Beyond the borscht: the best Eastern European restaurants in London

Rob Crossan

8 July 2021

Where to find Eastern European cuisine fit for a czar in London – from extravagant Russian restaurants and vodka bars to a newly-opened Hungarian bolthole 

8 July 2021 | Rob Crossan

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here’s nothing wrong with a steaming bowl of goulash or a breadboard piled high with smoked sausage and pickles, of course. Until recently, however, any attempts at finding Eastern European cuisine in London usually resulted in unearthing a dining scene that makes the menu of an Angus Steakhouse seem dynamic and innovative. They might delight a Soviet secretariat but do little to win over anybody who hails from beyond the reaches of the Stasi. Found in the unfashionable nooks of zone three, many feature waiters older than Putin’s grandfather, with identical, laminated menus and a crowd largely made up of tipsy ex-pats dreaming of their mama's vinaigrette.

But, strangely, just as it has become more difficult than ever for ambitious and talented chefs and hospitality workers from beyond the former Iron Curtain to live and work in the UK, there’s a spate of movers and shakers who are pushing this niche corner of London’s dining universe a little further away from kitsch nostalgia and a notch further towards mainstream recognition.

Ognisko, South Kensington 

Founded way back in 1940 as the Polish Hearth Club, a place of exile for Poles in London during the war, Ognisko has been given a much-needed facelift to reveal its grand cornices and pillars on a part of Exhibition Road that exudes that melancholy air of old money gone stale and Patrick Hamilton characters cursing their misfortunes at the betting shop. The menu here doesn’t pander to Brits – you’re thrown right in the deep end of the Polish cooking pot. There’s a crisp and formal modernity to the dishes, which range from a full-frontal fatty pizazz to the ‘trzski’ (pork crackling with apple and horseradish), as well as the unabashedly robustness and perfectly executed ‘krolik’ – rabbit braised in cider with sauerkraut, spring onions and dumplings. The vodka list is, of course, overwhelming. It’s all ideal for pandering at your leisure in the first Polish restaurant in London to embrace 21st-century aesthetics while also gently trimming the fattiest and most stodgy extremities of Polish culinary tradition.

55 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2PG, ogniskorestaurant.co.uk

Mari Vanna, Knightsbridge 

Entering Mari Vanna is akin to stepping inside a maximalist, human-sized Russian doll’s house, stuffed full of chandeliers, kitsch curios, ornate mirrors and photographs. Popular with the neighbourhood’s local oligarchs and reportedly once Roman Abramovich’s favourite place to eat, this Russian fantasy restaurant serves plates piled high with pelmeni dumplings, stroganoff and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). With outposts in St Petersburg, Moscow and New York, there really is nowhere in London quite like it.

Wellington Court, 116 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7PJ, marivanadeli.co.uk

German Gymnasium Grand Café, Kings Cross 

Stonewashed denim, the Scorpions and a European bromance fuelled by strong lager and cheap cigarette lighters all seems a long time ago. Mainly because it was. But fast forward three decades from when the Wall came down and there’s no doubting that for many citizens in rural Saxony, there is still very much an East and West Germany. Hence the inclusion of this D&D-owned attempt to match the ‘mitteleuropa’ café vibe of The Wolseley, but in Kings Cross. The hammer-beamed roof, Teutonic dimensions and a menu terse in prose yet with promises of calorific satisfaction all conspire to create a vibe far away from hipster Berlin but redolent of Leipzig in full bonhomie. The addition of vegan schnitzel and an almost heartbreakingly lovely ‘schupnudein’ – hand-rolled potato noodles with caloric puree, wild mushrooms and a dash of black truffle – demonstrates that, unlike much of the former GDR, this restaurant realises that boiling and beating things to within an inch of their lives is fine for political dissidents, but no way to treat fresh vegetables.

1 King's Boulevard, London N1C 4BU, germangymnasium.com

Turul Project, Turnpike Lane 

In an Art Deco-era, former greasy spoon, which overlooks Turnpike Lane bus station, lies this brand-new paean to the joys of the Hungarian larder but without the concomitant heavy carpets and gents cigar club vibe of the late Gay Hussar – the original destination for Magyar dining in London. Here, the décor is more Scandi architect's office than Budapest bordello with a menu that serves up technically accomplished dishes of superb vitality at knock-down prices. The leci (pronounced ‘lecho’) is a fiery paprika and tomato stew, here delicately finessed and persuaded into a pale and transcendently fresh pepper and the wine list is, commendably, an almost entirely Hungarian selection of varietals hailing mainly from Balaton and Tojak and Ejer regions; the Nobilis Organic Furmint has a particularly dreamy and dry, sun-tickled tingle.

1 Turnpike Parade, London N15 3LA, turulproject.com

Bob Bob Cite, The City

This is a restaurant that has never been within a thousand miles of a wheatfield or a peasant dressmaker's store. Bob Bob Cite is the sister of Soho dining spot Bob Bob Ricard, an eye-winking celebration of the ‘new’ Russia of Pelevin novels and Gucci-wearing potentates. Yes, there really is a ‘press for Champagne' button at the tables (which actually works) and the menu is a hugely enjoyable romp through the sybaritic end of the contemporary Russian menu; don’t miss the ‘Rasputin’ oysters, deep-fried and slathered black truffle and parmesan.

Level 3, 122 Leadenhall Street, London EC3V 4AB, bobbobricard.com

Zima, Soho

The ‘ryumochnaya’ (vodka bar) area at this Frith Street restaurant is supposed to resemble an authentic Russian vodka bar. Of course, it doesn’t at all. Because nobody in their right mind would ever want to go to the type of bar you’d find on the high street of Ulan Ude or Kaliningrad; they are spectacularly bleak. But, romanticised as it may be, this Russian street food specialist (the creation of Alexsi Zimin – a kind of Russian Marco Pierre White) serves up sharing plates with all the zing and wit of a Chekovian punchline. The wooden bench seating isn’t inductive to a lengthy stay (and that’s probably the point) but the vodka selection is vast enough to sate any initial irritation. The menu serves classics from the Bering Straits to the Baltic in sharper, more insistent flavours than the quantity-over-quality approach you often find in St. Petersburg and Moscow. And if you’ve only got time (or inclination) for one dish to soak up the vodka, plump for its take on a classic borscht (beetroot soup). It comes with mushroom cream resting votively on the surface, and chubby hunks of pork belly underneath. 

45 Frith Street, London W1D 4SD, zima.restaurant