Saturday, 7 January 2017

Restaurant Review: Baba Yaga, Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne

I have a half-arsed theory about why, despite there being getting on for a million Poles living in these isles (Polish is now, having overtaken Indian, the most common non-UK nation of birth for people living in Blighty) our streets are heaving with skleps, but you see scarcely any Polish restaurants about. Polish cooking is, according to my limited but not insignificant experience, best suited to the home; its canonical dishes are full of comfort and slow-cooked warmth. If one of the attractions of eating out is getting to try stuff you wouldn't bother to do yourself, there's not much sense in going out for the same food your babcia taught you to make.

That said, for those of you for whom the delights of bigos and gołębie are unfamiliar, Newcastle does have one Polish restaurant, and I'm here to tell you it's a cracker. It's also just a short stagger up the hill from our house, and by some distance the best - the only? - restaurant within a walk from our front door worth sitting down at. We've been a bunch of times and tried a good deal of the menu, so let me tell you what some of their best dishes are in order that, if you aren't already, you can get properly acquainted with this most hearty of cuisines.

Bigos is probably the national dish of Poland, even cropping up in the epic poem Pan Tadeusz. It's basically a slow braise of both fresh and fermented cabbage, given body and depth by the addition of dried mushrooms and various cuts of pork (hence it often being referred to as hunter's stew). If you're interested, I posted a recipe for it here. Baba Yaga's version is delicious, full of the sweet and tangy depth that it ought to have, if perhaps a little light on meaty bits. It's churlish, however, to complain when they're only charging £2.50 for a bowlful which arrives with lovely dark bread, easily feeding two as a starter.

Boiled and fried pierogi
The other must-order is pierogi, frilly crimped half-moons of dumplingy goodness. You can get a couple of fillings, but we always get them Russian-style, which means potato and cheese innards for extra stodge. You can get them either boiled as they come, or boiled and then fried in butter til crisp. Or, if neither you nor your companion can win the argument over which is better, half and half. On our last visit these were bang-on. Doughy, hearty and soothing, with a tangy sour cream dip to lighten things up just a bit.

A word also for the Oscypek grilled cheese which will be popular with anyone who likes the squeak of halloumi, but comes with a deliciously smoky edge. It's served with a slice of grilled apple, and a cranberry sauce which, between them, provide a welcome backdrop of fruity tang for all that rich smokiness.

By this point we're usually regretting, in the face of laughably vast "starter" portions, that we've ordered main courses too. I suppose when you've got Russia on one side and Germany on the other, each threatening to smite you out of existence at various times, you need to be well nourished in preparation for any ensuing shenanigans. The placki (pronounced plats-ski) they serve at Baba Yaga are absolute bangers. They're basically huge potato rösti, fried til crisp in butter and then used as the "bread" in a pork stew sandwich. So good. I think the pork stew might have had a waft of juniper in it last time round, which gave the whole thing a pleasant lift. I also appreciated the three cheffy dots of balsamic stuff, and tangle of carrots. Just because  the food you're serving is hearty and homely doesn't mean things can't look nice!

Chicken livers
They also do a fine dish of chicken livers, fried in butter (natch) until they're blushing just slightly at their core. These are served with cooked apple and onions. I really like this meat/fruit combination that crops up in a number of Polish dishes. It feels a bit medieval or something.

We've managed dessert once and it wasn't that flash, some sort of pancake with sweetened quark. If you get to the end of two courses here and feel like you need more food then you should probs see your GP because something ain't right with you.

Baba Yaga means "Old Witch" in Polish and Slavic folklore, hence a liberal smattering of Halloween-type vibe around the place. Mostly, though, it's a rather choice set-up of vintage furniture, dark wood, exposed brick and flea-market knick-knacks. I'm not completely sure why they've hung a bunch of chairs from the roof. Maybe they just had too many.

This is a cracking restaurant run by lovely people. The food is ridiculously good value - we've never managed to spend more than about £15-20 per head, including booze - and the type of thing that sticks perfectly to the ribs in these dark days. If you're familiar with Polish food, you'll recognise a lot of the menu and I reckon you'll love it. If you're not, but appreciated hearty portions of homely cooking, even when it's not your own home, you'll love it too.


Baba Yaga
70 Adelaide Terrace
Newcastle upon Tyne


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