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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Slavic sensation

Posted on Thu, Oct 23, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Cleveland native Rob Plummer is doing us a favor, in the form of Polonia Polish Restaurant. He's offering us something different.

Sometimes different is the best we can hope for, but Plummer, who previously owned the Petronia restaurant in Key West, manages to bring authentic dishes to the mix. The strip mall location, with two small rows of booths and a packed deli case at the rear, doesn't look much like a slice of Warsaw, but the menu proves otherwise. For those with bored palates, Polonia is a welcome change.

Enter Polonia with the understanding that you'll never hear the word "light" being used to describe Polish food. These are hearty dishes, heavy without lapsing into leaden. Golabki ($6.75) is seasoned beef and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves -- the dense stuffing could probably stand upright on its own -- topped with either tomato or mushroom sauce. Likewise, the liver pâté ($3.95) has a thicker consistency than the French kind and has a pleasant undertone of baked vegetables.

The many prepared meats at Polonia, from kielbasa and kabanosy sausages to corned beef and pastrami, come from Bobak's, the gargantuan deli in Chicago that feeds the Windy City's enormous Polish community, so the tastes and preparation are true to form. Kielbasa, smoky pork and beef sausage infused with garlic, shows up fried with onions and peppers as a lunch entree ($5.95) and sliced into hunter's stew (bigos, $6.95). Not what you might think of as stew, this ancient dish combines sausage, beef and pork in slow-cooked sauerkraut for a piquant meal that supposedly cures all ills.

I'd order the placki potato pancakes -- what a New Yorker would call latkes -- for every meal; thin, crisp and full of flavor, served with applesauce and sour cream. But potato lovers can find other choices. Pierogi ($5.75), cheese and potato-filled pasta pockets, come served with caramelized onions. There are kopytka dumplings available as a side dish, dressed with onions and tasting like very large, very tender gnocchi.

Some Polish dishes need explanation. The authentic recipe for kiszka, aka stuffed derma ($3.50), calls for blood pudding -- check with your server before ordering what is generally a delicious but haggis-type entree. No explanation is needed for savory beef Stroganoff ($7.95) or the tender and moist chicken cutlet called "kotlet y kury" ($6.95).

Desserts and near-desserts are worth a try. Blintzes ($2.95), tender crepes filled with sweetened farmer cheese, covered in strawberry sauce, could both begin and end a great meal, and rotating sweets like home-baked babka

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