Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Among the Autopaparazzi (Koliba, 31-11 23rd Avenue)

We had all but given up. We were actually walking away from the restaurant down 23rd Avenue when we heard the stern Germanic voice of the hostess call out to us: "You, you." She had run out into the cold February night to retrieve us. "You want to eat." It was more a command than a question, and we felt that we had no choice but to go back inside, even though it was crowded and chaotic in the Czech restaurant and, given our problems with the service in the past (they can be slow to get to the non-Czechs and non-Slovaks), we had no reason to expect we'd ever be waited on once we were seated.

We were glad we went back in though. Yes, Koliba, which features a vaguely chalet-like décor that's highly suitable for wintry nights, was packed full, with a curious mix of Eastern European locals -- the sort who were glued to the hockey game on the TV -- and a rowdy bunch of autopaparazzi theatricals gathered for a birthday party, who took more pictures of themselves that evening than we had on a weeklong vacation by an exponential margin. And we were seated mere centimeters away at a two-top next to a group of out-of-towners, two couples who seemed very Long Islandish. During one rare lull in the hullaballoo inside, one man asked the other, "So how's the car running?"

None of this spoiled what turned out to be an excellent, extremely filling meal. Quickly, we were brought drinks -- Czech beers on tap; Krušovice, BrouCzech. When we asked our waitress what she recommended among the entrees, she looked puzzled and said, "It is all good." We have a general policy of asking servers this question and have found that generalized answers ("It's all good," "Depends on what you like," or simply reciting half the menu) yield lesser meals than places when the server has a ready answer. But this wasn't the case here. We could tell she honestly didn't get why we'd bother asking when everything they had was delicious.

After some coaxing, she finally made some specific suggestions: the roast duck on a bed of red cabbage, plus pork schnitzel with potato-pancake batter. The duck was flavorful and incredibly moist and tender without being too fatty, as duck can be. Neither of us are fans of cabbage, but we still managed to down most of the mound piled on the plate -- no idea what they did to make it taste good, but it worked. Our schnitzel was as hearty as one would expect, but more important, it was done right. Schnitzel in this country can easily be disappointing, relying on the fail-safe of frying to make it taste good. Koliba's version was done with knowledgeable care. Both entrees were accompanied by knedliky, the quintessentially Czech sponge-bread dumplings. (For those eager to play at home, advertised in the foyer was a factory in Chicago from which one could order knedliky. "This is for everyone. Do not remove" was handwritten across the ad, which was printed off of a website.)

Koliba is more than a match for its cross-neighborhood rival, Zlata Praha. Rumor has it that Koliba was formed by a rogue breakaway chef from Zlata Praha, sort of the way Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after being exiled from the Massachusetts colony. The restaurants offer rival venison feasts in early February; sadly we missed them at both venues.

We dined with a miniature sheepskin rug hanging at eye level next to our table, and the ersatz brauhaus roof over the bar was littered with an array of giant stuffed Easter bunnies. Frankly, we're suckers for a eccentric ambiance, and the bunnies alone would have been enough to bring us back. But what we especially appreciated about Koliba was that this sort of thing wasn't odd at all to the its regulars, and this lent the restaurant a quaint familiarity even to those of us who are clearly outsiders. Koliba's patrons come for the food. And so will we.

Price:Between $15 and $20 for entrees.
Will we go again? We're already looking forward to the dueling Venison Fest with Zlata Praha. Otherwise, for deep comfort-food needs only.

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