Chef BJ Smith and I have one thing in common: We both have Polish grandmothers who taught us how to cook dumplings. But whereas he presumably likes his new Polish-inspired restaurant, Delores, I most certainly do not.
Smith, a former Top Chef contestant who until now has focused his efforts on barbecue (Delores, named after Smith’s mother, opened in his former Smokehouse Tavern space on Southeast Morrison), has instead created a confusing and overpriced mélange of a menu that ultimately leaves a diner cold.
It starts with the vibes: uber-trendy wallpaper with tropical plant leaves and bright pink flamingos and succulents in white ceramic pots, with TLC and Salt-N-Pepa playing loud on the hi-fi (which is cool, but discordant from the menu).
After one January visit, an accompanying friend wrote me a 650-word email to vent. Among her observations: “For a Polish restaurant, you’d expect the pierogis would be the star of the menu. You’d be wrong.”
Smith’s take on a pierogi involves high price and low returns, both in volume and flavor. There are three versions on the dinner menu ranging from $12 to $19, all coming with just three pierogi to a plate, all uniformly enveloped in a gummy dough. A $19 potato truffle version with a creamy caviar beurre blanc is bland in its over-richness, all for $6.33 a dumpling (you can add $21 to your bill by adding caviar of an unnamed provenance). The $17 foie gras and duck pierogi, on the other hand, lacked any noticeable foie flavor.
Another massive miss was a $12 (un)appetizer involving five small bites of smoked beets covered in appalling beet ash with a truffle demi-glace sauce. As my girl put it: “If you are the person who likes to pull the burned layer off your marshmallows at a campfire, you maybe possibly might like the beet dish if you plugged your nose and closed your eyes. But probably not.” A classic cocktail, like a perfect Vesper martini or a bottle of Okocim Polish lager, will serve to wash that taste out of your mouth.
A plate of Parker House rolls—soft, warm, and accented with everything bagel spices—were good, even if potato rolls are the order of the day in my Polish family. But $14 gets you just four small rolls, served with a pat of cream cheese and some smoked trout roe to jack up the price tag. A bowl of lumpy French onion soup (very not Polish) comes with a marrow bone, but confusingly you either dump the marrow into the soup, where it’s lost, or slurp it alone before eating the soup, which makes no sense. It’s $14.
A recent bowl of bigos, a hunter’s stew stuffed with kielbasa, sauerkraut, bacon, fingerling potatoes, and cabbage, topped with a half roasted chicken ($24) was a swing in the opposite direction, being far too large to finish but also terribly salty. (It was also put in a cardboard to-go box at the end, which promptly leaked all over my fridge).
Before I go full curmudgeon here, I will say the service is attentive and friendly. And a plate of two smoked kielbasa with Brussel sprout sauerkraut, loaded with caraway seed and lardons of bacon, with a bright sun of mustard ($11 happy hour/$15 regular price), were spot on. An $8 plate of fried potato pancakes with sour cream and apple butter are the elevated McDonald’s hashbrowns the world deserves.
It’s not that I demand that traditionally comfort-type foods be cheap just because they always are—often that expectation is clouded in a haze of racism. I’m definitely here for an elevated take on just about any “peasant” cuisine in the world. It’s just that a chef, especially one with Smith’s stratified background, can’t just slap a truffle or a trendy marrow bone on there and call it haute.
P.S. The carrot cake was fine.