|Fast facts:||Homeland Cafe|
|Cuisine:||Polish, with some Spanish, Latin American, and German|
|Price range:||(lunch): $7.50 to $9.50|
|Summary:||Extraordinary home-made delicacies ranging from pierogies to paella, made with love and care.|
|Address:||154C Talmeda Rd, Oak Ridge TN 37830 Map|
On a quiet side street in Oak Ridge sits a tiny jewel of a restaurant called Homeland Cafe. This may sound odd, but Homeland Cafe offers both the best Polish food and the best Spanish paella I have ever eaten. It is a marvel.
The restaurant has existed for several years in various locations around Oak Ridge and moved to its current home on Talmeda Road three or four years ago. The original owner moved away last year and sold the restaurant to an Oak Ridger named Maria Ramirez. In her tenure as its new owner, Ms. Ramirez has developed a mastery of such Polish staples as pierogies, stuffed cabbages, sauerkraut, and goulash (an occasional daily special). With the exception of the kielbasa, everything is homemade from scratch. Ms. Ramirez invests time, love, and soul into her cuisine, and it shows clearly in the end product. This is comfort food at its very best.
Her cooking heals me.
Lunch dishes include Polish staples like wonderfully rich stuffed cabbages, kielbasa with sauerkraut, three heavenly varieties of pierogies, and a Polish sampler that includes a little of each of those. The pierogies are served with an optional mushroom sauce, which I recommend, and with optional toasted onions, which are ever so slightly sweet. Savory crepes are also on the lunch menu, with the ham and cheese crepe being my favorite.
The sauerkraut at Homeland Cafe deserves special mention. It is made from scratch and cured to just the right consistency; since it's not overly fermented, the cabbage maintains great body and texture. It is well-seasoned, then blended with a little bit of Polish sausage and a tiny amount of shaved carrot. These elements give just a hint of flavor, lifting the dish above the mundane and transforming it into a memorable experience in its own right. Paired with the kielbasa or the sporadically available three-bean-and-vegetable soup, the sauerkraut practically sings. It is without doubt the best I have ever eaten.
The soup du jour is always a treat. Frequently, the soup specials include lentil, garbanzo with ham, or couscous. The soups are consistently rich and hearty, made from homemade broths, with special attention to each one's delicate balance of flavors. Each soup is a testament to Ms. Ramirez's refined culinary talent. Great soups are an art form; those at Homeland Cafe are quite often masterpieces.
After spending some time perfecting the art of Eastern European cooking, Ms. Ramirez decided to augment the Polish cuisine with a few Spanish and Latin American dishes. For lunch, she added a Spanish tortilla to the menu; this is a potato omelet served with grilled red peppers, ham (sometimes prosciutto or Serrano, if they're available), and a tomatilla/crema sauce. It's a substantial dish, hearty and lush, but with a surprisingly delicate texture.
The daily lunch special may run the gamut from goulash or schnitzel to paella or pasteles, which are Puerto Rican tamales, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Whether the dishes are Polish, German, Spanish, or Latin American, they are uniformly sublime.
Paella is the jewel in the crown at Homeland Cafe, but if you're interested in that dish, you'll have to call a couple of days in advance and specifically request it. Unlike most restaurants, which cut corners in the preparation of that notoriously labor-intensive dish, the paella at Homeland Cafe is made the traditional way. Rice is cooked slowly in home-made shrimp broth in a traditional paella pan and infused with saffron. (In most restaurants serving paella, this is where corners are cut -- the rice is either overcooked, undercooked, or just bland. Homeland Cafe does it correctly, without cutting any corners, but the preparation takes hours.) Chorizo, whole chicken legs, and shellfish stew slowly in that shrimp broth, adding their own notes to the dish and absorbing the saffron's perfume. Traditional paella always includes something red and something green; at Homeland Cafe, the red ingredient is usually red bell peppers, and the green ingredient is often lima beans, snap peas, or green olives, depending on the chef's preference that day.
It's never the same dish twice, but it is consistently the best paella I have ever eaten. The rice is supple, rich, velvety, and aromatic. It is an achingly beautiful dish, and it only costs $10.
Regular lunch prices range from about $7.50 to about $9.50. Dinner is a few dollars more, and the dinner menu is more extensive. As I understand it, Ms. Ramirez will make tapas for dinner, if you give her a few days' notice and you're nice to her. The restaurant serves beer but not wine or liquor; customers may bring their own wine. With seating available for only about two dozen people, reservations are probably a good idea.See all NoshViews reviews...
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