Na Zdrowie, which means 'cheers' in Polish, is a specialist theme bar tucked away on a little rat-run of a road somewhere between the corner of High Holborn and Kingsway. It's the kind of place that is a Mecca to alcohol enthusiasts and it's an adventure even getting there. Once you do, though, a vodka heaven awaits.
Yes, as one would expect from a Polish bar, the house speciality is vodka. The menu begins with plain varieties made from the distilled juices of either rye or potatoes. Vodka is often thought to be flavourless but when these are tasted side by side you can just about detect subtle differences. Taste one and it's a little more toasted than another. The next is perhaps characterized by a hot finish. However, going to Na Zdrowie for a vodka tasting is an experience perhaps best reserved for hen nights and alcoholic birthday celebrations, as the vodkas range in strength from a sedate 18% to a mind-blowing 50%.
The menu is awesome and the first conundrum to face punters is the decision about how to tackle the vast list. After the plain styles come the flavoured ones, ranging in taste and aroma from rose petal to kosher plum flavour. The bar also stocks a plain kosher vodka and an orange one, too. If you pick a vodka from the menu at random you'll find that each one has a fantastic name with alarmingly few vowels. To name but a few:
- Zlota Woda - vodka flecked with gold leaf, infused with aniseed and herbs
- Czarna Porzeczka - sweet blackcurrant vodka
- Mysliwska - vodka flavoured with juniper berries
- Neibieskie Migdaly - blue almond vodka
- Jarzebiak - rowanberry flavoured vodka
Purists might recoil in horror at the thought of fusing these delicious alcoholic cordials with mixers, but the bar staff won't blink if you ask for a vodka and coke. They'll even make combination suggestions. The idea for one of them, Szarlotka - a word meaning apple and cinnamon cake - was exported from Poland and took the rocket and balsamic vinegar generation by storm. Made from Zubrowka (vodka infused with a single bison grass stalk) and apple juice, trendy urbanites are still lapping it up and serving it in their retro lofts in Clapham.
Not that that's any indication of the kind of person who drops into the bar. Oh no. Anyone is welcome and a very wide mix of people arrive on any given evening. The interior may appeal to slingbacked-party girls who've lost their way to Soho, but the menu makes the bar attractive to connoisseurs and anyone who's looking for an individual experience: men in suits, the sons and daughters of the Polish diaspora, year-or-two-in-the-UK Antipodeans. Anyone really.
If vodka's really not your thing, then the bar is still worth a visit. There's plenty of other things to try, including sliwowica, a kind of plum brandy, and tea rum, a strong beverage traditionally served with a pot of black tea. There's also a selection of Polish beers, the ubiquitous house red and white wines and lager on tap.
Having tried some of the best tipples the bar has to offer, you might feel in need of something comforting to soak up excess alcohol. Poland is not famed for its cuisine, held back in part from the Communists' tendency to concentrate production and money on defence and space technology, rather than on non-essential consumer goods such as food. Fortunately, many Polish citizens were simply a friend or relation away from a farm, so much of Polish food has, until recently, been of the rib-sticking, woodland variety, and it's this traditional home cooking that's on offer at Na Zdrowie, where you'll find these winter-warming dishes:
- Bigos - a stew of sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, mixed meats and seasonings
- Kielbasa - Polish sausage served with fried onions and mustard
- Barszcz Czerwony - clear beetroot soup with uszka little cabbage and mushroom-filled dumplings
It seems like a series of accidents are responsible for the bar's existence. Not only is it tucked well away, but proprietor John Clark hails from Sydney originally and he certainly didn't arrive via Poland. He even confesses that he's actually never been there. John was inspired to open the bar by the kind of international friends one acquires as an expat. Among them was a group of Poles, who together with John bemoaned the fact that there was nowhere decent to try Polish food and vodka in a casual environment in London. There's Ognisko Polskie, of course, on Exhibition Road, famous for the fact it was where the Polish government in exile would meet during, and after, the Second World War, but its dining area somewhat resembles the breakfast room of a beige-wallpapered bed and breakfast, and it's a bit, well, sombre. Not the kind of atmosphere that young and trendy urban Londonites find conducive to downing shot after shot of vodka of an evening.
If it's fate you're into then the stars which are responsible for travel appear to be conspiring against John. When asked if he'll manage to get to his adopted nation anytime soon, he smiles, 'Well, now I've got the bar I don't have any time for anything else'.
He seems a busy man, and a happy one.
All the Info
- Address: 11 Little Turnstile, Holborn, London, WC1V 7DX
- Opening hours: 12pm - 11pm Monday to Friday, 6pm - 11pm on Saturdays, closed on Sundays.
- How to get there by bus or train: From Holborn Underground Station: turn left out of the station. Take the first left down Gate Street, turn left at the end and go into Little Turnstile, the bar can be found on the right.
- GPS: N51:31:01 W0:07:03