Critic's Choice/Roast Pheasant in a Sleigh and Other Eastern European Delights | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Critic's Choice/Roast Pheasant in a Sleigh and Other Eastern European Delights

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Szalas

5214 S. Archer

773-582-0300

The Gorale, a sheepherding people of the southern Polish highlands, have a substantial community on the south side--which explains the presence of not just one but two fantasy European hunting lodges straight out of the Brothers Grimm on an otherwise mundane stretch of Archer northeast of Midway. (The other is the Polish Highlanders Association.) The wealth of rustic detail at Szalas includes a working waterwheel, stuffed animal heads, and staff in billowy peasant dress--you can even dine in a sleigh if you fit. The most interesting among the appetizers here is moskul, a flatbread that looks like pita but is made of flour, potato, and eggs; it's accompanied by a tangy sheep cream cheese called bryndza and a schmear of lard studded with bits of smalec, Polish bacon. The lard is delicious, though non-Gorale may find it hard to eat more than a bite or two without health qualms. Entrees don't do anything to challenge the stereotype of Polish food as hearty, though the Highlander's Special--veal goulash inside a large potato pancake and dotted with sheep's sour cream--is almost delicate for its kind. But a roasted pheasant, plated impressively with cranberry chutney stuffed in a hollow apple, was overcooked and, rare among Polish entrees here or anywhere, not cheap. Making up for it was a dessert of fluffy orange-scented cheese blintzes that came with loads of fruit and vanilla ice cream. Service was a bit blase at an early-evening seating, but weekends, with live Gorale music, are reportedly quite lively. --Michael Gebert

Paprikash

5210 W. Diversey

773-736-4949

There are less-inviting places to eat yourself into a coma than Paprikash, a warm, classy Hungarian bar and kitchen that lays claim to being the sole restaurant in town serving the meals of the Magyars. The arrival of langos, deep-fried, garlic-studded dough puffballs, warms up the guts for what's to come. Those and a few appetizers--sweet, spicy pickled-pepper salad, cheese spread, sausages, a creamy soup--alone could knock out timid eaters; the entrees challenge the stoutest. Variations on gulyas (a meat stew with gravy), the Hungarian standard-bearer, include rich beef, pork, and tripe gulyas, gulyas soup, and a sturdy island of the stuff in a creamy zucchini-dill puddle. These are accompanied by potatoes or spaetzle, as are the paprikashes--veal and chicken. The Gypsy steak is a breaded pair of pork saddles spiked with enough garlic to outfit a vampire slayer. Meats are often accented with more meat: a ragout of tomato, bacon, onion, mushroom, and calf's liver rides the filet mignon, and a fried pork loin is blanketed with ham and smoked cheese. Flaming crepes, pastries, and chestnut puree don't let up, and the custard-and-fruit-filled cake makes tiramisu taste like a pudding pop. The Bull's Blood black label, a Hungarian red wine, can stand up to anything on the menu and is a smart option if you're flummoxed by the list of 19 other Hungarian wines. When you're finally beaten,

a snifter of pear brandy or a shot of pungent herbal liqueur will ease you through the next few hours.

Live Gypsy music is played every night; when I was there a cimbalom player was noodling the theme from The Godfather. --Mike Sula

Klas

5734 W. Cermak, Cicero

708-652-0795 For more than 80 years Klas has served hearty eastern European fare to a wide base of customers, and it's one of the best dining bargains in the Chicago area: most of the reasonably priced dinners come with a medium-dark Bohemian rye bread, homemade soup, a trip to the salad bar (laden with red cabbage, a delicious ham salad with dill pickle slivers, and beets), a main course, spaetzle or dumplings, dessert (most often a cakelike kolacky filled with fruit or poppy seeds), and coffee. The Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein, one of the more expensive items at $13, is a breaded veal cutlet topped with two fried eggs, anchovies, and capers--a superb combination of flavors and textures. But some meat dishes, like the sauerbraten, are drenched in sauces that tend to be a little too heavy and sweet. There's a pocket bar attached to the restaurant (described on the menu as a "14th-century wine and tap room") that offers a full selection of domestic and Czech beers (including draft Staropramen and Radegast) as well as wine and mixed drinks. After eating, take a tour of this castlelike building: there's a pleasant walled garden, the Dr. Zhivago Room on the second floor is decorated with colorful murals depicting scenes from Russian history, and a long band-rehearsal space has smaller side rooms that hark back to a time when the restaurant accommodated the world's oldest profession. --David Hammond

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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