Pel'meni, the Russian dumpling shop that operated out of 505 State Street in the mid-'00s, is coming back to downtown in mid-June at 201 W. Gorham St., a space next to AJ Bombers.
After the State Street storefront closed, Paul Schwoerer started serving his handmade pelmeni out of the Oasis Café, his coffee shop in at 2690 Research Park Dr. in Fitchburg. In the in-between time when the dumplings were not available at all, what might reasonably be called a cult following only deepened. And after the re-appearance, not all devotees could make the trek out to Fitchburg.
Schwoerer wanted to take the dumplings back to State Street for a couple of reasons. "Out here [in Fitchburg] there's a short window where people are eating lunch, from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.," says Schwoerer. His goal for downtown Madison is to serve dumplings all day and then be able to devote more effort to expanding the cafe menu at Oasis -- making more sandwiches and "killer salads," with "more local stuff -- Black Earth meats, local eggs, Sassy Cow dairy products."
Combining the daily production of the handmade dumplings with the rest of the Oasis menu "took up a lot of space in the kitchen and time," says Schwoerer. Moving the dumpling operation downtown should open up the Oasis kitchen for other menu items.
The new space, once a part of Crave Restaurant & Lounge but cut off from the space's kitchen when it became AJ Bombers, will require somewhat of a build-out -- "not a full build-out, though," says Schwoerer. He hopes to open June 15.
The space will have seating along the window and four or five tables; it's only 15-20 seats overall. "It is small," Schwoerer affirms, and for that reason he is limiting the initial menu to the hallmark dumplings, in potato and beef. Eventually he'd like to introduce a salad or two to balance the menu, but plans nothing beyond that.
The West Gorham space has a stove with induction burners, which are more efficient, says Schwoerer, and should turn out the dumplings faster, better for people eating in and for those wanting carryout.
Schwoerer got into the dumpling business in a roundabout fashion. Although he's originally from Madison, his family moved to Alaska for a while, during which time Schwoerer worked several part-time jobs including one at an ice cream store where the owner also made Russian dumplings. One day "a man who was in Alaska fishing came in and said 'These dumplings are really good, but they need something. A little kick.'" A few days later, the fisherman -- who was also a chef in Seattle, as Schwoerer recalls -- returned with a spicy sauce, made with cilantro and curry. When Schwoerer returned to Madison, he brought the pelmeni and the sauce with him.
This time, in returning to downtown, Schwoerer says he's "doing it my way," keeping suppliers local, "biting off only as much as I can chew," he says. "I like that the people I buy my product from live down the road. It really motivates me."