It was a case of “right time, right place” that led to the opening of Zosia Café & Kitchen this past November. Polish-born Slawek and Monika Michalak had long mused about bringing their native cuisine to their Santa Rosa area, as they built up other successful retail businesses in the area over the 26 years Slawek has lived here.
Then, one day, a building came up for sale in the tiny town of Graton. Monika is also a real estate agent, working right across the street from the property, and so she and her husband immediately snatched up the space. They tapped their friend, Russian-born chef Ekaterina Zaitseva, and created a menu showcasing Polish, Hungarian, German and other Eastern European specialties.
Flash forward six months. Zaitseva and the Michalaks parted ways the other week, with new chefs Tom Adamian and Adam Norvell coming aboard. More change is underway, too, with plans to add dinner service to the current breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch offerings. And a beer and wine garden is slated to open this summer, to go with coffee counter coming to the silver Airstream parked on the patio.
Happily, the same core menu remains, including my all-time favorite, the sumptuous, soothing Siberian pelmeni ($9.95). A half dozen pork and beef stuffed dumplings nestle in a deep bowl of organic chicken broth sprinkled with fresh herbs, and I add in a dollop of smetana (sour cream) for even more richness against the lacy thin dough and firm, juicy meatball filling.
Adamian and Norvell previously worked at Woodfour Brewing Company in Sebastopol, so this is quite a different cooking style for the duo. And it’s an eclectic lineup, certainly, with Cal-American dishes on the menu, too, such as a good pulled pork sandwich topped in caramelized onions, apple cabbage slaw and a slick of spicy barbecue sauce ($12.95), or eggs Benedict ($12.95).
Then, add in free-wheeling dishes like a loco moco Hawaiian hangover breakfast of a hamburger patty on white rice with an over easy egg and gravy, plus specials like duck confit, and the chefs have their work cut out for them. Just a look at the unusual interior shows the rather disjointed ambition: décor includes a 1965 R695 BMW motorcycle behind a glass wall, a black tile backed wine bar offering Sonoma County, French and Spanish labels, and a lovely, contemporary patio brimming with manicured trees and flowers.
Still, the real reason to come is for what I hope won’t change: the authentic specialties, faithful to classic recipes like the bigos hunter’s stew ($8.95 cup/ $12.95 bowl). Rather than soupy, this is more like a pulled beef and pork braise, in a pleasing chew studded with mushrooms, soft onion, sauerkraut and smoky tomato notes that we scoop with brown bread. The recipe is secret, my server says, and I don’t find any of the traditional kielbasa added in, but it’s true that some dish preparations here do change a bit from day to day, like a home kitchen.
There are two kinds of borscht, for example. The Ukrainian style ($5.95/$7.95) brings a tomato, cabbage and potato recipe, while the Polish style is offered often as a special ($5.95/$7.95), stocked with red beets, pork rib broth, potatoes and sour cream. Both are nicely done, though I prefer the heartier, more amply seasoned Polish.
Crepes are true Polish, rather than French, for a bit thicker blintz dough, rolled in a trio of flat tubes, with comfort-chic fillings like a chunky blend of mushrooms, spinach, onions and tangy housemade farmer’s cheese ($10.95). There’s an earthy, slightly sweet nuance to them, topped in more spinach plus a drizzle of creamy sauce.
Pierogi, too, are the traditional creations, delivering six pliant dumplings stuffed with various things like the tart combo of sauerkraut and mushroom ($9.95). Note that, like many of the European dishes here, portions are small and generally bare of sides, so you’ll need to order other different plates to get a full meal. On a recent day, I found satisfaction rounding out my pierogi lunch with a daily special of asparagus tempura ($6.95).
Schnitzel ($15.95) is one of the largest entrees here, though I wouldn’t order it again, since the thin-pounded pork cutlet was bland, needing some mustard or sauerkraut to brighten it. Instead, it came with soft, creamy mashed potatoes and a crisp mix of sautéed mushrooms, green beans, and baby carrot that was the best part of the dish.
I am generally fine skipping dessert here, as well, given the ordinary line-up of brownies ($2.50), scones ($2.95), coffee cake ($2.95), almond biscotti ($1.75) and vanilla ice cream ($3.50). Crepes are a better option, stuffed with lightly sweetened farmer’s cheese and sprinkled in powdered sugar ($7).
Or, why not simply save your calories for another beer or two, since there are nearly a dozen Eastern European specialties here, such as Czech Primátor Lager ($6), German Kaiserdom ($6.50) and Polish Warka ($6).
On my most recent visit, Zosia felt like it was feeling the effects of its upheaval. Staff argued openly in the dining room, about forgetting to serve customers on the patio, menu confusions, and how the point-of-sale system worked. Ultimately, I scored the last serving of crepes, and I paid cash, since the credit card machine wasn’t processing.
Yet I’m still very much looking forward to my next visit to this charming, little-bit-crazy place. Time, I hope, will smooth the rough edges, and if nothing else, those silky pelmeni and cold beers will smooth the way.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.