If there’s one cuisine guaranteed to fill me with nostalgia, it’s Chinese. Growing up in early 90s Bristol, nothing screamed Friday night more than a furtive evening of underage spending in the pub followed by a late night Chinese. Left to our own devices, I’m certain that the food would have been calamitous, but under the guidance of my best mate, a lad who dubbed himself The Wong, my friends and I dined like little emperors in shady backrooms filled with lively Chinese chatter and twangy oriental tunes. With the ordering left to him, we’d gulp our lagers while subservient waiters delivered plate after plate of enigmatic offerings that were all dazzle and fire. Bearing in mind most of us thought of Pizza Hut as the apex of Italian dining, an evening in the local Chinese represented the very height of exotic good living.
My love affair with this cuisine continued well into my early twenties, only to be abruptly cut short when I made the switch to Poland. All of a sudden I found the strange, wonderful dishes I’d become accustomed to swapped for frozen bits of cartilage congealed under luminous, thick ooze. There were, of course, some decent experiences, but these were minor triumphs on a battlefield of hate. The magic had passed. My apologies for this introductory waffle, but I say all this for a reason, that being my sentiments are in no way unique. Of all the ethnic cuisines that have been transplanted to Poland, it is that of China that has probably been most prominent in its failings. That is until now…
Opened a month back, Pańska 85 have rewritten local culinary history with their treatment of Chinese. What you need to know, is this is like nothing Warsaw has seen before. This is apparent even before you get near the food. As a venue, it instantly elicits awe: ample in size, the interiors speak of money well spent. This is especially true because despite the luxury trimmings (e.g., Veuve Clicquot cushions, a grand spanking piano and top dollar bottles), Pańska looks good without ever losing its dignity. More importantly, it’s a massive step forward compared to the Chinese restaurants of yore – remember them, with their red and black lanterns and needless glitter? Actually, you don’t even have to flex the memory, for even today most Chinese restaurants out here look like a relic from the age of Bruce Lee.
Through its interior alone, Pańska represents change. In fairness though, anyone with a decent budget and a good team can get the design right. Harder to do is the food itself but Pańska tick that box as well. With their kitchen staff headhunted from across China, the food sets a new standard that has yet to be seen in any Chinese restaurant in Warsaw. Having perused the iPad menu, dishes soon arrive wave after wave: for starters there are delicate salmon rolls wrapped in mango; an elaborate stack of apple and celery salad that pings with clean, fresh tastes; and a spiraling tower of thinly sliced beef cheeks. Even the simple sounding steamed vegetables are a victory, served as they are with an addictive peanut sauce.
The real fanfare, however, is saved for the mains – Beijing Duck, carved and served tableside, comes with skin lacquered and shining. Wrapped in paper thin pancakes, the assembly process – which is left to diners – is in itself an extra bit of sticky fun. Between greedy bites of duck, chopsticks click and clash over bamboo baskets of dim sum: perfect in every respect, these pouches of goodness are attacked and devoured as if they’re the last meal on the earth.
But the banquet, for that’s what this is, is by no means over: the Sichuan-style pork is a blaze of sizzle and spice, while the wild boar in cumin an unlikely star. Ordered as something of an afterthought, it’s a dish of depth and strong wallops of flavor. Even dessert, something the Chinese aren’t necessarily celebrated for, is a success: sweet mung bean cakes; a trio of rainbow colored sorbets; and a fruit filled mochi with a fluffy marshmallow-style chew.
Pańska 85 is a sign of the times: where once mediocrity was enough to satisfy both locals and expats, today tastes have matured – palettes have developed and expectations increased. Good ingredients, authenticity and well-defined flavors have become key: with their sophisticated slant on Chinese food, Pańska 85 deliver all three. (AW)
ul. Pańska 85, panska85.com