MA­RINA O’LOUGH­LIN EATS This month, Ma­rina is charmed by the dy­namic Warsaw food scene

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Vi­brant ve­gan food, an es­tab­lished wine cul­ture and a fast-ger­mi­nat­ing fine din­ing scene – the Pol­ish cap­i­tal has it all, if you know where to look

Fine din­ing in Poland? I con­fess to be­ing a bit scep­ti­cal. But bear with me: the Pol­ish cap­i­tal is cur­rently ger­mi­nat­ing a din­ing scene that’s as ex­hil­a­rat­ing as any­thing I’ve seen in years. There’s a sense of pal­pa­ble ex­cite­ment in the air right now. But I’m not go­ing to sugar coat things: you need to be in the know. The city’s culi­nary gems aren’t flaunt­ing them­selves in the pas­tel-coloured squares of the much pho­tographed Old Town or nudg­ing up to the Fer­rari con­ces­sions or Louis Vuit­ton stores of the Nowy Świat district. They’re more likely to be hun­ker­ing un­der anony­mous blocks of flats, or nest­ing in re­pur­posed loos. For­tu­nately, we have food jour­nal­ist and Warsaw ex­pert Mal­go­rzata Minta (mintaeats.com) primed to show us the best of the city: she knows the scene in­side out.

There’s so much to learn. Who knew that Poland now has a thriv­ing wine cul­ture? Not, to my shame, your cor­re­spon­dent. At Dyle­tanci ( face­book.com/dyle­tanci ) we meet Ma­ciej Sondij, who not only co-owns the chic restau­rant and wine bar, with its open kitchen and shelves lined with some very im­pres­sive Eu­ro­pean bot­tles, but also has his own vine­yard, the pro­duce of which – Dom Bliskow­ice – he’s only too happy to show off. By the end of an evening that has fea­tured rosy duck breast with roasted cele­riac, black gar­lic and the sour-sweet­ness of blue­ber­ries, and fried wood­land mush­rooms with ver­bena and onion gel and a foamy ‘soup’ of corn, our ta­ble threat­ens to top­ple over with emp­tied Zalto glasses. The qual­ity of the pro­duce is re­mark­able – in­tensely sweet toma­toes, smoky corn, the boski­est fungi.

I also had no idea that the ve­gan scene was so vi­brant – Warsaw was voted the third best ve­gan city in the world this year. I meet ve­gan writer and TV cook Marta Dymek at the lovely Se­cret Life Café ( face­book.com/pg/se­cretlife­cafe) for fat mał­drzyki pan­cakes drip­ping with lo­cal blue­ber­ries and soft Pol­ish cheese (for me) and thin spelt pan­cakes with av­o­cado, spinach and baked beet­root (for her). She tells me how she trans­lates fa­mous Pol­ish dishes such as bread with lard and pick­les into some­thing lus­cious with white beans – her en­thu­si­asm is for the de­li­cious­ness of plant-based food, rather than any kind of proslesytis­ing. ‘I don’t want,’ she says, ‘to be just an­other an­noy­ing ve­gan girl’.

MOD­EST MO­MENTS

We like one small restau­rant group so much we hit two from its sta­ble. At Brasserie War­sawska (brasseriewarsza­wska.pl), an el­e­gant room with dis­tinct shades of Lon­don’s Wolse­ley and De­lau­nay crossed with the draw­ing room of an el­e­gant Pol­ish bab­cia, we eat the most ex­quis­ite pierogi, Poland’s an­swer to ravi­oli, crowned with oo­dles of fresh truf­fle in a limpid onion broth, with the added lux­ury of a bot­tle of Gevrey Cham­bertin. And on the gor­geously restau­rant-lined Poz­nańzka street, which of­fers ev­ery­thing from ve­gan sushi to Tel Aviv cui­sine, there’s Kieliszki na Hożej (kieliszk­i­naproznej.pl), a beau­ti­ful, green-tiled space where chef Dawid Balana’s ‘mod­ern Pol­ish’ dishes take the coun­try’s con­ven­tions – ‘tinned’ pork (a lus­cious ter­rine), her­ring, fried into al­most-tem­pura, ‘Pol­ish salad’ scat­tered with milky cob­nuts – and turn them de­li­ciously and un­ex­pect­edly on their head.

