Every time I walked past Daquise on my way to South Kensington tube station, I would make a mental note to eat there one day. Having once enjoyed all the fringe benefits that come with a Polish mother-in-law, I have the kind of latent appetite for beetroot, dumplings, sour cream and anything to do with cabbage that only a good son-in-law can have.
Then one day last October, I walked past the place, and it had closed. Two workmen were taking out the fittings. The oldest Polish restaurant in London (established 1947), the place where the Polish government-in-exile would meet to plan campaigns against the Communist regime, was no more.
Or was it? Apparently there had been a fire, and what I was seeing was merely the mopping-up operation. Rebuilding eventually got underway, and now, after three months, Daquise is very much back in business. Determined not to miss out again, I book in on what is only their fifth day of operation.
If the owners felt any urge to use the insurance money to update and modernise the place, they have bravely resisted it. Despite the new paint, it feels more like the 59-year-old restaurant it is, set in its style and its ways. I feel like DI Sam Taylor in Life on Mars, transported back to a time when restaurants had models of pigs in chef's jackets in the window, freestanding, refrigerated cake-cabinets on the floor, plasticised red-checked tablecloths, studded banquettes and large artworks with paint so thick they were practically three-dimensional. The crowd here is equally timeless: old men in thick coats and warm scarves; gatherings of expat Poles tossing down shot glasses of vodka; and family groups passing round fat babies for all to cuddle and cosset.
The menu is neatly laminated, but it may as well be asbestos-lined, so well has it survived the fire. All the classic Polish specialties are present - from the giant pork knuckle to beetroot soup - as are the old faithful, 1970s-style Continental dishes such as almond trout, roast duck and schnitzel.
But I'm here for mother-in-law food: pirogi (ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with mushrooms or cheese), golabki (cabbage rolls), platski (potato pancakes) and bigos (meat and cabbage hunter's stew), all of which just happen to feature on Daquise's special Polish platter. So that's the main course sorted, then.
Daquise stocks a range of three different Polish beers, including my favourite, the refreshing and nicely hoppy Lech, and nine different vodkas, including the wonderful Zubrowka bison-grass vodka. So that's the first course sorted, then. The wine list is limited but still manages to run to a perfectly decent, light and fruity Paul Boutinot Fleurie (£24.50).
Given that I am starting with beer and vodka and going on to dumplings and pancakes, I attempt to order a light starter, momentarily forgetting I'm in a Polish restaurant. The plate of salted herring fillets (£4.50) is the size of most main courses elsewhere - three huge fillets, a swamp of creamed onion and cucumber studded with sliced apple, and two slices of rye bread, complete with a foiled butter pat. The only question is will I finish it, before it finishes me?
There is little that is dainty about the smoked salmon and blinis (£4.50) either. Three small but hefty pancakes sit like stepping stones, topped with raggedy strips of slightly whiffy smoked salmon next to a puddle of sour cream.
Alcohol plays an important role in a Polish meal, not so much creating an appetite as deluding you into thinking you have any appetite left. It is particularly necessary when facing the Polish platter (£10.50), which is generous in quantity, more than in quality. The meat in the hunter's stew is rigorously overcooked, the potato pancakes are a few shades darker than even the regulation over-browning would permit, and the filling of the fairly thick, solid pirogi lacks any real flavour. The cabbage roll is the best, filled with a light farce of pork and veal, but even it tends to get a bit lost.
A better bet is zrazy (£8.50), a light, flavoursome meatloaf - a similar pork and veal farce, in fact - doused with a gluggy mushroom sauce and served with a pile of deliciously light, perfect, white rice. Spoonfuls of nutty, grainy kasha or buckwheat (£2) mixed with the rice prove irresistible.
For dessert - I'm the perfect son-in-law, always up for pudding - it's another pancake. This time it's a sugar-dusted flat crepe rolled around cream cheese and raisins (£4.50), which is rich and filling.
Polish food can be better than this, I know, but Daquise is a still a right charmer. It has the noise, the camaraderie and the feeling of belonging, if only for a few hours, to a rather large, bossy family. I love the Polish beer and the Polish vodka, the small prices, the kasha, the sense of history and continuity, and the no-nonsense-but-with-a-heart-of-gold waitresses. "Eat," instructs one waitress to a diner. "And then dessert." One day, she'll make some lucky fellow a fine mother-in-law.
12/20 Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Daquise, 20 Thurloe Street, London SW7, tel: 020 7589 6117
Lunch and dinner served daily. Dinner around £55 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More Polish restaurants
Goldhawk Road, London W12, tel: 020 8743 5194
A trained pharmacist, Ewa Michalik switched careers in 1991 to cook with her husband at Patio. She still makes people feel better, only now she does it with smoked-salmon blinis, chicken Walewska and plenty of vodka.
127-129 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, tel: 0114 258 5868
Two doors down from his popular Polish restaurant, Joseph Sidrovicz also owns the Polonium Travel Agency. With traditional Polish cooking and lots of Polish vodkas and beers, the restaurant will give you a taste for Eastern European hospitality before - or instead of - leaving.
84 Cowley Road, Oxford, tel: 01865 243 390
Described as Oxford's first, best, and only Polish restaurant, Hajduczek serves up heaped platters of homely Polish cooking in friendly surroundings. There is also a good range of vodka to aid digestion.Reuse content