The Latin Americans may be having their London heydey, with Ceviche blazing the Peruvian trail and La Bodega Negra wa-hacking its way through Soho’s tastebuds but I like to do things differently. Euro 2012 is upon us, hosted by Poland and the Ukraine and since I’m about as sporty as a whale in a coma, I choose to celebrate this quadrennial footie extravaganza by satisfying my relentless gut and nashers.
To Baltic restaurant, ho! Just the name makes my nostrils quiver with the thrill of herring and dill, the “prrring” of gherkins and the eye-watering punch of vodka, which I can’t stomach, but which I seem to love when accompanied by saunas or pickled cabbage. Three minutes walk from Southwark station, Baltic is an unassuming little pub front on the outside, but a massive, airy and rather beautiful semi-barn, semi-rennovated church, semi-beer hall space with sky-lighting, exposed brick and vast white walls – a nod at Scandi chic (no, I am not confusing my Baltics with my Smorgasbords) with attractive arty features such as an explosion of dried roses and a hundred amber drops hanging from above.
Tables come ready set with pickles and beetroot chrain to accompany the homemade breads (rye, spelt and seeded) which are served as you browse the menu. We launched straight into the vodka – Baltic makes 14 of its own flavoured vodkas, such as horseradish, dill and pepper, as well as dozens of other flavours, served in tiny carafes chilled by resting on ice in a tumbler.
Our charming and knowledgeable waiter recommended the oak vodka which was rich, pungently woody but smooth – a perfect accompaniment to my herring, apple and potato. The Keta (salmon roe) caviar was sticky and intensely salty, not quite bursting in the mouth as I like it, but tasty and not with too many blinis (sometimes they expect you to stack them like a tower of Pisa).
The pierogi were proper winter food (which was excellent given the demise of anything resembling summer in this country). A matronly babushka could have rolled these with roughened hands like bin lids and I’d have believed it. Spicy beef, soft dumpling dough – thick but not chewy – comforting, like a really good, non-taxed pasty. M. and I are both foie gras whores and here they pan-sear it with honey and a wild mushroom pancake – the foie was fat, slippery, melty and fabulous, the pancake a teeny bit floury, but full of earthy mushroom flavour.
For mains we switched to a red wine (mostly so that I’d remain compus mentus long enough to reach dessert – vodka and I got together like a hog roast to a vegan) – a fruity Alentejo to match warming Golonka, a falling-off-the-bone, delicious smoked shin of pork, with so-so sauerkraut and blissful mash in a thick, stewy gravy redolent of junipers. I took a trip down memory lane, with spaetzle that I normally associate with Strasbourg where I grew up and a delicate braised rabbit with sticky rich figs. Heavenly.
Baltic, in fact, was so warm and inviting, we didn’t want to leave – so made our way out of the dining area to the darker, buzzier bar for a couple of more serious drinkages. A “Green Beast” (absinthe, lime, cucumber) finished M. off – whipped up by a massive tank of a man who to all appearances could have happily sunk a litre of moonshine and still expertly navigate a Russian submarine through treacherous, iceberg-filled waters. His enthusiasm for ensuring we were well watered, meant I succumbed to a blasting furnace of a cocktail called quite simply a Grapefruit and Chilli Sour. Not so much Grapefruit as “scotch bonnet infusion” I burned pleasingly in an alcoholic fug right until we reached Gypsy Hill.
Baltic – 74 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8AH