Michelle Polzine’s career as a pastry chef changed after her first trip to Eastern Europe. She, along with her husband and brother-in-law, went to a cafe in the Nove Mesto neighborhood of Prague. Speaking with SF Weekly by phone, she described what it was like to eat at the Café Imperial.
“The whole place is tile. The ceiling is tile. It’s crazy. It’s such a beautiful place,” Polzine recalls. The servers bring out coffee on little trays. Cake is presented on china and the utensils are real silver. The experience made such an intense impression on her she decided to recreate it here in San Francisco.
Polzine, determined to make Russian honey cakes famous in the Bay Area, opened the 20th Century Cafe on Gough Street in 2012. When she was making dessert as an employee, Polzine used to believe that you could only run a restaurant with a partner who was a chef. But when she sat down in those elegant Eastern European cafes, she discovered that dessert was the central focus of the menus. “They do have savory food, but it’s not the star,” she says. Whereas here dessert is often an afterthought.
The whole point of stepping into the cafe — pre COVID-19 — was to reproduce the feeling that Prague, Vienna, and Budapest inspired in her, “I was like, ‘What the hell? Where am I?’” You walk through the 20th Century Cafe door and it doesn’t look or feel like it’s 2020. “My job is to make delicious food and try to somehow give people an escape,” Polzine says. “Things are dark and terrible right now. It’s my job to alleviate pain.”
Some people lose themselves in the atmosphere. “I have this one guest who used to come in every Saturday or Sunday,” Polzine says. This customer read her New York Times over coffee and breakfast. At lunchtime, she’d put in another order and then she’d have cake and tea later in the afternoon. “If you brought a book and sat all day, I didn’t care,” Polzine says. “It’s not the parking thing that bothers me. The point is to be separate from computers and the modern world.”
Now, Polzine can’t stun her guests with homemade bagels and strudels in quite the same way. In trying to make the immersive experience comparable, she’s come up with the idea of a prepared picnic basket. Customers put down a “hefty” deposit for a basket filled with lunch, linens, china and antique glassware. “Even if you can’t have this immersive experience inside, you can have it somewhere,” she explains.
Glancing through her Instagram feed, you’d never guess that Polzine calls herself a “total luddite.” Invariably, there’s a steady stream of enticing photographs to display the items you can order for a non-picnic basket takeout. Most recently the temptations include berry and stone fruit tarts, a plum walnut torte glazed with chocolate, and a gorgeous bowl of borscht (served with “a whole lotta herbs”). The cafe makes savory food too because, she says, “We would all get really cranky if we didn’t have anything to eat besides sugar all day.”
In October, many of these creations will be published in her first cookbook, Baking at the 20th Century Cafe: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake. “The title I wanted was Unsavory Character,” she says laughing. “I wanted to be the Erma Bombeck of pastry. The book is still going to be funny, but I think they edited out a lot of my good jokes.”
“Most of the cakes I have made are traditional tortes with ground nuts or poppy seeds as the base. Then you lighten it with meringue,” Polzine says. Her Esterhazy Torte is a hazelnut meringue cake with vanilla buttercream. “It’s just basically ground hazelnuts, sugar and salt. And then meringue folded into it. And the butter cream.”
New ideas come to her when she’s riding her bike around town. “The best tool I have is to just make things that I want and to make them the way I want them,” she says. “And since I’m really, really, really picky, if I like it, most people will like it.”
Sounding like a proud parent, Polzine describes the ingredient that made a recent Black Forest Cake recipe uniquely her own. “We did a peach leaf cream in the middle.” The leaves of a peach tree, she explains, taste like a roasted apricot kernel — very almondy. “Damn, it was as good as the honey cake! When they were in season, I made a batch of cherry jam so I might do it one more time but it won’t have the whole cherries in the middle.” Pausing, she adds with justifiable pride, “But I don’t think it will be bad.”
20th Century Cafe
Fri & Sat, 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
198 Gough St., San Francisco
Here’s one of Polzine’s recipes that’s easy and seasonal. “It’s a miracle,” she says.
Lemon verbena sherbet with nectarines and blackberries
— 3 freestone nectarines or peaches
— 1 basket blackberries (wild if possible)
— 3/4 cup sugar
— 2 tablespoons mild honey
— 1/2 cup water
— 2 handfuls loosely packed lemon verbena leaves
— 3 cups plain whole milk yogurt
— Pinch salt
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water and honey and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and chill.
When cold, scrape into a blender and add the lemon verbena. Blend thoroughly, then strain into a bowl with the yogurt. Whisk to combine, and add a pinch of salt to taste. It shouldn’t taste salty; the salt is to bring all of the flavors to life.
Process in your ice cream maker until firm, then transfer to a container and freeze until scoopable.
Halve the nectarines or peaches and remove their stones, placing each in a small bowl. Fill each cavity with a scoop of sherbet, and scatter the blackberries on and around. If the berries are very tart, lightly coat them in a small bowl with a drizzle of honey, a few drops of water and a tiny pinch of salt before scattering on your dessert. Serve with crunchy cookies alongside if desired.