What began as a Polish supermarket has evolved into something altogether more interesting, finds Ron Godfrey
Proof that the taste of the unpronounceable can be wonderfully indescribable can be found at the Barbakan, that little Polish café and restaurant in Walmgate, York.
Mrs G and I polished off – if you’ll pardon the pun – glistening platefuls of gelabki (my choice) and pierogi (hers) from its huge lunchtime menu as we stared at the confusing jumble of wall adornments with golden globe lamps dangling from a russet red ceiling.
Galabki? Oven-baked cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced minced pork and rice, all in a heavy, tangy tomato sauce perfect as a dip for the more-ish and moist-fresh home-baked bread served with it. Price: £6.95
Pierogi? Pan fried dumplings filled with beef, cheese and potatoes topped with crispy bacon all fanned out around a plump sour cream dip. Price £8.50. And that included a glass of Romanian Merlot.
When I first visited Barbakan about four years ago it was little more than a Polish delicatessen and bakery crammed with supermarket style East European goodies like poppy seed cake and beetroot soup.
There was a constant stream of customers, many from the growing population of about 1,000 Poles in York among 3,000 living in North Yorkshire, all yearning for a taste of home.
But then the owner Anna Witcxzak and her partner Grzegorz cleared space outside the food aisles for a hand-made coffee table for snacking customers and the revolution happened.
More and more tables took over from supermarket shelves as demand grew – and not just from Poles.
Every nationality, it seems, revelled in the traditional Polish dishes like bigos, a hunter’s cabbage stew with a variety of meats, sausages, tomatoes and wild dumplings or zawijaniec, a pancake stuffed with buckwheat and vegetables, topped with smoked Swiss cheese.
And the broadening appeal was just as well considering that the British boom which brought so many Poles to the UK suddenly turned into bust with many packing their bags to go home.
By the time Mrs G and I stepped into the near-full restaurant, welcomed by a smiling Polish waitress named Violetta, all the supermarket shelving had vanished and there were now enough tables, I understand, to seat parties of 30 at night.
The impression is of a crowded and cramped little place where if customers are anything like me they avoid being offered the central tables lest they feel surrounded and “on view”.
But there is a lot – perhaps too much – to otherwise attract the eyes’ interest, particularly from the vantage point we chose, namely the original founding table in the corner nearest the window with its cushion-backed bench seat (and best placed to take secret reviewers’ notes.)
Everywhere is vibrant colour, from the explosions of false poppies and petunias in vases to the eye-dazzling ethnic designs on table runners, although ours, decorated with festive holly, was the exception.
There are also dozens of multi-sized framed pictures including landscapes, cityscapes and Polish castles. (Well, why not? Barbakan, strangely enough, means barbican – a fortified place, such as a city or castle).
Then along the wooden beams are chains of onions, chillies and garlic as well as wheatsheafs and other rustic symbols such as breadbaskets and, just for luck, a massive horseshoe (are Polish horses really that gargantuan?)
Yes, it is a themeless jumble, but somehow creates a sense of excitement and anticipation as you study a too-vast array of menu options, made more confusing by the fact that many of the lunchtime specials are echoed in chalk-on-slate missives.
There were limited number of lunchtime starters but the evening menu boasts goodies such as barszcz z uszkami – borscht served with wild mushrooms (£4.50) or papryczka nadziewana – red peppers filled with spiced mince pork, barley groats and vegetables, oven-baked with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce (£4.95).
It was just as well because we would have been afraid to pronounce either of these when ordering; in any case, we preferred to dive headlong into the main course.
And just as Mrs G was finishing off her pierogi, wiping a smear of sour cream from the corner of her mouth with a slow-motion blink of appreciation, Violette arrived. Did we want pudding at £3.25?
Gritting my teeth and supping my diabetic tablets with my diet Coke, I declined, but Mrs G was in her element. Hazelnut and blueberry cake? No. sorry, they had run out.
But yes, they had apple, cinnamon and almond tart with cream.
She began hesitantly, but soon her fork was rapidly to and froing from plate to mouth and I took vicarious pleasure from watching her.
Finally, “how was that for you?” I asked.
Her verdict: “That was one of the loveliest, lightest puddings I have had for years. It was – it was…” she said, struggling to find the words.
“Unpronounceable?” I suggested.
Just so, she nodded.
Pierogi, part of special lunchtime deal, including wine £8.50
Diet Coke £2.00
Apple, cinnamon and almond tart £3.25
Food: Unpronounceably good ★★★★★
Service: Prompt, efficient and chatty ★★★★★
Ambience: Cramped but crowded ★★★
Value: Excellent, particularly lunch menu ★★★★
Overall rating ★★★★
- Read all the restaurant reviews here