Sitting alone at the bar early on a Tuesday evening probably isn't how the management at Polished Tavern envisions guests experiencing the full impact of the place. But I'm not the only one going solo; a few other single drinkers and diners occupy other bar stools, while one or two couples are in the booths behind me. Dance music streams from the sound system, although not too loudly, and the last of the day's light streaming in from the low windows facing 15th Street competes with the blue and purple club lighting. The neon and LED glow will soon win out, but for another half-hour or so, Polished is just a simple tavern serving hearty food to hungry diners.
There's just one server on duty at this in-between time, a Polish bartender who takes my food and drink order with the relaxed conviviality of a small-town diner waitress. She even helps me pronounce the name of the Polish porter I order to start my meal: It's Zywiec, and she says she's heard it mangled so badly she didn't even know what the customer wanted. Knowing I wouldn't come close, I just asked for a porter -- the only one on the menu. Next time I'll know, more or less: it sounds like zheh-vi-etz, with the stress on the final syllable. Zywiec Porter is strong and roasty and bitter, just the drink to accompany what I'm hoping will be a passable schnitzel.
The menu at Polished doesn't stray too far from dishes that my Ukrainian grandmother would have recognized: pierogi (from the owner's White Eagle Foods pierogi company), kielbasa from Sawa Meat and Sausage, borscht, blood sausage, potato pancakes and cabbage rolls (called golabki in Polish; my grandmother would have called them holupchi). There are also a few American dishes -- bar standards and kitchen staples -- but I stick with the schnitzel, a pounded pork cutlet that comes with fried potatoes, dill cucumber salad and, for two bucks more, mushroom sauce.
It's not a long wait for my dinner -- just long enough for a remixed version of "Baby Got Back" and a news video on the muted TV showing two kangaroos boxing in a suburban neighborhood in Australia. My plate arrives, a fancy diamond-shaped platter well suited for the polished, black and silver decor of the place -- if not the simple, rustic fare presented on it.
Potatoes, cucumbers and pork -- a meal served to generations of countless country farmers and villagers across a Slavic countryside spanning several countries. The potatoes are sliced into thin rounds and deep-fried to a golden crisp, pale and soft where they overlapped in the fryer basket. The cucumber salad with its strong, herbal presence of dill smells and tastes exactly like my grandmother's -- a summer farm mixture held together with a sour cream dressing.
The schnitzel is the best I've had so far in this month of breaded cutlets. The meat is pencil-thick and tender; the bread-crumb coating is perfectly cooked and loudly crunchy. The sauce, more like a gravy, has an odd orange tint, like a cheese sauce, but is rich and creamy with a subtle mushroom flavor, cut by a drizzle of what must have been balsamic vinegar. I take turns tasting the porter and the schnitzel until both are gone, and then I use the potatoes to mop up the last of the gravy and the remnants of the sour-cream dressing from the salad.
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I can picture the subterranean spot on a busier night, packed with black leather jackets and buzzing with the sibilant whisper of Polish beneath a house beat and the hard smack of empty vodka shots hitting the bar top. I prefer a quieter atmosphere over the dark, metropolitan scene, one where I can learn a new word and savor a beer without having to shout to be heard. But I'd come back at any hour for a plate of good schnitzel, although later in the evening I'd also order a house-infused vodka or two -- garlic or horseradish, most likely, just to balance the modern and shiny with something homey and unsophisticated.