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All Over the Map

Battling the November Blahs at Paprikash

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"Do you want with bacon or without bacon?" asks the waitress at Paprikash. She's talking about the turos csusza, homemade egg noodles covered with farmer cheese and sour cream. That's a side dish. Before that comes Jokay's bean soup, based on a recipe from the 19th-century Hungarian novelist and journalist Mor Jokai. A spoonful of sour cream melts into the red broth, thick with sausage and vegetables. And on the table, instead of salt, is a shaker of paprika.

As the damp veil of November closes in, the city takes on an old-world feeling. Autumn calls for heavy food, served someplace where the waitresses use no articles and the words "fat free" are unknown. Paprikash fits the bill nicely. You can get a salad there, but why would you want to?

Owner Tamas Bosze came to the U.S. 30 years ago and opened Paprikash in 1995. He says it offers Chicago's only authentic Hungarian food. He ought to know--he grew up working in his uncle's restaurant in Budapest--and the Hungarian-speaking tables smoking, laughing, and eating goulash bear him out. Not that a little schlock doesn't show up. Ropes of garlic are hung from the ceiling, and sticky European pop plays overhead. But there's nothing frivolous about the food.

In the kitchen, chef Bela Olah works a floured round of dough with his broad thumbs. "Just as in a house, everybody get one and put a little garlic on it," he says as it goes into the deep fryer. It emerges as langos, a Hungarian version of garlic bread. Behind him an assistant determinedly takes apart an enormous pile of pink, wet meat.

Olah--a handsome, white-haired landmass of a man--first learned to cook in his grandmother's kitchen, then at culinary school in Budapest. He worked at a handful of American and Italian restaurants in Chicago before Paprikash gave him the chance to make the cuisine he grew up on. He cooks with a level of concentration normally seen in Trappist monks and air traffic controllers. Chopping a red pepper, he looks like he's memorizing it. His farmer's plate is a still life of Hungarian salami, ham, korozott (cheese spread), peppers, onions, and radishes; you can taste the salt, the sharpness, just looking at it.

Most traditional Hungarian recipes begin with animal fat, but modern health concerns have forced a few compromises. "Twenty years ago, the pork fat," Olah says. He picks up two raw pork chops in one wide hand and shrugs. "But everybody so healthy, healthy, so now the cholesterol-free vegetable oil. It's much healthier, but this is not same."

It's hard to imagine a richer version of placek ziemniaczany po wegiersku z gulaszem--a hefty potato pancake filled with beef goulash. It arrives with bright red cabbage salad heaped alongside in reassuring contrast. But as with the rest of the dinner options, the meat is definitely the point.

The whitefish paprikash comes tail intact, curled up to noodles and sour cream. If you haven't acquired a taste for fish with cream sauce, the dish's colorlessness is unappealing. The other featured fall entree, Budapest-style filet mignon--served under a ragout of onion, tomatoes, peppers, peas, mushrooms, and calf's liver--is a more satisfying sample of the heavily spiced Hungarian cuisine, which also relies on garlic, onions, sour cream, and, yes, bacon.

But the real delicacy at Paprikash is szilvasgomboc, plum dumplings strewn with toasted bread crumbs and confectioner's sugar. Baked until their skins slip off, the plums are lusciously tart and lavish with butter. It's like eating the best jelly doughnut in the world.

Olah puts a hand on either side of his round, hard belly and surveys the kitchen for a moment. The waitresses, small and fast as birds, line up to chirp "Beloushka!" and read him their orders. "Beloush, I have two tables, and on this two tables I have two appetizer," one says breathlessly. He smiles gently and picks up his knife. Winter isn't going anywhere.

Paprikash is at 5210 W. Diversey, 773-736-4949.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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