Monday, March 16, 2009

These are the good old days at Operetta

Posted By on 03.16.09 at 11:36 AM

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A guest post by Sky Full of Bacon's Mike Gebert

“In the old days (Ah, the old days!), the Little Bohemia was known all over town for its imported Pilsner beer. Many were the celebrities, during the summer evenings of long ago, who used to drive out to the west side in a hansom cab and sip those big steins of Pilsner served there. Not the least of them were the late Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and his companion, Henry Kau, the restaurateur and former wine merchant.” 

That’s how John Drury, author of 1931’s Dining in Chicago: An Intimate Guide, conjured up an even more distant era of Bohemian-Czech gemütlichkeit by gaslight. (Thomas died in 1905, so it would have been before then.)  Apparently even by 1931, with the Bohemian-born “Two Ton Tony” Cermak in firm control of the Cook County machinery, it was possible to feel that the old Czech Chicago had already begun to fade into the past, belonging to an era when you wiped your (entirely legal) Pilsner from your walrus mustache while a brass band oompah'd the "Merry Widow Waltz." 

Eight decades later Pilsen, the “west side” where Little Bohemia once stood, has been Latino for so long no one thinks twice about the name, and you have to go much farther west to find Czech eateries—to Fullerton west of Central, for instance. The name “Operetta” evokes that pre-World War II, Alan Furst-novel era, though once you’re inside, the Mix is blaring loud enough to bring you back to the present, or perhaps to a hot Saturday night for Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s wild and crazy Czech brothers. 

Still, something of the spirit of old mittel-Europe hangs over the place, in its peasant-village decor and the game cheerfulness of the very blond waitress—and definitely in the very large draft Pilsner I’m served almost immediately. We are given two menus: one organized by type of meat, and one of specials that in years past has been in indecipherable Czech but is now, thankfully, in English. A page of “Beef Meals” sums up the half-cosmopolitan approach to cuisine of many central European countries: from Prague Roast Beef (rib eye with eggs) to Warsaw Roast Beef (rib eye with mushroom gravy) to Roast Beef a la Milan (rib eye, onion, tomatoes, peppers . . . and ketchup). 

Yet in a perverse way, finding bastard dishes like chicken curry on the menu is a sign of authenticity—they’re eating that stuff all over Europe these days; it’s evidence that Operetta is serving people who came from there not that long ago. All the same, we stick to two things Theodore Thomas might have ordered, goulash and smoked pork butt with sauerkraut and potato dumplings. 

Hungarian being another ethnic cuisine which has virtually vanished from Chicago, I don’t have a solid gauge for goulash, but this version is a bit bland, with mere hints of paprika and wine; I’ve had better at Polish restaurants like Smak-Tak. The smoked pork butt, on the other hand, is terrific, like country ham in a really good diner, and the sweetish sauerkraut is as natural an accompaniment for this pork as baked apples. 

Both dishes come with some form of dumplings--which is to say, each of them comes with a heap of boiled breadstuff, cut into slices that fill half the plate. If the couple of pounds of meat weren’t enough to ensure leftovers, this starch, the equivalent in mass (and most other ways) of a full loaf of Wonder Bread, certainly is. Nonetheless, when the waitress sees that we’ve only eaten about half our plate each, she looks at us sorrowfully and says, “You have not had Czech food before?” 

To reassure her that her homeland’s cuisine has not disappointed us, we quickly request dessert. “Pancakes a la Operetta” proves to be a rustically bumpy-textured crepe stuffed with 1950s-style fruit cocktail and topped with whipped cream. Still, when she brings the check, the way she says “See you next time” is almost heartbreaking, redolent of nights spent watching the audience for Czech food in Chicago dwindle with each passing year.  Ah, the old days! 

Operetta, 5653 W. Fullerton, 773-622-2613

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