Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Karczma: Cultural Oasis in Birmingham

Every country has deep-rooted divisions between its peoples, often stemming from jealousy (or arrogance, depending on which side of the fence you are on). Germany has Bavaria, France has Paris (and Cote D'Azure) and the UK has those living south of the Watford Gap. The UK North/South divide is interesting as it encompasses more than just monetary differences. It’s how you vote, the way you take your tea, what sort of beer you drink, if the person in the next town can understand you. For those of us not fortunate to have been born in this green and pleasant land, it essentially boils down to those in the South thinking the North is a giant barren wasteland full of ugly, smelly, alcoholics on benefits, while the North think Southerners are weak arrogant tossers that think even their farts smell of sunshine and roses. The jury is out as to who is more accurate.

What is a fact though is that London is the best city for food in the UK by both quality and diversity. Vietnamese? Yeah, I know a lovely authentic place run by a family in Camberwell, Korean BBQ - New Malden, Cambodian - a great little place in Camden. French and Spanish is covered on every street in Soho - tapas to cordon bleu - just pick your fancy. 

Lavish Interior Design

What is therefore frustrating and depressing when traveling in other parts of the UK, is how much work you have to put in to find somewhere great/reasonable to eat. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the effusive treasure that is Jay Rayner, I finally found a great cheap-eat in Birmingham. I regularly travel up to Birmingham and I hope it doesn't offend too many people when I say that I am not the city's greatest fan. The confused town planning, lack of adequate public transport and the aforementioned lack of good quality eating simply grate on me (N.B. follow @BrumYumYum on twitter as they are in the late stages of launching proper streetfood). The initial damp sweat and lingering nausea in my stomach melted away as I read Jay's review. A warm glow came over me. My next trip would not have to be a swirling shame spiral of takeaway food and jaegerbombs; it had purpose. I may well have been a smug-as-shit Southern tosser, but at least I could eat well.

On a freezing December lunch, warm soups, stews and fatty meats were exactly what would be needed. Polish food luckily specialises in all the above. The restaurant itself as Jay notes is based in one of the ugliest and most depressing buildings on the planet (I can now provide photographic evidence). Right, whose for peirogi?!
Birmingham Polish Centre (top), Karczma (bottom)

This review serves more of a photo gallery alongside Jay's review as we ordered similarly to him and I agree with the majority of his comments, although less enthusiastically. We started by feasting on dense brown bread slathered in melting pork fat studded with jewels of bacon. Gherkins provided a welcome sharpness. I had to restrain myself from getting seconds. Half my capillaries now closed, we ordered from the wooden-clad menu. 

The pea soup was as good as Rayner described. Deeply flavoured stock with a light smokiness. The sausage was excellent, firm, lightly spiced and crisp skin. We also got peirogi however I have to admit that they weren’t really to my liking. The filling was overly offally and the dumpling skin a little thick. I have to confess to not being a fan of these anyway but hoped they could convert me. Afraid not this time.
Bread, pickles and pork fat

Pea soup with Polish Sausage


My ham hock, like Jay's, also looked like a dinosaur leg. I mean look at it?! However, unlike ham hocks I had in Germany, it had not been fried and so the skin was soft and unappealing. Nonetheless the meat underneath was succulent and tender and the accompanying mustard and horseradish gave each mouthful a strong kick. The Better Half got the beef stew served in a potato pancake. The beef filling was very good but the potato pancake had gone pretty soggy inside and it wasn't that tasty. It had a funny aftertaste to it that we couldn't quite place.

For dessert we had the cheesecake that Jay raves about and I can indeed confirm that it was one of the best slices I've ever had. It was a very simple NY-style cheesecake with much less sugar. The picture has been lost to the camera Gods though.
Dinosaur Leg

Meaty Pancake

Overall the food wasn't quite as good as I was expecting. I was hoping to taste the passion and love of Polish cuisine in the food. Apart from the pea soup and cheesecake, that didn't quite come through. That being said, the service was great. We were treated more like guests than customers and we had a good exchange with a few of the staff. Of course situated where it is, and serving the type of clientele it does, the value for money is amazing; I can only imagine what the atmosphere is like in the evenings the Polish centre lets out! 
The best summary I can offer is; I came in with a huge smile, and left with one almost as wide. It's places like this that make your day just that little bit brighter and keep you from killing everyone in sight as you fight your way back through the crowds at the Bullring.

How much: Not very much. Starters (more like mains) £4-5, Mains (Fred Flintstone size) £8-12. The cheesecake is only £4!

Where: Polish Millennium House, Bordesley St, Birmingham B5 5PH. Tel: 0121 448 0017
Food: 7/10
Service: 8/10
Drink: Usual pub beers, but lots of secretive bottles behind the counter.
Value: 9/10
Overall: 8/10
Square Meal Karczma on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. New drinking game; take a shot everytime you mention/suck up to Jay Rayner.