10 W. Franklin St.
Seaboard Station, Raleigh
I'm sure there's a German word for it that would have six or seven guttural syllables, but I took French in my Louisiana school, so when I walk into J. Betski's for the first time, the phrase that comes to mind is trompe l'oeil, trick of the eye. Owner and proprietor John Korzekwinski has performed a significant feat here: He's turned the small corner of one of Seaboard Station's renovated warehouses into an Old World mead hall.
Perhaps it's the crest of an eagle etched into the door, but I can easily imagine a hearty Hapsburg quaffing his lager at one of the long slabs of polished wood, his fellow villagers gathered under the faintly Christian arched ironwork on the walls. Or maybe it's the mirrored wall and heavy-timbered ceilings that make this cozy, 50-seat German-Polish restaurant seem as vast as the great hall in Beowulf.
But the best trick Korzekwinski has pulled is to hire young chef Todd Whitney to create an inspired gourmet menu from what could have been nothing more than standard gasthaus fare. Never fear, you'll find your favorite pierogies, schnitzel and kielbasa, but even those are slightly gussied up (for the better).
Consider a recent late-night menu, offered Friday and Saturday nights until 1 a.m. You'd think it would be laden with heavy fried food, offered as a mere complement to one's beer (and easy for the kitchen to churn out), but even the late-night menu is well considered: seared scallops with spring onion and pepper salad (with goulash vinaigrette for that Eastern European touch); hefeweizen mussels; roasted beet salad with horseradish quark and toasted pumpkinseed oil; fresh house-made kielbasa with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. Look especially for the leek and beef pierogies with caraway and chive sour creams and fried leeks ("We have this fryer but don't have much fried right now, so we're trying to come up with something to use it," admits Whitney). While a potato pierogi screams comfort food, the beef version seems exotic, like a Japanese gyoza, and the spiced sour creams are a surprise gourmet touch.
Standing underneath the colorful two-pint beer steins that line the bar, Korzekwinski reminisces about his last trip to Germany. "We went to this one place, a country retreat—it was charming, with a little church that had a relic and an outdoor area, terra cotta floors, a lot of wood." He knew right away he wanted his dream restaurant to emulate the little wine cafés in the Mosel Valley.
"Our whole focus here is to make it like you're on a vacation in Eastern Europe, like you're just stepping out of Raleigh for a little bit," says Korzekwinski. The mood at J. Betski's is "not pretentious, it's fun," he says. "People always make more of things than they should in business."
Not that he's taken on this enterprise lightly. Whitney says Korzekwinski has been talking about opening a German-Polish restaurant for, oh, around 12 years now. The name of the restaurant, explains Whitney, is "a combination of Korzekwinski's grandfather and grandmother's first names, John and Betty, and then the 'ski' to honor his family [name]." The kielbasa is a family recipe (as are many of the dishes at J. Betski's) from John's great-uncle, who was a Polish butcher in Queens.
As you'd imagine for a dream restaurant, Korzekwinski selected his location carefully. At least four luxury apartment buildings are going up within a mile or two, and York Properties will soon turn the state-government building next to Seaboard Imports into new condominiums. (Korzekwinski repeatedly uses words like "potential" and "thrive.") The retail end of Seaboard Station is also a model of symbiosis. Capital City Grocery is convenient for ingredients in a pinch. This spring, Seaboard Wine Warehouse and J. Betski's co-hosted wine dinners, Logan's provided the flowers, and Ace Hardware traded a grill in exchange for J. Betski's catering their opening.
Andrea Reusing, chef/proprietor at Lantern, sent the Indy over to J. Betski's specifically to taste the potato pierogies. (Though pierogies of one kind or another are always on the menu, the kind varies by season.) Whitney kindly went off-menu to whip up a batch of the potato-quark for us. The recipe is Korzekwinski's. "It's a standard, classic," says Whitney. "But [John] gets sick of them, says he's been eating them his whole life."
Ah, if only there were sufficient time to eat at J. Betski's often enough to get sick of them. The potato-quark pierogies are a perfect match for a complex German beer (try the bitter Jever Pils). Hearty and salty, the dumpling is pillow-soft inside and crispy outside, and the quark (a simple white cheese) helps bind the potato filling and prevents it from tasting too starchy.
Whitney is young (let's just say young enough to have a MySpace page), but that's been crucial to J. Betski's success. How many chefs would pitch in to lay terra-cotta tile and stain the massive timbers that now hang over our heads? It's a good thing that to a 30-year-old, working 75-hour weeks seems ... invigorating. Whitney is a local boy—Carroll Middle School, Sanderson High—and somehow it seems appropriate that he take part in this renewal of downtown Raleigh.
Whitney's most formative experience running a kitchen was at Raleigh's Bistro 607 in 2003, after he'd returned to Raleigh from culinary school in Portland, Ore., and a year working at the four-diamond Mille Fleurs in San Diego. At Bistro 607, "there are only two cooks, the owner comes in every now and then, but we'd prep for the whole restaurant; it's all on you, a lot of organization." It was a relatively easy transition to J. Betski's, where the prep is labor-intensive but without complicated, expensive ingredients (which results in some affordable $16 entrées: truffle shavings need not apply). "We make everything here: sauerkraut, sausage, bread," says Whitney. "The only thing I really buy is lingonberry jam, any other kind of preserves like that, mustard, cornichons. Tomato paste is about the only thing I get in a can. That's why we don't do lunch; it would be impossible."
They get "a thousand requests" for sauerbraten, and Whitney promises they'll run it as a special soon. The current menu offers a pleasing variety of entrées, from trout to duck (the pan-seared duck in pumpkinseed vinaigrette is fantastic), but their most popular dish is, as expected, the pork schnitzel. In Germany it's a staple, schnitzel und pommes, which translates on the plate to breaded cutlet with fries. But at J. Betski's, it's a more artful concept, served on a triangle-shaped dish with the tender Berkshire pork flanked at three corners by a delightful, mustardy Austrian potato salad; a clean, refreshing dill-cucumber salad; and a bright red garnish of lingonberry jam. (If I could get away with serving schnitzel for Thanksgiving I would exchange in a second my tired old turkey-and-cranberry trope for Whitney's pork-and-lingonberry.) Pair it with a crisp Austrian Riesling and you'll have a perfect summer evening.
J. Betski's is shooting for early July to open their biergarten, which will accommodate 24 outdoor diners. Korzekwinski hopes his customers will sit back, relax, soak it up. "Our pierogies may not be exactly like [your] grandma made them, but nothing tastes as good if you really love it in your heart!"
What do Korzekwinski and Whitney really love in their hearts, aside from—yes—Lantern and Vin Rouge? (These restaurants are exempt since they've have already been featured in Food Chain.) Though Whitney tosses a compliment to Raleigh's Hereghty Café for their quiche Lorraine and mourns the loss of That's Amore Pizza, he and Korzekwinski are unanimous on their vote for best meal in the Triangle. But (hint) you'll have to stay up late on a Friday night to find out—or wait until next month's installment.