All jokes aside, Poland is not the first place you think of when you think of fine dining. That's mainly because most Polish restaurants in town serve up a basic kind of grub, and good and hearty though it may be, it's more peasant food than cuisine. You know: sausages, pierogi, potato pancakes, sauerkraut, fruit-laden pastries.
But there's a refined strain to Polish cooking as well. Its source is the Italian-born Queen Bona, who married a Polish king, Sigismund I, early in the 16th century; she brought with her some of her nation's sophisticated cookery--the most sophisticated in Europe at that time. (Some Italian names for food even made their way into the Polish language: the tomato, pomodoro in Italian, became pomidor in Polish.) Nearly two decades later Catherine de Medicis married King Henry II of France and began the process of elevating French fare from the peasantry to the pinnacles. Over the next few centuries the French obviously concentrated a lot harder than the Polish on the development of haute cuisine, in large part perhaps because their country wasn't being rent asunder every 20 or 30 years.
All of which is a long time and a long way from the late, late 20th century and the northwest side of Chicago, where a few spots offer upscale settings and some interesting variations on their native cooking, in the culinary idiom known as "continental." With one exception, these places are sufficiently inconsistent to prevent their gathering a high star count in today's market of bright bistros and trendy trattorias, but they'll give your taste buds a change of ethnic pace, as you discover a culinary world beyond blintzes, for relatively low cost.
Perhaps the best known of these posh Poles is Mareva's, a really elegant looking dining room in West Town. It's received a lot of media attention for things like fish mousse pierogi--which I found too dry to be palatable. One with chicken and veal mousse, however, bathed in a Madeira demiglace, had considerable merit. A succession of chefs there has left an erratic trail, however, and in the long run I've found its pretensions and promise to be well beyond its delivery.
Farther up Milwaukee Avenue, in Logan Square, Ted Kowalczyk has created a "fine dining" adjunct to his wonderful Orbit restaurant, one of the best home-style Polish eateries in town. Called the Royal (formerly "International") Dining Room, it has a lot of Old World charm with its fancy chandeliers and sconces, mirrored pillars, and gallery of oil paintings: scenes of the homeland and portraits of Polish royalty and military heroes. There's a dance floor and live music on weekends.
I've had some interesting meals there. The menu combines several haute creations with a batch of traditional dishes from the adjoining Orbit--at prices several bucks higher. That 60s favorite veal Oscar, featuring crabmeat and asparagus over the veal and topped with hollandaise, was rich and tasty, mushrooms stuffed with a savory duxelles mix were delicate, and traditional peasant fare, such as pigs' feet in aspic (galaretka) and white borscht, were lovely.
The problem at the Royal is consistency. On a recent weekday visit, when the dining room was all but deserted, our waitress must have left the entrees under a kitchen heat lamp for about a half hour: the butter in the chicken kiev had completely oozed out, and a complex veal-seafood-bearnaise-sauce creation had reached the point that the shrimps and scallops were nearly cool, the veal was cooling, and a skin had formed on the sauce. The innate quality of the cooking and ingredients were apparent, however.
More consistent than the Orbit Royal Dining Room and just as pretty as Mareva's is Lutnia ("the lute"), out near the western edge of the city on Belmont. This may not be a trip to pre-World War II Warsaw, but it is a trip back to Chicago's "fine continental" restaurants of the 1950s. Lutnia still has a sort of romantic cast, what with its white napery, brass trimmings, and fancy lighting fixtures (which could be just a bit dimmer at times to enhance the atmosphere). There are colorful modern paintings on the walls, and over in the far corner a lady named Maryshia plays "light classics" on a beautiful white piano. The spiffily dressed captain and waiters bring a chalkboard to your table that contains the menu.
What Lutnia does is put all the traditional peasant fare on the menu as appetizers. You can get bigos (hunter's stew), wonderful, juicy sausages in a nest of sauerkraut ($3.45), or crisp, nicely seasoned potato pancakes ($5.50). And of course there's pierogi, with thin, tender skins that let the flavors of the fillings--potato, kraut, minced meat--come right through ($8 for two persons). They also serve a good rendition of escargot ($6.25) and a smashing steak tartare ($8). (Please, no letters about the dangers of raw meat--or the evils of any meat.)
Entrees come with a soup, so don't miss the good white borscht if it's available that day. (Please, no letters about whether borscht is really Polish, Jewish, or Russian. It's all.)
Among the entrees are such basics as veal stew with dumplings ($12.50) and Wiener schnitzel ($13.95). But what Lutnia does best--and it's equal parts cuisine and camp--are tableside preparations. The cart rolls up and right before your eyes the captain flambes a half duck and prepares a not overly sweet orange sauce for a dish that would have made Queen Bona very happy ($15.95). He can also assemble for you a decent tenderloin stroganoff ($19.95), though it could use a bit more sour cream. Roast venison, with mushroom gravy and dumplings, is also superb ($19.95). (Please, no letters about killing Bambi.)
They even flambe desserts, like crepes suzettes ($10.95 for two persons). Top it all off with a Polish liqueur--or wash it all down with a Polish beer.
Lutnia Continental Cafe, 5532 W. Belmont, is open 5 to 11 PM Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 11 PM Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. Call 282-5335.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.