EATING OUT / Vodka and lambada a la polonaise: Lowiczanka: The Polish Restaurant

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THE POLES are not well-known for their cooking. Neither, so far as I know, are they particularly celebrated for their sexy dancing. But the ones we met at Lowiczanka displayed one clear national trait: being unselfconscious in the face of failure - in this case, to cook, to dance and make the restaurant look like a place where anyone would want to eat. It was this that brought the evening alive.

Certainly it wasn't the company of my friends. A week laterwe all admitted to having hated each other that night - or, at least, to having hated each other until the meal was over, the dancing girls had left, and the gold- flaked vodkas were brought on.

The Polish Social and Cultural Association on King Street inHammersmith looks like the student union at a college for further education. It has a bar, a cafeteria, a room to exhibit ugly pieces of Polish art. And upstairs it has the restaurant.

Persevere up the stairs, and try - and fail - not to think of your school days. If you're lucky (as we were) and you've arrived there on a 'theme night', you might first notice a couple of half-dressed South American girls leaning sulkily against the restaurant's double doors. Brush past them, if you will, and you will find yourself in what looks like an airport departure lounge. Think of the delicious vodkas and ask for a table.

There were two reasons why the five of us landed up there: firstly because we'd heard it was very cheap; secondly because news had reached me that my cousin thought I was boring. We hadn't had much to talk about for several months, so I rang her up and suggested an evening learning how to lambada at the Polish Centre. In retrospect, I realise what an embarrassing, dreary way it was to attempt to prove a point. But she took the bait. Or she took pity. Either way, she and I (and three others) found ourselves sitting a few Saturday nights ago, in irritable silence, in a glass- walled airport lounge in Hammersmith.

We were, I think, the only non-Polish people in the room. We were certainly the only ones under 30. Most of our fellow diners - when they were sitting down at least - looked remarkably respectable. We would look up from our gloomy examination of the menu to ask, for lack of fruitier subjects - the silence between us was sometimes unbearably awkward - what had happened to the wretched dancers. But there they still were, looking sick with boredom just below the EXIT sign. It seemed that the restaurant's sound system wasn't prepared for them. Any genuine attempts we made at conversation were interrupted by violent, high-pitched screams coming from the loudspeakers.

To the food. It arrives within seconds of ordering. One member of the party pleaded extra poverty and settled for a pounds 2.70 sledz in smietanie (herring fillet with soured cream). My cousin - who was never boring - chose one of the restaurant's specialities; bigos, a 'traditional Polish hunter's stew made with sauerkraut, white cabbage, various meats and sausages'. She was curious about the 'various' but we couldn't identify them. Pity the poor Polish hunters. It wasn't good and she didn't finish it. She filled up on servings of ready-sliced bread with butter packs. I chose from the 'theme night' South American menu - something boring and perfectly edible to do with chicken and rice. My plate was piled high and it only cost a fiver.

Another in the party bravely had two courses; both were far better than anything the rest of us had ordered. His pounds 1.80 Barszlz Zabielany z Dajkiem (beetroot soup served with a hard-boiled egg and a dollop of cream) was delicious, as were the Kietbasa Smazona z Cebula ( pounds 4.50) - grilled Polish sausage served with fried onion and potatoes. Or, that is to say, the sausage was good. The onion was fine. The mashed potato, which came in those ice-cream-scoop spherical lumps, was best left well alone (they brought back horrible memories of force-feeding at primary school. Take my advice: don't even smell them.)

But anyway, the food wasn't the point. The point, as I say, was the price, the vodka - and, as it turned out, the extraordinary bottoms.

It was at about this time, as we laid down our knives and forks with lots still left on our plates, that the speaker stopped squeaking and the dancers learnt how to smile. 'Oh- ho,' we said to each other (complacently) as two men and two women in decentish dancing clothes strutted towards the dance floor beside us. 'Isn't London a delightfully diverse and eccentric place?' But then the dancing continued and the women took off more and more clothes until finally their bottoms were dressed only in spangly G-strings.

Very embarrassing. Where were we supposed to look? It was all very well being diverse - but spangly bottoms? During dinner? I think most of my party didn't really know how they were expected to react. Should we have been culturally aware and broadminded? Or should we have taken offence? Most of us got the giggles. But I felt sorry for the only man in our party. He was seated bang next to the dance floor and both women dancers singled him out, gyrating their hips towards his head. He was very polite about it, pretended not to be impressed, turned slightly pinkish and looked at the floor.

The professional dancers finally left us alone and it was time for the diners to take to the floor. We relaxed. Two of us entered, and failed to be placed, in the lambada competition which followed. We ordered more flavoured vodkas and spent the rest of the evening sitting at our table and staring. That was the best bit - watching the old respectables and the fat young women in tightly fitting frocks, wiggling their hips in sexy unEnglish abandon. We got drunk. We started talking. We went home. And all that - a dance, a full belly, a spinning head - for the bargain basement price of pounds 11 each. I have been trying to persuade them all to go back with me ever since.

Daisy Waugh and John Wells will be writing this column on alternate weeks.

The Polish Social and Cultural Association, 238 King Street, London W6 0RS.

Tel: 081-741 3225(phone for details of forthcoming theme nights). Open for lunch and dinner seven days per week; both around pounds 12 per head. Amex, Visa, Access