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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Restauracja RELAX

The other day I tried calling my buddy Wojcieazh Wojcihcheshch Woyczz246 in Poland, to see if he could tell me what “Restauracja RELAX” means in English. He didn't answer the phone, but I think I figured it out: “Restaurant Relax.” Which stands to reason. This small just-off-Nassau Ave. joint has an extremely soothing flavor-to-price ratio. More than that, it's also a sentimental favorite. This was our first Greenpoint discovery (back in the 90s), and they've been doing right by us ever since.
Artist's rendition: Janusz Szafranski, circa 1983??

Janusz Szafranski opened RELAX about 9 years ago. I don't know much about him, save that he hails from a small town near Krakow, sports a well-kept mustache, and doesn't like to have his picture taken. He also runs a tight, no-nonsense ship: efficient counter service, fresh ingredients, consistent quality. Part of the credit goes to head chef Miroslawa, who has been in the kitchen since day one. She has skills, and a loyal, predominantly Polish clientele who line up for sit-down lunches or take-out dinners. High turnover means fresh food, and her most popular dishes – stuffed cabbage, daily specials – tend to sell out well before closing time.
So if you're fussy, get their early. And if you like white borscht, go on a Wednesday or Saturday only. RELAX was the first place I ever tasted the soup called Zurek ($2.35). It's slightly sweet and sour, somewhat viscous, and chock full of kielbasa. Enjoy a bowl with a few slices of rye, and look for the hard boiled eggs resting inside. The price also buys you two plump lumps of creamy mashed potatoes that look a lot like dill boobies. If Zurek isn't your thing, they do a fine regular borscht, a “way more refreshing than it sounds” Pickle Soup, and a smoky Split Pea.Well-cooked cutlet, how I love thee. It's a thing of understated beauty: tender and juicy, porky, piping hot, crisp and salty. At least, that what I was thinking as I made fast work of this kotlet schabowy ($5.60). It's thicker-than-usual, oh-so-tender, and priced right. If you fancy a different take on the same theme, try the Ground Cutlet ($5.35). Think “stuffed cabbage minus the cabbage,” and you get the gist: large, lightly fried pork ovals, served in delightful pairs.

I can hear the griping already: “but Slab, I'm trying to shape up for that summertime Speedo.” Relax! RELAX offers plenty of non-fried foods as well... like delicious stuffed cabbage a/k/a Golabki ($5.50/large order). And if you crave the meat of a pig's hock, your only choice is a giant Golonka ($5.50). And if you've finally come to your senses about eating fried foods, get a side of homemade Placki Ziemniaczane, fluffy, crisp, and golden potato pancakes ($4.35 solo, $6.60 smothered in beefy goulash). Whatever you choose, you'll need some salads for balance, digestion, and aesthetic appeal. Our favorite is the crisp, slightly sweet and vinegary Pepper Salad. RELAX also offers two tasty versions of sauerkraut: hot (rich and savory) and cold (sharp and tangy). They do great creamy cucumbers with dill, and clean shredded beets. The only sides to avoid are corn, peas, or green beans... unless you don't mind canned vegetables.Have I mentioned what a great deal this place is? Well... it gets even better. RELAX also serves “small portions” of most dishes at even smaller prices. To wit, the pic above is a “small” plate of Bigos. That, my friend, is $4.10 well-spent. Served with your choice of starch (creamy mashed potatoes, fries, or kasha) and two sides, this rich hunter's stew is a slow-stewed kraut with terrific kielbasa flavor, big chunks of pork, and fresh mushrooms. Must've been a good day in the woods, because this is one generous hunter.
Since you still have a few bucks in your wallet, why not celebrate? Cheese blintzes are a relative splurge at $4.90, and worth every penny. Each Greenpoint restaurant has their own take on the blintze. RELAX offers a light, crepe-like batter folded 'triangle' style (as the French say) and stuffed with a sweet/tart farmer's cheese mixture. Just don't bother getting a fruit version; the addition of sugary jam will only needlessly complicate matters. Cheese is all you need for your fin-de-meal relaxation wind-down.

So are you feeling more relaxed now? Or maybe you're just getting hungry and agitated. Or maybe that's my stomach talking. Either way, I'll wrap things up with a couple of parting tips.

1) All dishes are served up front, which means you have to look out for your meal. It helps to remember the Polish names of whatever you order. Otherwise, you'll do like me: look dopey, spazzing out and jumping up every time you hear random Polish words.

2) Turnover is fast, but tables fill up at peak hours. Have your buddies hold a few chairs if things seem crowded. Then get them a big Polish beer for their efforts; I like Piast, but Zywiec and Tyskie are probably the most popular. Tho having done the research, I can safely say they all go well with cutlets and get you buzzed.

Is there anything else to add? Sure the environment is a bit drab, and the service is more or less “self.” But it's really quite the delicious mystery how, year after year, they continue to offer the same tasty food at these prices. I guess some things aren't meant to be discovered. So instead of fretting about life's great mysteries, chill out and head on down. Relaxation awaits!

Restauracja RELAX
68A Newel Street (at Nassau Avenue)
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
(718) 389-1665

Open daily from 11:30 – 9:30 (11-9 on Sundays)



Blogger Sherry said...

When I went to St. Stan's, the grammar school up the block, my friends and I went to Relax once and bought french fries. Never went back because we were all praying to the porcelain god later that night. I'm glad you didn't get sick.

10:10 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

no joke?! all I know is, we've been eating those fries since the 90s, dysentery-free. buck up, gather your courage, and try 'em again; they're real tasty. especially with a cutlet.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Vic said...

These were some of the rudest people I have ever encountered in Greenpoint. I called one day and got hung up on twice! The first time they answered, didn't speak and hung up and the second time they yelled NO at me, then hung up for no apparant reason!

When I went in to eat there, they told me they were closed but there were people eating at the tables!!! They sure looked open. Not being Polish in Greenpoint, I rarely feel this way but I felt discriminated against.

3:38 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

well... this isn't the warmest place in greenpoint, and the owner is absolutely shy. but i find the counter woman to be super nice & friendly.

i will say this tho - relax strikes me as one of the most 'authentic' spots in this area. for what that's worth, it rings truest to experiences i've had in poland... which is to say, they can be gruff, but don't take it personal.

5:07 PM  
Blogger jessica bewsey said...

i stumbled across this post while looking up "blintzes"-- but i just wanted to say, about the rudeness factor: in my experience, the most delicious, diamond-in-the-rough restaurants often have the worst service. i say just appreciate the glory of the food.

3:45 AM  
Blogger Lesiu Mistrzunio said...

Restauracja Relax to pyszne jedzenie, przemiła obsługa i konkurencyjne ceny.Szkoda,że już nie będę mógł zjeść pysznych posiłków jekie serwuje restauracja ponieważ wróciłem do Polski.Zawsze mile będę wspominał moje ukochane pierogi , naleśniki,a placki ziemniaczane? - do tej pory mam je przed oczami:)Pozdrawienia z Gdańska dla szefostwa i załogi:)

12:23 PM  

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