About twelve months ago his holiness Jay Rayner reviewed a little known Polish restaurant in Birmingham – The Karczma. It was a surprise because not only had he made the effort to travel outside of the M25, which is unusual for many food writers, but also because he loved it. Raved about it in fact, and we’ve been meaning to go ever since. Last week we had our chance to go for a family dinner.
The restaurant forms part of the Polish Centre in the East Side of the city. A brutal 1950s box of a building which suggests, other than the post-modern large crucifix adorning the wall, that unspeakable medical procedures could easily be taking place inside. Usually I’d drive through these streets with the doors locked doing 40mph, it’s all a bit down at heel. If it weren’t for Jay’s glittering review I suspect even those sturdy Brummy foodies that have endured such horrors as Soya Cafe in the name of gourmand investigation may not have crossed its threshold.
Step inside though and you’re greeted with a pastiche of a Polish crofter’s cottage: straw clad ceilings, log furniture, lace trimmed curtains and table doilies. When we were seated the cheeriest waiter ever introduced himself in comically broken English, and asked us whether we’d like some bread and lard. How could we refuse! Mmmm. Lard. It was actually pork dripping, I’m still undecided about the experience – it was sort of greasy, salty, porky, but not unpleasant.
The menu is lengthy with starters around £7 and mains around £12. Our waiter was very helpful in giving us tips on menu options, telling us his top three for each course. Go hungry, the portions are enormous. The starter dish of Pierogi is enough to feed two, with three Cornish pasty sized dumplings filled with cabbage, meat, and mushrooms. They were tasty. I had a dish of grilled smoked sheep’s cheese with cranberry sauce. For me it was overly smoked, and the cranberry sauce wasn’t strong or sweet enough to counter the ashy notes. The clear beetroot soup had great earthy flavour, and came with a crispy mushroom croquette – I think this was the outstanding dish of the meal.
I’m convinced that the descriptions on the menu of some of the dishes are purposefully incorrect for comedy value. One of the mains we had was “melt in the mouth beef served on crispy edges” – it was actually a beef stew served in a folded potato rosti. The beef was nice but I thought the rosti was a bit tastless. I had the slow cooked ham hock for my main which was unctuous and the plain waxy boiled potatoes side worked well with it. We also tried the chicken kiev which was succulent but without much garlic flavour. We plumped for Tyskie Polish lager with our dinner rather than wines, and then to end a flavoured vodka.
I’m not sure it’s worth the hype that Jay Rayner’s review created – I simply didn’t find the food as astonishing as he did – this isn’t fine dining, it’s hearty Polish home-cooking. However, we did enjoy our evening and it’s certainly a place to try with your family to tuck in to huge portions and to have a fun filled evening.