Friday, October 30, 2009

Ze Mean Bean

I grew up in a Polish-American family, speaking Polish and eating Polish food. My grandmother was 39 when my mother was born, and my mother was a few weeks shy of 30 when I made my appearance in the world. That meant by the time I came along, for the most part, Grandma's days of cooking were behind her. No more home-made pierogi (ravioli-like dumplings), pączki (donuts), or krusciki (bow-tie cookies). But, she still made some things: soups like barszcz (borcht), szczaw (sorrel soup), and rosół (chicken soup); placki (potato pancakes); for the holidays there was always kapusta i kielbasy (sauerkraut and fresh Polish sausage); and when I was very small there were gołąbki (stuffed cabbage). Eventually, that became too labor-intensive, and Grandma didn't like to have "help" when she was in the kitchen. She grated every beet and potato herself, despite having four other adults in the house. For this reason, her recipes didn't get passed down from generation to generation and I have none.

Grandma's been gone since the mid-90s and I still make the occasional traditional Easter meal (throwing Ostrowski's kielbasa and some sauerkraut into a pot doesn't require a recipe), but it's rare that I get to eat good Polish food. About the only place in town that serves something from my memories is Ze Mean Bean Cafe, in Fells Point. I try to get there at least once a year with friends of mine from out of town, fellow Slavs. This year I remembered to take photographs.

We started off with the hriby dip, a mixture of mushrooms, sour cream, and Gruyere, served warm with toast. We fought over every last creamy, mushroomy bit. (I do not have photographic evidence, but there was even some not-so-clandestine bowl-licking going on.)

Next we had a round of borcht, a pretty similar recipe to Grandma's barszcz, but with the addition of carrots (my grandmother used beets only). It was good, but not as good as it has been in the past, which made me sad. It was usually the one thing that most took me back to my childhood, and this bowl's shortcomings were almost physically painful.

We tried two salads, this one with mache in a porcini vinaigrette accompanied by a raw beet and dried currant salad...

...and this salad with massive walnut halves and blackberries, chunks of Roquefort, and a cognac vinaigrette. Both were very nice, particularly the shredded beets in the salad above, and the luscious cheese in the one below.

On to the "Slavic Sampler" with cured kielbasa (which I had never eaten as a child and always have thought of it as an impostor, like an Eckrich or Hillshire Farms product), pierogi, holupki (a.k.a. gołąbki), and placki with home-made applesauce. I will admit that the kielbasa had nice texture and flavor, despite not being what I had eaten my entire life. The holupki were generously stuffed with rice and meat and had a particularly flavorful tomato sauce topping that might have been better than Grandma's, had I been able to remember back some 40 years.

We also ordered extra pierogi, because one can never have too many. ZMB's were fried until crisp on the outside and served with onions. The fillings were sauerkraut, farmer's cheese, and potato; my fave were the cheese, which had just the right amount of sweet and savory.

This is holushki, a Ukrainian dish of little dumplings, served with cabbage, asparagus, and roasted red pepper. A decidedly non-traditional preparation, but pretty darn good.

Finally, we had to have coffee and dessert. After all, ZMB had started out as a coffee house with home-baked desserts by the owner's mother. She still bakes them today. Here's her cinnamon babka:

and chocolate babka:

Both were more cake-like than Babka should be, particularly the cinnamon version. Too moist, but it tasted good so I'll stop complaining.

This is a caramel apple pie....

...and finally we had apple cake with cream cheese frosting.

While all of the desserts were good, I would have preferred something more classic, like makowiec (poppy seed cake), sernik (cheese cake), or krusciki. But...I guess not all ZMB customers would want to go "full Slav."

So while some things were a little disappointing, the hriby dip was as good as ever and the holupki were better than I remembered. The best part about the meal, however, was the company. Thanks, Ladies. See you next year (but hopefully sooner)!

Ze Mean Bean
1739 Fleet St
Baltimore, MD 21231
(410) 675-5999

Ze Mean Bean Café on Urbanspoon

Ze Mean Bean Café
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