MARINA O’LOUGHLIN EATS This month, Marina is charmed by the dynamic Warsaw food scene
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’.
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
Secret Life Café
Kieliszki na Hożej
Food market near Hala Mirowska
A traditional milk bar Hala Mirowska
Hala Koszyki Food market near Hala Mirowska