Labor of love

Jun 6, 2001 at 12:00 am
On a Friday night at Wawel, a restaurant located in the Polish-American Cultural Center in Troy, I watched as the hostess helped an elderly gentleman who had just finished dinner. She picked up his white straw hat from a chair and extended it toward him. He slowly settled it on his head. Then she held his jacket behind him and guided his arms into the sleeves. She helped him to his feet and handed him his cane, slipped her hand under his elbow and slowly walked him out of the cavernous room.

It was a poignant scene on a busy night, a reminder that Wawel is not just a commercial venture. "It's a labor of love," says Stanley Grot, the Center's president. The restaurant is staffed mostly by members, and Grot estimates that half the patrons are members, although local businesses supply a good lunch crowd. Grot is the former owner of the Polonia restaurant in Hamtramck.

The Polish-American Cultural Center has a prime location with 12 acres on the corner of Maple and Dequindre. The squat stone building was once an architectural museum (which may explain a lot of the ponderous, graceless architecture that surrounds us every day). The restaurant is usually confined to the Heritage Room, which features display cases of elaborately embroidered dresses and crafts. But on a Friday night, diners may spill into the banquet hall. On the night we were there, although it was crowded, there was a hush in the room. We felt like we were in a time warp. Live music, provided by Emil and Lotte Gugala on the violin and piano, is touchingly old-fashioned. (On Wednesdays Ted Sokolowski plays the accordion.) Elderly couples predominate at the sea of tables, sometimes joined by their grown children and grandchildren. Why would these white-haired women make stuffed cabbage at home, when you can get it for $6.95 at Wawel, and a nice bowl of soup besides?

You can get most of your Polish favorites here, beginning with czarnina (duck) soup, which alternates with flaczki (tripe) every other Friday. I eschewed the exotic and ordered the mushroom soup, and it was excellent, with lots of chunks of mushroom in a not-too-thick broth, with lovely thin egg noodles.

I also liked the stuffed cabbage but was alarmed to find tomato soup substituting for the "tomato-dill sauce" that was described on the menu. Another demerit for the soggy frozen green beans served alongside.

The veal-and-pork goulash was more like an American stew than the paprika-infused soup that the Hungarians invented. But the potato dumplings that come with it are stellar.

The nalesniki (crepes) are light and filled with cheese or apples (three for $6.50), and pierogi come in potato, cheese or kraut (five for $5.75). Kielbasa is tasty and fresh and is served with sauerkraut. Potato pancakes are crispy, if a little oily.

Two kinds of Polish beer are offered, along with the usual American varieties. The Zagtoba Okocim we ordered was crisp, not overly carbonated. Cocktails are also available.

Desserts are cake with thick layers of frosting. Something lighter would have been welcome.

Wawel is named after a castle in Kraków. The restaurant, which opened in 1991, serves lunch only on Tuesday and Thursday, and lunch and dinner on Wednesday and Friday.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].