At some point in the future, White Nights plans to offer evening entertainment. For now, there is simply a sound system. A switch in tapes startles Goat. "Oh, no," he exclaims. "Is this the Electric Light Orchestra?" Hoping to calm him, I assure him it's just violin music.
We end our meal with the only Russian dessert in the house. Called mekada, it is a sweet confection made of layers of wafer cookie and a nutty raisin-honey spread. The exact ingredients? According to our waitress, they're a secret, and Mom in the kitchen intends to keep it that way.
"I don't even know," the daughter confesses. "She won't tell me." I like mekada so much I wish I had a whole one to myself.
Though it has some rough spots to work out, White Nights earns an A for effort. For instance, when I request herbal tea after my meal, the owner invites me into the adjacent deli that sells take-out food and imported groceries. She points to some sealed boxes of herbal tea on a grocery shelf. "Pick one," the owner commands. "We'll open it." A few minutes later, my peppermint tea is served in a small white teapot. When the water grows cold, it is freshened with hot. The Russian Tea Room it isn't, but White Nights will go to any length to give you tea. And that will have to suffice for now. The vodka (another potato product!) won't be flowing until their liquor license is approved. When it is, maybe they'll serve shots of Stoli with sprigs of dill. I wouldn't be surprised.
Hoping to get the scoop on an obscure Eastern European restaurant known only to insiders, I call Stanley's Polish Deli to solicit their recommendation for a good Polish meal.
Stanley's directs me to The Golden Prague, a veteran player perched on the edge of Sun City in Peoria. Since I haven't been to this Czechoslovakian and Polish restaurant in several years, I decide to give it another try. Because he is so entertaining on a long drive, I drag Goat with me.
We make the trek out to 94th Avenue on a Monday night. It's slow at Golden Prague, which has all the gaiety of a funeral parlor. We are the only ones in the dining room when we're seated at 6:45. Pink silk flowers and green plants line the room in cheerful ignorance of its emptiness. Polka music fills the quietude. Lace curtains hide Peoria Avenue outside.
Our youthful waitress is all hyped up with no one to serve. She can hardly wait to run into the kitchen with our order. In fact, she takes off like a roadrunner before we've even done ordering. We have to call her back to tell her we want appetizers and beverages.
Mere seconds later, she brings us our soup and salad. She mouths the same old rationale: "Your appetizers will take a while, so I thought I'd bring these out first." Arrrgh.
After tasting the salad and soup, I'm sorry she even bothered. I've been pretty lucky with soups lately, but my luck runs out at Golden Prague. The beef noodle soup is simply awful. Tan, overcooked noodles float in salty, barely warm beef broth. I eat two spoonfuls, then put down my spoon. The salad is only slightly better. It's strictly institutional fare: iceberg lettuce, tomato and bermuda onion with a big glob of bleu cheese dressing on top. I hope things improve as the meal progresses.
And, briefly, my wish seems to come true. Our appetizers are not horrible. In fact, I quite like the potato pancakes. They're nicely greasy and hot--but I have to request sour cream. Our waitress seems surprised. "You want sour cream?" she asks. Yes, I do. She dutifully brings two baked potato-size portions. Mmmmmm-mmmmm, it only makes the pancakes better. Potato-stuffed piroghi also are pleasant. The boiled, crescent-shaped dumplings are the size of Chinese potstickers. Dripping with butter (but no dill), they are vaguely sour and have a nice doughy texture. Still, for me, they're a little too bland to get hepped up about. I guess I'd rather be from a country whose natural resource is olives or lemons or chilies than potatoes.
An older couple enters the dining room and the staff comes alive. Regular customers! People they know! There is much banter. "It's good to see you," says one waitress. "It's been slow tonight. Did you chase everyone away?"
Ah, here come our entrees. Our waitress plunks them down on the table and returns with a yellow squeeze-container of Plochman's mustard. "You might want that," she says offhandedly.
I know we're dangerously near Sun City, but does everything have to look so institutional? Hospital food is all I can think of when I examine our roast loin of pork Veprova and fresh Polish sausage. Each plate has three things on it: meat, potato or dumpling, and an orange-slice garnish. Sweet-and-sour cabbage and sauerkraut are served in separate compote dishes. As a final indignity, the mashed potatoes obviously have been shaped by an ice cream scooper!