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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sikorski Meat Market

Down on your luck, friend? Cat got your happy? Feeling un-loved? Then hustle on down to the Sikorski Meat Market in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Sikorski's isn't the biggest butcher in the area; nor do they have the highest sausage-to-square foot ratio; and the storefront itself is unassuming, a weathered red awning on a relatively sleepy stretch of Manhattan Avenue. Yet something about this place shines thru. And by “something,” I mean terrific meats, freshly smoked sausages, incredibly friendly service, and pillow-soft loaves of Polish Rye.This is the oldest Polish meat merchant in the 'Point. They opened 50+ years ago under a different name; 20 years later, the original owner sold everything to his friend Sikorski. Sikorski is actually a born-and-raised Brooklyn guy, but his Polish dad taught him a thing or two about pork appreciation, and he vowed to uphold the strict standards set by his predecessor and friend: traditional techniques (including an old-fashioned hickory smoker), classic kielbasa recipes, and a love of good fresh meat.The only thing you need to know? Don't eat lunch before you go. I made this mistake, and was inundated with slice after slice of kielbasa samples. (FYI, it's scientifically impossible to refuse free kielbasa. And rude.) The old-guard pork palaces in Greenpoint (Steve's, Polam, etc.) are known for their generosity, but Sikorski's takes it an extra mile. They harbor an understandable affection for their smoked meats, and are more than happy to let their links do the talking... in the form of big chunks offered as tempting samples. Hunks-a-plenty good reader, hunks-a-plenty.
Tool of the trade

That said, we started with an old favorite, Poland's answer to the “Slim Jim”: Kabanosy. Sikorski's offers 2 types, dry-aged and a moist, mild “fresh.” Great flavor on both, but the butcher saw me nod with approval, then suggested something else. He cut a quick chunk of a slightly darker, thicker air-dried sausage, an “old fashioned Sucha,” and presented it with four confident words: “Try this, better flavor.” Indeed. Terrific flavor: deep and rich, offset by creamy, creamy fat. Great balance, great porkiness, and mellow-yet-firm spicing made this as good a dried link as we've tasted in these parts.

No surprise tho, Sikorski's sets a high standard. Everything (from sausage to ribs) is made on-premises in their old-fashioned smokers. And everything we tried tasted great. Regulars love the uncooked kielbasa biala and plump Krajana, a chunky, lean fresh-tasting link whose girth belies its relative lightness. (This was described as the “healthy” kielbasa... with a knowing smile.) Others go with juicy Wijska, and large plump Slaska.

But to be honest, we're hesitant to dictate. Much of the Sikorski fun comes in tasting, and discovering your own. I think it was either Winston Churchill or the Dali Lama who said, “Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught that every person must pave their own path to sausage bliss.”
Best service in town? Yolanda dishes up the goods with a smile

Still, Sikorski isn't just about the links. In addition to “authentic Polish sausage” they advertise a full catering service. We tried a tasty, meaty stuffed cabbage that reheated well at home. But most exciting was the daily rotation of assorted smoked porks.
Juicy: house-smoked pork belly and ribs (l-r)
The tri-fecta: fresh bacon, ribs, loin of pork

Where to begin? No matter what, try the smoked ribs. They are fantastic: slightly sweet, and not-too-salty. Chew a few to the bone, and delight in the delicate aroma of smoke. And order more than you think; plan on one healthy rack per pork-lover/flavor-savorer. Sikorski's also makes fresh bacon. This is pork belly smoked like the ribs with a sweeter, slightly muskier taste. Try slicing it as a cold cut, or frying up a few slices with farm fresh eggs. The so-called loin of pork was even more tempting, slices of sweet meat that finished smoky and melted in the mouth (thanks to a healthy balance of clear fat). It tasted a lot like their Canadian-style bacon (which I was fortunate enough to eat piping hot and straight from the smoker) but with more flavor (fat). Try a few solo slices, or enjoy with some butter on a delightful slice of Polish Rye with poppy seeds (made fresh daily at the adjacent New Warsaw Bakery).

Bottom-line? Check out Sikorski's and go nuts. This is one of those feel-good experiences that you have to experience firsthand: quality products, manageable selection, and wonderful service. In a word, porktastic.


Sikorski Meat Market
603 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11222
718-389-6181

Our favorites: Old-fashioned kielbasa sucha, smoked ribs, smoked loin of pork, Rye bread with poppy seeds

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Eternal Returns

What do you know about punarbhava, good reader? It's a Sanskrit term central to Buddhist philosophy, loosely translated as reincarnation. The idea goes something like this: life and death are part of the same “cycle of consciousness,” so when we die our “flame” doesn't completely burn out... it just jumps to a new candle.

Now normally this wouldn't be Porkchop Express material. But Ms. Slab recently left town for five days. And for five days I ate nothing but sausage, ham, bacon and butter, with an occasional slice of Rye.

