Though karczma sounds like a serious skin condition, the word is Polish for something like “rustic country inn.” Karczma is also the name of Greenpoint’s newest restaurant, one of the first that attempts to elevate Polish cuisine above the level of diner fare. The interior is countrified and agrarian—in a designer sort of way—featuring barn-wood booths flanked by loveseats that look like pregnant Adirondack chairs, capable of accommodating the widest derrieres. Farm implements are scattered on the walls, including pitchforks that might impale you if you get too excited about the food. An overhang with hay thatching identifies the bathrooms, making them look like outhouses.
The farm theme proves a pleasant context for a menu that might best be described as gold-plated peasant. In fact, our waitress, prim and trim in her dirndl, but without any ungainly display of cleavage, asked us in halting English: “What does ‘peasant’ mean?” She was referring to the appetizer we’d just ordered—peasant lard with bread ($3.50). “A peasant is someone from long ago who farmed the land,” I responded, trying to omit any Marxian coloration on the topic.
The peasant lard came as a surprise, and not because it contained no actual peasant. Instead of the firm strips of cured white fat one finds in Italian or Russian joints, the half-melted substance was pooled in a white crock and dotted with bits of bacon. Neatly framed by sliced rye, the crock and a serrated knife were implanted in a specially designed cutting board. “It’s like the can my mother kept next to the stove for bacon grease,” a dining companion observed without much enthusiasm. But once we tried it, we were hooked, especially after recalling the recently revealed scientific fact that lard has half the saturated fat of butter. “Eat Healthy—Eat Lard” is our new slogan.
Appetizers are unnecessary, given the humongous entrées. Yet the grilled-asparagus starter ($6) is worth overeating for, a quintet of thick spears wrapped in good ham, as if on the way to a vegetable toga party. Herring in sour cream is another dependable choice, though the gray fish under its white blanket is sweet enough to make your toes curl. Dining with a large party? The so-called “plate of Polish specialties” ($10) is a starchy peasant tour de force: one meat pierogi, one potato pierogi, one largish hank of kielbasa, two crisp potato pancakes that taste a little too much of onion powder, a smooshed length of stuffed cabbage, and a steaming heap of bigos—a hunter’s stew whose ingredients have been cooked down to the point where they’re impossible to identify. Finally, there’s the blood sausage oozing lazily out of its pig-intestine casing. The sausage is only recommended for organ-meat aficionados and Frenchmen. (Spaniards prefer more cumin.)
Our favorite entrée was the grilled fresh ham ($8.50), a pair of pale steaks that must have been marinated in white wine before being grilled to complete succulence. The accompanying fries, however, left something to be desired—dull and mealy crinkle cuts like the kind you find freezer-burned in the supermarket case. Playing the healthy card, Karczma’s menu is filled out with dishes that are grilled rather than deep-fried, including salmon, trout, and—natch!—skinned-and-deboned chicken breast, the world’s most unpromising ingredient.
Thankfully, unreconstructed Polish dishes survive and can be ordered and savored once you’ve eliminated the “healthy” stuff from consideration. The entrée spicy beef goulash ($8.5) was anything but, convincing us that the Poles are a tender-tongued lot when it comes to chilies or even black peppercorns. The cubes of beef fell apart at the touch of a fork and the gravy was brown and flavorful, though far less copious than one would have hoped. More gravy, please! Once again, lovers of sheer volume will find much to like on the entrée menu. Special meat selections for two ($22) or four ($31) are so abundant, they really feed three or six. These come with big bowls of roasted potatoes and pork-flecked sauerkraut, the latter a bit too sweet for my taste. It would probably make a good “healthy” dessert, though.
And Karczma has (gasp!) a wine list, the only Polish restaurant I know of that is so equipped. It includes a red Côtes de Bourg ($22), a hopelessly obscure Bourdeaux appellation from the village of Bourg on the bank of the Dordogne River in southwestern France, tannic enough to cut through any gravy. Or, as a tribute to Greenpoint’s nearby and newly hip Metropolitan Avenue, you can elect a cut-price California merlot: Bohemian Highway ($17).