20 May 2013
When I planned my Warsaw trip, my target for the dining portion was focused on Atelier Amaro, the first Polish restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. For the growing Polish culinary scene, this was a major validation — especially as this was a restaurant focused on Polish cooking and ingredients. I was particularly excited about this dining experience, having eaten well so far on this trip — especially during lunch at Nolita.
As Warsaw’s rush-hour traffic is known to be utterly horrendous, I decided to walk and take the Metro to Amaro. From broken ticket machines to poorly labelled streets, it was a bit of an adventure to find the restaurant. Again, I was quite sweaty when I arrived, but soon chilled by a nice martini.
The small and cute location at the edge of a wooded park made the experience so much more natural, as Amaro focused on Polish natural products. The restaurant was also busy at an early hour, which was a very good sign. A combination of foreign and local diners also indicated the healthiness of the dining scene here.
I opted to enjoy a full experience and chose the 8-course tasting menu. And in addition, I risked the “spirits” pairing — an idea I’ve not seen in other restaurants. Maybe it’ll be too much, but who knows. Odd to go through a meal like this without wine…
Things moved quickly once I ordered and the first of three amuse bouche arrived, a tasting of local lettuce.
It’s not something to get too excited about really, just lettuce with a beet-y jam. This type of presentation I see a lot now, but I still think the one at Die Quadriga in Berlin did it best. The presentation of the stone was nice tho. The second amuse bouche came quickly, a cute broccoli dish that also featured prominently Polish lard.
The lard tasted dreamy, with a consistency that is just rich but not “lardy” for the lack of a better term. Excellent. The third and last amuse bouche arrived next, a “sandwich” of goat cheese.
Very nice. As a lover of goat cheese, this was a fine way to end the pre-dinner tasting. So far I am pleased with the service, presentation and taste of the evening. Getting excited for the main segment of this meal.
The only thing that was annoying me was a table on the other end of the restaurant that featured a lady bearing a piercing and nasaly voice that went on-and-on in loud English. Really just cut through the entire room, and she (and her dining companions) seemed utterly oblivious that she was twice as loud as everyone else and offered her opinions on everything frequently… Sadly this got worse through the evening. To say this affected my enjoyment of this evening is a total understatement…
But I digress. The first course soon arrived, a fried eel morsel with a green apple and sorrel soup.
Sorry I missed the eel in this picture (noticed this the next day…it’s on the very top edge). To be honest, it was a bit of a miss. The eel was nice enough, but I just didn’t see this as a unified dish. I was told to eat them separately, and it just seemed like two incongrent dishes together. However, the pairing of a Kaszubian potato vodka was interesting, and helped the sour-ish flavours of the soup. Maybe this pairing scheme is going to work after all.
The second course was quite fantastic looking, featuring snails and smoked asparagus. I love both, so I was really looking forward to this dish.
When the smoke jar came out, I was totally excited. The aroma after it opened was just heavenly, and I joked if they could keep it out so I can savour it. I should have taken a photo of it…but the smoking asparagus was plated (though rather messily by the nervous server as he basically dismembered the delicately plated dish…) quickly. The asparagus was dreamy with a deep smoke that tantalised the tastebuds and nose. However, the snails were rather bland and the various treatments of wild garlic was really not strong enough. But the taste of the smoked asparagus will stay with me for a long time.
The spirit pairing for this dish was the Litworówka — a digestive vodka with honey and lemon. Now this really did not work at all with this dish. It clashed badly with the smoke. I considered asking for a switch to wine at this point, but resisted to see where it went — if it would favour neutral or sweet as the evening went on. Then came the third dish, the venison tartar.
The server had a lot of trouble describing this (and other) dishes in English. As someone that speaks enough Polish I should have asked for it in Polish, but they probably need the practice. But the meat was delicate and flavourful, a totally balanced dish. Pairing-wise, the quince nalewka honestly didn’t work either, was way too sweet — to the point it was intrusive of the balance achieved on the plate.
