In a city where the term Polish restaurant conjures up visions of oilcloth-covered tables, oversized platters piled high with meat, potatoes, and dumplings, iceberg lettuce slathered with bottled dressings, and a rough-and-ready decor in either a storefront or a barnlike enclosure, Mareva's offers a welcome alternative.
Chicago's newest purveyor of la cuisine polonaise is a large, elegant, bi-level area with glass and brass dividers. Glittery chandeliers ornament a room full of deep green drapery, flowered carpeting, plush banquettes and chairs, white table linens, shiny wall sconces, and etched mirrors on walls and pillars. Tables are widely spaced, food carefully and artfully arranged on elegant china, salad dressings innovative and made from scratch, and service, though sometimes hesitant, professional and unobtrusive. There's even a live pianist, Jaroslaw Golembiowski, on weekends and busy nights expertly producing sounds from Chopin to show tunes.
The real surprise, however, is the menu. Pierogi, Poland's national dish, are there, of course. But so are Scottish smoked salmon, imported and domestic sturgeon caviar, smoked eel, wild mushrooms, veal with truffles, and squab stuffed with wild rice--not exactly usual fare at Chicago's Polish eateries. Even the pierogi depart from the ordinary; though traditional veal, potato, cabbage, and cheese fillings are available, there are also such fillings as chicken mousse served with madeira sauce, lobster tails napped with saffron cream, and swordfish and sole mousse in a dill beurre blanc. All in all, the menu features 15 appetizers, 6 soups, 6 pierogi and dumpling dishes, 13 meat and poultry, and 9 seafood entrees, in addition to desserts and a smattering of daily specials.
The wide range made choosing appetizers difficult, but we finally settled for wild mushroom saute ($6.50) and dark sausage in raspberry sauce ($6.25), one of the daily specials. The wild mushrooms were delightful--a large soup bowl brimming with chanterelles, cepes, and oyster mushrooms in a tart, slightly oversalted cream sauce exuding pungent, piquant overtones. The sausage dish, though good, could have been even better had the sausage, mostly venison, not been allowed to stay on the grill too long. The resultant dry meat and tough skin made it difficult to discern the mild gamy flavor lurking underneath, and the accompanying raspberry sauce, though intensely fruity and satisfying in itself, nearly overshadowed the meat.
Mareva's borscht ($2.85), a deep purple beet and beet-green consomme, was full flavored, mildly tart, and sweet. A puff pastry filled with meat pate was served on the side; its rich and flaky texture contrasted nicely with the clean intensity of the broth. Cold vichyssoise ($2.50) lacked the smooth creaminess of other versions of the dish, but was earthy and grainy, more like potato puree than soup. Salads, which are included in the price of the entree, are carefully arranged romaine lettuce leaves, cherry tomato halves, carrot slices, fresh mushrooms, and onions, served with the dressing in a separate little dish, a refreshing touch. I opted for garlic spinach, more tangy creamed spinach than salad dressing, whose infusion of garlic should keep vampires at bay for quite some time. The house dressing, which my companion ordered, was strawberry vinaigrette, a creamy base with a strong but not sweet fruit flavor.
A Polish meal without pierogi is like kissing a man without a mustache, as somebody once said (no it wasn't Joe Biden), and so, after an agonizing discussion we settled on pierogi stuffed with mousse of swordfish and sole ($12.95). Now pierogi are peasant food--hearty, no-nonsense, and stick-to-the-ribs. I love them dearly, but in the past, whether I bought them frozen at the supermarket or had them freshly made at any of the restaurants around town, they've always made me feel as though I've swallowed a couple of golf balls. Mareva's pierogi are superior on several counts. First, the filling we chose, unlike traditional meat, cheese, or cabbage, was complex and subtle, delicate yet full flavored and tasting of the sea. Second, the dough around it, though properly chewy and dense, did not call up screams of protest from my esophagus and parts beyond. And finally, the dill sauce that bathed the pierogi was a welcome departure from the usual sour cream, producing buttery overtones that heightened flavors instead of overwhelming them.
Our other entree, filet of beef tenderloin pounded thin, rolled around chopped veal, mushroom, and onion, and served on a bed of cracked buckwheat with mushroom cream sauce ($14.95), was equally commendable. Though there was not enough contrast between the beef wrapping and its veal filling, the meat was succulent, the mushroom gravy rich and satisfying, and the hearty grains of buckwheat a pleasant and welcome counterpoint to both. Both the pierogi and beef came with perfectly steamed cauliflower florets and carrot sticks.
Having found the seafood pierogi so much to our liking, we decided to try the fruit pierogi du jour ($6.00) for dessert. Four plump, cheese-filled dumplings arrived in a pool of honey-enhanced Wisniowka brandy sauce, surrounded by fresh strawberries and topped with real whipped cream. Simply put, they were wonderful. Raspberry cream torte ($4.50), a white cake layered with good raspberry cream and garnished with more of the whipped cream, was also worth ordering. The complimentary cookies that follow dessert can easily be bypassed.
Coffee is strong if somewhat harsh, and tea drinkers can choose from several varieties of their favorite brew, including herbal. There are quite a few good values on the two-page wine list. We had a 1985 Sauvignon Blanc, Louis Honig Winery, a well-balanced dry white wine that nicely complemented all of the dishes, and was a bargain at $15.
Mareva's, 1250 N. Milwaukee Avenue, is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 AM to 11 PM, Saturday and Sunday from 4 PM to 11 PM. Free valet parking is provided, and all major credit cards are accepted. Call 227-4000 for further information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.