I'm as big a pork fan as the next person, and yet by Day Five my body was rebelling: a constant state of nausea, slight chest constriction, jeans mysteriously tightening, persistent light-headedness, and the most disturbing symptom of all: an urgent desire to consume leafy greens.

All of which shook me up, and got me hoping that Buddhism was onto something. Maybe I was just prepping to take on a new life-form... but if so, what? I went thru the obvious: lion, tiger, wolverine, manatee, Olympic tri-athlete, underdog with a heart of gold, daredevil kung fu master sleuth, devilishly handsome brain surgeon...

And then it came to me... wouldn't Buddha be happier if I became the very thing that led to my passing? That which was so tasty, it made me abandon all common sense? I mulled it over, and grabbed a final bite of kielbasa: the answer was right there. If cosmic justice was at all just, what else could I return as, except, of course... a Polish butcher.

(This week's report below!)

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Polam International Meat Market

“Hundreds of hanging salamis, such bounty and fullness, the place teeming with smells and textures, the ceiling covered completely. I said, Rosemary, look. A gothic cathedral of pork.”
– Don DeLillo, Underworld
The Porkchop Express dedicated its second post ever to kielbasa. We gave a little history, then rolled thru Greenpoint and reported on two spots, Steve's and W-Nassau.

After returning to the neighborhood, we figured it was time to revisit a few local butchers. Polam International seemed as good a place as any to start: every time we walked by, the deep, narrow store was packed with people. And also, it smelled like delicious kielbasa.
Don't let the crowds deter you. There's a lot worth checking out inside, and we never once felt rushed. Polam's staff is friendly and helpful. That being said, I often dally when confronted by multiple pork products. But luckily Ms. Slab was there to keep me focused. We surveyed the store, mapped out a strategy, then got down to business.

First up: picking a few pickles and some shredded cabbage. Polam cures their own in barrels near the fresh meat counter. The kraut was a bit salty and musky for our tastes, but all three pickles were delicious. Don't miss those crisp, clean half sours and dilly dills; they taste great, and help cut the fat of a sausage dinner.
There is no shortage of whatnots and condiments, everything from mustards and horseradishes to soup mixes. But the prepared foods – 16-20 dishes daily – proved far more enticing. The pickings slim down in the evenings, but a few temptations lingered: golden-fried kotlet rybny, fish fillets, hand-rolled pirogi, boiled ham hocks, and a plump plate of stuffed cabbage. We brought a few of the cabbage home, heated them on the stove, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Good porky flavor and, at just under a buck a (giant) piece, great value.
A Flavorful Trifecta: Weselna, Krajana (?), Kabanosy (l-r)

All of this was well and good, but the true objects of our affections were the smoked meats. After fretting and sampling, we went with a trio of kielbasa: weselna, kabanosy, and what I think was krajana. The weselna (double-smoked) was plump and peppery, if a bit on the firm side. The slim kabanosy was "fresh" style: nice and garlicky, although we prefer this link air-dried (the flavors are far more pungent and concentrated).

The star of this trio? Hands down their terrific krajana. (Again, I should add that I think it was krajana. Or maybe wiejska. Just look for the plump, stout oval links hanging on the back wall.) This is the pride of Polam, touted by one butcher as their best, and it didn't disappoint: just juicy enough, spiked with pepper, slightly sweet and smoky... and one of the tastier sausages we've tried in Greenpoint.
Decisions, decisions: choices a-plenty at the Polam Meat Market

Much of Polam's good cheer extends from it's big-hearted owner, Zenon. Zenon used to own nearby (and much-heralded) W-Nassau Meat Market, but stepped aside to open Polam about a dozen years back. He originally hails from eastern Poland, and a family of “real butchers” and smoked meat artisans. Zenon's father taught him traditional techniques, which he uses to craft everything from fine Polish links to succulent German hams.

To punctuate his point, he disappeared briefly and returned with a quarter-pound of Westphalian Ham cut in delicate, paper-thin slices. Proof to his pudding, indeed. Without a doubt, this was our favorite product at Polam, a terrifically tasty meat that benefits from Zenon's smoking skills. He moves the hocks multiple times, back and forth from the smokehouse to the cooler. The process yields a dry, dense texture and deep, rich flavor. We were given strict instructions (“don't mess it up with mustard”), but to be honest it barely made it back on the subway. It's addictive: a refined meat that starts smoky, goes to sweet, salty, then finishes smoky. Enjoy it neat, or on a slice of soft Polish rye with butter.
Bacon, Polam style

Polam has other stuff as well. Juicy, smoked boneless ham hocks make for great presentation or a festive gift. Ribs and chops as well. Their change-of-pace “turkey ham” was satisfying, a smoky breast of real thick-cut Turkey (no water or chemicals added). And don't forget the house-cured bacon, salty slices that fry quickly and eat even quicker.

