Nobody doubts that Chef Jan Woroniecki knows how to run a good restaurant. His Wodka, opened in the days when Polish restaurants in London were relatively rare, gained a reputation as a place where the food and atmosphere were as enjoyable as its Kensington backwater surroundings. Wodka is now closed and Woroniecki has moved on – opening first Baltic Restaurant in Southwark, and then being chosen for the urgent revamp of Ognisko Polskie, the restaurant at the Polish Hearth Club (55 Exhibition Road, SW7) which has bounced back since the dark days of its near-closure in 2012.
The menus at both restaurants are similar, if not identical, and which of the establishments you choose to eat at will largely depend on whether you prefer the barnlike spaciousness of Baltic, or the grandeur of Ognisko, all polished wood floors, ceiling roses and French windows: surely one of the most elegant dining-halls in London. It will also depend on whether you are eating before seeing a play at the Young Vic or the National, or are taking a meal after a jaunt round the Natural History or V & A Museums: Woroniecki’s restaurants seem to sit naturally beside culture or some sort. Menus have their roots firmly in Polish cuisine, but are innovative too: classics like Pierogi and Bigos sit alongside tantalising new dishes – interesting things done with foie gras and vivid-sounding sauces for their roast pork, rabbit and goose. I’ve eaten and enjoyed myself and the food at both, but it’s Baltic that’s under review here.
Baltic, like Ognisko, is a pleasant space to be in: cream walls, high ceilings, exposed beams and skylights, rather like a Baltic barn, with candles and the lighting scheme the only notes of cosiness. But it’s the little touches you notice: service is excellent and as you arrive bread is offered in four varieties with horseradish, cold crisp pickles and butter you can spread in nice, solid little china pots. The odd waiter has a goatee beard and look like a Nordic philosopher. There is an enticing menu that makes you want to try things: Kaszanka, grilled black sausage with potato pancakes, apple and onions, Gravadlax, dill and vodka marinated salmon, and a goose pierogi with sauteed chili, garlic and onion, all of which reminds you that Polish food is changing and is more than just the assumed cabbage and carbohydrate. My theatre menu that day (£19.50 for three courses) was less adventurous but still memorable: a Bigos (the Polish Hunter’s Stew), robust and colourful and with a lovely buttery flavour to it; a Chicken Paprikas full of colour, with green and red peppers, mushrooms, pearl onions and splashes of cream and parsley. The dessert, a chocolate mousse with vodka marinated sour cherries (the latter a Woroniecki staple) was just the right mixture of richness, sweetness and bitterness, and for about £35 with drinks seemed a steal.
There is a good drinks-list at Baltic – a lot of interesting, bready beers from one-off Baltic distilleries (Polish, Estonian and Pomeranian) and a seemingly endless list of vodkas, some of them completely new to me: rhubarb, sweet plum and chill, horseradish, rosepetal, anise and gold, oak. They come in at £3.50 a shot and a 10cl carafe, which comes with its own ice-bucket, is £13.
All in all Baltic, like Ognisko, seems a completely reliable restaurant with a real feeling of perfectionism about it. It’s not only the thought of trying all those different vodkas – cunning though the stocking of them may be – that will have you wanting to visit again. Woroniecki’s reputation remains untarnished.
Baltic Restaurant, 74 Blackfriars Road, London SE18AH. Tel:020 7928 1111.
Opening hours: 12pm-11pm Monday-Saturday. 12pm-10.30pm Sunday.