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Poland's Pleasures

Christopher Gardner

Soulful Cooking: Eugene and Elizabeth Witkowicz create fine music and Polish cuisine at Eugene's.

Traditional Polish cuisine shares top billing with the Old World tavern aura of Eugene's family-run establishment

By Andrew X. Pham

DREAMS DO COME TRUE. And if they're well-tended, they endure. Some decades ago in Poland, a handsome young guitarist and a striking young actress fell in love. Their union brought forth new inspirations and dreams, which they carried with them to the shores of California.

They wanted to work together, but each had apprenticed in different crafts: Eugene plays the guitar and enjoys working with people; Elizabeth loves to cook, a passion nurtured in her grandmother's kitchen and cultivated at the Warsaw Culinary Academy. With that combination, Eugene and Elizabeth Witkowicz settled on opening a diner in Redwood City and poured their hearts and souls into that modest dream. After two years of success, they moved to Los Altos, where, after 15 years, they still collaborate on their labor of love.

The restaurant looks out at an awkward, busy crossroads in Los Altos. Inside, the dark and cool dining room steeps in the hospitality extended by the Witkowiczes and their European waitstaff. Beneath a low-beamed ceiling, rough wooden walls covered in yellowing prints enclose the room, warming it with an Old World tavern aura.

Beyond the single window at the end of the room lies the dining patio, a recent addition. Fenced in by buildings and lush with colors pouring from hundreds of potted plants, the sunny space feels casually homey. Some 400 varieties of flora transplanted in pots from Elizabeth's home garden treat the eyes with vibrant blooms, some wild and vivid against their green backdrop. The single setback--easily rectifiable--is the elevator music piped into the patio. This doesn't reflect badly on the establishment because Eugene often regales guests with his flamboyant virtuosity on the guitar.

Our starter, a bottle of Egri Bikavér '93 ($18), a spicy, dry Hungarian vintage (recommended by our Prussian waitress), reaffirms why Hungarian vineyards fail to lodge entries in the encyclopedia of better wines. By far the better choice, a bottle of Okocim Pils ($4), a Polish beer, invigorates the palate with a mild, sweet finish.

Elizabeth simmers daily batches of savory hot Polish borsch, a potato soup with heavy cream and diced potatoes. White velvet marked with chives, the borsch moves seamlessly between saltiness, sweetness and sourness. The broth's smooth heartiness comes by way of two complicated bases: one a five-day fermented flour base, the other a complicated bone stock.

The mushroom noodle soup, another regular, pales in comparison. And the uninspired salad, a token entry, appears to be an exact replica of the greens in any roadside diner. All entrees include a choice of soup or salad. Logic points blatantly to Elizabeth's superb borsch.

While the proprietors rate Polish food lower on the spice scale than German food, the one spice the kitchen doesn't hold back on is garlic. Passionate with garlic, spunky with pepper, pork a la Eugene ($12.25) hails not far from Southern fried pork chops. Crispy outside, tender inside and juicy with fat, two golden breaded chops are pillowed by creamed potatoes and gravy, and accompanied by steamed zucchini and carrots, and sweet sauerkraut sautéed with diced Polish sausage.

Charming in its simplicity, the presentation harks back to meals served in little Eastern European restaurants: everything ladled and slapped onto heavy platters in chunky portions, steaming, moderately spiced and delightfully hearty. Also Slavic, albeit less fortuitous, are the vegetables: hunks of broccoli, bell pepper and cauliflower thoroughly boiled to a watery state.

A favorite among regulars, the rack of lamb ($16.95) sizzles with garlic roasted right to the bone. Half a dozen rib chops fan out on a platter in the company of braised red cabbage, sauerkraut and boiled vegetables. Each lamb morsel makes an unrepentant statement about Elizabeth's affinity for garlic--one that does quite well in transforming the flavor of lamb in concert with a Grecian herb mix.

Two other entrees of merit but of less garlic are the hunter's goulash ($11.25) and the pierogi ($11.75), stuffed Polish potato dumplings. Slices of Kahlua torte and walnut torte ($2.75 each)--both more cake than torte--wrap up the meal nicely with cups of coffee.

Aside from the unglamorous treatment of vegetables, the majority of the entrees showcase the time-intensive nature of old-fashioned cooking. In its combination of ambiance and cuisine, Eugene's has found a lasting chord.


Cuisine: Polish
Extras: full bar, patio
Menu: lunch $5­8; dinner $11­15
Hours: Tue.­Sat., 5:30­10pm, Sun., 4­9pm. (Lunch resumes after Aug. 15: Tue.­Fri., 11:30am­2pm.)
Address: 420 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos
Phone: 415/941-1222

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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