The last couple of years have seen Powiśle edge out Zbawiciela as Warsaw’s hipster heart. This year, however, I get a feeling that the district is set to mature and evolve a little further, becoming something of a rookery not for pop-up bars and private fashion houses, but as a genuine testing ground for upcoming chefs and culinary trends. More than that, I think we’ll see Powiśle transform into a legitimate gastronomic destination – not just a lab for those out of catering college. The recent emergence of places like Le Bistro Rozbrat certainly suggests so. Yet long before others caught on, there was already something special in the air: Solec 44.
Now I’m loathe to call Solec 44 a restaurant, quite simply because it’s not so easily defined. Approaching it, shuffling and sloshing ankle deep in snow, sleet and slush, you mistake it for a Stalinist interrogation facility; its concrete form looms out of the murk with a vague threat of menace. But as many already know, Solec 44 is actually something else: behold, the very cradle of local casual dining…
The Place: from the outside, Solec is a depressing piece of Soviet concrete. Inside, you don’t get the sense of a restaurant, more of a communal hangout: scuffed white corridors adorned with art, racks of board games and lots of clackety, clattering sounds as people stamp and screech over the parquet. This is as causal as it gets. Think of it as a hip community center that just happens to have a top-class kitchen.
The Crowd: in spite of its associations with Powiśle, it’s wrong to pigeon hole Solec 44 as some self-important hipster lair. While the spirit is undeniably young, arty and alternative, you get all kinds here which is a reflection not just on the atmosphere, but the food itself – we’ve seen celebrated chef Robert Trzópek in here. As an endorsement, it doesn’t get that much better.
The Chef: is Aleksander Baron – a maverick if ever there was one, this self-confessed former bad boy graffiti artist is one of the bigger culinary characters to be found in Poland. When he’s not in the kitchen he’s out front, sharing a beer with diners and friends – such is his charisma, the line between the two is often quite blurred. You need meet him only once, and from then on you’ll be received like a mate.
The Menu: it’s on the blackboard. Baron is a big proponent of serving only strictly what’s fresh. As such, there’s something ad hoc and temperamental about his menu: dishes get scratched off, others chalked up, sometimes by the hour. If in doubt, their facebook does a good job of letting you know what’s on and when.
The Food: as banal as it sounds, there’s something for everyone. But Baron particularly excels as an authority on meat, with offal his self-declared specialty. I was there last week, and chose veal tongue: it sounds like something for cavemen, but the result was anything but – a sophisticated dish of tender meat served on a bed of burned red cabbage with Pastis cream. Glorious. On the other side of the table, my companion worked his way through bone marrow served with oat and pepper crumble. With Warsaw looking like a bad day at Stalingrad, this was just what was needed. There’s a general stress on organic produce, so even if your tastes are a little less macho, you’re guaranteed both goodness and greatness in equal measure.
The Drinks: people utilize Solec for many purposes – some for food, others as a more general hangout. Appropriately, drinks play a big part of their offer: from bio wine, to non-filtered beers, via non-alcoholic jobs made with seasonal fruit and veg.
The Prices: moderate. Thick, warming winter broths go from around zł. 12-20; starters, again, have a ceiling of about zł. 20. For mains, zł. 30 gets you the majority of the menu, though more premium mains sometimes hit zł. 70.
The Verdict: Baron’s strength lies in creating honest food that tastes very good – often, sensational. This is not a chef bowed and pre-occupied by market trends; he was preaching about the value of ‘natural’ long before others jumped on the bandwagon of farmers markets and private suppliers. The sincerity in the cooking is palpable, and this translates into some cracking food.
(Words & Photos: Alex Webber)
Solec 44 ul. Solec 44, facebook