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    Article in The World in 202 Meals 6 December 2008

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Restaurant for a rainy day

The Polish meal: Tatra

Time Out London

Toptable

The Polish meal: Tatra

While Polish food inevitably reminds me of my childhood, I’ve only relatively recently begun to experience it in a restaurant setting. The idea of a Polish restaurant was rather a novelty when I first encountered one; six years later I’ve been to a few, and I thought the opening of a new one would merit a 202 Meals visit.

Polish restaurants open in London less frequently than one might think. There has long been a Polish community in the city; Polish shops and restaurants have been around since shortly after the second world war. (Daquise, in South Kensington, claims to be London’s oldest.) But while the number of shops (and shop aisles) dedicated to Polish food has undoubtedly mushroomed in recent years, the restaurants have been slower to spread.

I heard about London’s newest, Tatra, from my father, who heard about it through the Polish version of Friends Reunited. It opened very recently—you can still smell the sawdust in places—and falls into the upmarket bracket of Polish restaurants abroad, like Patio Restaurant down the road, and very unlike the traditional Polanka in Hammersmith. The décor is modern rather than cosy, and one gets the feeling the restaurant is trying to appeal not just to Poles. If the other diners were anything to go by, it is succeeding.

The limited menu left me a little apprehensive, especially as some staples were conspicuous by their absence: for example, placki (potato pancakes), kopytka (potato dumplings), and kisiel (a unique dessert somewhere between jelly and custard in consistency). Pierogi, the most famous Polish dumplings, are only available as a starter. But the quality of the food more than made up for this; that it was attractively served did not go unnoticed either.

From what I’ve read in the British media, it seems impossible to write about Polish cuisine without using the words “stodgy” and “hearty”. With those out of the way, I can go on to say something less hackneyed about what we ate.

Before ordering, we received a plate of rye bread and smalec (a spread made of pig’s fat and pork) on the house, which would have disappeared much more quickly had we not kept some aside for the latecomer. I was glad that health was not a concern at the front of any of our minds.

We each picked a different starter. My rosół (chicken soup) was good but nothing special, while Matthew’s marinated herring with apple and beetroot salad was a little better received; Andrea and Alex shared pierogi z kapustą (dumplings filled with sauerkraut and mushrooms), and kluski leniwe (cheese and potato dumplings). The pierogi—large, and fried, rather than boiled—and leniwe, were so good that Andrea declared she could eat another portion as a main course. Little did she know what her actual main course had in store for her.

The roast duck, to Matthew’s and my disappointment, was off, so we ordered leczo and trout, respectively. Leczo (described on the menu as “goulash”) is a spicy beef stew, served with yet another kind of dumpling. The Polish-style trout—fried with almonds—was served on a bed of delicious and very Polish-tasting salad (dill is the flavour I most identify with eastern European cuisine). Andrea and Alex warmed themselves up with bigos, a “hunters’ stew” of sauerkraut, mushrooms and plenty of smoked meat with potatoes. Andrea and Matt are very keen sharers, but I dare say the liking they had for their respective dishes made them regret the decision to share even a little bit. I think it’s fair to say that all four of us were happy with our choices, and in some cases, with each other’s.

Full though we all were, the desserts looked far too good to pass up—with the unusual result that everyone ordered one. Alex enjoyed some fusion cuisine in the form of crème brûlée with vodka-soaked cherries; I was torn between this and the pancakes filled with cream cheese and raisins. in the end both Andrea and I went for the latter. Matthew’s disappointment that his poached pear with chocolate sauce did not contain vodka goes to show how much we were expecting after all we’d eaten thus far.

I hope Tatra stays around and does not go the same way as Zamoyska, an upmarket Polish restaurant in Hampstead that closed a few years ago. An encouraging sign was how busy Tatra got towards the end of our meal. It is not necessarily the most traditional, and certainly does not have the widest selection, but it is well worth trying, especially for newcomers to the cuisine.