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Decent borscht and this are poles apart

Published 4 November 2007
News Review
746th article



In 1910 my grandfather's naturalisation papers were personally signed by Winston Churchill, then a secretary of state. Grandpa lived in England years before applying for naturalisation. He came from Russia.

My father was born when the family were living in Portobello Road, where they had their main branch of a chain of 14 men's clothing shops. So why is it reported that I'm the son of a Russian property developer?

Mumsy came from Poland in 1932. This doesn't make me an expert on Polish food. Or indeed any other type of food. But I remember eating some of the best meals ever in the mid-Fifties in a marvellous little Polish restaurant on Thurloe Place, South Kensington called the Silver Spur.

The owner looked like an ageing colonel in the Polish army. He wore a monocle and had a plump, beautifully spoken, English lady friend.

I hadn't eaten Polish for years until a friend recommended Ognisko, housed in a large mansion on Exhibition Road given to the Poles by the Duke of Kent after the second world war. The restaurant is on the raised ground floor in a grand, if slightly distressed, room, looking onto a garden square and with an outside dining area attached.

Our lovely and welcoming waitress, Ania Bouzid, assured me the manager was coming even though it was pretty empty at Sunday lunchtime. The sous-chef was in charge.

Ania told me his name was Grzegorz.

"What's his second name?"

I asked, ever in search of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

"I'm not that close to him to know his second name," said Ania.

Although our window table wasn't near the kitchen it was near to a loudspeaker where Ania spoke to the kitchen and they replied. It was like overhearing Polish resistance messages during the war.

It took forever for Geraldine to get her glass of champagne. Still no sign of the manager. "Is he coming from Poland?" I asked.

For a starter I ordered borscht, which is beetroot soup, with dumplings. Geraldine had blinis with smoked salmon, sevruga caviar and cream.

The borscht was the worst ever. Watery would be a complimentary way of describing it. Not a patch on the beetroot soup from Whole Foods Market on nearby Kensington High Street. Pathetic compared to the Silver Spur. If they can't deliver good borscht in a Polish restaurant what hope is there for the world?

The soup was accompanied by heavy bread and ghastly piped music.

The manager, Stanislav Michalczyk, eventually appeared in a light brown suit. He explained the first floor had a ballroom for parties, on the second a private dining club and above that, offices.

I reckon the house is worth at least Pounds 35m, so no wonder they have exceedingly dull pictures of the Duke of Kent and family all round the dining room. For Pounds 35m I'd have the donor's family tattooed on my posterior and beyond.

My main course was knuckle of pork Bavarian style, with rosti potatoes and red cabbage. The rosti potatoes were the worst ever, soggy, tasteless rubbish. The red cabbage also had no taste. It was weak and wobbly. No comparison to the red cabbage my Portuguese cook does which emanates from Whole Foods Market.

Things were saved by the pork. It was historic. Soft, tender, absolutely delicious. Geraldine said, "It's rather bland, the food. Everything needed a bit more herbs."

Ania suggested the dessert pancake filled with sweet cheese. The manager joined enthusiastically in the recommendation. It was fantastic. I dictated, "It's sort of like a slice of meringue pie of pancake with sweet cheese and orange sauce."

This was as great a dessert as I've ever eaten.

"There are raisins in it, too," advised Geraldine. She then said, "I think I'll bring Joan Rea here." That's the wife of musician Chris Rea.

I advised, "Stay away. Keep one mile radius from this restaurant if the weather's good. If it's bad, two miles."

Geraldine is very fussy about her espresso coffee.

She declared Ognisko's was excellent. The water was Kingsdown natural spring water, established 1995. Not bad. Better than Hildon or Blenheim.

In case you think I don't drink wine, I do, at home. Because the mark up on restaurant wine is usually six times cost. I get mine from Sotheby's. I'm currently drinking Chateau Lafleur-Petrus 1995, Chateau Cos d'Estournel Saint Estephe 1995, Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1989 and I've three bottles left of a wine that's probably well over £8,000 in restaurants, Chateau Latour premiere grand cru 1961.

A bottle went for £2,000 in Sotheby's this year. I've had mine forever.

They'll probably have gone off by the time I open them.



Michael's missives

Would you please stop publishing letters from my brother, Richard. It's embarrassing to have to admit that a family member reads your column.
John Evans, Devon

If only your poor assistant, Dinah, had known there is no Ikea service department. It's a cage of monkeys taught to read evasive English from a script and probably paid in peanuts.
Rob and the XXL Bear Boys, no address supplied

You summed up your food at the Oxford Union in one word: pretty awful, which you then admitted was two words. There are three types of people in the world: the ones that can count and the ones that can't. Good to see you getting back to your old self.
Bob Mitchell, Yorkshire

At long last, a rare photo last week of Winner in his natural habitat, the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Alan Bracken, Hertfordshire

Not content with roughing up Hildon, Blenheim and Tufa water as well as half the restaurants and their staff nationwide, MW now assaults Ikea regarding the lustrous Dinah May's sofa. In his role as protector of consumers' interests could he please duff up my local greasy spoon, The Big Pig Out, Penge, for using teabags three times in tepid water?
Robert Randell, London

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk