Freshly Polished

RESTAURANT review: In an attempt to update her perceptions, Jill Turton visits Barbakan in York. Pictures by Mike Cowling.

The last Polish meal I ate was way back in the early 90s at the Polish Club in Leeds where we sat at canteen tables and watched retired Polish RAF pilots downing Zywiec beer and Bison vodka and ate vast sausage stews served by kindly overalled ladies. Like school dinners, it had a duel function of being both cheap and filling.

A lot has changed since then. Poland joined the EU in 2004 and between 500,000 and a million Poles have settled here and like every other migrant community they hanker after a taste of home. That’s why we’re heading down Walmgate in York with Ola our Polish neighbour and her Spanish fiancé Jesus. Ola came to England five years ago when there was a push in Poland for pharmacists to come to Britain. Now we’re going for dinner at her favourite Polish restaurant.

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In theory we don’t need her. If pajda ze smalcem, oscypek, golabki and pierogi are impossible to read, the menu carefully translates them: bread and pork dripping, grilled cheese, stuffed cabbage leaves and cheese dumplings and our lovely Polish waitress readily explains everything in immaculate English.

But Ola can fill us in on all the background, the traditions and the food as well as telling us tales of her parents’ farm back home near Wrocklaw in south west Poland. In fact the two of them are going back home at the weekend to meet the priest in readiness for their wedding in May. Her dad makes pickles and Polish sausage that he hangs from the garage beams; mum will be preparing a mighty homecoming feast of beetroot soup and goulash with smietena. Beer will be the only accompaniment, she says, apart of course from alarming quantities of vodka.

Similarly, the Polish husband and wife team behind Barbakan pack plenty into their engaging little restaurant of about 25 covers. They offer six or seven choices at each course of big, gutsy well flavoured dishes of home-style food served with plenty of rye bread and prices pegged at £3-£4 for starters, £7-£10 for mains. There are specials at lunch and dinner and a deli counter for daytime sales.

It may be generous and hearty but this is not school dinner branded in the memory from the Polish club. Here the cooking is far more refined, nicely presented and beautifully matched. A slab of pork and chicken liver pate comes with cranberry jelly and toast. Smalec – a little pot of pork dripping mixed with bits of pork and flavoured with pepper, onion and herbs. Served with sliced dill pickle and bread, it’s far tastier than it sounds.

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Next up is pierogi, one dish we’ve heard of before: four fried dumplings, two filled with cheese and potato and two with beef. The cheese dumpling is soft and mild while the beef ones are richer and deeply savoury. Another plate has a slice of Oscypek – a smoked sheep’s milk cheese made only in the Tatry mountains. It’s been lightly grilled and is served warm with cranberry jelly. Smokily delicious, it’s my favourite starter.

For mains, Ola directs us to yet more traditional dishes: Placek is goulash wrapped in a potato pancake and topped with sour cream. The meat is soft and tender with a deep winey richness to the gravy. The sour cream cuts through nicely. It is very, very good. I go for beef rolls stuffed with dill pickle. Again the beef has been cooked to long, slow tenderness. It’s hard to discern the distinct taste of pickle because they have cooked down into a wonderful deep earthiness. With pearl barley and beetroot and horseradish it’s a dish that might well sustain a farming family through a harsh Polish winter.

Ola goes for the most traditional dish. Bigos is a Polish hunter’s stew here served in a large hollowed out bread bun containing preserved cabbage a bit like sauerkraut and mixed with meat and Polish sausage and wild mushrooms. The sour cabbage contrasts with the smoky sausage flavours and an earthiness from the mushrooms. It’s a taste new to me I was immediately won over.

After that we can’t manage dessert, though they offer us cheesecake and pastries. But we need to toast the happy couple and thank Ola for guiding us through Polish cuisine, so it’s vodka shots all round. Ola chooses a gentle, herby one which our waitress insists is on the house.

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There’s no reason they could know I’m reviewing it so I can only imagine it’s Polish hospitality. Na zdrowie

* The Barbakan, 58 Walmgate, York YO1 9TL 01904 672474

* Open: Mon-Sat 10am-3pm & Tue-Sat 6pm-10pm Closed Sun.

* Price: Dinner for two including coffee, beer and service about £40 .