At 19, Bay Ridge’s Polonica is no spring chicken, even among long-running Polish restaurants. In fact, in restaurant years, it’s sliding into a comfortable middle age. But in a cuisine rarely celebrated for its range or poignancy, Polonica stands out. The place is beyond cozy, with seven tables, a buff-and-green color scheme, and a noise level that permits quiet conversation. Glass tops on the tables allow easy Windex-ing of the gravy spills that are sure to occur, and patrons can become drunk on gravy alone. If that’s not enough, a BYOB policy allows you to carry in Polish beer from the Russian bodega across the street.
You may think of Polish food as relentlessly heavy and meaty, but Polonica is prepared to refute that assertion—at least partly. In fact, a whole slew of meal-size soups are marked “vegetarian” on the menu, of which the best goes by the discouraging name of sauerkraut soup ($3.70). Contrary to your worst fears, it doesn’t taste like sour tin cans. Rather, an agreeably mild broth floats shreds of carrot and cabbage like bathers in a rural swimming hole, and there’s a patch of fresh dill “weeds” providing the scent of freshly mown grass. Other soups in the same featherweight vein include barley, tomato, chicken noodle, mushroom, and cucumber—and many of the boiled pierogis make nice light meals, too, especially the unusual spinach-and-potato or sauerkraut-and-mushroom varieties (seven for $6.25). Of course, they taste better if you get them fried.
Let’s give the heavy soups their moment, too. The white borscht known as zurek ($4.50) is limpid with sour cream, and you’ll happily find yourself fishing potatoes, boiled eggs, and little parabolic hunks of meat out of it. With its basket of rye bread and butter, this soup makes a meal in itself, but a separate plate holds a huge scoop of mashed potatoes, draped with sautéed onions like a bathing beauty who’s just donned a flimsy robe. (The waiter instructed us to dump the spuds into the soup.) Two of the three red borschts have interesting accoutrements: one comes bobbing fleecy white dumplings, the other arrives with a giant rubber raft of ground pork too big to fit in the bowl.
But maybe you crave not vegetables, but the meat-and-potatoes goodness of Polish food. Heaviest of all is an entrée of bigos ($11), the hunter’s stew, which is a collection of pork chunks, slices of twice-smoked sausage, and shreds of sauerkraut cooked down into a morass. Equal in quantity and richness are a pair of boiled pork hocks served with mustard, the thick skin as gray as a winter sky. A good deal of work is required to excavate the slivers of meat. What to do with the fat? Eat your way through it. The so-called “meat balls” are really oblong and oniony pork burgers, two to a plate, hidden under so much gravy that they appear to be mere blips in a brown landscape.
Have I got your mouth watering yet? This is real winter fare, but you can burn it off in just a few days if you do a lot of shivering and snow-trudging. Now on to the fried things, which make up another of the menu’s culinary demimondes. For your pescatarian friends, there’s one obligatory fish dish with the movie-star name of Ryba Smazona—which the menu translates “filet of sole” ($11.50). At this price, I doubt that it’s really sole, and, given that it comes with nothing but a wedge of lemon and some dry kascha, it constitutes a rather cheerless feed. Instead, get the plate-flopping boneless pork chop, nearly a foot in length and a half-foot wide, pounded and breaded and tender as a prostitute’s kiss. And, yes, by that I mean it’s pleasantly tough.
Not to dampen your meaty fun, but each voluminous entrée comes with a “house salad”—which turns out to be a dinner plate of six salads, including pickled beets, regular cole slaw, purple cole slaw, cooked cabbage cole slaw, and a couple more things that also resemble cole slaw. Pace yourself, because you don’t want to miss the made-to-order dessert blintzes, which are the size of bazookas. Yes, the fillings are mainly canned, but the perfection of the crepes that enwrap them is not to be missed. And two fatties with sour cream and applesauce will set you back only $7. Hey, maybe blintzes should have been your entire meal.