But the ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ment for the likes of me is – dreaded phrase – the fine din­ing scene, some­thing I’m fre­quently happy to swerve. In Warsaw, it lacks ar­ti­fice and pre­ten­sion, even at the likes of Ate­lier Amaro (ate­liera­maro.pl ) , the coun­try’s first Miche­lin-starred restau­rant. Set in a con­verted pub­lic loo in Łazienki Park, the lo­ca­vore ethic here is hard­core: ev­ery in­gre­di­ent is Pol­ish. There’s not even a le­mon in the house. I might smirk at the idea of cour­ses be­ing re­ferred to as ‘Mo­ments’, but there’s ab­so­lutely no ar­gu­ing with the culi­nary cre­ativ­ity on of­fer. Tiny sliv­ers of ap­ple come dusted with flavours that com­ple­ment the fruit – ba­con, or cin­na­mon – and with a copy of Niki Seg­nit’s book The Flavour Th­e­saurus (the restau­rant’s strapline is ‘where na­ture meets sci­ence’); tiny bao-style buns con­tain lamb and crisped chicken skin; a vivid green broad bean splits open to re­veal a tiny, con­cealed snail. There’s a choice of flight of spir­its in ad­di­tion to wine – guess which I go for? It makes con­ver­sa­tion later with chef Wo­j­ciech Mod­est Amaro – yes, that’s his name – a lit­tle, well, blurry. But his in­no­va­tive, beau­ti­ful dishes leave a last­ing im­pres­sion, un­like the bill – a frac­tion of what you’d pay in other cities.

Nolita (nolita.pl ), from charis­matic chef Jacek Gro­chow­ina, is less pro­scrip­tive in its menu – happy to wan­der around the world, but still with a firm em­pha­sis on Pol­ish pro­duce. In a sleek, buzzy room, we eat bon­bons of foie gras, patent-leather­glossy with a fruity port glaze; the most spec­tac­u­lar rubyred pi­geon with a whole con­cept al­bum of riffs on al­li­ums; and a play­ful and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful twist on ‘Pek­ing duck’, a cross be­tween the Chi­nese clas­sic and a Viet­namese sum­mer roll. An­other first was lob­ster with tongue – the sweet­ness and del­i­cacy of both meats made for a sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful mar­riage. The wines were, yet again, ab­so­lutely swoon­wor­thy. Less for­mal – but no less am­bi­tious – is Bez Gwiazdek

( face­book.com/bezg­wiazdek), which trans­lates know­ingly into ‘No Stars’. It’s a hot­bed of Warsaw’s lo­cal ar­ti­san scene: at the next ta­ble is a lo­cal honey pro­ducer, while across the room sits the woman who crafts the al­lur­ing, hand­made crock­ery. Clearly this is where the food-in­dus­try cool kids hang out. Fo­cus­ing on a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try ev­ery month, the dishes are rev­e­la­tory. Some are odd (let­tuce, but­ter­milk, pork sausage and elder), some oddly de­li­cious, like ‘siuś­paj’ – an al­most-risotto from Małopol­ska in the moun­tain­ous south­east of the coun­try, of but­tery whole­grains laced with mush­rooms and a jammy, sour-sweet smoked plum sauce. This is the place to come for cook­ing that takes risks, and ex­cels at it.

IN THE MAR­KET FOR BREAK­FAST

There’s so much to en­joy in Warsaw, from hang­ing out with the hip­sters at Sav­ior’s Square hot spot Bistro Char­lotte (bistrochar­lotte.pl), where, in all hon­esty, the peo­ple­watch­ing is more in­ter­est­ing than the food, to wal­low­ing in tra­di­tional Pol­ish break­fasts of ham, horse­rad­ish-spiked soft cheese and toma­toes at Sam (sam.info.pl ) in the city’s univer­sity district. It’s a bread lover’s Nir­vana: dense, seeded sour­doughs, nutty rye, lac­quered crust seeded loaves. If only bread trav­elled well, I’d have filled my suit­case.

