Those of us who’ve known Restaurant Daquise for decades felt desolated when it was taken over and given a refit in 2009. The old Daquise, for all its faults, was one of the most loveable places in London, with its post-war down-at-heel quality – all plywood and formica – and its Christmassy air of warmth. Nobody went there for the food – though the borscht was fine, the pecan pie a delight, and the first taste of the potato-pancakes with sour cream not easily forgotten. Like the Hungarian Gay Hussar, the restaurant has a history which encompasses the illustrious and notorious – call girl Christine Keeler eating there with Russian attache Eugene Ivanov just before the Profumo scandal broke, Roman Polanski dropping in for regular sustenance while filming Repulsion and Edward Raczynski, President of the Polish-Government-in-Exile, using it as his canteen-cum-cabinet room. But it was the more everyday people that made the restaurant what it was – the manager with his toothbrush moustache, the young couples – as novelist Angela Lambert described them – ‘visibly falling in love’, and a cultured, broadminded crowd taking tea and cake there after a foreign film at the Lumiere, or a visit to the V & A. It was homely, arty, and deeply valued by its regular customers.
All of which is why the new Daquise, redone by the famous Polish Gessler brand in 2009 and now having reverted to its owners, has a lot to live up to, and in the main it’s a success. The décor is light, stripped back and airy – unvarnished wood floors, half tiled walls, black and white photos of Polish (wartime) history on the walls, and Chopin playing forever in the background. It lacks the uniqueness of the old Daquise and doesn’t have the cheeriest colour scheme but, with its high ceilings and the view of private Kensington gardens through the back windows, the new Daquise is a pleasant and even rather beautiful place to be in – cool in summer, romantic at night when the table-lamps cast their glow, and, with its wonderfully shining glassware, its crisp linen and its discreet bow-tied waiters, has an old-fashioned dignity about it.
But we are here for the food, and the new menu at Daquise contains some of the best I’ve eaten in 30 years of dining out in London. The menu is reassuringly brief – changing daily and fitting onto one side of A4 – and contains traditional dishes done to an atypically perfectionist standard. Starters include dishes like salmon with potato pancakes (£9), Cucumber soup (£6) and Sweetbreads with Armagnac (£12). Main dishes may be things like the perennial Roast Duck stuffed with apples (£20), Rabbit in mustard sauce (£19), or, in season, Veal Medallions with chanterelle mushrooms (ditto). Some of these are familiar dishes, but you feel you won’t get them done anywhere else quite as well as here.
This evening I try stuffed Polish eggs to start with, which sound drab but are fantastic – perfectly boiled eggs pureed with cream and seasonings and replaced in their half-shells with a layer of fried breadcrumbs and mixed herbs on top. Daquise seems to understand the importance of theatre to dining, and these are served by a chef who emerges from the kitchen with a cast-iron pan and serves them to you fresh from the hob, drizzling the butter they’re fried with onto your plate. The same ritual happens with my main – venison medallions with zubrowka sauce appear in a bigger skillet, gamey and perfectly cooked and with a sauce oozing Christmassy scents: alcohol, cranberries, cinnamon and cloves. The potato dumplings have just the right mixture of resistance and give, and the meal is served with a dish of steaming beetroot which, for once, doesn’t remind you of school. Full marks for both dishes: it was a flawless meal.
So why does this restaurant get 4 and not 5 stars? The new Daquise is elegant, romantic, and utterly Polish – rather like its Chopin soundtrack – but like its famous composer occasionally feels rather glacial too. Those Mazurkas and photos of the wartime past don’t lighten the spirits: one longs at times for a bit of Polish jazz to cheer things up. The old Daquise was like an old friend: all endearing imperfections, loveable despite or even for its failings, and always warm and comforting. But the food, mind you… Oh well: I guess you never have it all.
Restaurant Daquise, 20 Thurloe St., SW7 2LT. Tel: 020 7589 6117. www.daquise.co.uk
Opening hours: Noon-11 pm, daily.