Restaurant Review: Koliba

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Koliba, which means chalet in Slovak, is located in Astoria, not too far from the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden. And as you can see from the frontage, it bears the peculiarity of serving cuisine from a country that no longer exists, and even brags about it on its web site — look at that beautiful Czechoslovakia in red on the map!

The interior is decorated like a hunting lodge, with stuffed animal heads, antlers and hatchets. You’ll find more (and better) pictures on their web site, too. And while you’re there, you might as well make yourself acquainted with the rules of the house. My favorite: “Take out orders are charged extra. Prices are subject to change without notice.”

The menu, of reasonable length, lists many Czech and Slovak classics: beef stews, pork roasts, schnitzels, dumplings, halušky (Slovak spaetzle), klobasa (sausage). Before ordering, keep in mind that the portions are really huge. Judge for yourself from the pictures below, but most dishes are about double the “normal” size.

The grilled sausage was smoky and juicy, as good Czech sausage usually is. I actually wonder if Czech restaurants make their own or order them from a butcher — I would think the latter, which is fine by me.

The langos arrived on a plate so large that it couldn’t fit entirely in the picture! It wasn’t bad, but the dough was a bit bland, with too much garlic and too much cheese. I would have preferred less cheese, but slightly melted.

The combination pork platter consisted of roasted loin of pork and smoked pork with red cabbage (lots of it) with an order of bread dumplings on the side. The roasted pork certainly didn’t look like loin to me, but all the meat was properly cooked and tender. The traditional dumplings played their sauce-mopping role to perfection.

The pork schnitzel (or schnitzels rather, since one portion includes two generous pieces) looked a lot like a chicken schnitzel, but was bland enough that we might never find out the truth. As is often the problem with schnitzels, it was rather dry. The dish could be significantly improved simply by adding some butter while frying, and serving it with an egg on top, and I don’t care if it’s not “the way it’s served in Czechoslovakia”! At least the fries were crispy. As for the under-ripe tomato and other tired vegetables, I’d like to shake the hand of a diner who actually eats them all.

The halušky, potato spaetzle with sheep’s milk cheese and bacon, were borderline inedible. First, the spaetzle looked liked giant greenish-greyish gnocchi and tasted rubbery and undercooked. Then there was the monstrous cheese sauce. Sure, it looks close enough to the reference picture on Wikipedia, but this is just an illusion. I certainly don’t remember eating anything that gross in Slovakia. To be fair, the bacon was good, but this just wasn’t enough to redeem the dish in any way.

The leftovers, minus the halušky that went straight to the trash, fed us for another meal and a half. I can only regret the quality didn’t always match the quantity. Oh, and if you’re one of those individuals with a special dessert pocket, they serve home-made štrúdl and crepes.

Cuisine: Czech and Slovak
Picks: grilled sausage, combination pork platter
Avoid at all costs: halušky
Food: 5 /10

Czech and Slovak Festival at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden

Last weekend, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, NY hosted their annual Czech and Slovak Festival. For two days, bands and folk artists offered performances traditional and contemporary, Czech and Slovak. Here are the Czechoslovak Moravian Club Folk Dancers:

It’s worth mentioning the Bohemian Hall’s long history. At the end of the 19th century, many Czech and Slovaks fled Austria-Hungary and settled in Astoria. In 1910, the community purchased farmland and turned it into an authentic European beer garden, which has survived for over 100 years.

More dances:

This being Memorial Day weekend, we were also administered a triple dose of national anthems — Czech, Slovak, and American:

Some traditional dancing revolved around the valaška, or shepherd’s axe:

Of course, we didn’t come just to watch grown-ups gesticulating with hatchets. We were also there to taste the food, and the Bohemian Hall offered a special menu for the duration of the festival. Since the dishes were prepared in advance and kept on a steam table, it would be unfair of me to make a formal review. So here is a short account of the things we tried.