After sampling more than our fair share, we began to understand what Zenon meant about “real” butchering. He has a refreshingly distinct smoking style: bold, salty, slightly sweet; strong flavors, quality ingredients, time-tested recipes. Plus, he offers everything you might want from a Polish butcher, makes everything in-house, and sells everything at more-than-reasonable prices. The general quality is high, and some items (Westphalian) are terrific. A cathedral of pork? Preach on!


Polam International Meat Market
952 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn
718-349-7386

Our favorites: Westphalian ham, krajana kielbasa, house-cured pickles

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Damis

The neon cocktail sign suggests Pigalle naughty. The flying gorilla and talking ghoul make for odd dining companions. And the disco ball? It fits the disco music. But why is there a “dance floor” filled with chairs? And what on earth does any of this have to do with Polish food?

These were just a few of the questions lingering after a trip to Damis, a restaurant that manages to both clearly fit in and sorely stick out amongst its Polish brethren on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
If the monkey doesn't get you, watch out for the ghoul

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This area has it's own style, and few deviate from the norms: exposed brick “home-cooking” restaurants; old-school milk bars; low-key diners; and wonderful, glorious butchers (reports coming soon). But a semi-upscale pseudo-nightclub festive full-bar neon-laden spot for fine Polish-American fare? Damis is blazing new trails indeed.

A little background: they opened about 14 months ago. The name is a combination of the owners' two sons (Daniel and Aramis). They played disco music at night, and have a disco ball. Dancing may or may not occur on Saturday nights, and private parties are welcomed. As is drinking (this is one of the few restaurants in the area with a full bar). The giant stuffed gorilla is silent, but the ghoul has a motion sensor, and either talks or sings or (sigh) “raps” when folks get near.

Have I set the mood, friend? Let's get to the food then. For distractions notwithstanding, Damis is first and foremost a restaurant. And they take a lot of pride in their eats. The manager insisted that, flavor-wise, there was “no match in all of Greenpoint,” and The Porkchop Express was ready to test his claim.
Polish Platter? They make it phat, sir!

But what to order? We asked the waitress for suggestions, and were immediately led to the Trout. The what? “The trout,” she repeated. “It's my favorite." I like trout as much as the next Slab, and was swayed by her sincerity. So we ordered one, along with a Polish Platter.

We were waiting patiently, pondering the particulars of Polish trout (the menu offers few-to-no descriptions), when our waitress returned with a real gift: slices of rye and a pot of smalec. I first tasted smalec in Warsaw, and it was a revelation, a terrific spread that makes bread sing and stomachs bulge. What is it, you ask? Creamy lard studded with smoked meat. Yes, gentle reader, smalec is Bacon Butter, and it's every bit as good as it sounds. Yet it's a tragically rare find, at least on American dinner tables. Damis prepares theirs in the “old style” (read: with bacon fat), and for that we were grateful. This was a real treat, a nice ice-breaker and palate-tickler.
Trout? No doubt!

Two plates of rye, a tub of B-double, and a Polish beer later, and the Trout in vegetables & butter garlic ($14.95) arrived. I must say, the presentation was pretty swank (far nicer than this shot suggests). Damis' chef is Polish, but he earned his chops on Cruise ships and fish is his forte. This didn't disappoint. Served whole and lightly pan-fried, the inside was spiked with fresh dill. A twist of lemon, and you're ready to reel in some flavor. Don't miss out on the bed of veggies either, a well-cooked buttery mix of broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, carrots and peppers.

The Polish Platter ($12) also held its own. We weren't thrilled about the smoky-yet-tough kielbasa. And the thick-skinned, chewy pirogi received mixed reviews (tasty potato, mild kraut, bland meat). But the bigos (hunter's stew) was solid, a slow-cooked concoction of notably tangy cabbage and tender meats. The golabki (stuffed cabbage) was also well-executed, a tender pocket of plump pork smothered in a comforting, unusually spiced tomato sauce. Try some with a bite of thin, crisp oniony potato pancake.

We were hoping to order homemade blintzes to round things off, but had trouble hailing down the waitress. I think it had something to do with my Ms. Slab licking the smalec bowl earlier. Not that it mattered tho; we had eaten our share, and were starting to fear an encore from the ghoul. (One Transylvanian-style Rapper's Delight goes a very long way.) Plus, Damis had shown its hand: tasty, eclectic, and not without an admittedly odd charm. If you don't mind the relatively high prices and don't fear gorillas, or (better still) if the phrase “Bacon Butter” whets your wallabees, then throw caution to the wind and give it a go.


Damis
931 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY 11222
718-349-7501


Entrees: between $6.50–$16.
(But Smalec is on the house!!)

