I arrived at Exhibition Road in South Kensington on a chilly February day to find the Science Museum in lock-down. As I contemplated a long wait out on the pavement with my two youngest children, I fortunately remembered a haunt from many moons ago (when I was a Badeni not a Lussiana), which happened to be just across the street and promised a warm lunch.
Ognisko Restaurant, in The Polish Hearth Club building, is one of those places you need to know about, as its discreet façade reveals nothing of the riches within. When my Polish father took me there as a child, its interiors were filled with far more than tables and chairs; this was a world inhabited by Polish émigrés, who had survived the second world war but had lost their homes and very often their families. There were conspiratorial corners, waitresses whose hands were kissed, and a shimmer of shabbiness that clung ever more tightly as the post-war years passed.
How wonderful it was, then, to see it today, with new life breathed into it by Jan Woroniecki, a Polish restaurateur who ran the excellent Kensington restaurant Wodka, a pioneer of modern Polish cuisine, and still owns and runs Baltic on Blackfriars, which is worth stopping at for the vodka list alone. Ognisko is now open to all, and the dining room is still the same – albeit with a new lick of paint that has accentuated the columns, high ceiling and stucco work. Gone are the conspiratorial corners, replaced by crisp white tablecloths and light streaming in from the terrace.
And then there is the food: authentic Polish favourites brought into the 21st century. I had mouth-wateringly plump pierogi dumplings (from £6.50, first picture) filled with white cheese, potato and onion, with sour cream on the side – a taste I hanker for on a cold day. My daughter loved her blinis (from £8) with smoked salmon, while my son devoured his fried kopytka dumplings (from £7) with chestnuts and mushrooms.
With the Science Museum visibly open again for business, we left. But as I regret not having tried the rich vodka selection, I will be back – and next time I will start with the classic barszcz (beetroot soup, £5) and its accompanying meat pastry, followed by placki potato pancakes, which are far harder to make well than you would think (something I can attest to, having written several Polish cookery books), here served with spiced, sautéed chicken livers with dried cherries (from £6.50).