This is not a complaint. Trendiness has never been necessarily synonymous with tastiness, and a heaping helping of old-fashioned goodness can be just what's called for to ease the post-holiday blues. Still, the fact is this: Tucked inside a circa-1919 house in Euclid, Marta Runza's Eastern European restaurant is a warm cocoon, as comfortable and cozy as a well-worn slipper.
"Grandma's rec room" is a fair summary of the decorating scheme -- assuming that Grandma, like Runza, is the proud possessor of a worn oak bar, featuring Krusovice and Pilsner Urquell on tap, and employs two part-time musicians to plunk out soft jazz standards on the weekends. But with white lace curtains at the windows, wooden paneling on the walls, and two splendidly odd, Deco-style ceiling fixtures hovering over the room's eight tables like miniature UFOs, the metaphor isn't far off the mark.
An enthusiastic (and talented) home cook, Runza immigrated to Euclid from Czechoslovakia in 1986. Once settled on the East Side, she took jobs in local restaurants, bent upon developing both her English and her business savvy; finally, in 1995, she felt prepared to debut her own small spot on a stretch of East 222nd, where shops, taverns, and modest homes stretch in both directions. After 11 years, her customer base has grown broad and multinational; still, when the pianist and bass player take a break on a Saturday evening, it's the soft harmonies of Eastern European languages that fill the air. And even after all this time, serving a bowl of hot tripe soup to a homesick Pole, Czech, or Slovakian is all it takes to make Runza's heart beat faster.
Like nearly everything on her labor-intensive menu, Runza makes that soup from scratch, within the confines of a tiny kitchen, following traditional recipes and venerable techniques. Ask the plump, cheerful cook what makes it all taste so satisfying, and she only laughs. "It's my see-cret!" she giggles. Or, if pressed, she may launch into a homily on onions, which, to hear her tell it, are the heart and soul of all real cooking.
Chin deep in a platter of succulent sauerbraten, who are we to argue? Creating this dish alone is a three-day process, beginning with pickling the beef in a vinegar-based brine, along with celery root, carrots, and parsnips. Then comes the baking, extending not a moment beyond utter tenderness. Finally, the beef is parsed into sheer slices, and the root veggies are blended with sugar and cream into a rich, savory sauce. Add a pileup of light-textured spaetzel to help soak up the gravy, and the result is the kind of simple, mouthwatering goodness that no fast-food joint in the world can ever hope to replicate.
The same painstaking detail elevates Runza's slowly simmered Hungarian goulash, napped in creamy paprika sauce; her rolled flank steak, stuffed with Czech mustard, hardboiled egg, and imported pickles; the pan-fried pork schnitzel; and her chicken-liver dumpling soup, an inspired interplay of golden opulence against the dusky drone of organ meat.
On the side, choose from locally made pierogi, crisp-edged potato pancakes, or real mashed potatoes. But whatever you do, don't miss the Czech-style yeast-and-flour dumplings, shaped by hand, boiled until firm, and sliced like bread; while we've had these at other Eastern European eateries, Runza's are by far the most dainty.
For our money, though, Marta's culinary masterpiece is the roasted duck -- the best we've had at any price. First, there's the skin: Bronzed, brittle, yet just fatty enough to qualify as dietary sin, it explodes in the mouth like a grenade, sending salty shrapnel across the taste buds, followed by an aftershock of almost foie gras-like unguency. Beneath, there's the meat -- dark, moist, but virtually greaseless, and so full of flavor we nearly shed a tear. On the side, a juicy tangle of sweet-tart sauerkraut made the perfect go-with.
As we rend, chew, and savor, our muffled moans somehow catch the attention of a gregarious bar guest, who turns to bless us with a sympathetic smile. One thing leads to another, and before we know it, we're ensconced on a barstool too, tossing back shots of chilled Becherovka and trading stories. (Becherovka, incidentally, is a bittersweet herbal liqueur with legendary healing attributes, ranging from easing chest congestion to settling an upset stomach. We hear it's newly trendy in chic London lounges, though the Czechs have been drinking it for 200 years.)
Not only does the liqueur tickle the throat with fiery fingers all the way down, it adds dimension to slabs of cherry strudel and expands upon the flavors of Runza's made-to-order crêpes, cosseting spoonfuls of imported strawberry preserves and garnishes of whipped cream.
As should be obvious, by the time we finally put down our shot glasses and prepared to settle our tiny tab, we feel like friends of the family. So it seems only natural to be sent off with a chorus of "See you soons!" and "Happy New Years!"
Talk about friendly. Did we say this place is 20 years behind the times? "Timeless" is more like it.
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