Comforts of Home
From pierogis and schnitzel to a stunning apple strudel, family-run Chef Henry’s is bursting with Eastern European delights.
There are times when going out to dinner means adventure and discovery. Why not try Vietnamese/African fusion? Tacos filled with fermented Swedish fish? Get in the car! The latest craze is pig ears? Sign me up!
Other times, the greatest discovery is food formed of tradition and generations of practice. And one place to find that is at Chef Henry’s in Longwood.
I last encountered Henrich Brestowski and his family back in 2001 when I enthusiastically reviewed Chef Henry’s Café. “The old restaurant on Howell Branch Road was my parents’ place,” says Simone Krasnansky, the owner of this new location.
Restaurants have always been a family affair with the Brestowski clan. Opened in 1999 by Dad and Mom with two daughters in tow, the café closed in 2008. The family also ran the short-lived Tip-Top Bistro, with a more pan-European menu. Simone had moved to Slovakia in the mid-2000s to take care of her ailing grandmother, and after her passing, the lure of restaurant life brought Simone back to Florida.
“It’s a calling,” she says.
A calling for her dad, as well. Henrich Brestowski, the namesake Henry, is executive chef, while mother Estera makes the award-winning desserts. Unfortunately, Henry had a heart attack this past Valentine’s Day, and while he is recovering from triple bypass surgery, Simone heads the kitchen during its abbreviated dinner schedule (Thursday through Saturday; Henry is expected back sometime this fall). Being a longtime fan of this kitchen, wherever it is located, I can tell you that Simone does an admirable job; I didn’t know Henry wasn’t preparing the meal until after it was done.
The restaurant opened in 2009, inhabiting the former location of Journeys, Bram Fowler’s iconic and still-spoken-of bistro. Old fans of dinner at Journeys will have an equally good, but different, meal here. The room is simply styled in white and taupe, a wooden bar and windows overlooking an outdoor patio.
Evelina Brestowska, another daughter, is the restaurant manager and a winning hostess. Her eyes widen when she talks about a special menu item or a wine she particularly likes. (“You should have, not pinot grigio, but pinot gris!”) And when she strolls by and whispers “Is everything good?”, it’s a pleasure to tell her yes.
We use the word “authentic’’ to describe everything from jeans to jars of tomato sauce, but one bite of the pierogi at Chef Henry’s, and you’ll understand the true meaning of the word. Filled with smooth mashed potatoes and cheese, the plump pillows are lightly sautéed for an almost crunchy shell, served with crispy browned onions and tart sour cream. The $8 dish is worthy of entrée status and can be ordered as a combination platter with other appetizers (halusky, a type of noodle dumpling; kolbasz sausage; and bryndzovník, a pastry and feta cake) for a full Eastern European sampler.
Food from Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe can best be described as “savory.” Meat and potato, spices of the paprika and cinnamon families, heady aromas and fats cut by vinegar—what you might think of as cold-weather foods. The chicken rouladen ($18) is such a meal, a thin cutlet of white meat rolled around a stuffing of rye bread, gouda and apricot. Served with a large potato wedge, the rich ingredients are enhanced by a splash of cider vinegar.
“Everything in life, every moment I can remember, includes food,” Simone says. “The meals both my grandmothers made are in everything I make.” Grandma would easily recognize the champignon schnitzel and spatzels ($20-24). Available as pork or veal, the pounded cutlet is breaded and fried to a tender crisp, topped with a rich mushroom sauce, and a perfect example of how schnitzel should be made.
“Why would we not want to share this food with our customers?” Simone asks. Her grandmothers would be proud.
Before you're done…
Chef Henry’s shows up twice this year in our magazine’s Dining Awards: top prize as Best Kept Secret, and #2 for Best Dessert. That exemplary dessert was no doubt Estera Brestowski’s apple strudel ($10), a seemingly infinitely layered flake pastry enveloping slightly tart, mostly sweet apples, baked to a golden brown and brought with much fragrance and ceremony to the table.
In October 2009, John Rivers was an unknown barbecue chef with a brand new, very small restaurant, daring to go up against the long-established big smokers in town such as Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que, Smokey Bones and Sonny’s. The ever-present lines outside his tiny shop in Winter Park ended up being better than any advertising campaign.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the popularity of the six locations of 4Rivers Smokehouse across Florida, from Gainesville and Jacksonville to his latest near UCF, is proof that Rivers’ dedication to the art and craft of barbecue is being recognized. And Tampa and Fort Lauderdale are still in his sights.
But the hot guy in local ‘cue (you might say smokin’) isn’t resting on his sauce-drenched laurels. In April, Rivers opened The Coop, an ode to Southern fried chicken that has eager diners lining up around the block. Again. Word is already out that the Low Country shrimp and grits, buckets of River’s special recipe chicken, meatloaf (a family recipe), fried green tomato BLTs and chicken ‘n’ waffles (below) are as wait-worthy as anything in the 4Rivers brand. Fine-tuned during his special Cowboy Kitchen events, The Coop menu signals that there’s more to Mr. Rivers than great brisket and fixins.
The Coop, 610 W. Morse Blvd., Winter Park, 407-843-2667, asouthernaffair.com