In the mid-90s Gosia Pieniazek was waiting tables at Sophie's Busy Bee, the last Polish restaurant in the immediate orbit of the rapidly gentrifying intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee. A recent immigrant, she'd left northern Poland in 1993, at age 19, which makes her old enough to remember the culinary privation of life behind the Iron Curtain.
"We didn't have anything, because we had to feed the rest of the Eastern bloc," she says. "We lived on scraps. There were lines to get sausage. I remember coupons for sugar and chocolate based on your age and based on whether you were female or male. Talking about coffee? What was coffee?"
She also remembers how quickly things changed when the curtain came down. There hadn't been such a radical change in the way Poles ate since the Italian-born Queen Bona Sforza brought a staff of Italian cooks and gardeners with her to Krakow in the early 16th century. "Suddenly overnight things from the west were pouring into the stores, McDonald's and Pizza Hut and things like that," Pieniazek says. "Bad or good I don't know, but it was colorful. We were also able to get tropical veggies and fruits on a bigger scale. A lot of experimenting began with the opening of borders."
The Busy Bee was long gone by Halloween 2009, when Pieniazek, with husband Art Wnorowski and partner Piotr Hermanowski, opened the slick restaurant and lounge Lokal, just around the corner. She'd argue that the Six Corners still doesn't have a Polish restaurant—she prefers to think of Lokal's food as pan-central European, tweaked hard by a global variety of influences. But there's no question she's brought Polish food back to the neighborhood—the menu features potato pierogi, golabki, borscht, kielbasa, and a few items you probably wouldn't recognize if you didn't grow up with a babcia cooking for you. It just happens to be radically different Polish food from the heavy, homey—but let's face it, bland—stuff that endeared the Busy Bee to thousands of neighborhood characters over the decades.
Lokal's pierogi are light and silky and dressed in a creamy bourbon-date sauce that Wnorowski came up with at home while perusing the booze left over from a party. The kielbasa is made from dark-meat chicken and served in a whole-grain-mustard demi-glace with lentils and pancetta. And the golabki? It's not a stewy cabbage-wrapped lump of amalgamated ground beef and rice but a composed take on maki, with horseradish-flavored sushi rice and braised short rib. All these dishes were developed, like the rest of the menu, in collaboration with Gabriel Miranda, the restaurant's Chicago-born Mexican-American Japanese-trained chef.
Pieniazek picked up a knack for cooking while traveling in the early 2000s—particularly during a four-month stint in Zambia, where she worked on AIDS awareness for a not-for-profit organization. She was responsible for preparing meals for the community she stayed with, on a limited budget, with staples both familiar and strange. "We cooked a lot of cabbage, chicken, potatoes," she says. "But I learned how to eat everything from pumpkin leaves to different roots to dishes with mashed peanuts and things I never really experienced. So you can pick up on these familiar things and you add what you learn—like caterpillars with cabbage."
Still, slinging eggs and pierogi at the Bee and waiting tables in college were the extent Pieniazek's actual restaurant experience. Before opening Lokal she was a full-time real estate broker and Wnorowksi was a banker (and a musician; he continues to produce music and play keyboards in the hip-hop band Animate Objects). "I think we each had a dream of owning an establishment," she says. "When we got together, Art having a recording studio in the house and me cooking for all my friends—we always had a full house. And we entertained in various ways. And we wanted to extend that and find a venue where we could do what we do."
Knowing they'd have to battle the perception that central European food is bland and heavy, they auditioned a series of chefs, giving them a list of Pieniazek's ideas and ingredients and cutting them loose in the kitchen of the former gallery storefront they found on North Avenue. One of the dishes Miranda came up with won them over right away: his take on a Hungarian palacsinta, typically a gut-busting slab of potato pancake folded over a ladleful of goulash and topped with gobbets of sour cream. Miranda used braised short rib and a coarsely shredded Swedish-style pancake in place of the denser Polish variety and topped it off with demi-glace, goat cheese creme fraiche, and crispy onions. It's still on the menu.
