Polish, but without the polish

Gastronomically,
1945 was my father’s best year. An architect caught in the building
restrictions legislation which demanded licences for any construction
except air raid shelters, he spent the war-years running an equipment
hire firm for a friend who had been interned and also commanded the
Fire Watching services at the southern end of Maresfield Gardens,
London NW3, where we lived. At No. 3, we had a roof and had been
supplied with a hut and an emergency telephone.

Father was a
gourmand: a man who might have complained to the Head Waiter that the
food had been inedible and the portions far too small… and as we
approached VE day, he pinned a large map of Europe on his study wall, a
wall that used to have architectural designs and plans, and followed
the liberation of countries by the Allied forces. He knew his
restaurants, and when Denmark looked like regaining independence he
booked a table in the Danish restaurant, similarly Belgium, Holland,
Poland, Czechoslovakia… all of which places had kept back some
delicacies and bottles of local liquor in anticipation of the
celebrations.

I learnt from his wisdom and, over the years, have
booked tables for World Cup Final nights in the restaurants of
countries most likely to win: Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, Holland
and Greece. I cancelled the tables as the nations were knocked out,
ringing the losing country’s hostelry shortly after the final whistle,
telling them that I was too sick with disappointment to go out to
dinner.

Things have changed. Japan now play football with skill
and are in with a chance, as is Togo, against which I would have given
very long odds.

(There are no Togolese eating houses in England,
rightly so. I have been to Lomé.)n But Poland is in with a squeak and
London is not only up to its gills with Polish restaurant staff; it has
a goodly number of Polish eating-houses. The Patio on Shepherd’s Bush
is large and welcoming, and when the lady owner is on the premises,
quite overwhelmingly generous with flavoured vodkas coming at you as
tokens of her regard.

I had heard about Wodka; it is situated in
one of those difficult streets south of Kensington High Street and it
set me wondering how a Scottish restaurant called Viski would do in
Warsaw.

The place was clean and simple with polished wooden tables and chairs, which ensured no one would outstay their welcome.

We
booked for 7pm, arrived punctually, were the only customers. There were
three attractive Polish waitresses chatting nearby and it took them
over five minutes to approach us for an order and bring a menu.

Belvedere
Martini with olive or twist £7.50, was suggested on the menu. We
ordered one of each and, surprisingly, that with two small olives was
stronger than the one with a twist of lemon peel. Both were excellent,
impeccably cold; neither glass was as full as £7.50 demands in London
W8.

The room was lit by night-lights, or to put it another way,
was dark. They brought a mammoth night-light with the menu and we could
see: first courses in the £6 range, main courses twice that. Red
Cabbage £3.

For starters there were blinis, with herring or
smoked salmon, or aubergine or caviar (£25) or ‘selection’. Also black
pudding with sauerkraut and hot smoked eel.

I asked what the ‘selection’ was.

The waitress said: “I have only been here one week.”

That
seemed satisfactory and we ordered one of those: five round shop-bought
blinis, a bowl of soured cream and some salmon, herring and aubergine.
The smoked eel, which is a food I like a lot, came hot, in medallions
interspersed with medallions of potato and vegetable in a sauce.

We
had really Polish-sounding main courses: Hunter’s stew was one. If it
was genuinely what it promised to be, the hunter was past his best. The
rabbit was disappointing.

The waitresses, apart from the one who
had only just started work there, were entirely offhand. The wine was
good and reasonably priced. I usually go for No. 24, but found a Shirah
(No. 34) for £16.

The bill came quickly – £90 including service. The place was about half full with Anglo American customers.

No
Poles. I remember being told that ethnic restaurants, if filled with
people from that locality, are worth going to; never works with English
places: never read of an English fish and chip shop, “full of English
people, which shows its excellence.”

Wodka: unlikely to go back, but perhaps, if Poland win the World Cup and they fill the cocktail glass to the top.

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