A few months ago, I wrote an article ranting about the loss of several late-night food spots in Madison over the years. Places I mentioned that I missed included Big Red’s Steaks, Jin’s Chicken and Fish (now being served at JD’s) and, most importantly, Pel’meni. Pel’meni was a late-night stop for me at least once a week until they closed years ago. It had felt like I’d lost a friend, but I’m here to tell you all that that friend is back from the dead. Pel’meni is back on campus, in the form of Paul’s Pel’meni.
Pel’meni was and still is a small restaurant that serves one thing: Russian dumplings, also known as Pel’meni. Pel’meni is derived from the Russian word Pel’nyan, which literally means “ear bread.” They originated in Siberia and are much different than the dumplings you may be used to if you frequent Chinese restaurants. First off, they’re boiled, not seared or fried. Also, they are much smaller than their counterparts, often only a couple centimeters across.
A typical Pel’meni dumpling consists of a dough wrapper and a hearty filling. The dough is rolled as thin as possible to maximize the filling to dough ratio. The dough is very simple, usually consisting of only flour and water (sometimes eggs are added). The filling varies by region. In the meat variety, a mixture of minced meat is used, including beef, lamb and pork. Some are made with a potato filling, and others are made with a mixture of vegetables, such as mushrooms, onions or turnips.
Paul Schwoerer brought his take on Pel’meni back to downtown Madison last year with the opening of Paul’s Pel’meni. The restaurant is located at 203 W. Gorham St. by AJ Bombers, but that wasn’t its only stop on its way back. After being closed several years, Schwoerer, one of the original owners, began selling the dumplings out of his coffee shop, Oasis Café, in Fitchburg before opening the Gorham Street storefront.
When you walk into Paul’s Pel’meni, a small but clean dining room greets you. The menu consists of only one blackboard with only a few options. You can get a full order or a half order ($4.50 or $6.50) of dumplings, either potato-filled, beef-filled or a mix of both. They come with a variety of toppings as well. Paul introduces a twist to the traditional Russian dumpling by offering toppings and spices that are not Russian, including butter, Sriracha, yellow curry powder, cilantro and sour cream.
I like to get a full order of the mixed dumplings and top them with the “works”. Paul’s odd mixture of spices and toppings work perfectly together to compliment the dumplings. The dumplings themselves are terrific. The dough is soft and the filling is delicious. The mixed dumplings offer a textural variety as you eat, with the potato dumplings smooth and the beef ones chewier.
I have begun to crave Pel’meni dumplings as often as I did when they were open years ago. Check out Paul’s Pel’meni the next time you’re looking for something hearty and delicious. Some people criticize Paul’s for their small menu, but I think if they offered anything else, it wouldn’t measure up.