Café Polonia’s timing couldn’t have been any better. The North Shore spinoff of the popular Polish restaurant in South Boston opened in Salem just before Halloween, and even though the holiday’s crowds have dissipated, the restaurant is still busy with locals who are coping with the temperature drop by packing themselves with warm pierogies.
We visited the new location on an especially cold and wet weekend night. The restaurant’s warm colors and décor immediately put us in a better mood. The reds and yellows, pretty striped curtains, and farm equipment pegged to the walls made Polonia’s vibe old-fashioned and welcoming. It is a perfect neighbor for the equally warm and cozy Gulu-Gulu and Fresh Taste of Asia, which share the square behind the “Bewitched’’ statue.
We started with a pierogi bowl for two ($11) — which turned out to be a great appetizer for four — and specified that we wanted them vegetarian (we figured we’d have more than enough meat later on in the meal). As my dining companion said, “This is better than Mrs. T’s.’’ I mean, no offense to the popular brand of frozen pierogies, but Polonia’s fresh Polish dumplings, packed with mushrooms and potatoes, were like soft, starchy pillows. The real thing.
For entrées, we did the classics. The potato pancakes ($14) were ample, filling, not too greasy, and served with a chunky applesauce that looked homemade. My meat-eating friend’s German wurstplatte ($14) was a pile of bratwurst and knackwurst, spicy sausages filled with chicken, pork, and veal. All of that protein was topped with fresh sauerkraut and served with crispy, thick fries and light potato salad.
I went for the chicken Riesling ($16), which is a good choice for those who fear words like “wurst’’ and “kraut.’’ It was a pretty basic dish with a sauce that’s only slightly more exotic than a Campbell’s mushroom soup mix.
We also enjoyed the rainbow trout ($18), which was served packed with lemons, topped with capers, and had the crisp aftertaste of dill. If you don’t mind being served a fish with the head still on, go for it. It’s a good option if you’re trying to be healthy.
Try the wine. My friend had a glass of Grzaniec ($8), a warm spice blend that was an ideal cold-weather drink. I went for the Nalewka Babuni ($7), Polish cherry wine that tasted a bit like Robitussin and Manischewitz. Luckily, I love cough syrup and kosher sips. I drank it all.
We split two desserts, the chocolate babka ($7) and the strawberry apple crisp, which was being offered as part of restaurant week. Polonia has a similar apple crisp on its regular menu, and I highly recommend it, mostly because of its yummy, fresh crust and real vanilla ice cream on top. The babka was like a death-by-chocolate bundt cake, but light and fluffy. It was served piping hot.
The only thing I’d change about Polonia is the music. I understand that the restaurant has to play Polish tunes, and I’m all for it (I’m part Polish, after all). But do they have to be the kind of traditional songs that increase in tempo? I found myself eating faster to the beat. My mother, who dined with me, said she had to fight the urge to do the hora. How about playing Polish ballads instead? Or modern Polish music? Classical? (According to my mother, music by Chopin, who was Polish, would be a good compromise.)
Music aside, we adored our server, a young man named Edwin, who was personable, visited us frequently, and with his quick moves and intense knowledge of pierogies and beets could have been the lead singer of a Polish boy band. Maybe he could provide Polonia’s soundtrack.