Potatoes didn’t arrive in northern Europe for at least a couple centuries after the reign of Jadwiga of Poland, the female monarch (technically a king) largely held responsible for spicing up her court’s royal cuisine with exotica from her father’s native Hungary. As for most of her subjects in the Middle Ages, it was a lot of groats until the Andean tuber arrived in the late 18th century and took hold with a tenacity that persists today. At least that’s if you’re judging its progress by the menu at Qulinarnia, a Mount Prospect strip-mall storefront that tags itself “modern Polish cuisine.” Eight out of 12 entrees on the menu, plus a la carte pierogi, feature some form of starchy root, set next to or perhaps under some piece of protein. Modern Polish or not, it’s still meat and potatoes.
The bright red walls and white leather banquettes certainly conform to the national colors, a sleek overall gestalt my Polish-born pal vouched for as “very Polish, very Euro,” even with a new set of bookshelves stocked with titles as disparate as I Love Crab Cakes, My Life in France, and Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich. This is the first restaurant from former insurance broker Agnes Janowska, who on another occasion agreeably informed me that she still has her license if I had any need of her services—this after explaining that the suffix “-narnia” has nothing to do with the Lion, the Witch, or the Wardrobe, but instead completes a Polish-language portmanteau that means a place where culinary business gets done.
Priority on spuds isn’t immediately apparent among salads, soups, and appetizers, though a couple of them take very traditional forms, such as a powerfully tart, roughly emulsified cream of pickle soup, its bright virescence amplified by parsley, celery, and marjoram. It’s even more the case with the zurek, or “white borsch,” made from fermented rye flour, bobbing with tiny bacon dice, and concealing a hidden skewer of pork sausage coins.
The ample appetizers are more generally continental, excepting a few disks of seared sheep’s milk highlander cheese, not unlike saganaki in its density and saltiness, prettied up with peppery arugula and dabs of snappy red quinoa and cranberry sauce. There’s a thick, dense cube of minced tenderloin tartare, fresh enough to satisfy the pickiest of predators, amalgamated with diced pickle and garnished with a raw egg yolk, all sitting atop a modernist smear of blue cheese sprinkled with a few crunchy roasted capers. There are trenchers of garlic toast mounted with thick coils of salty pickled herring and topped with a towering headdress of pickled onions, julienned apples, and microgreens. And the lovely, silky chanterelles cooked in a rich cream sauce are the prizes hidden under a few triangles of puff pastry.
Entrees are a bit less predictably enjoyable, mostly due to overcooked proteins that are upstaged by their supporting players. That’s the fate that befell a piece of tough, overroasted cod fillet topped with a tangle of lemony sauteed spinach, balanced on a quartet of crispy, finely shredded potato-pancake balls and finished with a creamy shiitake mushroom sauce. It’s also true of some nicely seasoned, slices of duck breast, nonetheless cooked gray in the middle, served with roasted baby carrots and broccoli, topped with a tossing of granola-like gluten-free whole-grain bread croutons, and plated alongside a creamy artichoke mousse. The aforementioned potato-pancake balls assume their original flattened form in a dish that approximates a suboptimal imposter of the Hungarian–style pancake at Jefferson Park’s great but hardly modern Smak-Tak. Here, a thin, bland, and underseasoned goulash rapidly soaks into the crispy potato.
More straightforward or old-school dishes are more successful, like a simple filet mignon with roasted sauerkraut and deep-fried mashed-potato balls, or a pounded and breaded schnitzel–style pork chop with mashed potato and sauteed mushrooms (fungi play runner-up to potatoes here), or even the uncomplicated potato-and-cheese pierogi, boasting a thin, tender dough and needing nothing more than butter and a sprinkle of bacon bits. Their modern cousins, stuffed with spinach and lobster and tossed with cherry tomatoes, take a more Italian approach, undercut by some suspiciously fishy-smelling shellfish.
For dessert, a square piece of stewed apple pie makes one long for the American version, while a cheesecake made with farmer cheese has a lighter, less sweet, almost crumbly texture that feels like a relief in contrast to its western analogues.
Qulinarnia offers 15 domestic red and white wines and four Polish brews, including a superlight and refreshing lemon Warka Radler ideal for washing down this rib-sticking food.
Ultimately Qulinarnia isn’t ushering in a revolutionary Jadwiga-style shift in Polish cuisine. There are some perfunctory cheffy touches, but it’s not much more radical than the humble but wonderful stuff you’d find closer to home at Podhalanka or Smak-Tak.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Poland produces no wine.