Food Blog | Cooking Blog
Occupying the ground floor of the Polish Club on Exhibition Road, Ognisko feels like something out of an old movie. The high arched ceilings, the dried flower arrangements decorating the walls, the dress of the all Polish serving staff, the perfectly pressed table cloths, the 1920's fashioned bar that welcomes you into the dining room... Upon setting foot in the building, it is clear that it is somewhere for celebrating special occasions. My friend - furthermore referred to as "the lacrosstitute" - and I embarked on our dining experience at Ognisko at an early 7:30 pm on an October Tuesday evening. When we arrived the restaurant was relatively vacant, but by the time we left some two and a half hours later, it was absolutely heaving. The clientele varied enormously, with youths popping in for bar snacks and cocktails and more mature guests enjoying course after course, making more and more noise as they continued sipping their glasses of vodka throughout the evening. Many people's perception of Ognisko is as the dining room of the members only Polish Club - but that isn't at all it. Open to all, it is a truly magical place where one can find sophisticated and exotic cuisine (something different where you really don't understand half of the words on the menu) and showstoppingly good drinks at a smart venue and at a reasonably affordable price. So what is stopping you?
Upon reception of the vast drinks menu, the lacrosstitute and I both opted for slightly varied renditions of what we knew and loved: me for a Blackberry Caipiroska (Zubrowka "Wodka" shaken with fresh lime juice, sugar syrup and blackberries) and her for a Warsaw Ice Tea (Luksusowa Wodka shaken with fresh lemon juice and Triple Sec topped up with lemonade). In the opinion of our waitress, these were "safe" and slightly boring choices - "why aren't you sampling some of our delicious vodka?!" We felt slightly uneasy about the prospect of sipping glasses of neat vodka throughout our meal, partially because we presumed we would both be on the floor after no time at all and partially because neither of us had ever really enjoyed the taste of straight vodka (it is more something we had endured as a means to an end). We were rapidly proved wrong when we were given a sample of Chrzan and Miod - translated as horseradish and honey vodka. First, an immense and familiar nose-tingling sensation that comes when one swallows a little too much horseradish, and then an incredibly sweet taste of dark runny honey. Fiery and then sweet, the shot was absolutely delicious and mainly just incredibly unusual as the punch of the vodka taste that we expected to ensue just never came. No flinching, no eye blinking, just remarks about why on earth we had ever attempted to drink anything else. We noticed that the tables around us were decorated with small carafes of vodka and people were sipping, and really enjoying small glasses of different flavours of the liquor throughout their meals. Okay, if we must... More please!
Whilst sipping our cocktails and attempting to make difficult choices about what to order from the expansive (and somewhat incomprehensible) menu, we chose from a selection of fresh breads, which were served with the classic Polish accoutrements that we had already failed to resist sampling. Pickled cucumbers and horseradish with salted butter on rye bread, sour dough, seeded brown or brioche. Yes please. Finally, following a long process of interrogation for our poor waitress - who very kindly explained almost the entirety of the dinner menu to us with her own recommendations - we were able to choose what to order.
We begun with a very greedy portion of Polish pork crackling from the appetiser/bar snack menu, which we nibbled whilst finishing our drinks. The Trsazki was served with a pear and horseradish sauce, which went perfectly well with our Chrzan and Miod vodkas! Perhaps the Polish are on to something with this notion of hard liquor complimenting their food... The crackling was unlike that of a classic British gammon roast; it was more reminiscent of the cracking that you get on the crust of a cut of pork belly in a fusion restaurant. The lard was entirely soft in the middle and firm on the outside although not as much as the crackling we were used to. Strangely, this didn't seem glutinous or fatty, but extremely refined. Each curl was covered in rock salt, served warm and just melted straight away in the mouth. The pear was a welcome change from the usual Bramble Apple sauce, and it made an absolutely delicious dish to nibble on whilst we were waiting for our food (albeit slightly indulgent). We then proceeded to make our way through a portion of Pelmeni dumplings (following a recommendation from our waitress), which are small ravioli like dumplings filled with minced beef and bone marrow. The outside was soft like a pasta, but the taste was closer in resemblance to that of a savoury pancake; between this and the rejection of sauce or dressing in favour of a sour cream and chive dipping sauce, our taste buds were totally and completely confused. The beef and bone marrow filling was dry, yet extremely flavourful and paired with the cream gave each dumpling a rich and irony flavour - right up my street. The lacrosstitute, however, was far more preoccupied by her choice of starter, Placki (potato pancakes) with sautéed chicken livers and dried cherries. This really was a show stopper. Tender chicken livers covered in a sweet and incredibly rich plum and cherry sauce, topped with parsley and chives on a contrastingly plain warm pancake that was somewhere between a hash brown and a giant blini. The liver/cherry combination was astonishing in flavour, and to be completely honest I feel hard pushed to do it justice with any description. The sauce was akin to a sweet, winey gravy and each liver tasted like a little parcel of incredibly rich foie gras. When friends end up fighting over the last biteful of a dish, you know you are onto a winner. Highly recommended.
