Michael Deacon at Barbakan in York
Our critic enjoys some hearty East European cooking, but longs for a lie-down afterwards
ALMOST TWO YEARS since I suggested it, I still haven’t found a restaurant that’s taken up the idea, which is obviously mad, because it’s a nailed-on winner. Critics would purr. Tripadvisor would drool. Bookings would soar. And it’s all so simple.
You know the feeling. You’re at a restaurant and you’ve just polished off the final crumb of an all-conquering gutbuster of a meal. Your shirt is straining, your belt is groaning and your eyelids are drooping. What you need, right now, is a little lie-down. A light snooze. Just for half an hour, until your belly’s gone down a bit, and you no longer look like a snake that’s swallowed a cannonball. If only you could slither a few feet into the next room and flump down on to a bed.
But you can’t. Of course you can’t. Restaurants don’t have beds.
They should, though. Ask an ancient Roman. They actually ate on beds. Or near enough. They ate while reclining on special couches. Sitting on chairs to eat was only for children. Very wise, those Romans. We should have listened to them. They gave us straight roads, aqueducts, central heating, indoor plumbing, public libraries, paved streets and cabbage – yet for some reason, we turned up our noses at the most crucial Roman innovation of all: eating on beds. We’ve been fools. Bloated, drowsy, uncomfortable fools.
From a logistical point of view, I appreciate the difficulties. For a restaurant owner, making money is hard enough as it is. You can only afford a small space, and naturally you want to cram it with as many chairs and tables – and therefore as many paying customers – as possible. Beds take up so much room. But I promise: they’d be such a hit. Especially if the dishes you’re serving are big and hearty and hefty. Such as the food at this week’s restaurant: Barbakan, in York.
Barbakan is Polish – and the Polish like their food heavy. I went for lunch with my wife, son and parents, and we were taken aback by how big the portions were. Not necessarily in size, but in density. ‘That’s the Polish way,’ said the Polish waitress, shrugging. ‘Although,’ she added wryly, ‘some Polish people are complaining that the portions are too small.’
I’ve never been to Poland. If they think Barbakan’s portions are too small, I can’t imagine how big their own are. They must have to lower food into their mouths with a crane.
The menu at Barbakan is almost wholly in English, which is helpful, because for us hapless monoglots Polish looks insurmountable. So many Cs and Zs and Ss, one after another, in a pummelling blizzard of consonants. Czcszcszcs. It’s like the static from a walkie-talkie.
My first dish actually wasn’t Polish: it was the Hungarian potato pancake. Not that it matters where it came from, because it was terrific. The pancake thick on the inside and crisp on the outside, and spilling from it a delicious slick of beef goulash. I also had a proper Polish dish, the golabki: cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced minced pork and rice, and served in a tomato sauce.
Again, very good. Both of these, I should admit, were actually mains. I felt I had to order two mains because I was the only one at the table who wasn’t either a vegetarian or a fouryear-old child. My son does at least eat meat, so I suppose I could have reviewed the children’s menu, for the benefit of any toddlers reading. (‘The meatballs were exquisitely piquant, but I fear the crayons were woefully underdone.’)
I noticed, incidentally, that the children’s menu was clipped together with the premium-beer list. They start them young in Poland.
My parents both had the zawijaniec, which was another kind of pancake, this one stuffed with buckwheat and vegetables, baked in a tomato sauce, and topped with a huge fat rug of melted cheese. It was served nuclearhot, but was otherwise excellent. My wife had the courgette fritters, which, for Barbakan, were unusually light, but also a little bland.
Otherwise, everything was tremendously filling. I felt like a walrus piling on extra layers of blubber for a hard winter. My mum liked her main, but said she’d have preferred it to be half the size, with the other half replaced by a nice dainty salad.
Then again: if she thought her main was heavy, she hadn’t seen the puddings. These were monumental. They were all slices from different, but equally grand, cakes. Of course, a slice doesn’t sound like a lot. But it depends on how big the cake is. Each of these must have been the size of a hovercraft.
All slices were topped with enormous fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Mine bulged with jumbo chunks of apple. My wife’s was mint chocolate, which she found a bit flavourless. The best was definitely my dad’s: white-chocolate mousse and strawberries. A floaty, billowing dream of sweetness.
Normally I feel neurotically compelled to finish everything on my plate, even if I’m no longer hungry. But at Barbakan I just couldn’t. I was defeated. Blissfully defeated. A great lunch – but how I’d have loved that liedown afterwards.
We staggered outside, and rang for a taxi. Frankly, we could have done with an HGV.
Spilling from the potato pancake was a delicious slick of beef goulash
Right Hungarian potato pancake with beef goulash and sour cream. Opposite
Zawijaniec, a buckwheat and vegetable pancake in tomato sauce