The Karczma Polish Restaurant is a hidden gem located just behind Birmingham Moor Street Station, offering the city’s only opportunity to dine Polish style.
The recent plaudits, from acclaimed TV and Guardian food critic Jay Rayner, have brought a new wave of clientele to The Karczma, all curious to sample the delights of a Polish kitchen.
Personally, I’ve always known about there being a restaurant in that spot. Being partly of Polish parentage, I would visit The Karczma regularly in its former guise when it belonged to the Polish Social Club, still at that building. The last few years have seen many changes including new management, a business detachment from the Polish club and a re-vamp in both décor and general offering.
The word ‘Karczma’ itself translated means ‘inn or tavern’ and its décor upon entry facsimiles that of a traditional Polish mountain chalet, with silver birch tree cladding, thatched ceilings, wooden carvings and crocheted doilies. The seating is made up of solid wooden tables and benches with shaggy fleece-covered stools adorning the bar area. The atmosphere is very relaxed, quite homely and complemented by modern Polish music that pipes through the restaurant.
The dining demographic is mainly made up of adult groups but families are accommodated and children are welcome.
As an appetiser included in your meal price, crusty bread, szmalec and whole large gherkins (home-grown rather than jarred cocktail versions) are available once you’ve ordered. You can go up to a designated table already set up with the items and help yourself. Szmalec (pronounced ‘shmalets’) is basically a hardened pork dripping and lard spread (paté-esque). Although not well-known to the British palate, it is somewhat of a delicacy in Poland as well as other parts of Eastern Europe. As szmalec isn’t vegetarian, I opted for the bread and gherkins only, which certainly bridged the gap between ordering and the meal arriving, although meals are served quite promptly.
On this visit, I was eating with a group of meat-eating friends (who like me are of Polish descent). They all opted for the Placek po Zbojnicku. It consists of beef stew and mushrooms wrapped in a potato pancake with an assorted vegetable salad. The portion size was extremely generous, beef was commented upon as tender and the pancake fluffy yet crisp.
For myself as the token vegetarian of the group, I normally go for the Pierogi, which follow the same principle as ravioli – dough parcels stuffed with a filling. Veggie-friendly options include cabbage & mushroom or Russian style which contains mashed potato. But on this occasion, I decided to go for Placki (pronounced – ‘platz-ki’), which are fried potato cakes served with sour cream. The portion contained 3 large, thick placki with a little pot of sour cream and a salad garnish. The potato was cooked well and fried to a nice golden colour.
Although filling and tasty, I would have preferred it served as a two-placki portion with a large salad or with some something else to add variety to it. Perhaps some cooked vegetables.
The coding of vegetarian food on the menu at The Karczma is misleading and needs to be revised. The ‘V’ symbol denoting vegetarian food can be found against dishes that are fish-based, and so not acceptable for strict vegetarian diets. Especially as a regular diner, I would like to see more Polish-style vegetarian dishes offered which I’m sure other diners would welcome and enjoy as well. For instance – dishes such as vegetarian Bigos(cabbage stew) or Golabki (cabbage rolls filled with rice/grains) or even a vegetarian version of the Placek po Zbojnicku would all make for good alternative options.
Dessert-wise, traditional Polish apple cake (Szarlotka – pronounced ‘Sharlotka’) and cheesecake on a biscuit base (Sernik) are the main options representing Polish cuisine. I had the szarlotka which is served with cream or ice cream. A base of cake with a puréed apple layer is covered in a crumbled topping. More generic offerings such as ice cream and sweet pancakes are also available.
A range of soft and alcoholic drinks are on offer. Polish beer (Zywiec), dominates the ale options, although other beers are available. Other alcoholic beverages include a range of spirits and wines with a focus on specialty vodkas, following its reputation as the national drink of Poland. Some to try are Zubrowka, a rye vodka best served with apple juice and Wisniowka, a cherry liqueur, ideal to have post-meal in a shot-glass measure. Hot drinks are available in all forms including tea Polish style, which is black with a slice of lemon.
Prices have increased slightly recently but dishes are still priced competitively considering city centre location, portion size offered and the fact that the food is made on site in a ‘home-cooking’ style. The one thing I would suggest is that the desserts could be a little cheaper and this may encourage more diners to try them.
Pierogi (stuffed dough parcels) = £7.20
Placki (fried potato cakes) = £7.20
Placek po Zbojnicku (Beef stew and mushrooms with potato pancake) = £14.00
Szarlotka (Polish apple cake) = £5.50
Sernik (cheesecake) = £5.20
Total (for 2 diners) = £39.10
A unique venue ideal for experiencing authentic Polish cuisine and hospitality, centrally located yet far enough to be away from busy areas. Good, home-cooked, rustic meals with some dishes available for vegetarians. The addition of a few more, plus more accurate signposting of veggie dishes, would push the menu closer to perfect.