I have found a pretty perfect meal at PJ's Bistro.
It starts with borscht, a slightly oily beet broth served with house mushroom-stuffed dumplings. Chef Asia Barczynska makes a warm, traditional Polish version that's vegetarian and highlighted by those miniature soft dough balls.
Dip a buttered wheat roll and the phrase "peasant food" may come to mind, on account of the humble simplicity of ingredients and earthy flavorings of the forage-ables and root veggies. This is cultural comfort food and distinctly Eastern European food — my ancestors' food.
As are pierogi, those larger dumplings fried to a brown blush, but left soft and doughy. Much in the way ravioli can be stuffed with anything in the modern Italian pantry, pierogi are blank canvases. If you're into the classics, look to the cabbage-mushroom, pork-sauerkraut or Russian (potato, onion, bacon and cream cheese) renditions, garnished with sautéed onions and spinach and a sour cream dollop. If seeking play, the "PJ's style" bison-mushroom-cabbage, Philly cheese steak or crawfish concoctions bring the same garnish, but also side sauces: cloyingly sweet mustard for the crawfish; mild horseradish for the Philly; and a dark, muted garlic demi-glace for the tatonka.
But back to my perfect meal: post-borscht, I'd get a mixed bowl (two each) of the straightforward and hearty traditionals. The others are still pleasant, but I'll seek out a Philly and Cajun cuisine when craving each, and the ground bison's not a major game-changer.
I'd also pair my meal with a Warsaw Mule, a spin on the ubiquitous Moscow Mule, served in a copper cup and employing Zubrowka, a non-biting, 40-percent ABV, rye vodka flavored with bison grass — what Native Americans rightly call sweetgrass for its lovely aroma, particularly when burned. That essence and fresh basil add herbaceous balance to the ginger-beer bite. (Side note: I left resolved to buy a bottle, until noticing Yellow #5 food coloring on the label — a craft-deaf blunder.)
Though good alone, Oskar Blues' Pinner Throwback IPA (off one of two taps) hits with too much hops for the delicacy of many Polish flavors. Take for instance the stuffed blintz, which again pairs bison, mushroom and cabbage, this time inside a crêpe-like roulade, baked with a breadcrumb crust and served with creamy cucumber rounds and a scoop of grated beets. Or bone marrow, oddly plated sans toast points, but instead with another scoop of beets and one of mashed potatoes. Salt and pepper at the table are advisable.
A Reuben attempts a twist with turkey pastrami subbing in for corned beef, but I miss the real thing, and both the sauerkraut and rye lack zing. Much better is the mahi mahi with piquant, herb-mayo-like gribiche on a brioche roll. And the pork-hunk-forward Hungarian Goulash over a potato pancake.
No matter what you get, you can appreciate good service and some local and natural product sourcing, and consider finishing with a fine brownie cheesecake procured from Marigold Café. And you can applaud PJ's revival of a legacy location on the west side, having moved from Manitou Springs, where Paul and his mother Bozena Jakubczyk formerly operated PJ's and the European Café. He's also in the process of purchasing the Stagecoach Inn to reboot. Judging from what he's already doing, that could be a beauty.
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