Potatoes, onions, sauerkraut and kielbasa—that’s Polish cuisine, basically,” says Evelina Berc, only half in jest. One would have to add beets, pickles, chicken, sour cream, mushrooms and a boatload of earthy spices, all of which, in various forms, weave a comforting spell at Pierogies House, her storefront café across from the Morristown train station. Berc designed the tiny space herself, and her handiwork imbues it with wit and charm.
The folding wood-and-glass doors may be French, their panes filling the narrow space with light, but the menu is Polish. It’s the home cooking Berc grew up making with her mother and grandmother in Lezajsk, a southern town about 80 miles east of Krakow.
Of all the foods, the one most communal in both making and eating, she says, was pierogies. Hand rolling the delicate, unleavened dough, cooking the classic fillings and stuffing, pinching and boiling the half-moon packets would keep the women busy all day. Then would come an orgy of family eating with sour cream and applesauce or caramelized onions. Any pierogies left over would be panfried the next day.
At Pierogies House, which opened in December, you can order your handmade pierogies boiled or panfried.
“Americans want panfried, always,” Berc, 36, says with a laugh. They are worth trying both ways. Boiled, they are pleasingly plush. Fried (in canola oil), they are brown and irresistibly crisp.
Either way, the fillings are exemplary. Potatoes, farmer cheese and sautéed onions form a triad as fundamental as a C major chord. Lentils and mushrooms offer orchestral levels of umami. The equally classic sauerkraut and kielbasa stuffing separates the punitive slap of ballpark kraut from the cosseting richness of the real thing, patiently cooked.
Berc’s updates include potato, bacon and cheddar; spinach and feta; and Philly cheese steak, featuring flank steak, provolone, portobellos, green peppers and onions. Each order (five in a small, nine in a large) comes with a little cup of sour cream. Add caramelized onions (one of four toppings) for 75 cents? Worth it.
There isn’t much more to the menu than pierogies, but most of the items are gratifying and not as simple as they sound. The daily soup (white or red borscht, cabbage, pickle and others)are mini-meals. In these lightly creamy creations lurk a host of hearty things: in the white borscht, tender potatoes, hardboiled egg and ground pork; in the pickle soup, lots of juicy chicken, shredded carrots, fresh dill and finely chopped pickles. Then there is bigos, a hunter’s stew thick with chunks of bacon and kielbasa, mellow sauerkraut, vegetables and luscious bits of prune.
Berc says she spent a long time looking for a kielbasa as good as what she grew up eating. She found it at Polonia Meat Market in Clifton, and it is terrific, whether chopped in soups or grilled and served all crackly skinned with caramelized onions.
The stuffed cabbage, with either mushroom or tomato sauce, is packed with ground pork and al dente rice heady with heat of a type seemingly lost in the ascendency of the chili pepper—old-fashioned cracked black pepper. Here it purrs, low and round. It’s hard to beat the trifecta of the Polish platter: stuffed cabbage, kielbasa and three pierogies for $16.50.
Berc says two customers were arguing over her potato pancakes: “The Polish customer said, ‘These are pancakes.’ The Jewish customer said, ‘These are latkes.’” I grew up eating crunchy latkes and agree with the Polish customer. Berc’s pancakes are wide, round, flat and creamy, with crisp browning and rich potato flavor. Get them. Her beet salad, cut like matchsticks, is perfectly balanced between sweet and tart. Get that, too. To enjoy her cucumber salad, you must love raw onions. I don’t. Fruit-filled dessert pierogies topped with squiggles of sweet sauce seemed a stopgap, not the equal of their savory cousins.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Russian/E. European
Price Details:Pierogi platters, $8-$13; soups and salads, $4.50-$6.50; entrées, $7-$16.50; dessert, $8
Ambience:Spare yet quietly artful café
Service:Order at counter, food brought to table