The dining room is imposing in its whiteness, accented with pine paneling in the style of a suburban rec room, and there are a discreet number of ethnographic doodads plastered on the walls, including mugs with carved animal handles and a few decorated plates—nothing like the folkloric sprawl you’ll find at other local Czechoslovakian restaurants like Zlata Praha. Koliba also attracts a younger crowd, who sport hip American threads and hairstyles while chattering in the mother tongue. The only alarming note is a series of fierce-looking battle-axes, hinting at a long history of Central European tumult.
Czech and Slovak food is not notable for its originality. Rather, the cuisine is an easygoing mixture of dishes associated with Poland, Austria, and Hungary. You won’t find many vegetables, except the ones that can survive long winters, like potatoes and cabbage. That said, Koliba reveals unexpected delights. I expected the cod liver appetizer ($3.75) to be a narrow witch’s finger of an organ, squirting bilious fluid when perforated with a fork. What showed up instead was little cubes of pale pink, light as a feather and snowed with capers and chopped onions. After a few bites, I learned to spread it on the rye bread like pâté. Another surprising starter is garlic soup ($3), an intensely odoriferous broth in which a submerged egg yolk shines like the sun on a smoggy day. Sunk to the bottom of the bowl is a raft of gooey cheese, making this a French onion soup analogue. Stir vigorously before slurping. Also consider visiting the bar-food menu to begin your meal. The pair of flavorful natural-skinned franks ($3.75) are knocked into orbit by the grainy mustard and freshly grated horseradish that come alongside. The headcheese, too, is a revelation. Offered in thick slices and wobbly with gelatin, it tastes like gourmet baloney.
Following Czech custom, the entrées are divided into two opposing camps. The first, cheaper section consists of steam-table offerings that can be delivered almost immediately. Here you’ll encounter hoary standards like goulash, roast chicken, and smoked pork loin, most priced below $9 for a well-laden plate. The soupier ones come with sliced dumplings like dense white bread without the crust. Boiled beef in dill sauce hints at a medieval origin, dating from a time when boiling meat was the favorite means of preparation. The worst of these fast-food plates is the roast duckling, a Slovak favorite: a half-bird so overcooked on one occasion that the meat was reduced to dry sinew. Best is homemade spaetzle, tiny potato dumplings thickly stewed with bacon and sweet sauerkraut.
Under the designation Special Orders are dishes that take a half-hour to prepare. Unfortunately, not only are these offerings more expensive, they’re generally inferior to the steam-table stuff. A case in point is stuffed pork schnitzel ala Vihorlat ($13.75). Named after a picturesque national park in Slovakia, maybe this pork cutlet topped with juicy canned green beans, slices of boiled ham, and melted white cheese is supposed to resemble the park’s snowy and undulating mountain peaks. It’s just plain awful nonetheless. The simple pair of veal cutlets—which the menu, probably in the interest of national pride, pointedly omits calling Wiener schnitzel—are better, though the lack of gravy means you don’t get any of those absorbent dumplings. Stick with the steam table, and spend the savings on palicinky ($3), a pair of jam-filled crepes artistically garnished with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. If you squint your eyes, they look like a winter landscape, too.