Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is a classic sci-fi epic about The Foundations, organizations set up at opposite ends of the galaxy dedicated to preserving the culture of a galactic civilization nearing its end. One foundation is apparent to the eye and the other is hidden from view.
Fast forward to Los Angeles circa 2009. What if the civilization being preserved was Polish? What would you do? Were this the midwest, say a rusty industrial town like Cleveland, finding a Polish restaurant would not be such a chore. Just roll out your barrel to suburban Parma and throw yourself to the bounty of pierogis (Poland's answer to the potsticker) and cabbage rolls that await you. Los Angeles and its rainbow variety of Thai-Latin-Korean-Chinese-Armenian-Persian teeming masses vastly outnumber the contingent of our Polish friends. You might take a page from the Asimov playbook and create two very different restaurants on opposite ends of town. One you've certainly passed a thousand times, the other secreted away in a faceless mini-mall both represent unique expressions of Polish culture. This review, in two parts, focuses on the west-most restaurant.
Warszawa is located on Lincoln in Santa Monica. I'm sure you've driven by and thought "Warszawa? Wonder if that's any good?" Let's face it, Polish food may not be the most exotic number in town, but it does deeply satisfy. Originally located in Berkeley, the restaurant relocated to Santa Monica in 1979 where it has remained a stable bastion of Eastern European fare ever since. Stepping across the threshold of the restaurant takes you to an elegant, fancy space. Maybe you might be visiting the home of your Polish aunty who has more than a touch of aristocratic blood, she's a classy lady, after all. Spaces are oddly out of place in a cardboard city that made mid-century modernism its official visual language. Its an elegant, olde world spot spotted with posters of high culture events-- symphonies, theater and such. Its calming and serene.
The menu has all the classics, Bigos Hunter's Stew, Veal Paprikash, Beef Stroganoff and, of course, Stuffed Cabbage! Few items exceed $20. We elect for potato leek soup and pierogies to start, Polish-style Gnocchi with sauteed mushrooms and cream, and, my favorite, Stuffed Cabbage.
The soup was so flavorful that Trusty Dining Companion declared it one of the best ever. I have to concur. The creamy smooth potato essence was delightful.
The Pierogis came deep fried, which is different from how one generally finds them in the heart of Polish Cleveland (where boiling or broiling is the most common M.O.). However, paradoxically, these deep fried versions were so light and flavorful I only remembered to take a photograph after half of them had been eaten. The two version we ordered--wild mushroom and shredded cabbage and braised beef, carrots and onions provided nice contrasting flavors. The latter had echoes of the best beef pot pie you've ever tasted and the mushroom cabbage combination exuded a distinctly Eastern European flavor.
The Gnocchi, were like the pierogi, unusually light and fluffy. These are not the dense, chewy Italian versions, but something much more ethereal. They balanced the heavier but flavorful mushroom-loaded cream sauce very well. There was enough to take home afterwards too. On the side were a carrot sweet potato puree (Declared: "Super Yummy!") and always good-for-you steamed broccoli. The latter were covered with some sort of buttered breadcrumb "sauce" that added a fatty component to this otherwise healthy vegetable.
The Cabbage Rolls came in a pair, with a side of de rigeur mashed potatoes, all covered with a tomato-based sauce and the broccoli/sweet potato puree. This was most excellent. My fork cut through the cabbage roll with little effort. I think I even moaned while eating them. I ate slow and let the food sink in. Fortunately, we could add these to the leftover bag too.
All-in-all it was a pleasant evening at Warszawa. The fare was much lighter than expected, but no less satisfying. Probably not the best place for a first date (Unless, of course, she was a hot Polish super model suffering form homesickness). This is a spot for a dear old friend, and now that you've settled into unspoken comfort, who only wants to enjoy a quiet, delicious meal with good company.
PS. They say the beer garden out back is a great warm weather gathering spot.
1414 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica, CA
310 393 8831