Our last starter was a traditional Polish steak tartare, served with quail's eggs gherkins, shallots, capers and herbs. The meat was clean tasting and fresh, and the method of serving the condiments and garnishes on the side brings the obvious advantage of the tartare being seasoned exactly to the individual's taste. The meat was lean, served with a freshly baked and then grilled sour dough crust bread and a garishly spicy sauce that tasted like I would imagine a tabasco spiked ketchup would do. Strangely, the spice was added a brilliant kick and an unusual dimension to the otherwise relatively predictable combination of flavours.
Moving on to the main course, the lacrosstitute became a little nervous as she had ignored the waitress's warning that the Golonka pork dish would be extremely large and filling. She was not wrong. The honey and pomegranate glazed pork shank was enormous and comfortably could have fed two following the selection of starters we had destroyed. It sat on a hefty bed of sauerkraut and was served with a clean and refreshing apple salad. The pork itself was lean and salty in flavour as any sort of gammon might be, but what was really outstanding was the honey and pomegranate glaze. The shank took on a firm and crispy outer crust that was glimmering and entirely saturated in sweet and fruity flavours, and the freshness of the generous parsley garnish contrasted the sticky heaviness of the meat perfectly. On the other side of the table, I enjoyed one of Ognisko's other best selling main courses: Sarna - a roasted haunch of venison with a honey roast pear and dried cherry sauce. The venison was cooked to perfection, it was perfectly tender with the semblance of something that had been cooked on a low heat for a long period of time. The fibres of meat were separated as is the case with well aged beef, and enabled each forkful to melt in my mouth within moments. The venison soaked up an incredibly rich cherry gravy that was not unlike the sauce of the sautéed chicken livers we had loved so much earlier in the meal: it was sweet, sour, rich, meaty, filling and somewhat Christmassy. Could anything be further up my street? Not that we needed to, but we shared a portion of mashed potato and a side dish of sauerkraut - I was not okay with the notion of a Polish dining experience without a taste of the traditional delicacy. The mash was delicious, smooth and gorgeously tinged with horseradish, and the sauerkraut was everything it is supposed to be: sour, soft and lightly dressed with a slight crunch remaining at the core of each cabbage strand. We were not sure that it was our favourite thing on the table, but that is most likely due to our preoccupation with our main dishes and our concentrated effort to continue drinking the delicious bottle of wine that had somehow lost some of our attention in the cocktail-y vodka-ish haze.
Two last Orzech (hazelnut) vodka shots went down an absolute treat as we sipped them whilst sharing our pudding (to answer your question, no, it doesn't get more romantic than that). We managed to make just enough room to share the traditional Polish desert, Nalesniki with berries and sweet cheese. Despite our initial confusion about nalesniki and prejudices about the potential appeal of anything called sweet cheese, the desert was unbelievably good. A thin, sweet crepe, jam packed with red berry compote and a combination of Philadelphia and mascarpone, scattered with stewed berries and dusted with icing sugar. Okay so it isn't the worlds most healthy option and it may not have been a necessity following our three or four course meal but I would have it again and again and again. It had that a confusing effect on the taste buds similar to that that ensues with a berry cheesecake: something is sweet, something is savoury, there are berries involved, why is it so moreish? It was the perfect end to a perfect meal, symbolising the confusing combinations of flavours that we may not have expected to like, but did. I would highly recommend Ognoski to anyone looking to impress a date, friend or loved one or anyone with an upcoming birthday or celebratory dinner plan. The lacrosstitute was definitely impressed... The food, the ambiance and the service all unbeatable and the situation in the heart of Exhibition Road only a stones throw away from South Kensington station - so you have no excuses.