Warsaw is not the most beautiful city in Europe, and January is not the month for appreciating such beauty as there is. But chowhounds don't care about baroque architecture or the weather - they want to know if there are any good places to eat. In this regard, the situation is really quite good, and steadily improving.
Poland is too often identified with sausages/cabbage/potatoes. High-end Polish cuisine is mostly unknown outside the country. Its roots go back to the days when the nobility held sway in the ancient kingdom. The gentry comprised a large fraction of the population (some say as high as 10%) and it was a nobleman's duty to entertain lavishly, and to eat and drink as well (and as much) as possible. This mandatory dissipation eventually led to the disappearance of the country for more than a century, but not before the elaboration of a sophisticated school of cooking that is very distinctive, but that also borrows from the traditions of the Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and others. In more recent historical times, Polish cooking has had to come back from the dead. I remember very well when, under the People's Republic, not a single decent restaurant was permitted to exist in Warsaw. I never could understand why it was so. Perhaps it had something to do with mortifying the flesh in the name of proletarian revolution or, more likely, with the generalized commie hatred of the human species. However it may have been, the city is now transformed, and there are numerous excellent restaurants, among them:
Restauracja Rozana (pron. Roo-ZHAN-ah)
Ulica Chocimska 7
Tel. 848 12 25
The surrounding Mokotow district is non-descript. It is, alas , nowhere near
the historic Old Town where most tourists stroll and dine. Here, a somewhat
incongruous urban villa has been transformed into an elegant restaurant, in the style of a nobleman's country manor. The furnishings are nineteenth century antiques (or facsimiles) with a whiff of granny's boudoir, but still on the right side of good taste. Tables are large and well-spaced. There are fresh flowers about, interesting paintings on the walls, good lighting. A very pleasant room.
The menu is a compendium of nostalgic treats. Soups are really the glory of
Polish cooking, and the ones at Rozana include the great classics, notably
zur (pron. Zhoor) which is made from fermented wheat and served with pieces of
white sausage which resembles boudin blanc. There are numerous hot and cold appetizers. On this particular occasion, I selected Baltic eel with a honey/dill sauce. This dish brought back memories from when I rented a room in a fisherman's cottage on Poland's Hel peninsula. The man took me with him in his tiny boat, my job being to grab the wriggling creatures and to stuff them into a crate. Alas, the eels were removed from the line by ripping out the hook, such that, in short order, eels, boat, and crew were thickly covered with bloody gore. I'm not sure whether this memory enhanced the flavor of my first course at Rozana but, on reflection, it could be a good thing for a chowhound to torture and kill the animals that he is to eat, at least occasionally.
The sauce gets a rambling digression as well, since Polish honey is the world's finest. The one used for this dish is the king of them all: miod spadziowy (pron. me-you-D spa-JOE-oh, forget it). To make this delicacy, the hives are taken to the edge of the forest during the springtime, when aphids attach themselves to the trees to suck out the rising sap and to secrete microscopic droplets of sweet liquid. Bees collect this goop and the resulting honey, having passed through the digestive systems of two kinds of insects, tastes like no other.
Main courses feature exotic freshwater fish such as crayfish, pike and pike-perch.
One of my companions had pan-fried carp (karp, pron. carp) in a sauce of wild mushrooms, which sounds bizarre but was excellent. Carp is surely the world's most unjustly maligned fish.
There is a good selection of game: wild duck, venison, boar. The latter was my choice. It was beautifully garnished with various pickled fruits and forest berries whose names I could not possibly translate.
The wine list is very international but unimaginative and vaguely overpriced.
I passed up a 1992 Petrus at 900 euros (too young for me!) and selected a nice California Shiraz from Francis Coppola.
Desserts are displayed on a cart and they are a glorious sight. Several kinds of cream cakes are featured, made without that annoying soggy sponge that one usually gets. I zeroed in on sernik (SAIR-neek) a not-too-sweet cheese cake with more body and less gloppiness than its over-rated American cousin.
Service is young but professional. What a pleasure (unknown to those who only dine out in the western part of Europe) to deal with waiters who actually concentrate on what they are doing and dont try to shirk their job. The price is high for Poland, but low in euros: about 40 per person.