LOKaL (Chicago): A Polish restaurant defies stereotypes with its modern menu

Owners Art Wnorowski and Gosia Pieniazek created a menu that puts a contemporary spin on the foods of their homeland. Photo by Art Wnorowski

Bland?  Heavy?  Nie!

Yes, they serve pierogi, stuffed cabbage, pork chops and other traditional Polish fare at LOKaL, a Wicker Park storefront eatery.  But husband-wife owners Art Wnorowski and Gosia Pieniazek are challenging preconceptions about their homeland’s cuisine with their new school takes on Old World classics.

The husband-and-wife team developed a taste for sophisticated cuisine through their shared love of dining and travel. Photo by Art Wnorowski

“You won’t find breaded pork chops that are beaten to their death,” says Pieniazek of what she calls  LOKaL’s “Pan-European Polish” dishes.

Instead, chef Ruben Torres executes flavorful and artfully presented Polish contemporary food that reflects both the worldly couple’s heritage and their sophisticated culinary tastes.

“We are Polish, so naturally our food is Polish,” says Pieniazek, who came to Chicago from the northern city of Kwidzyn in 1993.  “But we’ve acquired various tastes from dining at a variety of places over the years and through our travels and eating abroad.

“We are putting our experiences into our food.”

So make no mistake, LOKaL’s signature pork chops ($22) — served bone-in with dates, Polish musztarda or mustard, parsnip puree and roasted vegetable medley — won’t be taken for babcia’s own recipe.

The traditional pierogi are stuffed with nontraditional fillings, such as fresh spinach or lobster. Photo by Art Wnorowski

Nor will LOKaL’s handmade pierogi, which, when I visited, were available either stuffed with fresh spinach ($9) and served with a zesty pine nut pesto, or filled with ground lobster ($11) and accompanied by a tangy lemon butter emulsion.  Granted, my middle son (hereafter known as The Connoisseur) and The Husband left me only one of each to sample.  Still, the doughy but light pockets did not sit like bombs, as traditional pierogi often do.

Like many contemporary restaurants, LOKaL uses an abundance of fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

“First and foremost, we want to put good food on the table,” Pieniazek says.

The Husband, The Connoisseur and I would agree that Pieniazek and Wnorowski — who also frequently cooks at the eatery — have achieved this goal, as the quality came through in each dish we tasted.

We let our “sweet and earnest” (according to my notes) waiter steer us toward some very tasty items, including mussels ($12) with pork belly and shaved fennel in a Polish vodka and herb cream broth.  The rich broth was chock-full of smoky bacon and tender fennel and was delicious on its own. After the mussels were quickly consumed, once again mainly by The Husband and The Connoisseur, I admittedly finished off the broth with a spoon.  Our sweet and earnest waiter (who turned out to be Wnorowski himself) confided that there was also a bit of Zywiec beer in the broth, which perhaps contributed to its deliciousness.

The menu features dishes from three categories: warzywa (veggies), morze (sea) and mieso (meat). Photo by Art Wnorowski

We selected three entrees, ostensibly to share.  The Husband picked the fresh flounder ($18) with sunchokes, asparagus and a savory fricassee.  Based on the bite he offered, I can say that I particularly enjoyed the fish dish’s balance of flaky-to-crunchy textures and its beefy — but not overpowering — sauce.

The Connoisseur, being a connoisseur, opted for the hearty bison steak ($27) with peppercress potatoes, celery root slaw and natural demi-glace.  Although The Connoisseur was a bit stingy with the juicy steak, he was thankfully more generous with its mustardy-hot mashed potatoes and celery-infused slaw.

The Husband and The Connoisseur happily helped themselves to my farm-smoked kielbasa ($15) with a cheesy Gouda potato gratin and spicy mustard.  Fortunately, the simple but comforting dish was amply portioned, and almost all were happily sated in the end.

The eatery offers a limited selection of well-crafted desserts. Photo by Art Wnorowski

The restaurant puts less emphasis on dessert than on its main dishes, Pieniazek says.  Although only two dessert selections were offered that evening, I can’t complain.  We left impossibly clean plates after devouring both:  house-made vanilla ice cream ($8) topped with a fluffy hazelnut chocolate mousse and blueberries; and candied orange bread pudding ($8) with cranberries, candied pecans and raspberry vodka caramel.

The Connoisseur, the only one left with room to spare, talked me into ordering him a second ice cream/mousse — yet another reason he is The Connoisseur.

1904 West North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622

LOKal on Urbanspoon

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