How could you not love a city that has a week­end break­fast mar­ket (targs­ni­adan­iowy.pl ), where ev­ery­thing from snails (Poland ex­ports a lot of mol­luscs) to Ja­panese quince lemon­ade, freshly fried placki ziem­ni­aczane (potato pan­cakes) with ba­con and ap­ple sauce and more of that won­der­ful bread is on of­fer? A city where a strik­ing Palace of Cul­ture and Sci­ence looms over a ke­bab shop be­side which is parked an ac­tual plane?

How could you not love a city that cel­e­brates cake with such com­mit­ment? Try tra­di­tional makowiec (poppy seed buns) and pączki (iced dough­nuts topped with can­died orange peel and filled with rose pe­tal jam), or in­dulge in ex­quis­ite, jewel-like ‘haute patis­serie’ from Odette Tea­room (odette.pl ), where cakes are crafted into the shape of Dalí-es­que lips, or sur­real flow­ers. Even an éclair is a work of art, tast­ing as ex­quis­ite as it looks. How could you not love a city where the huge, red brick mar­kethall Hala Mirowska ( face­book.com/ nasza­ha­la­mirowska) still op­er­ates as the city’s larder, groan­ing with lo­cally grown pro­duce, hand-made sausages of star­tling, de­li­cious pun­gency, all man­ner of cheeses (none of which – again to my shame – I’ve heard of be­fore) and crates of gem-coloured berries? Peo­ple come here to do their daily shop­ping – it’s no tourist des­ti­na­tion. We vis­i­tors can only gawp. Those sausages, plus lo­cal honey and fiery, fruity spir­its all find their way into my sou­venir shop­ping.

More touristy, but still heav­ily pa­tro­n­ised by lo­cals, is Hala Koszyki (koszyki.com), a hip and dizzy­ing col­lec­tion of restau­rants and food­stores: beer­halls, cock­tails, seafood, Ital­ian, Span­ish and In­dian food. I don’t have nearly enough time here – you could eas­ily spend a day brows­ing and graz­ing. Warsaw re­wards the ad­ven­tur­ous eater over and over. At Ale Wino (alewino.pl ), we’re in­tro­duced to dishes we’ve never eaten be­fore – char­grilled cu­cum­ber in a rich hol­landaise; lay­ers of ice­berg let­tuce, soft goat’s cheese and sour plum formed into a savoury cheese­cake; grilled trout with burnt le­mon and sharp sea buck­thorn berries, all served fam­ily-style for us to help our­selves – cul­mi­nat­ing in kluski leniwe, or ‘lazy dumplings’, for dessert. Like but­tery fried gnocchi, sweet with cin­na­mon and grapes, they’re bliss­ful and deadly. All this, plus a choice of over 200 wines in a hid­den court­yard off a glam­orous shop­ping street.

I only strike out in the quest for old, clas­sic restau­rants. Be­cause of its che­quered past, the city doesn’t re­ally have any – the ’70s are about as far back as they go. A visit to Bar Sady ( face­book.com/ barm­lecznysady), in Żoli­borz, one of the rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing state-sub­sidised ‘milk bars’, is a trip to a time un­der com­mu­nism: stout bread dumplings, pierogi, potato pan­cakes, end­less vivid-hued soups to be carted home in plas­tic con­tain­ers – fast food for the peo­ple, all at ridicu­lously tiny prices. Beau­ti­ful, like the up­scale world not far away in the city cen­tre, it’s not, but poignant it most cer­tainly is – liv­ing, work­ing history. Why has it taken me so long to get to Poland’s cap­i­tal, with its world class food and wine, and won­der­ful wel­come? Warsaw has the lot.

Warsaw's Old Town

Pol­ish break­fast at Sam

Odette Tea­room

Dyle­tanci

Se­cret Life Café

Kieliszki na Hożej

Food mar­ket near Hala Mirowska

A tra­di­tional milk bar Hala Mirowska

Hala Koszyki Food mar­ket near Hala Mirowska

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