Looking into any national cuisine is like diving into a history and geography lesson, which is probably why I find it so stifling that people who eat the same food can fight. But I digress. Polish cuisine might suffer from the quite unfair catchall "meat and potatoes" description, but in reality, like the country from which it originates, it has a long and colorful history, which is anything but simple or two-tone.
And since we have some of the densest Polish population outside of Poland right here in the Chicago area, you could say we are quite lucky to have an abundance of pierogi stands, delis, bakeries and buffets. But perhaps you won't find as many upscale joints such as Qulinarnia Modern Polish Cuisine, a new outpost at the intersection of Route 83 and Golf Road, along what some call Mt. Prospect's "restaurant row" that's also home to Retro Bistro, Jelly Café, Mina Restaurant, and Black Cow Kitchen and Bar.
Qulinarnia1730 Golf Road, Mount Prospect, (847) 981-0480, www.qulinarnia.com
Cuisine: Modern Polish
Setting: Contemporary and classy, warm and welcoming
Entrees: $13.99 to $24.99
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
Owned by husband and wife team Agnieszka Janowska and Dariusz Zychowski, Qulinarnia is a portmanteau of culinary and narnia (as in a whimsical, adventurous place). And with a solid chef, Damian Piekarczyk, alum of Hotel Crocus in Zakopane, Poland, in the kitchen, there is an unmistakable ambition in the air.
The restaurant boasts a traditional Polish authenticity in ingredients, but with a modern accent on seasonal produce and locally sourced meat (Walnut Acres Farms; Dave & Robin). That translates into all good stuff: beets, pork, sauerkraut, mushrooms and cream with a distinctly European, minimalist flair and American-sized portions.
Inside, the space is long and narrow, like many big city restaurant counterparts. Framed pencil renderings of notable Polish monuments embellish the walls, alongside something rather American -- an oversized black and white drawing of Audrey Hepburn circa "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in the spacious bathroom.
As we sat at one of the half dozen or so white leather booths lining the walls, in between bookcases overflowing with culinary books, an unexpected amuse arrives -- two generous slices of pate with a dollop of sweet yellow apples flanked by two simple slices of French bread. It's an amuse only by name; the quantity easily brings it into the przekska (appetizer) territory.
It's a prelude of what's to come: well-balanced, colorful, and upbeat sweet and savory flavors. A wine and beer list is apt and compact, featuring a quality unoaked chardonnay and several selections from the always-excellent Russian River Valley winery, but Warka Radler -- a Polish lemon beer -- does not lag far behind.
We saved staples like pierogies, borscht and cream of pickles soup for another visit -- and we'd be more than happy to return -- going instead for another good standby: the herring in oil. Oversized slices of fish atop garlicky toasted French bread crowned with pickled red onion, a touch of mint and a cascade of perfectly julienne apple slices amount to a dramatically high dish that's sweet, subtle, crunchy and very good.
Another appetizer, a trio of puff pastry triangles soaking up rich, bacon-specked chanterelles mushrooms, baby kale and a good amount of butter is equally, if not more, fragrant and satisfying.
Entrees are, perhaps to no one's surprise and definitely to no one's complaint, a touch pork-centric with grilled French-cut chops, a traditional polish breaded chop, and baked pork tenderloin, which we ordered. Adorned with long glistening strips of smoked bacon, subtly horseradish mash potatoes and a porcini mushroom sauce, the dish is in perfect harmony.
But don't worry, variety is not lagging by any means: lamb chops served over beets, ground meat schnitzel, pan-roasted salmon over carrots and ginger purée and baked rainbow trout with wild rice are some of the menu offerings.
The duck breast also tickled our fancy. A festive, colorful dish with chunks of the medium-well cooked bird as the centerpiece, its fatty seared skin in tact, it strikes a perfect chord amid a "cranberry and grape salsa," caramelized onions, a few spoonfuls of artichoke mousse and a delicious, in-house flourless "bread" of sunflower seeds affixed to almonds and raisins. A baked plum dessert reminds me and my companion of our Eastern European childhoods, but a more universal sweet grabbed us -- a square of warm apple pie that more resembles a tart: short, with a dense crust and a drizzle of sweet raspberry sauce.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.