This is the season for Polish food. The Eastern Europeans know their way around some winter vegetables. Making satisfying meals in a cold climate is its own special challenge. The vegetables and herbs on hand are limited, but the body tends to crave those hearty and filling foods that can endure the frost. As the mercury dips, we want some root vegetables — gimme a beet! — and stews, which is pretty much what Polish cooking does best.
Lisa and I went to New Britain last week to eat at The Belvedere Cafe and Restaurant, a new Polish eatery there. Certain towns in this part of the state have a kind of lockdown on specific ethnic foods. If you want Polish food, New Britain is the place to go. (Or if you want Polish pastries, Polish music, Polish beer or Polish newspapers and magazines.) The Belvedere is on a little stretch of Broad Street that feels pretty authentically Polish — if it couldn't pass for Krakow, it could at least be Brooklyn. With the numerous Polish restaurants and delis in New Britain (several of which are within paczki-throwing distance), it's perhaps surprising that no one has quite tackled the niche of the slightly upscale (but not exactly expensive) Polish restaurant that The Belvedere aims to fill.
The Belvedere is a proper bar on one side, with its own separate entrance. The dining room for the restaurant is connected by a narrow passage, but the two spaces feel like two distinct operations — the restaurant being light and bright and clean, the bar having the requisite dimness to encourage mid-day drinking. The Belvedere's dining room feels a little like a salon or spa, with big semi-photo-realistic portrait paintings on the wall and large candles on the hefty tables. (One note to the scent-sensitive, the candles are a little perfumy, giving the room an unneeded whiff of potpourri.)
We started out with an order of pierogies stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage. These were arranged on a long narrow white tray and topped with a few pieces of golden fried onions. The pierogi is a hard dish to turn into a visual accomplishment on the plate. This is hearty peasant food — dumplings. But these looked nice, arranged in a simple line, and they had a more complex flavor than one might expect, with hints of a vinegar brightness to the stuffing and a mellow sweetness to the onions. Our waitress brought us a small bowl of sour cream to go with them. The Belvedere also serves potato pancakes, lobster ravioli and Belgian waffle appetizers, as well as borscht, and tripe soup.
An order of Hungarian goulash was served over an enormous potato pancake ($12.75). This was savory and salty, with red pepper and onions, carrots, celery and parsley carrying the flavor in the tasty stew. Both the goulash and the pancake were plenty good enough to eat by themselves, but together made for a filling and comfort-food combo.
Lisa ordered the golonka ($12.75), which was basically a huge roast ham hock. Anyone who's gone to one of the area's many good Puerto Rican restaurants and pointed at the pernil (pork shoulder), will appreciate this. This was a big ole Henry VIII-lookin' hunk of meat, with lots of skin and fat and bone involved. But the meat was extra tender and salty-tasty, served with a large scoop of mashed potatoes dusted with chopped parsley, a couple pickles, and a bowl of mustard and horseradish.
The Belvedere also serves pork chops, grilled chicken, salmon with mango salsa, fried fish, stuff cabbage and beef roulade as well as blintzes and gyros. Added bonus: they have really good coffee, too. It's well worth a visit. Go there while you're hungry, while the weather's cold.