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Frankie Goes to Hollywood Greenpoint

We're headed to Greenpoint, good reader, Brooklyn's epicenter of all things Poland. But we're only here to hit the pavement, sample the kielbasa, and report back on where to find the best Polish food in Brooklyn.

Greenpoint has no shortage of reasonably-priced places dishing up traditional delicacies, yet picking one out from the crowd is something of a chore. How to choose, when nigh every kielbasa I've ever seen looks (and smells) ((and tastes)) great? Or when most menus appear generic and/or nondescript?

Don't let any apparent homogeneity fool you; quality varies wildly. And we're looking for only the finest: fresh fried golden cutlets, delicate and delightful stuffed cabbage, ethereal blintzes, savory potato pancakes, buoyant borscht, and a kielbasa that lives up to its potential.

What separates the real from the no-deal? Spicing, preparation, selection, attention to detail, and good old fashioned heart. Such are the ingredients of most good meals, and Polish is no exception. This is a cuisine developed by kings and peasants alike, Slavic in origin and European in inflection, a source of great national pride and tremendous international appeal.

When done right Polish food is also some of our favorite, enjoyable any day at more-than-reasonable prices. So hop on board and stay tuned; our first report below, with plenty more to follow.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Christina's Restaurant

The take-out menu at Christina's Restaurant reads Zapraszamy Na Śniadania Obiady Kolacje. Which, according to the “unique English-Polish bidirectional online full text translation system”Poltran.com, means:
“We invite dinners of suppers on breakfasts.”
But what does that mean? Is supper-on-breakfast one of those made-up Hobbit meals from LOTR? Was this place a BYO-Food pyramid scheme? Or had yet another bidirectional translation system let me down? The Porkchop Express decided not to sweat it, and assumed Christina was just inviting us to eat... so we headed inside.
Wall of Fame: Christina, restauranteur and patron of the arts, poses with Polish celebrities

Christina's promises “Home Cooked Meals,” and the atmosphere is pretty homey too. This is a genuinely relaxed place. The warmth is evident in everything from a thick entrance curtain to a friendly waitstaff. Add some exposed brick, discreet lighting, stained glass, and the dulcet tones of an artificial waterfall, and we were in the mood to kielbasa.

The owner Christina (from Krakow) is a patron of the arts. She keeps dozens of pictures with Polish singers, painters, et al on the back wall. Her restaurant opened about 10 years back, and she's met a fair share of celebrities in that time. Glamour, glitz, and not an entré over $7? Let’s get to tasting!
Polish Platter: pierogis, stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes, hunter's stew, kielbasa

The Polish Platter ($6.70) offers a pretty good lay of the land, so we started there. The fried pierogis were tasty, served chewy and piping hot (mushroom/sauerkraut was best). Yet the bigos – slow-cooked hunter's stew of cabbage and multiple meats – was unusually light. This was like drinking a glass of skim milk when I was expecting half & half. The kraut flavor was entirely too clean, dominated more by overbearing herbs than pork, kielbasa and mushrooms. I prefer this dish on the slow-cooked hearty side, and these flavors just didn't come together. Maybe this stew is for hunters on a diet.

On the flip side, we can wholeheartedly endorse their kielbasa. It was a well-grilled link, juicy, snappy, and thoroughly enjoyable. The stuffed cabbage (golabki) was good too, tender peppery ground pork cradled in a green leaf and simmered in a creamy tomato-based sauce.
Pork Goulash on Potato Pancakes

Far more disappointing? The enticingly named Pork Goulash served on potato pancakes. Polish P-doubles tend to be either light and fluffy (“batter” style) or shredded (“hash brown” style). These were the latter, fried golden brown, dense and toothsome. But the Goulash itself, alas... lacked... flavor.

I'm still confused by this one. Does the sentence even make sense?
“The Pork Goulash wasn't very flavorful.”
Improbable... but true. And I know what you're thinking, friend. How could something with Pork and Goulash in the name be low on delicious? Maybe they used Turkey or Tofu or Tofakin' by accident. Either way, the end result was the Polish equivalent of those white-sauce noodle dishes served at Chinese delivery spots: gloppy, dull, and missing an ingredient or three.
Good beets...
...and so-so salads

But so it went at Christina's. Some dishes were spot on, others underwhelming. Even the veggies kept us guessing: nice firm sweet shredded beets were followed by not-so-nice soggy cucumbers in sour cream, and a standard slaw.
Was the atmosphere enough to bring me back? Dunno. There are far worse options, particularly if you want to dine solo for $10. If that's your story, grab a seat at the counter, order at Tyskie or Zywiec Beer and a side of sausage, and read a book.

But that being said, much more awaits in Greenpoint... so tune in next time, as we keep on our search for delicious!


Christina's Restaurant

Open daily, 8 am – 8 pm
853 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
(718) 383-4382

Entrees: between $5–$7, served with 2 sides.

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