Approaching the half-way point of this meal I was becoming a little underwhelmed by the food, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps I expected a little too much from this evening. The pairing scheme has not worked out well at all, and it is likely damaging my enjoyment of the food. And frankly, it also doesn’t help when the aforementioned shrieky woman moved into subjects such as “colon cleansing” at full volume…
The fourth course would have been a puzzle if someone didn’t tell me it was sweetbreads…
Huh? It was basically dusted on top of a vegetable dish. Sure, the greens, especially the asparagus was nice, but it really was not a sweetbread dish. And the paired rose petal vodka was once again too sweet and just ate into the taste of everything, leaving a strong aftertaste that really did not help the enjoyment of the food.
I was beginning to become concerned especially with the arrival of dish number five, which was a serving of various vegetables — carrots, artichoke and so forth.
This meal is feeling like a vegetarian meal with token meats and seafood. Sure, I love vegetables as much as everyone, but it did not have the basis to be a strong tasting menu. It didn’t have the uniqueness of the vegetables at Steirereck in Vienna, for instance. And it did not have a strong central feature; it seemed very mixed and scattered. Half the time the featured ingredient was barely found on the plate or dominated by what was listed on the menu as a minor ingredient. And the sticky-sweet pine-based vodka was really not helpful… I could not even drink half of it and abandoned it…
I was really starting to worry now, though according to the menu two strong dishes will be closing out this meal. The sixth dish was the turbot. Now having had turbot at lunch as well (Nolita) I can directly compare the two restaurants’ offerings.
To be honest, Nolita won. The use of pea shoots at lunch really complemented the fish. Tonight’s version was very nice also (shows that Polish seafood can indeed shine!), but I have to be honest I was still tasting the sticky sweetness from the pairing of the last course… Even the potato vodka served for this course could not erase that taste, which really disturbed the entire flow of the meal. Shame. I stupidly should have switched to wine by now, but chose to stick it out as designed by the team.
The final savoury course, number seven, came after a sufficient time of rest. This was the veal:
A nicely cooked piece of veal, with strong jus and good vegetables. The meal ended on a strong note, which was very comforting. The one comment I do have is the constant incorporation of “chips” into the dishes…for me, they don’t help, they are more of a distraction.
The staff noticed my aversion to sweet drinks, so they told me this paired herbal vodka was dry… Erm, no, it was not. It was sticky and sweet, maybe less so, but it was not “dry” by any means. It intruded on the flavour of the food so much… Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these types of drinks, but they are digestifs for a reason.
My tastebuds were completely messed up by now when the rhubarb-centric dessert dish arrived…
It was pretty good, but as my readers know I don’t chime in often about desserts. Plus, I honestly was still tasting the previous pairing — even as I washed it down with a nice apple liqueur that was paired now. This pairing idea was just a very bad idea, as the sweetness overwhelmed everything, leaving a sticky taste in my mouth for most of the dishes…bad move… My bad for choosing it and sticking with it.
I took in a coffee to clear my tastebuds and was also given a chance to speak with Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro, and was a nice opportunity to hear his take on how the Michelin has changed so much for him and his restaurant. I then took my leave once the taxi (who got lost looking for the place) arrived. I said goodbye to the excellent and friendly staff and headed back, feeling rather torn about the experience. Ironically the taxi ride was the only time all trip I had a full conversation in Polish, so my thoughts on the dinner would have to wait for a little while…
Did the pairing (and the annoying woman) ruin my ability to enjoy the food? But when they promote the pairing, they should know how many of these digestifs intrude on the balance of taste much more than any wine, partly due to issues like viscosity and sweetness. Maybe I would have enjoyed the meal much more with a proper wine set. But it’s too late, all spilled mleko now.
But for me the verdict was completely mixed. If I could recommend a place for one single wonderful meal in Warsaw? I would sadly not say Amaro, but would opt to recommend Nolita. This is definitely a very good restaurant, Chef Amaro is extremely talented and creative. The staff is wonderful and attentive, and it is comparable to other 1-star restaurants around the world. But for me, it didn’t live up to my own hype of it, and definitely put me off herbal vodkas for a long time.