Beef stuffed cabbage rolls are one of the specialties at Bona.
Before my visit to Bona, a new Polish restaurant in Menlo Park, what I knew about Polish cuisine was pretty much limited to kielbasa. And potatoes. I’m pretty sure they eat a lot of potatoes in Poland. But there’s more to Polish food than sausage and spuds. Much more.
Bona occupies a small location on a side street off Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown Menlo Park. It’s rather hidden but worth seeking out. Bona (which takes its name from a Polish queen) started out serving Italian and Polish food, but apparently the politics of a bicultural kitchen proved challenging, and the owners decided to go all Polish all the time. I’m glad they did. We’ve got plenty of Italian restaurants and a dearth of Polish restaurants.
The soups ($4.95 a bowl) are one of the strong points of the menu. The borscht is extraordinary. My experience with the beet soup has been limited to the chunky Ukrainian style that’s often made with potatoes and a dab of sour cream.
Polish borscht is altogether different and made with just rich beef broth and beet juice and a few beef-filled dumpling tinted red from the beet juice. It’s wonderfully flavorful and full of deep, minerally beef-broth flavors and the lively, acidic tang of the beets.
Although our waiter tried to steer us away from the tripe soup, it’s also a winner. America is one of the few countries in the world where we only eat a few parts of the cow and toss the rest away. Tripe, select bits of cow stomach that are chewy but good and far less challenging than they sound, is celebrated around the world. I celebrated it at Bona with this thick, beef-broth-based soup.
The other standout is the sourdough soup. It’s not made with sourdough bread but, rather, fermented flour and water, the kind of starter used to make sourdough bread. Upon this base is layered a creamy base, vegetables and bits of sausage. It’s also known as “white borscht.”
Next to the soups, the other must-order is the pierogi ($10.95). Pierogis are the Polish equivalent of ravioli. At Bona, the plump packages are available with mushroom and sauerkraut (my favorite), potato and cheese (a bit too starchy) and ground seasoned beef (quite good). The sautéed onions served on the side are good, too.
From the pierogi, step to the bigos or “hunter’s stew” ($14.95), a cold-weather dish if ever there was one, made with tender chunks of beef, pork, sausage, mushrooms and cabbage in a thick gravy. It’s served with two scoops of boiled and puréed potatoes. Mix it all together and you’re full and satisfied for hours.
The goulash is another homey, winter dish. Even better are the beef and pickled bacon–stuffed cabbage rolls ($16.95). Both are ladled with a deep, dark but slightly different gravy and served with a pair of überstarchy Silesian dumplings, springy gnoccilike potato balls.
For dessert, the poppy seed cake is quite good ($4.95), but I preferred the cheese crepes. The crepes are thick and eggy, crisped slightly at the edges and filled with a lightly sweetened ricottalike cheese.
Bona has short wine list. The Woodside Vineyards pinot noir ($40) pairs well with Bona’s food. But for me, I think a selection of one of the three Polish beers ($5) is a better way to go.
On both my visits, Bona was sparsely populated with other diners. That’s a shame. This place deserves to thrive. Bona serves the kind of hearty, filling, homey food you’d get if you had a Polish grandmother. I don’t— so Bona is the next best thing.