“ Cuisine: Polish / Location: 34 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 6SE / Tel: 0191 232 3332 „
When I think of pierogi I think of "Storybook International"; even in the 1980s it was a horribly dated children's television programme where each episode featured a tale from another European country, badly lip-synched for a British audience. Each programme started with an animation of a minstrel, or troubadour if you like, wearing medieval dress, and possibly playing a lute or some other stringed instrument, who sang the theme tune, the lyrics of which alluded to the fact that although the singer had many names - "in Germany I am Johann, in America I am John" (this is probably wring but you get the idea) the story was always the same ('a happily ever after'). In much the same way pierogi are eaten all over the world, albeit in slightly different forms: in Italy they are ravioli, in Russia they are pelmeni, in Turkey they are manti and in Georgia they are khinkhali, but always they are little parcels filled with a usually savoury, but occasionally sweet, stuffing.
The Polish name "pierogi" translates as "little pies" which is slightly misleading in that the parcel is not a conventional baked pastry, it's an unleavened dough more along the lines of pasta, although it is more dense than an Italian pasta. These half moon shaped parcels can be boiled in water or stock, or shallow or deep fried. The traditional fillings for pierogi are fried onion and cabbage, or minced beef but these days you can find quite a variety and if you make your own you can create anything you want. The conventional topping for pierogi is soured cream but, again, you can have all kinds of weird and wonderful toppings these days, though I have to express a preference for good old soured cream.
Although we've had a Polish pub that served some food (alas the Polish manager has now returned home), and still do have an excellent Polish restaurant in Newcastle, the fairly new "Pierogi Place" is distinct in that, as the name suggests, it specialises in pierogi. After a couple of months of promising to try it, we stopped by recently for a Saturday lunch which we thought would be good preparation for an afternoon in the pub with friends.
The café is situated on Market Street in Newcastle, just along the block from the Theatre Royal and opposite the courts. It's a minute's walk from Grey's Monument. There are only two tables and a handful of stools at a lunch counter in the window so this is a very small place: when we arrived the two tables were taken so we sat on the stools but when a table became free we moved to occupy it as it was much more comfortable.
The ordering process is explained simply on large boards on the wall behind the counter. The price structure is easy to understand with three pierogi for £2, five for £3 and 10 for £5 (pierogi are really filling so eating ten is very ambitious for one person but you'd save a little money by buying one portion of ten for two people). You then pay for your toppings and the price varies for those depending on what you choose. When you order you'll be asked how you want your pierogi to be cooked and what toppings you want. There was one staff member in the cafe and this friendly young lady had no problem in cooking, serving and taking payments.
The good thing about Pierogi Place is that you can mix and match your fillings without having to pay extra. I chose three mushroom and cabbage and two ham and cheese pierogi from the "Classics" section. I asked for them to be boiled, and topped with soured cream. Himself also ordered five but he asked for two chicken tikka, two Mexican chilli and bean and a minced beef; he chose soured cream to top too.
As well as hot drinks there's a huge array of fizzy and other garishly coloured soft drinks. I'd hoped that some of the Polish bottled juices I like might be available but it appears that once you get past pierogi the Polish theme comes to an abrupt end. Except for pierogi, the only food sold is bacon sandwiches, although you can have them with additions such as Polish sausage.
Our pierogi were served in cardboard boxes; a colourful sticker bearing the Pierogi Place logo is used to seal the box. We were also presented with a wooden knife and fork each: I hated them - even for a soft food like pierogi they were useless. A layer of fresh mixed salad leaves lined the bottom of the box and the pierogi were placed on top of them. It didn't look very appetising but then it's not easy to make pierogi look pretty at the best of times so I didn't let this cloud my judgment.
Taste-wise the verdict was mixed. I felt that the mushroom and cabbage ones were a bit bland which and this was a bitter disappointment for me as these are usually my favourite. The filling was indistinct and I wasn't really possible to tell just from cutting into a pierogi what was inside it. The cheese and ham certainly had more flavour but these ones were quite salty (as you might expect from such a combination) and you wouldn't have wanted more than a couple. I didn't try the chicken tikka as I have a nut allergy and couldn't be sure that nuts wouldn't have been used when marinating the chicken but Himself declared this variety to be the best of all the ones we'd bought. Unorthodox as usual, he also tried the chilli and bean variety which were OK but lacked a fiery kick. I thought the beef ones were the best of all but he had only ordered one of these so I only got a little bit and wished I'd chosen these ones myself.
It didn't help that there was far too much soured cream on top of the pierogi as it masked the flavours of all the different kinds of pierogi we'd ordered. It also made the salad leaves disappear under a white blanket, and made them difficult to eat. The other problem was that the dough itself was very bland and stodgy - pierogi usually are like this, they are a traditional working person's meal and are very filling - and had they been boiled in stock they might have tasted less so.
We didn't have a pierogi pudding although sweet jam filled ones are on the menu: we have a bag of these in our freezer which is taking a long time to empty because you need a heat proof mouth to eat them as the filling gets red hot.
In theory Pierogi Place is an excellent idea; pierogi are cheap and filling and can be made in lots of different varieties and then adapted with different toppings. However, if the basic product isn't right then it just doesn't work, and, unfortunately, Pierogi Place's pierogi vary massively in taste. Now I know the ones that taste better I give this place another try if I was after a quick lunch and didn't have much time to spare.
To listen to the theme song from Storybook International, I present for your delectation