Karczma: Polish Comfort Food with a Side of Shtick

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[Photographs: Paul Yee]

Stepping into Karczma is like entering an Epcot Center version of a Polish farmhouse. Wagon wheel chandeliers and gas lamp fixtures light up a dining room that centers around a prop water well. The waitresses, costumed in billowy peasant dresses, push the vibe dangerously close to theme restaurant territory.

Thankfully though, that's where the tacky facade ends—the kitchen is genuinely Polish, putting out food that rivals any other restauracja in Greenpoint.

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Lard.

For those unfamiliar with the food of Poland, a starter of whipped Lard ($3.75) would be an appropriate introduction. A bite of warmed sourdough rye, spread with glistening fatback lard, laced with small chunks of peppery smoked pork, and topped with a vinegar pickle embodies the hallmarks of Polish cuisine: rich, thrifty, and comforting. There will be pork and there will be pickles.

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Hunter's bacon.

An equally impressive balance is found in the Hunter's Bacon ($5.50). Thick slices of cured and smoked pork belly are grilled and served along sharp and pungent blue cheese and sweet, barely caramelized onions. They're all strong, aggressive flavors that manage to play surprisingly well together; a swipe of mustard brings them all into focus.

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Pickle soup.

I'm not even sure how to describe pickle soup ($3.50), a dish that has no peer outside of eastern Europe. Shreds of pickled cucumber and dill swim in a broth spiked with pickle juice and enriched with a touch of cream. It's light and refreshing, but warm and soothing all at the same time.

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Oscypek cheese.

Fried Oscypek Cheese ($7.50) pairs well with an included cranberry sauce. Smoked sheep's milk cheese doesn't melt though, so don't expect a gooey mozzarella stick.

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Plate of Polish specialties.

An overwhelmingly generous Plate of Polish Specialties ($11.50) should easily feed two, but the collection of classic provisions can be inconsistent. On some visits the fried pierogies are wonderfully crisp and stuffed with moist fillings; other times a limp dough wraps around a soft center. Their kielbasa suffers the same fate, occasionally snappy and juicy, sometimes dry. The other items—a hunter's stew, stuffed cabbage, and crispy potato pancakes—are all consistently very well done.

Even with the vast selection of Polish restaurants in the neighborhood, Karczma might be the best destination for those visiting Greenpoint in search of a dining experience. There is more interesting food at Krowlewskie Jadlo and a truly homey and cozy meal at Lomzynianka. I'm tempted to say that Karczma is worth a visit in spite of its folky farmhouse schtick. But after a strong beer, that gimmick very quickly becomes endearing; and after a satisfying meal, it's just part of the fun.

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