The pierogies came with two fillings, potato and mushroom. While the smaller mushroom ones were a little bit dry, the potato half-moons were moist and greasy (in a good way):

The homemade potato pancakes, served with a classic apple sauce and sour cream, contained way too much garlic:

The Moravian stew, with its traditional bread dumplings, consisted of tender cubes of pork in a caraway sauce. Quite nice.

Later in the afternoon, a long line formed as the outdoor grill started serving sausages and burgers. Here’s the country klobasa with fries. The klobasa was smoky and juicy, just how I like it. The crispy fries weren’t bad either!

There was even a welcome dessert stand, selling apple štrúdl, prune and cream cheese koláč, and a mixed berry cake. We only had room for the strudel, which, unfortunately, was dry and embraced the unpleasant American habit of drowning all apple desserts with cheap cinnamon.

All in all we had a very nice time at the Czech and Slovak Festival. But one final complaint: $8 for a shot of plain vodka is way too much money!

Restaurant Review: Korzo Haus

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

From the outside, Korzo Haus just looks like another hole-in-the-wall located in a forgotten block of the East Village — in so far as there is such a thing. Even the blackboards simply advertise your usual brunch, coffee and burgers.

However, if you pass the short-order kitchen in front and inspect the diminutive dining room (which consists of a few tiny two-tops and a communal table that isn’t much bigger), you may notice the picture on the wall and wonder why the President of Slovakia chose to visit this place. You may also wonder which person on the picture is really the president (hint), but that’s beyond the point.

The explanation comes when you read the menu: the dishes seem to come straight from a café at the trijunction between Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. Austrian bratwurst and potato salad shares the scene with Slovak halušky with bryndza, and Hungarian langos and goulash. Many of these specialties are then rearranged into egg or burger offerings. There is no wine to rinse down the food, but there are about a dozen kinds of beer, mostly from Central Europe and the US.

If you choose to start the meal with the potato salad and happen to be sitting at the bar, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that the salad is prepared à la minute, entirely from scratch:

Okay, à la minute is a bit misleading, as it will take quite a few minutes before the dish finally hits your plate. But the result is worth the wait! I don’t hesitate to say this is the best potato salad I’ve ever had, mixing delicious potatoes with sautéed onions, bacon dice, and just the right amount of mustard.

The bratwurst is served either on a roll, or with the same potato salad and some sauerkraut. The sausage was tasty and appropriately greasy, though not excessively so.

Moving on to Slovakia, we ordered the halušky (the Slovak version of spaetzle), which come with either bacon and chives or bryndza (a cheese similar feta). Simple but good.

More halušky, deep-fried this time, arrived with the goulash, adding an interesting crunch to the spicy Hungarian stew that you see bubbling on the back burner in the kitchen. I found the beef brisket very tender, but too much caraway in the sauce overpowered the dish.

We completed the meal with a couple of the truly unusual Korzo burgers, which occupy half of the menu and change regularly. All of them are wrapped in langos (Hungarian fried bread) and served with the ever popular deep-fried halušky and an assortment of green apple, red cabbage slaw, and aioli. Looking in the kitchen, we saw that the one-man-show chef first grills the patties, lets them cool, then wraps them in the langos dough and deep-fries them:

“The Original” came with bacon, emmentaler cheese, mustard and pickle. “The Slav” was topped with slow-cooked pork neck, saeurkraut and bryndza. Both were good and pleasantly decadent, and you hardly needed an appetizer before them. My main reproach would be that the meat was too packed (later on, I actually noticed that the chef was pressing those patties a lot). Ground meat in burgers is best if it’s pressed just enough to not fall apart. And while the deep-fried halušky went well with goulash, they were less satisfying with burgers. Not to mention I was reaching halušky saturation. Surely, there must be a Slovak fried potato specialty that could be tapped into instead.

There were no desserts, and I don’t know where the kitchen would find the space to prepare them. Too bad — a slice of strudel would have fit perfectly.

Cuisine: Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian
Picks: potato salad, Korzo burgers
Food: 7/10