There may be restaurants with more unpromising entrances elsewhere in Britain, but not many. The door to the Karczma – it means „the inn” – is on the ground floor of Birmingham’s Polish Centre, a dreary grey brutalist shoe box of a building, complete with a memorial to the Polish officers murdered by the Soviets at Katyn in 1940.. Through the door, however, and you are somewhere else – a place that demands a suspension of, well, everything: cynicism, self-regarding urbane sophistication and, of course, disbelief.
The ceiling is thatched with straw. The walls are painted with murals of pre-war farm life. There is gnarly farmyard-style furniture draped with sheepskins. There are lines of fake greenery spun through with fairy lights which may just be there for Christmas but could quite as easily be there all year round. Roaring Polish songs play and a flatscreen TV shows the news from home. It is meant, I think, to look like a country cottage in the Tatra mountains, only with consumer electronics. It is high camp with a very straight face.
You really could laugh at all this, along with the slightly odd Polish-to-English menu translations with their unintended comedy. Then again you should try my English-to-Polish translations. Absolute pants. That would be to miss the point. There is something very special going on here: a true instinct to feed, a massive generosity of spirit, and an outstanding love affair with the noble pig. This is Polish food the way you want it: deep, rich, soothing, hearty. It is one long hug on a plate. It is two fingers up to the caprices of fashion. A friend of mine once spent Christmas Day in Egypt with 10 Polish men who drank vodka all day and at 4pm started weeping; I imagine a lot of men have wept at the Karczma. I wanted to.
The owner said that the kitchen „is not professional” – by which he meant his wife does all the cooking. If this is amateurism I’ll take it every time. The pea soup is a celebration of stock. It has a depth that reaches down to your core and back up again. It has that musky sweetness of long-cooked peas and lentils and is thick enough to be used as Aertex. In the middle bobs a perfect length of garlicky Polish sausage with the sort of skin that cracks as you cut in. We order the mixed pierogi and they arrive looking like delicately steamed Cornish pasties, the pert white dumpling casings almost translucent. There is one with onion and cheese, another with mushrooms, a third with carefully minced beef. Each tastes of uncommon care and precision. Now you want the owner’s wife to be your mum.
I order a slow-roasted ham hock and that is what I get, a big bronzed smoky thing that could have fallen off a passing dinosaur. The thin layer of fat under the bronzed skin lubricates the meat. There are big, fat chips, but like I care. There is a dish of mustard and another of sweet, grated horseradish. A huntsman stew is a bundle of sauerkraut spun through with shredded pig and bigger lumps of pork, the whole stuffed into a glazed loaf from which the crumb has been ripped out. You could eat the bowl, but after the pierogi you won’t.
For dessert we choose the apple cake, and then pause while we consider our portions. „You will have cheesecake,” the waitress says, and we do not argue. It is soft and light and fresh. „It is,” my companion says, „what New York cheesecake wants to be when it grows up.” The apple cake, under whorls of cream, is equally light and soft and comforting. The two are placed in the middle of the table and we eat in contented silence.
Do I need to tell you that the Karczma is really good value? Of course not. Starters are four or five quid; few of the mains more than a tenner. Occasionally the weather forecast in Poland flashes up on the TV, a confetti of snowflakes rolling out across Silesia, and the food only makes more sense.
They offer us a shot of vodka but we decline. We don’t need it. We are drunk enough already on the joys of the Karczma. Go there.