Top chef uncovers best Polish restaurants in the UK
Regarded as something of an unofficial ambassador for Polish gastronomy, UK-based chef Damian Wawrzyniak has unveiled the results of his latest project – the first ever ranking of the best Eastern European restaurants in Britain.
Published online this week, and already endorsed by the food writer Tom Parker-Bowles (son of the Queen consort), Wawrzyniak’s Top 10 was created in response to what he sees as a gap in the market.
Speaking to TFN, Wawrzyniak said: “Why did I decide to do this? Quite simply, because no-one else has done so themselves.”
Motivated also by the desire to publicise the ethnic restaurants that have often gone under-the-radar, it was this determination to spotlight the great and the good that led him on a British odyssey that saw approximately 200 eateries visited.
“There was a time when I thought that Polish – and other such regional cuisines – would become as big in Britain as they are in the United States,” he says. “That has yet to happen, and things like the Brexit fiasco haven’t helped – nor have the number of Poles and other Europeans that have returned ‘home’ since.”
As such, wider awareness as to the glories of Polish cooking has yet to enter the mainstream conscience.
“Just the other day, I saw someone comment on Twitter about an English-language Polish cookbook. They asked, ‘do you really need a book to show you how to cook potatoes’, and I think in many ways, that summed up the attitudes that have prevailed.”
According to Wawrzyniak, though, the fault for this lies not with the British public. “Of course I don’t blame the British for not understanding our cuisine, I blame the Poles! We have been hopeless at marketing our country, our culture and our cuisine, and that needs to change. It’s entirely down to us to make some noise about it.”
This project, he hopes, will help do just that. However, Wawrzyniak is adamant that many restaurateurs also need to pull their weight.
“Some of the restaurants I visited don’t even have English-language menus,” he says. “Even their social media posts are made in their native languages – how can you even begin to change preconceptions if you’re operating like that?”
Currently working as a restaurant consultant, Wawrzyniak says adopting the local tongue is key.
“It sounds obvious but you need to speak English, you need to be able to tell people about the heritage of the cuisine, the wonderful ingredients and so forth. There simply aren’t enough Polish emigres to support every Polish restaurant, so it’s vital that you engage new customers.
“If you visit an Italian restaurant, for instance, is it just Italians that are eating inside? Of course it isn’t. Generally-speaking, it’s crucial that Britain’s Eastern European restaurants open their doors a little wider and, in the process, introduce a better marketing strategy.”
Focus, too, is important. “One place I visited springs to mind – a Polish restaurant that was serving pizzas and kebabs: how can you be good at everything?”
Occasional calamities aside, Wawrzyniak’s culinary crusade also bore rich discoveries with many leaving a lasting impact.
“The warmth and hospitality really stood out,” he says. “There were some true gastronomic institutions that I visited such as Daquise and Ognisko – both founded in the 1940s – but by in large the majority were small family-run operations where the passion and hard work felt immediately apparent.”
Titling his project Top 10 Best Eastern European Restaurants, Wawrzyniak says he chose the name for ease of understanding. “I think in Britain there’s still a bit of confusion as to what constitutes Central Eastern Europe, so to avoid that I just settled for a term that everyone would understand.”
Although heavily slanted towards Poland, this was more out of necessity, he adds. “Going back to my original point about marketing, I’m sure I missed many restaurants simply because I was unable to find them on Google and suchlike, but already I’ve been contacted by a couple of Slovakian places that I missed and look forward to visiting them for the second edition.”
Looking to expand his range of visits in the New Year when he again embarks on his travels, Wawrzyniak is better placed than most to cast a critical eye.
Previously named as one of the UK’s Top 10 Food Pioneers by BBC’s Good Food magazine, his career highlights have included cooking for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, baking with Mary Berry, being appointed Head Chef for the London Olympics and being honoured by President Duda with The Knight’s Cross for his services to Polish cuisine.
Demanding high standards, he found exactly that in his final shortlist of restaurants. Richly textured in their approach and backstory, these included Burslem’s Agi & Kate (“their cakes are a must-have,” he gushes), a restaurant previously nominated for the Restaurant of the Year award in the Midlands region.
Also highlighted was the Ukrainian restaurant Albina which was cited for its authentic, rustic style and the Hungarian Rosemary which was praised for its organic wine selection and slow-cooked beef stew.
Of the more established venues, South Kensington’s Daquise was ranked fifth – formerly a regular haunt of Roman Polanski when he filmed Repulsion, it was here too that showgirl Christine Keeler met the Soviet spy Yevgeni Ivanov during the Profumo Affair that helped bring about the downfall of the British government.
Founded in 1947, in later years Edward Raczyński, Poland’s President-in-Exile, used the restaurant as his unofficial HQ, plotting the overthrow of the Communist regime. “A great part of London’s multicultural scene, once you walk into Daquise you feel back at home, as if in a scene from a classic Polish movie,” says Wawrzyniak.
Also seeping in history, Ognisko, ranked third, was opened by the Duke of Kent in 1940 and once had a table on permanent standby for General Anders, the tactical mastermind behind the WWII capture of Monte Cassino.
Standing the test of time, it is a restaurant, says Wawrzyniak, that is particularly impressive. “With light-hearted humour, action-packed storylines and strong Polish characters, it’s one of my favourite restaurants in the UK – if not all time!”
Far from London-centric, credit too has been given to Edinburgh’s Percy (“if you have to visit Scotland for just one meal,” says Wawrzyniak, “then make it this one”), and York’s The Blue Barbakan, a restaurant serving Polish and Eastern European cuisine fused with Western European styles.
Finally, jointly occupying top spot, the ultimate seal of approval has been saved for Manchester’s Platzki (“fresh, modern, well-presented cuisine and food packed with flavour”) and Birmingham’s Karczma, a place so convincing in its authenticity, says Wawrzyniak, that “you feel like you’ve been transported to Zakopane - right down to the music and the decor.”
Now planning next year’s trips, as well as a gala for this year’s hot list, Wawrzyniak is upbeat about the future.
“Britain saw a big wave of newcomers after the war, but the biggest one where the CEE region is concerned only really came after EU accession in 2004. With that in mind, we’ve only had a small window to push our cuisines, so it’s amazing to see how devoted people have been in bringing their own sense of home to the United Kingdom.”
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