There came a moment of horror at the beginning of every holiday dinner my family had when I was growing up. After my mother had carefully laid out a meal of, say, ham, corn casserole, kale and baked sweet potatoes, there was one more dish destined for the table: canned sauerkraut. My father insisted on it. My brother and I would howl in protest before it even appeared. We could smell it heating on the stove. Its harsh, acrid stink would singe our nostrils.
We'd push the kraut as close to Dad as possible, shifting our chairs downwind from the smell. Eventually, when we couldn't take it any longer, I would move the dish to the nether regions of the kitchen and cover it with plastic wrap to stifle its rank odor. I now consider it an unmistakable sign of love for my father that Mom even brought that stuff into the house.
I think about my dad as I spoon sauerkraut soup into my mouth at Slovakia, a 3-year-old restaurant on Marietta Square. This homemade sauerkraut, worlds better than the canned nastiness, has only a hint of the caustic tang I once loathed. The pungency is soothed by chunks of pork floating in a broth tinted orange from paprika. This is just the kind of food I want to be eating this time of year, and, as I look around the room, just the kind of restaurant in which I want to be eating.
Slovakia has a stubbornly old-fashioned appeal. The dining room is so retro it's frightening to those who've grown accustomed to transient, trendy Atlanta. Friends give me the "Oh my God, where are we?" look when we walk through the door. It's easy, though, to quickly acclimate to its earnest charms. This place jogs the collective memory of what restaurants were once like. Dark, stained floorboards creak appealingly with each step. Walls are covered with traditional garb and bric-a-brac that chef/owner Stefan Bencik and his wife, Ivana, brought with them from Slovakia. (You don't lose any points, by the way, if you're unaware that Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia 11 years ago; I'm embarrassingly ignorant of that stuff, too.)
The blond servers, who on weekends dress in costumes similar to those hanging on the walls, readily offer opinions on what to order from the menu. Heed them. The menu is one wacky -- and enormous -- ensemble of dishes: Listed among the pages of Eastern European specialties are American, um, classics like potato skins, Beef Wellington and Key lime pie. I'm particularly fixated on the Beef Wellington. When was the last time a restaurant offered that dinner party dinosaur? I ask our server if she recommends it. She crinkles her nose and says, "Better to try the Slovakia plate."
Sage advice. The Slovakia plate is a synopsis of what Bencik does best -- huge servings of hearty, wintry fare from his homeland. Mahogany roasted duck with crackly skin shares space with a juicy slab of pink, smoked pork and slices of roasted pork that are a bit dry. Wedges of spongy bread dumplings served alongside are best when moistened with a swipe through gravy (their absorptive nature is better suited to Bencik's homey beef goulash).
In fact, you'll be happiest with your meal if you come with an appetite for pork or duck. Golden pork is deceptively simple yet deeply satisfying. Marinated scallops of pork are pounded thin, sauteed and served with a piped mound of buttery mashed potatoes.
The cherry-horseradish sauce that accompanies smoked duck sounds alarming, but against all odds it works: The first taste of fruit on the palate gives way to the soft sting of horseradish, and neither flavor overwhelms the tender slices of duck.
There are a solid two pages of seafood offerings, but I didn't have much luck with the two fish dishes I tried. Pan-fried trout dredged in almond flour was flaky but distinctly fishy. Halibut with hazelnuts and cream sherry glaze had a mealy texture that suggested it had been kept in the deep freeze too long.
This really isn't a restaurant for folks who strive to eat on the lower end of the food chain. Spaetzle served plain as a side dish is unremarkable; dressed as an appetizer in cream sauce and bacon, however, one remembers why the popularity of this misshapen pasta crosses national borders. A pirogue stuffed with a veal mixture has a velvety bite and savory complexity that its counterpart stuffed with spinach and mushrooms lacks.
Getting full from all that rich food? Might as well push through to dessert. Palacinky Patrik, named for the Benciks' son, is a concoction of (take a deep breath, now) thin, rolled pancakes stuffed with fresh strawberries, strawberry jam, then topped with chocolate sauce, pecans, whipped cream from the can and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. It's ridiculous and it's addictive.
Much more adult are the strudels, constructed with a crust that deftly falls between shatteringly crispy and comfortingly toothy. There's the standard apple version and a dusky but sweet riff with poppy seeds and raisins that grows on me with each bite.
If you followed my advice and packed dessert in on top of all that meat and starch, you're now bloated and bitter. I have just the antidote for you: Becherovka. It's a delicious, herbal Czech liqueur that tastes of cloves, licorice and a suggestion of mint. A pal who loves the stuff told me the restaurant serves it. During my first visit, our server asks us for our drink order. When I request Becherovka, her eyebrows shoot up in surprise, but she just nods and retrieves a glass of the golden elixir. Soon, Stefan Bencik, sporting chef pants with a splatter pattern, ambles out from the kitchen.
"Who ordered Becherovka?" he inquires.
"How do you know about it?"
"A friend," I say mysteriously.
Bencik regards me for a minute and smiles. "It's very good for digestion after a meal. But you must drink the whole glass in one shot. Trust me."
I do. One gulp generates a gentle burn that hums as it makes its way down. My stomach indeed felt wonderfully settled after that meal. I've just found a food critic's best friend.
That level of mirthful hospitality is one of the things that make Slovakia such an endearing place to spend an evening. I'll confess I don't often long to revisit restaurants I've just reviewed, but this one beckons me. Yes, it's a trek. And yes, if you veer from the die-hard Slovakian dishes you can expect an uneven experience. But I find myself dwelling on the quirky, entertaining details of a meal here: the superfluous but prettily carved apple garnishes on the entree; the way a fresh round of silverware is brought after every course, wrapped in a burgundy cloth; the bathrooms where everything is automated, even the paper towel dispenser.
The blend of Old World congeniality and idiosyncratic panache isn't for everyone, but I love it. And I bet my parents would, too. Next time they're in town, I'm bringing them here. I can introduce them to Becherovka, and my dad and I can eat big portions of meat with a side of creamy, mild sauerkraut together, in peace.
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