It's somewhat ironic that as the South Side continues to shift from an Eastern European immigrant community toward well-heeled gentrification, its main corridor -- increasingly marked by the urbane contemporary cuisines -- should now harbor a restaurant devoted to Eastern European food. But since many of us haven't got a baba at home patiently making Old Country dishes, the South Side, even as it grows a little more sophisticated by the day, is still the place to find hearty servings of goulash and borscht.
There's no indication that Old Europe, open since 1999, once housed a Chinese restaurant. Cozy booths, paintings of the Old Country and colorful pottery tableware lend the restaurant a certain mid-century, mid-Europe timelessness. It was a cold night, and I wanted to start with something warm and filling like vareniki, Ukrainian pierogies ($4.50). Fried in butter and topped with fresh parsley, diced red peppers and bacon morsels, the plump pockets contained soft potato mixed with a sweet sauerkraut. They looked colorful and fancy, like pierogies dressed up for a party. This first dish epitomized the rest of the evening's fare: substantial homey food presented with flair.
We sampled another appetizer as well: kolozsvari retes ($6.95), a specialty of Transylvania, a meaty mix of smoked pork, bacon, sausage and sauerkraut encased in strudel accompanied by a veal paprika reduction. We were halfway through when the waiter brought a complimentary appetizer, a similar warm strudel filled with spinach and Hungarian feta cheese.
If I had a baba, she might have heeded me not to fill up on strudels, however divinely flaky -- or wheat bread (I had to try the herbed butter) -- because large salads were on the way. In place of one of our standard house salads, we ordered a very large roasted red pepper salad ($5.50). Garnished with Kalamata olives and grated feta cheese, the sweet smoky peppers slipped down easily with a lemon and oil dressing. I left much of it to my companion so I could tackle my house salad, which was a crunchy delight: diced tomatoes, celery, cucumber, green pepper and red onion were tossed in a light vinaigrette with feta cheese. I forgot the cold outside, thinking this is a perfect, refreshing summer salad.
My companion ordered the Seven Chieftains tokany, ($16.95), named for the seven Magyar tribal leaders of ancient Hungary. This is a goulash-type stew that boasts smoked bacon, beef, pork, veal and vegetables in a hearty brown sauce over homemade galuska noodles with sour cream, and is large enough to sustain at least two chieftains. Both entrees came with a side dish of Hungarian green beans, served chilled, and tossed with garlic, onion, olive oil and vinegar.
I went immediately for the chicken Kiev ($15.50), a dish I'd heard much about, but had never tried. A tenderized chicken breast is folded around seasoned butter (herbs, Madeira, white wine and cognac), sealed, dipped in seasoned breading and fried. Though its origins are foreign, the dish was popular in the '50s when Americans -- encouraged by prosperity and television cooking shows -- found glamour in international cuisine and particularly in dishes, that when served, provided an element of spectacle.
The chicken Kiev resembled a breaded baked potato and was accompanied with a warning: contents hot. Its "performance" didn't disappoint. As the knife sliced into it, a torrent of hot butter spurted forth, swamping the defenseless long-grain rice before damming alongside a puree of red peppers. Butter-lovers like myself are tempted to think of chicken Kiev as a delicious stick of butter around which some incidental chicken is wrapped. But, that's unfair to the chicken -- the meat was moist and scented with residual butter, the crisp breading a perfect golden brown.
While all the desserts tempted me, I chose Rigo Jancsi, a chocolate cake that the menu said had been named for a gypsy violinist from Hungary (in honor it seems, of his scandalous love affair with an American beauty.) I could fall madly in love with Rigo Jancsi the dessert: chocolate sponge cake, layered with milk chocolate whipped cream and apricot preserves, topped with a hard semi-sweet chocolate top. The cake and the cream were both light and airy, and the tang of the apricot balanced perfectly with the sharper chocolate topping.
I had my coffee at Old Europe, but hitting Carson Street on my exit and spying the hipster java joint Beehive and the neighboring chain Starbucks, I noted that at least for now, the old and the new South Side communities were co-existing peacefully. ***