Imbir before the morning water aerobics class, then an orange to tide me over while I walked up to Cathedral Island for some shopping and picture-taking on a perfect fall day. I thought I’d have lunch up there, but the Jana Pawla was, as so often on a Saturday , setting up for a large party. Next choice was the restaurant I know only as The New Italian Place in the River. Since that was some distance away, I made a stop at Cafeterie Chic, that charming little coffee-and-dessert place on the way to the cathedral. It has tripled in size, taking over two more rooms on the same floor, all beautifully furnished in old Mitteleuropan style with dark woods and mustard-colored walls, comfortable leather chairs, a sepia panoramic photo of the Wroclaw skyline, and contemporary Chinese panel paintings, heavy on the gold. Service was either leisurely or confused, depending on how you look at it: the waiter who had already taken my order at the counter then came to my table to ask if I was ready, and none of the three bruschettas on the menu was available. But the pastries looked and tasted as good as ever.
A wedge of cheesecake with toffee sauce held me for another hour or so, through a serious shopping stop and a walk across Sand Island to The New Italian Place, which I was shocked to find full at 3 p.m., and fully committed for the rest of the day. So was the next restaurant in the same building. I turned back toward the Tumski, which also had one large party and “reserved” signs on most of the other tables. Saturday is, of course, a day for weddings, though none of these parties was. I was reminded that Poland is a table culture – that is, people tend to socialize with family and friends by sitting around a table with food and drink, as opposed to mingling with strangers at cocktail parties and receptions, the New York way. At any rate, I finally got lunch.