Restaurants are a bit like people. There are the loud ones, the ones you always hear about (and hear), the ones that create a ‘stir’. Then there are the others, those who quietly tick along, doing their thing in the background. They don’t shout about it, they just get on with it, and unless you happen to stumble upon them and their greatness, you’d know nothing about them.
This, ladies and gents, is how The Karczma comes across to me. It’s not one of the bigmouths of the Birmingham restaurant scene. There are far louder places, keen to shout about what they do and their successes. But it kind of doesn’t need to. It’s an institution in its own right, loved by many, praised by some of the country’s top critics, and somewhere you can fall in love with after just one visit.
The outside isn’t pretty. It’s the opposite. The Karczma is in the ground floor of the Polish centre in Birmingham city centre. It’s away from the glitziness of the Mailbox and the Bullring, yet still an easy walk from the heart of Brum.
But while the outside’s drab and uninviting, inside is the opposite. In a Narnia-esque moment, you step in from a Birmingham street to find yourself in Poland. Wooden benches with fleeces draped over them, ornately painted walls and ceilings, and the tinkle of folkey Polish music.
You might remember I went to Krakow last year with my mum, where I enjoyed a few carb-filled days, trying traditional pierogi and plenty of other classic dishes. At the time, I thought it would be a while before I tasted traditional Polish fare again, but that was before I knew The Karczma was right on my doorstep.
I visited on a Wednesday night with my friend, who has been going since her grandad – himself Polish – introduced her to it. Between us, we’d agreed it would be a night of dumplings. There was plenty to tempt me to other parts of the menu, from glazed pork knuckle to chicken livers and a hearty beef stew, but I couldn’t help but stick with the pierogi. My pal did the same and between us we had a potato feast that’s making me full just thinking about it.
I went for ‘meat’ dumplings – no surprises there. Silky smooth on the outside, packed with well-seasoned pork and beef mince. These pierogi are pretty artistic to look at. I’ve heard them compared to Cornish pasties and I can kind of see that, but it doesn’t really do justice to the delicacy they have about them in both taste and appearance.
My friend, a vegetarian, was torn between the Russian dumplings – cream cheese, potatoes and onions – and cabbage and mushroom-filled pierogi. And it was here The Karczma won my heart – its service. It’s not overly effusive or sycophantic, but instead there’s a straightforward honest helpfulness that keeps you happy, makes sure nothing is too much trouble, but in a kind of ‘let’s get this done’ way. ‘Can’t decide? Have both. Have a mixture’, was the response. Simple.
Hannah was keen for the potato pancakes, one of her faves, and who am I to say no? I’ve never had them before so thought it was probably about time. Again, we couldn’t decide between sour cream or mushroom sauce as an accompaniment and, again, were told it wasn’t a problem. We should just have both. Easy peasy.
The pancakes were unlike anything I’ve had before. If you didn’t know what they were, I’m not sure you’d have been able to tell they were made of potato. They were light like normal pancakes, crispy on the edges, fluffy in the middle. The pot of rich, creamy sauce packed with mushrooms added to the already gut-busting meal and it’s an indicator of how rich and filling everything else was that the sour cream came as a welcome reprieve.
You’re thinking, ‘surely they were full’? Yep, we were. But that didn’t stop us being tempted by the puddings. Somehow Polish apple cake seemed to be yelling to us from the menu. Smothered in cream, with a portion of ice cream to go with it, this soft, light cake is NOT a dieter’s friend. But since we’d already written off the night as a calorie-fest, I embraced the tasty, comforting pud that was a perfect hug on a plate on a cold February night.
I think I probably consumed a week’s worth of calories at The Karczma. But god, it was worth it. For starters, I had a great run the following morning, most likely fuelled by pierogi. But more importantly, it was the kind of dining experience that really stands out. There’s no pretence, no fakery. Everything smacks of honesty, from the place it’s in to the fabulous food it serves and the way that food is served to you.
Outside the front door, and inside too, reviews by restaurant critics from national newspapers are proudly displayed on the walls, proving that it’s not just locals who have been converted to this little find. But other than that, The Karczma doesn’t shout about its success. It’s the quiet one of the gang, just going about its business.
That’s great, but I’m of the view that even if the quiet ones don’t want to blow their own trumpet, there’s nothing to stop the rest of us doing it and shouting about their greatness. So here I am, shouting about The Karczma. Go there, you won’t regret it.
My friend and I paid in full for our meal at The Karczma which was, I have to say, great value for money. They didn’t know I was a blogger.