On the way back from the ‘Trans-Antarctic’ photographic exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society late this February, which is a stones throw from the Albert Hall, I stopped by Daquise café and restaurant (www.daquise.co.uk) with a friend to taste some Polish fare. It didn’t disappoint.
I should point out that we weren’t entirely sure if we actually wanted to eat. This wasn’t due to Daquise being a ropey old place - quite the opposite. It’s just because the images (www.images.rgs.org/) taken by Australian Frank Hurley of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition (1914-1917) and the crew’s titanic struggle for survival were very raw - but nonetheless amazing.
Daquise, which for those who don't know, has played host to some notable figures over the years. Right smack next to South Kensington tube and nearby the rather excellent Jeff de Bruges, a Belgian chocolatier at 30 Thurloe Street - it served as the unofficial HQ of the Polish government in exile during World War Two. Just around the corner in front of the tube station stands a statue of Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok, who is considered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century.
As restaurant since 1947, Daquise has rustic charm. In the 1960s it was frequented by model Christine Keeler and KGB spy Yevgeni Ivanov and naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London during the Profumo affair.
This Russian’s affair with Keeler led to another of her lovers, John Profumo, a British government minister, resigning and having his career destroyed over a sexual relationship in 1963 with the then 19-year-old model. At the time he held the title of 5th Baron Profumo in the nobility of the Kingdom of Sardinia. After his resignation he volunteered in a noble act cleaning toilets at Toynbee Hall in London’s Tower Hamlets.
Polish film director Roman Polanski even popped into this restaurant for a spot of dumplings and goulash between filming the 1965 British psychological-horror film Repulsion starring Catherine Deneuve.
The staff at Daquise are easy going and if you are stuck on selecting dishes they will offer helpful suggestions. And, don’t worry if you don’t speak Polish - everything is in clear English on the menu. It’s not as if it’s easiest language in the world what with its complex gender, tongue-bending pronunciation and seven cases. But just hearing the exchange of conversations between Poles is part and parcel of the experience here.
I was told by a Greek-Cypriot friend married to a Polish national that Daquise is expensive. But this is South Kensington after all, so it's hardly likely to be cheap and there are far more expensive restaurants around this neck of the woods.
What we ate was more than reasonably priced and tasty. And, where else can you eat Polish dishes sitting below vintage photographs of General Sikorski, the first Prime Minister of Polish government (in exile), and other notables.
The walls at the front of the restaurant have a rough unfinished texture. After a while you realise this has been intentionally retained to give a feeling of authenticity. The back of the restaurant is somewhat more refined and brighter with colour prints of Polish nobles adorning the walls.
On the food front, my friend was recommended slices of smoked salmon on blinis accompanied by a nice big dollop of cream. She, with a Turkish-Russian heritage, thought it rather sublime.
Meanwhile I opted for Bigos (Hunters Stew), a traditional meat and cabbage stew comprising pork, kielbasa and sauerkraut - with freshly made mashed potato served by the chef. As a Polish national dish, Bigos is great and especially on cold winter days. With it came a dish of fried liver slices mixed with onions. Fresh rye bread was on the table too.
For drinks we partook in a few pints of Tyskie, a pale-style lager and one of the best selling beer brands in Poland that has been produced continuously for around 400 years. To round things off we sampled some tasty Sernik - authentic Polish cheesecake.
Overall a good experience with the bill coming to just shy of £40. But one could clearly splash out much more and select a few bottles from the wine list. The main courses, which range from £16-£24, include topside of beef simmered in boullion (Sztukamies z kwiatkiem) and roasted duck stuffed with apples, red cabbage and prunes (Kaczka pieczona).
I quite liked the sound of venison medallions flambéed with Polish bison grass vodka served with potatoes, dumplings and beetroot (£22). But I’ll hold fire on that for another occasion.
Here I should add that my Daquise visit was probably influenced by recently listening to ‘Polonia’ (the Latin name for Poland), an engaging new album from Anglo-Polish singer Katy Carr (www.katycarr.com). This London-based performer, who sings and plays a vintage wurlitzer electronic piano, ukulele and banjolele with her group The Aviators, has played live on national TV in Poland and given concerts in Norway and North America.
Potentially also tipped as a Mercury Music Prize nominee and recently rated by MOJO magazine as a rising artist, tracks on Nottingham-born Carr’s engaging fifth studio album include subjects ranging from Polish codebreakers at Bletchley Park, Charlie Chaplin’s infatuation with Hollywood actress Pola Negri, and General Maczek, a snubbed war hero and a Polish tank commander, who commanded the famous 1st Polish Armoured Division.
Maczek played a crucial role in the Allied liberation of France, but after the war was stripped of Polish citizenship by the Communist government of his homeland and a military pension ending up in Edinburgh. He worked there as hotel bartender until the 1960s and died in 1994 aged 102.
I would certainly revisit Daquise and will recommend it to others. The menu also offers down-to-earth Polish dishes including Pierogi (filled dumplings) with a choice of meat or cheese, potato and onion or cabbage fillings.
About the author: Roger is a freelance journalist and currently contributes to Forbes amongst other titles.
Photo of Katy Carr by Ben Wright Photography.