IN POLE PO­SI­TION

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - FOOD - TOM PARKER BOWLES

What I know about Pol­ish food could be scrawled on the back of a cor­ni­chon. With a great big black felt tip. OK, so I’m pretty cer­tain that pig’s big, and pick­les rule. Plus lots of her­ring, dumplings and beet­root. And while I can just about tell my bi­gos (stew) from my borscht (soup), I couldn’t be­gin to spot the dif­fer­ence be­tween golonka, gu­lasz and go­labki.

Thank God, then, for the ex­perts. Fay, the queen of restau­rant crit­ics. And Hoppy, for­mer chef and gilded food writer. We’re sit­ting in Og­nisko, a South Kens­ing­ton restau­rant that takes up the bot­tom floor of the Pol­ish Hearth Club. The room is high­ceilinged and hand­some, with noble pil­lars and a small ma­hogany bar and huge win­dows that flood the white walls with lash­ings of late au­tumn sun­shine.

We start with the house vodka, cold, crisp and clean, and pert pick­les with crunch and punch. I take a cur­sory glance at the menu, be­fore putting it away and leav­ing the or­der­ing to the true pros. Sweet, blessed re­lief.

There’s hot crack­ling that looks burnt but tastes sub­lime, dipped in a horse­rad­ish-spiked pear purée. And smalec, or lard, sprin­kled with ba­con and spread thick on good toast. The Poles sure do like their pig. More swine, this time, black pud­ding, stuffed into tiny, del­i­cate and di­vine pel­meni dumplings, lav­ished with but­ter, and made from the most won­der­fully chewy dough. Ap­ple adds a shriek of acid­ity, mak­ing each mouth­ful both ro­bust and sur­pris­ingly del­i­cate. If there were ever a dumpling world cup, these would make the fi­nal along­side the Shiku­men’s Xiao­long­bao. They might even win.

Then chicken liv­ers, beau­ti­fully cooked, just pink, slathered in cream with a sly chilli sigh. The sauce is speck­led with dried cher­ries, el­e­gantly tart, and sat atop the most del­i­cate of potato pan­cakes. Again, a hum­ble in­gre­di­ent made very great in­deed. ‘The best chicken liv­ers I’ve ever eaten,’ an­nounces Si­mon with a grin. It’s dif­fi­cult to dis­agree.

Gen­tly smoked eel, lus­ciously fatty and def­i­nitely Dutch, be­strides soft potato wrapped in the ten­der em­brace of a mus­tard­spiked may­on­naise. Even dill, so of­ten an over­bear­ing bully of a herb, man­ages to be­have. Flavours here may be big, but they’re never brutish. Pigeon breast comes with ap­ple and pome­gran­ate salad, grace­fully spiced and sur­pris­ingly light. While steak tartare, slick with raw quail’s egg, has bosky depth and bite.

As we eat, the room fills and the warm buzz sea­sons each bite with un­fil­tered bon­homie. We gas and gos­sip and drink sen­si­bly priced claret, and one hour melts seam­lessly into the next. As is the way with a se­ri­ous lunch. I eat a huge bavette, cooked bloody, chewy and faintly fer­rous, with a vast pile of chilli and horseradish­spiked salad. The chips are hot and golden and crisp, lustily salted and eaten by the fist­ful. I glance back at the menu, and look long­ingly at the chou­croute, and chicken tabaka, the Pork Hol­stein and fish stew. We’re full by now, of course, but such is the gen­eros­ity, the un­adorned, un­pre­ten­tious art of this kitchen, that I’m al­ready think­ing of com­ing back.

Sure, the food is of­ten not the pret­ti­est, tend­ing to­wards the beige. But I’d far rather this than some flower-strewn, strangely smeared con­fec­tion that takes longer to de­scribe than devour.

As I said, my knowl­edge of Pol­ish food is scant, my only real ex­pe­ri­ence found in tiny, sub­ur­ban din­ing rooms that were more spin­ster sit­ting room than con­ven­tional restau­rants, places that did lit­tle to dis­pel the stereo­type of gloomy, heavy fod­der, clad in thick over­coat and hob­nailed boots, bal­last for long win-

ter nights. So eat­ing at Og­nisko is some­thing of a rev­e­la­tion. Here, you get the fruits of late sum­mer. And the more mel­low de­lights of au­tumn too. Mod­ern, hand­some Pol­ish food that never loses that es­sen­tial na­tional soul. There’s a deft­ness of touch, a know­ing lev­ity, an ab­so­lute be­lief in the qual­ity of their in­gre­di­ents.

And look­ing around the room, some­where to­wards the end of lunch, I’m sud­denly whacked with the vodka-scented feel­ing of dis­tant déjà vu.

Then it hits me. I’ve def­i­nitely been here be­fore, many moons ago, and many shots of vodka for the worse. The room seemed more fusty then, more, well, old­school and util­i­tar­ian Eastern Eu­rope. The food was for­get­table, the hang­over less so.

It’s only when Fay in­tro­duces us to the new boss, Jan Woroniecki, that I re­alise the place is in the hands of a mas­ter. I re­mem­ber him (al­beit hazily) from Wodka, a Kens­ing­ton clas­sic. And Baltic too, one of those pi­o­neer­ing places where Eastern Euro­pean food broke free from dour Com­mu­nist clichés. It all sud­denly makes sense. With Woroniecki at the helm, we’re in the safest of hands. Og­nisko is that rare Pol­ish restau­rant where I not only rel­ish the food. But es­cape with my dig­nity too. Lunch for two: £60

Main pic­ture: con­fit goose leg with ap­ple and fig. Far left: steak tartare. Below: chou­croute of golonka, spiced pork ribs, pork belly and kiel­basa

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