I walked into Seven Roses expecting to find a restaurant. What I discovered was more along the lines of a time machine.
Cross the threshold of this tidy Slavic Village shop and you're transported to another time and place. It's a rare and pleasant treat to feel like a traveler in one's own town, and Seven Roses offers an authentic snapshot of life abroad even though it's just five miles from Public Square.
The front portion of the space is devoted to the deli and marketplace, where customers can walk in to grab a little taste of the Old World to go. Sturdy wooden shelving, complete with rolling ladders to reach the high stuff, are laden with imported foods from Eastern Europe. A menacing-looking bread slicer converts loaves of fresh-baked bread into sandwich-friendly pieces.
One cooler is packed with staples like Polish butter, five-gallon buckets of pickles, and tubs of housemade lard. Across the room, a deli counter displays smoked meats, sliced cheeses, and tart ethnic salads. Every remaining square inch of space, it seems, is dedicated to tantalizing pastry: sweet babka, flaky apricot-stuffed kolaczki, and fruit-filled paczki.
It's not until one makes his or her way to the back of the shop that a sort of restaurant emerges. This spare but elegant space features tin ceilings, aged wooden floors, and enough lace to fill a Belgian gift shop. Awkwardly low-slung tables and chairs seem built for vertically gifted diners.
The restaurant and deli are run by Sophia Tyl, a Polish immigrant who opened Seven Roses with her daughter about eight years ago. (A second Seven Roses briefly existed in a Beachwood office building.) As you might expect, the house specialties are hearty, homey, homemade Eastern European dishes.
A small menu (just 10 items) becomes even smaller considering that one of them is a Friday fish fry and another — the European-style goulash — is not always available. While we never did get to try that elusive goulash, we did stuff ourselves with the stuffed cabbage. Lighter and lovelier than most, the cabbage rolls are doused in tomato sauce and paired with whipped potatoes.
Tyl's pierogies may have forever ruined us on the genre. Holding little in common with the doughy, leaden variety served pretty much everywhere, these little dumplings are made with a gentle hand. In fact, you can literally see the thumbprints on the barely crimped edges. The wrapper is thin — ravioli-thin — and the cheese-and-potato filling is nicely seasoned. Just $5.99 buys a half-dozen, along with buttery sautéed onions, sauerkraut, and sour cream.
The pork schnitzel proved another revelation. Expecting a crispy breading characteristic of the dish, we were a little let down when the plate landed on our uncomfortably low table. More eggy than the crisp — imagine the progeny of French toast and egg foo young — the schnitzel was unlike any we've tried. Yet, it was outstanding. Fork-tender and plush, the cutlet proved more satisfying than the standard rendition. Instead of the included sauerkraut, order the salad, which actually is a refreshing Polish-style coleslaw.
Tack on an order of potato pancakes, whatever you do. Made to order, these crisp-edged beauties are well-seasoned, sprinkled with fresh dill and served with sour cream.
A word about the buffet (a word about all buffets, really): These ill-fated food-delivery systems can be as wonderful as they can be disastrous. They work better for some foods than others and, of course, they shine more at peak times than off times. Hit the Seven Roses buffet at the right time (weekends, or the occasional busy lunch) and you'll be rewarded with all-you-can-eat stuffed cabbage, kielbasa and kraut, cabbage and noodles, mashed potatoes and veggies — all for $6.99. Wisely, fried items like potato pancakes must be ordered from the kitchen (at additional cost). Hit it on a slow day, and, well, caveat emptor.
But because dining at Seven Roses feels like being invited into somebody's home — because it is — maybe it's best to leave the critic pants in the closet where they belong.