What with all the conflict and kerfuffle down south in the Balkans, the re-emergence of the Baltic region in the far north of the continent has gone almost unnoticed.
What with all the conflict and kerfuffle down south in the Balkans, the re-emergence of the Baltic region in the far north of the continent has gone almost unnoticed. Countries such as Estonia and Latvia, famed for their statuesque blondes, white nights and pickled herrings, are all enjoying a renaissance, culinary as well as economic. Estonia, once part of the Soviet Union, is even in line for the next wave of European Union membership within the next few years. Its capital, Tallinn, boasts an astonishing array of eateries offering virtually every cuisine in the world.
Yet considering the substantial numbers of Eastern European émigré communities in London, the capital does not offer much of a taste of this half of the continent. There are the Czech club in West Hampstead and several Polish restaurants, but not much more. Perhaps that's because for many decades the very words "Eastern Europe" conjured up visions of drab greyness and equally unappetising state-controlled portions. It's true that communism and gastronomy are not famed for a natural partnership.
But now in London, Polish and Baltic cuisine languishes no longer, thanks in part to restaurateurs such as Jan Woroniecki. Baltic is the younger sibling of his Wódka in Kensington, for several years the standard-bearer of this region's honest dishes. These are not for the faint-hearted or delicate of appetite, but sturdy platters of Baltic soul food, loaded with enough calories to keep Hanseatic natives warm through those freezing Eastern European winters, washed down of course with plenty of vodka.
Thankfully, there are no twirls of coulis, or delicate drops of reduced jus at Baltic; just natural ingredients well and plentifully presented. Several offerings sound almost alarming: golonka is roasted pork shank with smoked sausage and white bean salad; kazsanka is grilled slices of Polish black pudding, served with pear purée and cwikla. Cwikla is known in Yiddish as chrain, a mix of horseradish and beetroot. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the many centuries of coexistence between Jews, Poles and other Balts, many of the dishes here – golonka aside – would sit quite happily on a Jewish table. With excellent barszcz (borscht), potato pancakes and plenty of herring and salmon on the menu, I'm sure that many of those pining for the much-missed Blooms in Whitechapel would enjoy a visit to Baltic – not least because of the excellent, doughy, dark rye bread that the charming wait staff bring to the table, together with crunchy pickled cucumbers, soft marinated peppers and beetroot paste.
My parents and I started with two soups – barszcz and krupnik – and the marinated herring with potato salad and pickled cucumber. The Barszcz was described as Ukrainian, but unlike that I have eaten in Kiev, it lacked any meat or vegetables other than beetroot. Still, it had the necessary characteristic beetroot bite. The krupnik was a thick soup of vegetable and barley, with shreds of ham. My herring salad was very fine indeed, with soft and perfectly marinated fish.
From there we moved to schabowy – breaded pork escalopes with one of the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen – salt beef and salmon fish cakes. Salt beef was served in its broth with carrots, and the fish cakes came with sorrel, a spinach-like vegetable little used in Britain but popular in Eastern Europe, whose leaves provided a crisp bite in pleasing contrast to the fish cakes' softness. The menu also looks south with an intriguing offering of Georgian lamb flavoured with coriander, and east with a good selection of blinis, offered with caviar (£9 or £24), and pierogi, a kind of ravioli stuffed with potatoes and cream.
To drink there are many varieties and nationalities of vodka, flavoured with fruit, or bison grass, or nothing at all, all served by the shot or carafe, as is done in the Baltics. I tried a lemon wyborowa combined with tonic, which may have been a mistake as it arrived a lurid shade of yellow and tasted even stranger, like essence of boiled sweets.
The wine list is extensive if unexciting, with a reasonable selection of Western European, New World and the occasional nod of solidarity to the east with one or two Hungarian offerings. Poland and the Baltics don't really have the right climate for their own wine industry. For dessert we shared a nicely crumbly cheesecake.
Just as in Eastern Europe itself, the rebuilding work at Baltic is still unfinished, and the façade is in the process of being spruced up. The walls of this former coach-repair house are white and sparse, the ceiling high with exposed beams. This, plus the couple of dozen young groovers celebrating in the space by the bar area, may help to account for the noise level, which I found far too high; so much so that conversation was impeded by the hoots and cheers that resounded throughout the room. Either way the acoustics need serious attention, as does the music selection. By 10pm, as the place filled up, someone decided that what we needed was a little mid-range techno to jolly things along. Well, actually, we didn't; some laid-back jazz, at which the Poles excel, would have been far preferable.
That grouch aside, I have high praise for this restaurant. Prices – by London standards – are reasonable for somewhere of this quality, and our bill for three, with a bottle of Bourgogne Aligote, two aperitifs, water and black tea with lemon came to £93. There are set lunches for £11.50 and £13.50 for two or three courses. Service is adorable, with almost every waiter and waitress hailing from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Bustling purposefully hither and thither in stylish, minimalist, grey and black uniforms that look like they might have been designed by Alexander Rodchenko, they gave Baltic something of the air of 1917 post-revolutionary Moscow. Our waitress was half-Swedish and half-Latvian and could certainly show the region's often surly indigenous restaurateurs how to make customers feel looked-after.
Baltic, 74 Blackfriars Road, London SE1; www.balticrestaurant.co.uk. (020-7928 1111). Lunch 12-3pm, dinner 6-11pm (Sun 10pm); bar/barfood 12-11pm (Sun 10.30pm). All major cards accepted. Disabled accessReuse content