Baltic, 74 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8AH
As soon as we said on our Facebook page that we were off for our first visit to the Baltic restaurant & bar, an old work colleague quickly replied. “You’ve been before, my leaving drink, have you forgotten?” he commented. Have I? Then I remembered, the last time I went (at least 7 years ago) we sat in the softly lit bar near the entrance and the vast selection of vodkas must have blurred any recollection of even leaving my seat.
I only say this as had I been sober, I wouldn’t have forgotten this stunning restaurant. From the street the Baltic looks tiny and with two heavy wooden doors, a bit like a secret private members club. You could even think that it was closed, but once inside and past the narrow bar area the restaurant really opens up . We have heard it described as the Tardis or like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, and they’re not wrong.
Set in a converted 18th-century coach workshop, with a high-pitched glass ceiling, exposed wooden beams and a bare red brick wall, it looked more New York warehouse apartment that Eastern European eatery (not that we’ve been to one). The design and decor was clean and contemporary, the soft, warm yellow lighting only adding to its cosy and comforting feel. I really liked the amber chandelier that added colour contrast to the stark white walls. Our table was booked for 6.30pm and already the venue had a gentle buzz. There was a real mix of clientele… Suits, media types and more than its fair share of pretty Swedish blondes!
Once seated our coats were taken and we were offered bread from a basket (that I had just witnessed being unwrapped from cling film?). Three small pots containing butter, Cwikla (a delicate Polish relish made from finely chopped beetroot and horseradish) and pickled gherkins were on the white-clothed table. The Cwikla tasted great spread over the rye bread.
We quickly scanned the wine list (bottles from £17) but knew in our heart of hearts that it would be a vodka kind of evening! The range of vodka is amazing, almost enough to fill an A4 sheet of paper. There were vodka cocktails, vodka shots, flavoured vodka, hot vodka and even a Polish coffee which, you’ve guessed it, contains vodka. We were also pleased to see Koniks Tail on the list, a polish spelt, rye and winter wheat vodka that we first sampled at The Folly Bar shortly after its launch. I opted for a Flor cocktail (£7.50), containing rum, cherry and chocolate liqueurs and cranberry juice. While Saff went for Koperkowa, a Dill vodka, served in a ‘straight from the freezer’ ice cold glass (£3.50).
Baltic’s focus is on Polish and Eastern European food, some dishes had a Scandinavian feel. We are not too familiar with this style of food so Saff asked her friend Mira a multi-talented fashion stylist, dancer and model, for her favourite Polish dishes. She suggested the Spaetzle dumplings, Kasza and Kaszanka – but ‘most importantly, try loads of vodka – ‘Smacznego’! (Smacznego is Polish for Bon Appetit)
First course can be divided into 3 sections; Starters (£5 – £9.50), Dumplings (£5.50 – £6.50) and Blinis (£5 – £55 for the Royal Belgian Oscietra Caviar). A few of these can also be ordered as a main dish. I was temped by the Devilled Lamb’s Kidneys on Toast (£6.50), but knew Saff wasn’t keen.
So I went for the Selection of Polish Charcuterie (£8). This was made up from 3 different cold sliced spicy sausages, similar in texture and taste to German Salami, one was like a very posh Pepperarmi (I have a feeling the owner will hate me saying that!) A thinly cut gammon ham had the perfect layer of melt in the mouth fat. Talking of fat, my starter also included a little pot of plum sauce and a pot of what I assumed was a course pate that I spread on my toast. It turned out to be Smalec. This, I was told, is made almost entirely with duck and goose fat (rather than the traditional pork fat). A simple Polish ‘cold weather energy booster’ also known as lard spread! I’m glad I didn’t know that before I wolfed it all down. we’d never have guessed that’s what it was when we ate it, it had a real sweetness to it. Delicious, yes. Healthy, no!
Saff went for the Kaszanka (£7.50) – Grilled Black Sausage on a Potato Pancake with Apple and Onions. She said she didn’t enjoy the sausage when tasted alone (too black puddingy) but as a combination with the sweet apples, soft onions and the crunch of the rosti-like potato-cake, it was a definite winner! We also wanted to try the dumplings and went for Spaetzle (£5.50), thin egg dumplings (with a pancake ‘dribble’ look & taste) fried with peas and bacon, a winner for us both. The Siberian Pelmeni (£6.50) – bite sized dumplings filled with finely chopped veal & pork were also available as a main course portion.
We took what seemed an eternity to choose our main course. A) because the dishes were not the usual run of the mill recipes. B) we wanted to try everything and C) some of the pronunciations were a bit tricky! But one thing that we’ve learnt whilst reviewing, never be afraid/embarrassed to pronounce a tricky dish. The waiting staff always rather you try than just point at the menu. Eventually Saff ordered an Armenian Lamb and Beef Stew (£16), served in an iron pot with apricots, prunes and pomegranate. It was a huge serving, I didn’t think she’d be able to finish it but she did. The hearty stew was pure comfort food, well cooked with a subtle fruitiness. It went perfectly with a side order of Chive Mash (£3.50). My main, the Roast Haunch of Venison (£17), had a fruity vibe too. Cooked medium rare, the meat was tender and pink in the middle, it cut so easily! The sweetness from the accompanying honey roast pear and the tang from the sour cherries was a great idea. My side was Kasza with Bacon (£3.50), a buckwheat dish, was rich with a slight charred taste (in a good way) with small chunks of crispy bacon.
A man who we saw busily clearing tables and taking payments wandered over and introduced himself to us. He turned out to be Jan Woroniecki, the owner (and former owner of Wodka in Kensington). He’s obviously very proud of his establishment, as we found out as we chatted over a couple of shots of Zubrowka Vodkas (£3.25). At this point Saff ordered a Krupnik (£3.25) a hot honey flavoured vodka – that would have knocked her socks off, had she been wearing any.
Desserts arrived, Jan said his goodbyes and wandered off to tend to his pride and joy. Saff dug into her Vodka marinated Cherry Creme Brûlée (£6), the cherry overpowered the vodka but the brûlée had a satisfying crunch as you broke through the sugary shell. I went for a Caramelised Nut Parfait with Raspberry Sauce (£6), I kind of hoped that it would taste like Spuntino’s Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich… It was a lot lighter and creamier but the flavours were very similar and that can only be a good thing!
We finished the meal with a Polish Coffee served in a wine glass, and walked out into the cold night with a warm vodka glow and full bellies. With Southwark tube station only a few steps away, we were on our train home in no time… Bonus!
Baltic Bar & Restaurant
74 Blackfriars Road,
020 7928 1111
Nearest tube: Southwark
Dinner: 5.30 – 11.15 (Sun: 10.30pm)
Lunch: 12 – 3pm (Sat & Sun: 4.30pm)
Bar: 12pm – 12am (Sun: 10.30pm)