The thick, juicy potato and cheese pierogi (Polish dumplings) slavered in oil, caramelised onion and charred bacon cubes are just as I remember. So is the kapusta (braised sauerkraut), mashed potatoes (no cream, just good ol' globs of butter and dill) and kotlet schabowy (pork schnitzel) on my boyfriend's plate, and the slice of heavy, yellow, poppyseed cheesecake just waiting to be devoured for dessert.
The people around me — older couples mostly, but also some multigenerational families filling up as many as five tables — are either well-dressed in suits, ties and elegant dresses (it's 1:30pm on a Sunday after all, and church finishes around midday) or they're wearing thongs and trendy T-shirts, a confused nod to Western cool culture born out of living in Australia for so long.
As always, the food, aside from being delicious, is reasonably priced, even though prices have gone up since I was a kid. Today, Polski Dom — aka Polish Club Albion in Melbourne's north-west — remains, but things have changed. The service is different (the food actually gets delivered to the table now instead of us having to fight through the crowd to get it from the cafeteria window) and the decor has undergone a significant upgrade since my last visit five years ago.
When I was a child, Polski Dom played a far more significant role in my life. Having been raised in Poland (I was born in Australia but lived in Wroclaw for seven years before coming back to Melbourne) I remember the confusion I felt when introduced to 'Aussie food'; white bread, Philadelphia cheese, Vegemite and pancakes for breakfast simply didn't seem like food, especially when compared to the extravagant cold meats, boiled eggs, sourdough rye and sliced tomato with onion spreads we'd have for breakfast and kolacja — supper — in Poland.
As I learnt to navigate Australian culture and all of its multicultural foods, Polski Dom was my link to familiarity, to love and the Polish culture I thought I'd left behind. Really, it was home.
"Polski Dom was my link to familiarity, to love and the Polish culture I thought I'd left behind."
I didn't know what to expect when, on a whim, I decided to have obiad (dinner) with my Australian boyfriend and two Polish friends one Sunday afternoon at Polski Dom. Nestled between a truck shop, storage facility and an Islamic centre, Polski Dom is a little oasis in the middle of industrial Melbourne, a gated community where children attend Saturday Polish school and the local soccer team — Western Eagles FC — plays on the big, grassy oval out the back.
As I walked past the memorial to John Paul II and into the old, brown building with my Australian boyfriend, I was expecting the usual assault of the senses: old cigarette smoke mixed with smells of lard and musty carpets, the echoes of billiard balls ricocheting off yellowed walls, and the sounds of men laughing as they clang beers among the tinkling of knives and forks.
Instead, I was met with an older gentleman, who asked me to sign in (thanks, COVID), who took me to the dining room, where four large screens above the kitchen alternated between showing the menu (now in Polish and English!) and romanticised images of various Polish sites. The sparkling new marble-like tiles in the bathroom and newly painted vanilla-white walls belied the Polish cultural landmarks and decor I grew up with.
I was shocked; when did this happen? When did the musty Polski Dom of my childhood become a polished establishment?
In a way, the Polski Dom upgrade is a fusion of old Poland, contemporary Poland and the Australian-Polish diaspora, a subculture in and of itself. As the Polish-born and raised community in Australia continues to shrink, it gives way to the second generation of Poles, who, like me, may have grown up on a diet of delicious, flavourful food and a healthy dose of Polish culture, but who also inevitably reflect a different Polish identity.
However, the moment those pierogi were placed in front of me, I forgot all about the decor and focussed on my food. Unlike the trendy Polish restaurants around Melbourne which draw inspiration from Polish cuisine but add their own hipster slant (I'm sorry, but pierogi do not come served with red onion and spinach) Polski Dom's food remains true to its origins. Cooked and served up by volunteer babcie (older Polish women) there are no vegan, gluten-free alternatives, and there is no skimping on fat, salt and sugar.
They say there's no place like home, but food, with its strong ties to nostalgia, definitely comes close. As my friends and I ate, reminisced and laughed, I realised that it takes more — far more — than a change in decor to erase culture and the heart which accompanies it.
A traditional Polish cream pie, karpatka is made with choux pastry layered with the vanilla pudding cream.