Tatra is a Polish restaurant in Goldhawk Road that comes garlanded with recommendations. It won the Archant Food and Drink award for Best Modern European Restaurant in 2009 and has scarcely looked back since, with numerous listings in ‘100 Best of’ Restaurant Guides, and a healthy crop of internet-salutes from happy diners. But from my own visit to this restaurant, I can’t honestly understand why.
For a start there is the décor: a mixture of pumice stone grey, open brick, maroon leather benches and austere dark wood tables, which occasionally makes you feel like you’re sitting inside a filing cabinet. One understands that Tatra wishes to get away from the hackneyed cosiness of traditional Polish restaurants, but the design seems to lack any atmosphere or specificity: it could be any country, any cuisine, and seems oddly dated: a throwback to 1980s ideas of metropolitan chic. Service too is brisk but a little charmless, belonging to the smile-that-doesn’t-match-the-eyes school of hospitality that makes you feel you’ve outstayed your welcome as soon as you sit down.
But it is the food reviewers have raved about, and how is that? Tatra’s menu is reliable but seems unadventurous: the starters are a predictable mix of soups and dumplings for around £5, and the mains the usual roasts, pierogi, Bigos and a smattering of fish dishes, coming in at between £9.50-16.50. The Chef’s Specials – like a starter of Pigeon Breast with Red Pepper Sauce (£7.30) or ‘Haunch of Venison with Balsamic Roasted Pears and Thyme and Mushroom Sauce’ (£17.90) are a little more inspiring, but the choice is sparse, and rarely changes. There is, on the plus side, a huge number of vodkas on the menu, some of them designer brands (Chopin vodka at £4 a shot, Belvedere for the same price) and a wide range of the flavoured kind, with grasses and fruits distilling enticingly behind the bar in unlabelled bottles.
But back to the food. That day I started the meal with the Russian Pierogi – little dumplings of cottage cheese and potato served with onion and bacon. A hard dish to mess up, one would think, but these arrived oozing oil, overloaded with parsley, and leaving an unpleasant aftertaste in the mouth for minutes afterwards. My main dish Gołąbki (cabbage-parcels of meat and rice) is also generally a safe choice, but these came strangely flattened, a little seared-looking, and soused in a garishly acid and overpowering tomato-sauce. Once again, they were spoilt by a confetti of parsley on top – surely the John Major of herbs – and pricey at £12.50. My meal was saved only by the dessert: a Crème brûlée filled with vodka-marinated sour cherries, a fantastic blend of crunch and creaminess, sweet and tart, and worth every penny of its £5.50. In fact, I ended up wishing I’d had it for the starter and main course as well.
I left feeling underwhelmed. Maybe Tatra was having an off-day. Maybe they were understaffed or maybe the chef was sick. Perhaps the restaurant has simply been over-praised and sitting on its laurels a bit too long. Whatever, there must be something that can yank those mains and starters up to the standard of that five-star Crème brûlée.
Tatra Restaurant, 24 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8DH. Tel: 020 8749 8193. www.tatrarestaurant.co.uk.
Opening Hours: Monday – Thursday 6pm-10pm. Friday 6pm-11pm. Saturday 12am-11pm. Sunday 12am-10pm.