Ognisko, Kensington, London
Ognisko – 3/5
What with Britain’s recent influx of spanners and cement trowels, it’s easy to forget that Poles predate the EU by quite some way. After the Second World War, a grateful Duke of Kent donated a vast house in South Ken for use as a club by those heroic Poles (Britain’s saviours in the Battle that took its name), to assuage their homesickness with some Old Country comforts. Ognisko, its restaurant, is something of a hymn to that grandeur, spruced in a peachy pink and with a large and lovely garden at the back.
I suspect some dishes have been on the menu since the place opened. Ognisko remains contendedly in suspended animation and, for the most part, is doing so successfully. Service is formal and polished. The smartly dressed staff pour the last drops of wine gently, instead of shaking the bottle like they’re in a hurry at the urinal. A hushed atmosphere pervades, and the eight of us are sitting in the gloam of the candle-lit garden. The menu is a well conceived mixture of Polski staples with some French numbers thrown in (lamb with tomato and tarragon, for example). But I, for one, am heading east.
Barszcz, the impressively-consonanted relative of borscht, is a fine beetroot consommé, clear in appearance and flavour, with green snippets of dill on its surface. Dumplings bobbing in it are pleasantly slippery, but their (unidentifiable) meat filling has a horrid ashy texture. In her main course of pierogi, M has the alternative stuffing of cheese and potato, and a smaller version of these would have been better in the barszcz. B pronounces her goat’s cheese salad excellent, while K has blinis with cream, smoked salmon and Sevruga. Frankly, I’ve always found this combination distinctly, well, fishy. In the 70s, it was clearly far-out and right-on, sufficiently posh to have been served on Concorde's maiden flight. Yet as with tournedos Rossini, that old ocean liner classic, it yanked two expensive ingredients together without much regard for the results. J, who has the fish as a main course, is thus probably right to eat the caviar on its own. But he has strong doubts about the eggs’ authenticity. The poor sturgeon has suffered enough, and if Ognisko’s chef has found a substitute, good for him. But for heaven’s sake, don’t insult the guests by printing it on the menu as the real thing. People can tell.
My steaming, Bavarian-style knuckle of pork is marginally smaller than a West Highland terrier and comes slathered in a tart mustard sauce that melds perfectly with the meat. Fat, skin and shards of bone protrude all over this hacked, succulent pig, and I’m grateful for them: you don’t want mini paper chefs’ hats stuck onto these splintered bits of ankle. This is food for baby seal clubbers, cooked for hours at a low, low heat, and tender for it. Duck breast has been roasted to a deep pink, fanned attractively on A’s plate with a Seville orange sauce. These dishes barely look like they come from the same solar system, let alone kitchen. Guinea fowl with Calvados is another French-inspired winner, but the accompanying vegetables are appalling. The sautéed new potatoes have apparently languished in a lukewarm oven since the Duke of Kent lived here and are soggier than peat; and the ‘mixed vegetables’ (steamed? boiled?) are a shrieking hugger-mugger of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and flavourless babycorn from Thailand. They need much work.
Puddings are far better. The closest thing in Poland to a crêpe Suzette is nalesnik, a folded pancake stuffed with sweetened cream cheese and smothered in a Seville orange sauce spiked with raisins and Grand Marnier. This exquisite dish mingles sweet and sour with aplomb. The edges of the pancake are slightly crispy; icing sugar blunts the sharpness of the cheese and the orange sauce warms the dish like a sunset filter on a camera lens. Crème brulée has a good, firm texture, but it’s sat under a grill instead of facing a blowtorch flame, and doesn’t have the crack of scorched caramel. P and K share warm, crumbling apple cake, virtually an act of charity at £3.20, which they declare pretty good.
Ognisko has unquestionable charm. It isn’t aping the Ritz, but its quaintly plush interior has an understated dignity befitting a Polish restaurant-cum-club. The food is authentic and frequently delicious, and its garden is the best I know of in London. It is, of course, a world away from the glass-and-steel take on the region served by Jan Woroniecki in Baltic and Wódka. Yet, just as Britain’s first wave of Polish immigrants will long outlast today’s builders, brickies and cleaners, Ognisko isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that time and tradition have wrought a few neglectful oversights and that, here and there, the kitchen could do with a renewing splash of vim. But not too many changes, please.
Ognisko at the Polish Club, 55 Exhibition Road, London SW7. Tel. +44 (0)20 7589 4563.
Dinner for eight, excluding drinks and service, costs £170