A Polish Treat
Location, quality of service, and most importantly, excellence in everything ordered. Ognisko excels in all three areas
Review by Donald B. McFarlane
Located on Exhibition Road not far from Hyde Park, Ognisko occupies the ground floor of a building that has been in the safe hands of the Polish community since the 1940s and upon entry offers an immediate sensation of half embassy, half hotel with a splash of the private members club. The walls are adorned with paintings and pictures of various royals and famous historical Polish figures, and while you don’t exactly feel like you’ve been transported to Warsaw, the visual effect is noticeable and very welcomed. There is nothing worse than walking into a restaurant that offers culinary treats of a far-off culture only to be met with an unremarkable décor and music that would be found on BBC Radio 1.
Once through the entrance you’re directed into the bar with its high ceilings, low seating and short bar staffed by authentic Polish bartenders who succeeded in impressing me with a gorgeous virgin mojito (I’m not drinking at the moment), and clearly had a captive audience who were enjoying a rather warm July evening with the gentle buzz of activity on Exhibition Road drowned out by a very appropriate selection of slow jazz emanating from invisible speakers. Like the entry way, the bar has prints that give you a very Second World War vibe, and do a fairly good job of distracting you from the painfully unattractive nature of the room, which is clearly in need of an overhaul.
Perhaps the most important factor that makes this bar an overall success are the hyper reasonable prices. £10 martinis and £8.50 cocktails are always welcomed by this usually heavy drinker. There is a good selection of spirits on hand with a generous selection of Polish vodkas including a homemade variety that I’ve been informed is divine. The wine list is impressive with glasses ranging from £5 to £12.50 and bottles starting at £19.50 and maxing out at £98, allowing guests of all prices ranges a wide variety of plonk to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the savings in the construction of the paper thin wine list that keeps the prices down, but this can be ignored as an oversight considering the range of vino on offer and the reasonable prices.
Pushing deeper into Ognisko is the dining room with twenty foot ceilings and a seating capacity of 80, and while this is another room in need of the touch of an accomplished interior designer, these details are quickly forgotten once a patron is escorted out onto the lovely back patio which is open when weather permits and offers a charming view onto Prince’s Garden. The patio is perhaps the jewel in Ognisko’s crown when it comes to atmosphere due to its immaculately set tables and ambiance that diners enjoy.
Once seated and armed with a lovely mixed berry fruit punch, you’re finally able to let the lush greenery and blue skies above to wash away any stress that might have built up over the course of an unseasonably hot day just in time for an extensive dinner menu to be presented to you offering an extensive selection of Polish delicacies at excellent prices, with nothing over £20. Printed twice daily the menu offers a range of appetizers, starters, dumplings, placki, blinis, meat, fish and sides.
This being my first visit to a fine dining Polish restaraunt I started with an order of the Trzaski, crispy pork crackling which tasted like the label: crispy, fresh and delicious. I could have finished the entire order, but I knew that a variety of dishes had to be sampled, so I ordered the Chlodnik Sczawiowy next. This chilled sorrel soup with egg was creamy and smooth and served slightly chilled helped my body fight off the day’s oppressive heat. After the soup I tried two of the dumplings on offer, the fried Kopytka, a dished served with sauteed wild mushroom sauce and chestnuts was sublime. A personal favourite. The second dumpling dish was a Pierogi filled with cheese, potato and onion. Lovely, but perhaps a little heavy for such a warm day.
Moving onto the Placki I encountered the only dish that evening that I couldn’t stand, the spiced sautéed chicken livers with dried cherries. I. Hate. Liver. Enough said! Moving on swiftly to the scrumptious blinis, I sampled the smoked salmon, marinated herring and Keta caviar. All lovely, well done, and made to order in house and ethically sourced (always a plus!). All in all, the blinis were a winner.
Now feeling a little on the stuffed side I was weary of what to order next but the manager, Jasiu, wisely suggested the guinea fowl and once I took my first taste of the golden skin and the succulent juices, I knew he had made the right call. Perhaps the vegetables that accompanied the dish weren’t required, but the fowl itself was a spectacular dish.
With a stomach on the verge of maximum density, I cautiously surveyed the dessert menu which again is covered in a variety of dishes of the widest variety and the most reasonable of price. Selecting the caramelised hazelnut parfait with red currant compote I felt confident in my choice and relaxed watching people stroll by as the light began to wane from the night’s sky and temperatures began to drop. This small reprieve in the generous portions that had been delivered so far allowed me the chance to think about a few of the other factors that had made this dining experience a success and where there was room for improvement.
One area that I could not find fault was the service. Quick, polite and professional. The patio didn’t have any music, but this didn’t detract from the atmosphere. There was however one facet of the overall experience that left me slightly frustrated, that of a lack of dress code. There were many couples dining on that summer’s eve, and many of them were smartly dressed. Some were on their way to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall later that evening and some had clearly just come from work. I had donned a suit and tie, which I thought would be appropriate, but it was the gentleman in a Nike t-shirt and shorts that really put my nose out. Clearly the man has no respect for his fellow diners, the establishment or himself, and this is a dangerous trend you see happening all over London. A restaurant like Ognisko deserves better from their guests than having people tip up looking like they’ve just coming from the sports pitch.
Luckily my dessert and coffee arrived before I burst a blood-vessel and gave my fellow diner a telling off. The parfait was served with fresh strawberries which were lovely and the red currant was not too sour and very nice. It was a perfect ice creamesque finish to the meal. The accompanying coffee was powerful and tasty with enough kick to see me home. Pity about the rock crystal sugar. It didn’t dissolve and while it might look elegant and swanky, it isn’t practical.
Desert finished, coffee downed, bill settled, I stood up from the table, taking once last glance at a lit-up Prince’s Gardens and retreated into the restaurants’ dining room before swiftly making my way out into what had turned into a gorgeous summers night for a lovely walk around Knightsbridge, feeling very satisfied.
Enquiries: Ognisko, 55 Exhibition Road, Kensington, London SW7 2PN / 0207 5890101 / www.ogniskorestaurant.co.uk/