What a surprise, then, to find Babushka's Kitchen out here in the country -- Northfield Center Township, to be exact, a Summit County bedroom community where condos sprout from formerly fallow fields and a 30-minute commute to the city is just a fact of life. True, set back on a wooded lot on the far end of a small commercial building, Babushka's can be hard to spot. But once you open the car door, your nose will lead you straight to the threshold. The aroma of made-from-scratch goodness abounds, emanating from dishes like golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), crisp-edged potato pancakes, and smoked kielbasa, best accompanied by a tumble of slow-roasted sauerkraut and pillowy homemade dumplings.
Should you imagine that hearty Eastern European food might be a hard sell out here in the white-bread suburbs, you obviously haven't seen Babushka's on the weekends, when locals stand in line to snag an ample portion of old-fashioned goodness -- grilled onions on the side.
Not that waiting is a waste of time: Consider it your opportunity to ponder Babushka's big, wall-mounted menu, a rambling compendium of unpretentious entrées, sandwiches, soups, and sides, in all manner of combinations, along with optional à la carte add-ons. Half-order or whole? Dumplings or noodles? Mashed potatoes or "supreme" green beans, gussied up with bacon?
By the time you've establish your priorities, more than likely you've made it to the head of the line, where a friendly staffer takes your order, accepts your payment, and hands you a number. No table service here; otherwise, how could a couple overdose on mellow, gravy-soaked carbs for a mere 20 bucks or so? Still, before you get back from the soda dispenser at the rear of the room, swift-footed runners are likely to have your meal waiting for you at one of the handful of paper-placemat-topped tables.
If not, though, that gives you a minute or two to soak in the ambiance. Well, perhaps ambiance is too grand a word to describe the homey vibe inside this little shoebox of a room, with its mauve walls, linoleum floor, and fluorescent light fixtures. Still, we've never been anyplace where the ubiquitous Norman Rockwell posters seemed more apropos. And while there are no brewskies (a real omission, given the affinity of smoked kielbasa for a cold Pabst), getting up to polka or do the chicken dance is encouraged -- it says so right there on your receipt!
For owners Nancy and Dave Abramowski, it was a long, winding road that brought them to this place -- one that started, not surprisingly, in Cleveland's Slavic Village, where the couple grew up. After being downsized from corporate jobs, the Abramowskis found they could turn their Polish heritage into a paycheck, first launching a catering biz in Kent, then running a corporate lunchtime café in Akron, and finally landing in Northfield Center in 2004, where they opened their unassuming restaurant -- mostly as a carryout operation at first, but now with room for about 40 sit-down diners.
Along the way, Nancy perfected her award-winning pierogi recipe. While originally sold as Stash's Pierogi, today the chubby dumplings have been rechristened Babushka's Pierogi and are made by hand in the restaurant's kitchen daily, with fillings that range from kraut and kielbasa to Swiss cheese and mushroom, as well as the classic potato and cheddar.
While predictably dense, Babushka's pierogies have a more delicate texture than most, thanks to a thinner "wrapper" enriched with whole eggs and sour cream. Fried to a golden brown, the shell is almost frangible, offering an irresistible contrast to the soft, silken filling within. True, the accompanying side of sour cream comes in a small plastic tub, and the requisite onions could have used a little more grill time. But the overall effect is one of the region's best pierogi dinners. Besides, if you favor oodles of limp, long-caramelized onions and snowy mountains of sour cream, you can always take home a package of pierogies to cook up yourself.
Of course, do that and you might not get to sample Babushka's other don't-miss dishes: the thick-sliced, all-beef meatloaf, smothered in savory gravy; the lean pork roast, sided with sweet, melt-in-the-mouth kraut; the creamy chicken paprikash, with plenty of tender white meat; or the almost-lighter-than-air dumplings that give the lie to the nickname "sinkers." And for vaguely health-conscious additions, don't overlook the thick, chunky applesauce or the sweet-tart carrot and cucumber salad, like a piquant palate-cleanser among the butter, cream, and starch.
For dessert, a warm apple-cinnamon pierogi -- sided with fluffy, mousse-like vanilla ice cream, along with caramel sauce and poufs of whipped cream -- delivers the desired touch of sweetness. But a better bet might be the superlative handmade kolachky: bite-sized nuggets of ultra-rich pastry, neatly embracing a cheese or fruit filling and attentively baked just shy of golden brown. Like the finest confections, the little gems are dainty indulgences, evaporating on the tongue like the sweetest of dreams.
If you still feel like doing the chicken dance after all that, who's going to stand in your way?