Our short stop-over in Wroclaw, Poland last week had an agenda, something far more important than finding the best borscht in town.
My husband’s grandfather, Georg Schiftan, whom he never met, was born in 1875 in Breslau (Wroclaw’s name when the city was part of Germany, up until 1945). His great-grandfather, Ernst, was born there, too, and lived in the city until sometime around the turn of the century. My husband, who learned little about the two men from his parents, now deceased, recently decided to learn more.
After scouring documents found in family scrapbooks --- birth certificates and a wedding license indicating that Ernst was a restaurateur ---- he planned a trip to the Schiftan ancestral home of Breslau/Wroclaw.
On our first full day we went to the Jewish Information Center, visited the woefully neglected Jewish Cemetery on the outskirts of town, and walked around the neighborhoods of Wroclaw looking for the few old addresses we had.
One of them, Rynek 4, was a beautiful building in the middle of the town’s most important market square, pictured above. (The Schiftans had lived at Ring 4; we eventually figured out that Ring translates into Rynek in Polish.) Today the impressive block is home to many restaurants and cafes, including Lwowska at #4. (The restaurant specializes in Polish food and specialties from Lvov, a city formerly in southeastern Poland, now part of Ukraine.)
We decided it would be cool to have dinner in the building (above) where the Schiftans had once lived. Sure, it was highly unlikely we’d have a table in what was their actual apartment, but just to be there seemed the right thing to do.
Our dinner at Lwowska was nothing short of magical. The series of rooms on the second floor was elaborately paneled in wood and festooned with magnificent arrangements of dried flowers and tree boughs. In the center of our table was a small birch-like tree branch with two precious nosegays of dried flowers resting on it. Glamorous old chandeliers and hundreds of candles cast a soft light; a natty gentleman played softly on an upright piano. (There’s also an old-world bar on the ground floor, and a beautiful sidewalk terrace.)
Our server first brought a basket of excellent breads and rolls and a small ramekin of something that looked like paté but tasted to me like pure fat. (The “when in Rome” gig only goes so far.)
My appetizer of beet soup was fabulous: a clear, shimmering magenta broth with a luscious sweet-tart flavor, dotted with a few mediocre koldunami, Polish dumplings. We also tried the “Jewish salad” which turned out to be a mix of potatoes, onion and hard-boiled egg, all held together with mayonnaise.
The entrees on the heavy, leather menu included steaks and chops along with traditional dishes. The Roladki, rolls, were delicious “meatballs,” made from ground chicken, red pepper, sheeps milk cheese and local smoked ham. The texture was sensational.
Not to be deterred by the boring dumplings floating in my soup, I ordered Pierogi Mieszanych or “mixed.” Described as “ruskie ravioli,” they were plump and tender and sautéed until the edges were browned and crisp. The fillings included a well-seasoned cabbage-and-mushroom mixture, a savory potato-and-cheese number, and a less exciting ground meat pierogi. (They looked just like these dumplings in a photo from a Polish Website.) We drank Lwowska’s own beer on tap and a bottle of Lindeman’s Shiraz which our served recommended with great enthusiasm.
At dessert time we by-passed the highly touted baked apple and went for the traditional Lvov wafer cookies filled with chocolate and chopped walnuts and topped with a cloud of whipped cream. The whole exotic feast came to 251 Zlotys or about $35, to which was added a whopping 31 percent in taxes.
The next morning we visited a University library that housed the city’s “address books” back to the early 1800s. After much consternation on the part of the guards and librarians --- no one spoke a word of English – we encountered a young man who spoke German and showed us to the room housing the books. We explained briefly to him about our search for a great- grandfather who lived at Rynek 4 and .was a restaurateur. He left us with the books and returned about 20 minutes later, asking in hushed tones “was the restaurant called E. Schiftan?” When I answered a startled “yes,” he asked us to follow him.
In a room down the hall, he held up a large photo of the block of houses including Ring 4, dated 1903. He focused a jeweler’s magnifying loop on the picture and told us to look. There, on the façade, where Lwowska stands today, was “E. Schiftan Restaurant.”
Our evening at Lwowska suddenly took on new meaning. No longer just a feast of pierogi, meatballs and chocolate wafers, it had been a memorable family dinner with the grandpa and great-grandpa my husband never knew.