That was the chef's first shot at cooking central European food. Before that he'd worked as an ice sculptor and at a series of Japanese restaurants as well as for Philadelphia's Starr Restaurants group and China Grill, opening restaurants in Mexico City, New York, and Vegas as an executive sous chef. Two years years ago he and his wife opened a coffee shop in Wisconsin. After the economy killed it in August, he returned home to look for work.
None of the corporate chef gigs he came upon offered enough creative control to make them worth the hassle. "I asked myself, 'Do I want to live a stressful life for a little bit of money or do I just do what I want to do?'" The chance to interpret Pieniazek's ideas seemed like a good way to stay sane and employed.
Pieniazek and Wnorowski took Miranda around to Polish groceries like Rich's Delicatessen on Western Avenue and introduced him to a new world—or rather an Old World—of staples. "I'm like, 'I want this. I want this. What is it? I don't know. Just bring it and we'll work with it.'"
He made squid ink spaetzle and poblanos stuffed with Polish sausage. He marinated chicken breasts in Polish Bison Grass Vodka and plated them with red-beet ponzu and cabbage slaw (watch him make it here). He crusted tuna steaks with poppy seeds and dressed them with currants and guajillo chile shavings, and even riffed on Pieniazek's African experience, deep-frying cabbage cakes and pairing them with a sriracha-togarashi chile dip. When confronted with the fermented rye-flour base used for the sour soup zurek, he incorporated it into an aioli to accompany fried calamari, an idea that in execution is pure genius. These dishes manage to transcend the gimmickry associated with the worst and most unlikely excesses of fusion cuisine and turn out both subtle and delicious.
"Mexican food was given to me," he says. "It's in my culture. And I've been around Asian food all my life. This pan-European thing is just like a whole new closet of toys opened."
Pieniazek isn't sure a European-trained chef could've pulled off what Miranda has. "He has a very fresh approach on what European food is and what it used to be," she says. "Some people might think there are a lot of faux pas because we twist a lot traditional dishes." But I'm betting Queen Bona would approve.
The Heart of Europe: Fourteen Polish restaurants
1022 N. Western | 773-489-3566
LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Serving a dining room about the size of a one-car garage, Andrzej and Anna Burak crank out traditional dishes for a steady stream of Polish folks who know what the food of their homeland should taste like. The list of house-made soups usually includes very good chicken noodle, a tangy sauerkraut and meat, or seasonal "summer soup": a refreshingly cool pink broth of sour cream, beet, hard-boiled egg, and pickle. Most people fall hard for the stuffed potato pancake enclosing goulash; the most popular item at our table was the platter of peppery meatballs in a creamy mushroom sauce, served—as are many dishes—on boiled potatoes flecked with dill. Uncommon on Chicago menus, the toothsome veal ribs are surprisingly rich; stuffed cabbage, however, is pretty much the expected paper-thin leaves surrounding lots of rice, little meat, and splashed with neutral tomato sauce. There's also a vegetarian menu section featuring pierogis and salads. Andrzej Grill is BYO; try the European sodas or sample kompot, a Polish fruit water. Most dinners are $8.50; come early—it's lights-out at 7 PM. —David Hammond
5914 W. Lawrence | 773-205-0256
LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS
I love the breaded fried pork and veal cutlets at Halina's. The cutlets, each the size of an elephant ear, include Swedish style (stuffed with mushroom puree), cubao (with white cheese filling), and Wiener schnitzel (the Berghoff's version was no match). They're cooked to order and served hot enough to burn your tongue. Polish standbys like pork shank, stuffed cabbage rolls, and pierogi are good too. The indecisive should consider the Polish Plate, a greatest-hits platter with a breaded pork chop, three pierogi, a stuffed cabbage roll, and Polish sausage on sauerkraut. All dinners (except the pierogi) include buttery mashed potatoes and a trio of cold salads: sauerkraut, coleslaw, and beet. The homemade fruit drink, kompot, pale red sugar water made with the juice from leftover fruit (usually strawberry, watermelon, peach, and cantaloupe), tastes a lot like Kool-Aid. —Peter Tyksinski