Cultural exploration is part of the American experience, but often as a one-way street. Descendants of German, Scandinavian, and English immigrants revel in flavors from Asia, Africa and Mexico, but the reverse is rarer. Many Americans have only a vague idea of their own ancestral cuisines and dismiss them as bland or uninteresting.
While it is true that the spices associated with Northern Europe are less vivid than the pungent flavors of the tropics, there is more variety than commonly realized. You can sample this at Santa Monica’s Warszawa, one of the few Polish restaurants in California.
Warszawa is housed in a nondescript building that hides surprises, starting with the collection of vintage Polish theater posters. These have startling artistic ideas, and it’s worth a stroll through the cottage-like rooms to see them all. Then peruse the menu, with its broad range of salads and appetizers plus entrees that include seafood and the hearty sauerkraut and mixed meat stew called bigos. Servers nearly always suggest the bigos, and it is indeed good, but there are other exciting things here.
We started a recent meal with a shredded celery root and walnut salad in a Dijon mustard dressing, potato pancakes, kielbasa with horseradish sauce, and a daily special soup. The salad reflects the relationship between Poland and Paris – the 17th century Polish king Stanislaus spent years in France and his daughter married the French king, beginning a cultural exchange between the countries.
The crisp, refreshing celery root was enhanced by the delicate mustard-based dressing with a scattering of scallions and herbs, and the candied walnuts an extra accent. For those who only know Polish food as spicy garlic sausage or sauerkraut, this will be a revelation. Not that I didn’t like the kielbasa, because it was excellent; I don’t know whether it is made in-house or by a local butcher, but it is far better than the supermarket version.
The soup showed off traditional warm flavors, a chicken stock with sauerkraut, bacon, mushrooms, onions and shreds of vegetables. It was a classic old-school soup, good ingredients blended by patient slow cooking, and it was delicious.
We were also happy with the potato pancakes, which were light, tasty and commendably greaseless – and anybody who has made latkes at home knows how difficult that is. They were served with applesauce and sour cream, but were tasty all by themselves.
To accompany our starters I tried a house specialty cocktail based on buffalo grass vodka, which has an interesting herbal taste. The others preferred the famous Polish beer called Zywiec – and don’t worry about pronouncing that correctly, because the server remarked, it tastes just as good whatever you call it.
For main courses we selected lamb dumplings in dill-cream sauce, roast duck, a sampler of the Polish stuffed noodles called pierogies, and a pork schnitzel. The roast duck at Warszawa doesn’t look as pretty as that served at some other places, because the marinade gives it a deep mahogany color, but the taste is spectacular – lightly smoky meat surrounded by a crisp, herb-scented skin. The half duck was served with cooked spiced apples and homemade noodles, and was an ample meal even with everyone at the table stealing pieces.
Schnitzels are made with slight variations all over Europe, and elsewhere – a Milanese at a Mexican or Italian restaurant is the same, with meat breaded and fried. It’s all in the execution, and here that’s deft indeed.
Pierogies are Polish wontons, and like that Chinese specialty they can be steamed or fried. The fillings here are distinctly un-Chinese – cheese and potato with caramelized onions, wild mushroom and shredded cabbage, herbed chicken in sorrel sauce, or braised beef with carrots and onions. We ordered two each of the chicken and beef steamed and the cheese and potato fried. All were tasty, but the chicken with sorrel sauce was the standout – sorrel has a delightful lemony herbal flavor, and I wonder why more chefs don’t experiment with it.
The lamb dumplings were tiny meatballs wrapped in dough and served in a sauce that was described as spicy, which it really wasn’t. Savory, yes, with flavors of mustard, dill and lamb stock, but by California standards this isn’t spicy. Like the other entrees, this was served with green beans and a dollop of sweet potato, making for a colorful and well-balanced plate.
To finish, we selected a sweet cheese-lemon crepe topped with strawberries, chocolate cake with vanilla cream sauce, caramelized apple tart, and wine-poached pears over a berry-vanilla sauce. I also tried a glass of the homemade citrus liqueur, a perfect counterpoint to the rich desserts.
Prices at Warszawa are moderate – most entrees cost less than $20 – and the portions are abundant. For a rare taste of an underappreciated region and excellent service in an environment with character, it’s a deal.
Warszawa is at 1414 Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica. Open for dinner Tue-Sun, closed Monday. Full bar and outdoor patio.