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Review: At Staropolska in New Britain, huge portions of hearty authentic Polish fare, great for a cold winter night

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 11/13/2019 By RAND RICHARDS COOPER, Hartford Courant

The Polish stronghold of New Britain purveys the hearty pleasures of Central European cooking at numerous eateries, including my favorite, Staropolska, a spot of culinary glimmer in a gritty town.

When it comes to what used to be called “ethnic” restaurants, there’s authenticity, and then there’s authentic authenticity. The Staropolska wait staff is entirely Polish, many guests speak the language, and the bilingual menu features the slogan, Tu Jadamy Jak U Mamy — “cooking the way your mother did it.” (Menu sections include “Polish Favorites” followed by “And Other Polish Yummies.”) The restaurant recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and its welcoming hospitality is seasoned with friendly sassiness. One time a friend and I were wondering aloud whether we were up for an 8 percent alcohol Polish beer, and Margaret Malinowski, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Bogdan, overheard us. “Don’t be sissies!” she teased.

For the manly drinker — and eater — Staropolska offers options aplenty. Vodkas include 1/4 u0396ubr 1/4 u00f3wka, tinted pale yellow from the inclusion, in each bottle, of a blade of grass from the eponymous forest, where wild bison still roam. The list of Polish beers includes Hevelius, a 9 percent beer with a deep caramel taste, truly a No-Fooling kind of beer.

As for the food, the Malinowski family recipes play varying medleys of pork, beef, potatoes and cabbage. Polish food is food for a cold winter night. Portions are gigantic. A schnitzel, perfectly breaded, golden-fried and topped for good measure with a fried egg, dominated the plate, leaving just enough space for a comically small ration of carrots and green beans, like a tiny island off the coast of a vast continent. A potato pancake is almost as big. You will take home a lot of food.

One night we ordered an appetizer of sauteed mushrooms, in a buttery white-wine sauce laden with onions fried to brown sweetness, and paired it with a plate of pierogis — four meat, four sauerkraut-and-mushroom. The pierogis were unbeatable — big, soft, abundant; not too doughy, fried golden brown and topped with minced sauteed onions. Mingling shrooms and dumplings on a single plate conveys the essence of Eastern European culinary joy.

The Staropolska menu offers attractive daily specials. Wednesday night it’s beef rolls, cuts of Angus top round pounded thin and wrapped around bacon, onions and bits of pickle, then baked; they were tender, moist and flavorful.

Goulash (every Friday) was a surprise — not a paprika-laden, tomato-heavy stew, but chunks of tender pork in a light, golden gravy laden with celery, carrots and onions, served with dumplings that were light and airy confections, like whipped potatoes. An “imperial” pork loin comes stuffed with mushrooms, onions and spinach, served in a hearty but undistinguished brown sauce.

The chef d’oeuvre at Staropolska is the Polish platter, a Central European culinary greatest hits, comprising three pierogis; homemade kielbasa topped with sauerkraut; a galumpki, a cabbage leaf filled with rice and ground meats and overspread with tomato puree; and my favorite, bigos. The Polish hunter’s stew combines bits of kielbasa, ham, smoked bacon and beef with mushrooms, then simmers these ingredients in cabbage with a woodsy seasoning of oregano, pepper, bay leaf, and paprika. Salty, sweet, intensely flavorful, bigos inspired a 19th-century Polish poet to rhapsodize: “mere words cannot tell/ Of its wondrous taste, color and marvelous smell.”

And there’s more. An appetizer of pickled herring — three large fillets, rolled up, skewered, and propped on end amid a zingy Hungarian sauce of tomato, onion, and paprika — was sufficiently sumptuous to convert the herring skeptics at the table.

All the soups were excellent and notably fresh, like a sorrel soup, with its tangy-tart, vaguely green-apple flavor; borscht was the pure, sweet essence of beet, a consomm 1/4 u00e9 with three miniature meat dumplings floating on a sea of vivid purple. Creamy white borscht was full of potatoes, kielbasa, onions, celery and herbs, and held a light tang of horseradish. The menu offers a number of American options, including ribs, wings and a kielbasa-and-sauerkraut grinder slathered in spicy brown mustard. Homemade desserts include a “very berry napoleon” and an apple pastry called a szarlotta.

Staropolska represents awesome value: Eat like the giant, pay like Jack. The restaurant extends a hospitality that transcends all borders; you’re surrounded by language you don’t understand, yet you feel so much at home. At the end of one evening, Bogdan Malinowski came by, and we threw down a shot of wi 1/4 u015bni 1/4 u00f3wka, a liqueur made from cherries soaked in vodka. Bogdan talked about the wear and tear of running a restaurant for a quarter-century, and mused about selling the place. A lot of staunch fans are hoping that doesn’t happen anytime soon.

252 Broad St., New Britain * 860-612-1711 * staropolska.net * 4 stars

THE SKINNY

THE SPACE: Seating for 50 in a cozy room outfitted with spacious booths and decorated with kitschy watercolor paintings, Christmas lights, and plants real and artificial. A biergarten-style outdoor patio seats 30, with prime views of the Krakus Meat Market across Broad Street.

THE CROWD: An early-eating crowd of families and friends, many Polish-speaking and many older, waited on by exceptionally friendly bilingual servers.

THE BAR: A dozen seats, with a few more at small tables. Full menu available, along with an array of Polish vodkas and beers, including a 16-ounce Hevelius, a lager with a 9 percent alcohol content and a deep caramel taste. A dozen wines, $6-$8 by the glass, and all $30 and under by the bottle, includes two Georgian semi-sweet reds, Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara.

THE BILL: Appetizers, soups and salads, $2.75 to $9.95; sandwiches and grinders, $3.75 to $8.65; entrees $11.95 to $20.95; desserts $6.

WHAT WE LIKED: Pickled herring in Hungarian sauce, borscht, pierogies, chicken wings, sauteed mushrooms, stuffed beef rolls, Wiener schnitzel, goulash, potato pancakes, Polish platter, bigos, Imperial stuffed pork loin, apple szarlotta.

NOISE LEVEL: Serene, unless a big soccer game is on in the bar.

IF YOU GO: Lunch, weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, weekdays, 3 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. Wheelchair access through the side patio door. Reservations accepted. Free parking on street in front of restaurant and in lot alongside.

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