Back when I first settled in Poland I used to walk past the Rialto all the time – of course, it wasn’t the Rialto then, rather a boarded-up building that looked ready to die. “Why,” I used to ask, “doesn’t someone put a bit of money into that and turn into something nice.” Not that I wish to claim credit, but it appears a little genie was listening. In 2003, what had been a battle-bruised memento of World War II was given a set of new clothes and transformed into Warsaw’s first boutique hotel. Woah, gushed the travel press.
So too did local foodies. In charge of the kitchen was Kurt Scheller, arguably the country’s first celebrity foreign chef. Miracles were performed and everyone was happy. But only for a while. Scheller’s departure to follow other projects created a void. New chefs came in with varying degrees of success, yet none were able to reach the heights that had previously been accomplished – not till this year, that is.
The plan was bold: first, to create an identity separate to the hotel. Solution: open a new street-side entrance and rechristen the restaurant so as not to allude to its hotel location. Done. The second part, actually getting people through the door, was the hard bit. Step forward Martin Gimenez-Castro. Present in Poland for a number of years, this Argentinean chef hit headlines in 2013 when he emerged as victor from the first series of the TV show Top Chef. With Salto opened a month or so after, there was already a buzz from the very first moment.
Describing his style as ‘author’s cuisine’, his cooking seeks to present South American cooking in a contemporary way. As we begin our traipse through the tasting menu, this mission is clear from the amuse bouche: raw scallop carpaccio on a bed of ginger gel with cilantro fused seed oil. It is a clever opening salvo, but one outshone by the arrival of the starter: ceviche using Portuguese corvina. Served on a shadow box filled with sea salt, it’s light, fresh and given an extra little zing with a dash of habanero. “The best ceviche I’ve had outside of New York,” proclaims my partner.
Next, a leg of lamb that’s delicate and pink and all things good. It’s served with Martin’s customized chimichurri, not to mention sea salt that the chef personally brought back from the shores of Patagonia. Following it, a tranche of cavala mackerel that’s both dainty and juicy. I don’t usually do mackerel, but for this I’ll make an exception. And the fresh baby artichoke, pumpkin puree and creamy fish stock sauce prove the perfect pairing for it: simple but sophisticated. When you’ve lived in Poland for so long, it’s these tastes that you crave.
So far the presentation has been immaculate, but it ratchets up a notch when a palette cleanser of pear sorbet is served inside hand-blown sugar bulb. Cracking it like an egg, it’s a little difficult to eat: splotches of chocolate sand appear on the table, swiftly followed by shards of shattered sugar. Messy sure but no-one’s complaining.
All this leads to the New York steak: a hefty chop of US beef cooked medium rare with an expert char. Underneath, foie gras emulsion, and to the side a sweet potato puree and deep fried kale. Seen as a whole, this course is a hymn to the chef’s mastery of meat. But there is more to the chef’s oeuvre, and that becomes clear with the delivery of dessert. It’s unbelievable. Porcini mushroom ice cream and bison grass mousse served, believe it or not, in the shape of a mushroom. Oh gooey goodness, can this please never end.
Of course, the problem is that it does. That’s it, over, back to real life. But the tasting menu has been an emphatic win: well-balanced, creative, and strategically portioned. It has been a magnificent demonstration of passion and personality. And most importantly, it’s been bloody brilliant. (AW)