On the face of it, Baltic doesn't seem very appealing. Situated on Blackfriar's Road on the wrong side of Blackfriar's Bridge, it offers a wide range of Eastern European cuisine. For instance, several of the dishes on the menu are Polish. Now whatever else Poland may be famous for--stocky, well-built women, bleak winters--food isn't on the list. In Holidays in Hell, the American author PJ O'Rourke summed up Polish food as follows: "You could use the beef for tennis balls, the bread for hockey pucks and the mashed potatoes to make library paste. If you swallow any of the gravy, do not induce vomiting. Call a physician immediately."
It's a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Baltic is a chic, modern restaurant with a front-of-house scene to rival that of any New York singles bar. It would be going too far to describe it as fashionable--it's right next to Southwark tube station--but it's undoubtedly extremely cool. (It was designed by Seth Stein, the man who did the interior of Peter Mandelson's place in Notting Hill.) For the first time in my brief career as a restaurant critic I found myself thinking I might easily be the oldest person in the room. No one at the bar looked a day over 25 and of the 100 or so people sitting down for dinner only a handful were in their thirties. If I was on the pull, instead of a married man with a pregnant wife, I might well stick Baltic in my little black book.
Even more surprisingly, the food isn't half bad. I had no idea that the potato was such a versatile vegetable. Not being able to speak any Eastern European languages, I asked my Polish waiter to explain what some of the dishes were and, incredibly, every single one was made with some variant of mashed potato. If you think the chip butty is the last word in the inventive use of this vegetable, think again. What pasta is to the Italians, the potato is to the Eastern Europeans. The menu even included side orders of mash and chips--just in case you wanted potatoes with your potatoes. Baltic is like an extremely poshed-up version of Spud-U-Like.
I started with blinis and smoked salmon, followed by salted cod on a bed of crushed peas, both of which were pretty good. My companion asked our waiter to recommend something and he suggested "pierogi"--Eastern European dumplings filled with potato and cheese--followed by "golanka", a pork dish mercifully free of you know what. He was perfectly happy with both.
Of course, if you're going to be gorging yourself on starch, and you're surrounded by stocky, well-built women, it helps if you're completely off your face and this is where Baltic really comes into its own. Flavoured vodka shots are the Alcopops of London's young, affluent population and Baltic actually manufactures its own brand of these sticky drinks. Indeed, the restaurant's owner, Jan Woroniecki, claims to have introduced London to the concept of flavoured vodka shots 13 years ago when he started serving them at Wodka, Baltic's sister restaurant in Kensington. His preferred name for these backbone-stiffeners is "liquid cocaine".
In total, Baltic offers a range of 43 different vodkas, including Luksosowa--a Polish vodka made from...yes, you guessed it, potatoes. The barman proudly explained that "luksosowa" is the Polish word for luxury. I thought, "Jesus Christ! What would constitute a non-luxurious drink in that godforsaken country? Vodka made from dead bodies?" In spite of the barman's enthusiasm, I couldn't bring myself to try it.
In conclusion, I'd give Baltic two rather wobbly thumbs up. (Or is that four thumbs I see before me?) It might not be somewhere I'd take my wife--she's half Czech and never wants to see another potato dumpling in her life--but it's the perfect place to take a date. Just make sure you ply her with vodka shots at the bar beforehand.