Girlahead tastes the best vodkas in Warsaw

"It is seven years since I was last in Warsaw and not only was it high time for a return... but a tasting of vodkas got added to the agenda as well."

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It is seven years since I was last in Warsaw and not only was it high time for a return… but a tasting of vodkas got added to the agenda as well. First up was the Polish capital’s iconic hotel, The Bristol, now part of Luxury Collection. It was bought in 2012 by London-based lawyer, Jonathan Lourie, who also owns the gorgeous Norman, in Tel Aviv – and yes, this hotel oozes with similar, tender-loving care. The Bristol is heritage, built in 1901 for pianist Ignacy Paderewski,1860-1941 and his lawyer Stanislaw Roszkowski. Every detail of what is now a 202-room hotel seems to be controlled by conservation authorities.

The corner Café Bristol, for instance, is just as I imagine any proper café to have been – it has checkerboard floor tiles, hemispherical standing and chandelier lights, and tweenie-type servers in crisply-starched bibbed aprons. It serves coffee and cakes but – surprise, surprise – last year the best-selling Bristol sandwich was revamped. No longer are ingredients hidden between two thick slices of tasty wholegrain bread. Now, Polish cheeses and sausages, plus beetroot and pickled pear and greens are arrayed – pretty as a picture – Danish-style atop one slice. The other restaurant, the Marconi, is more elaborate, with lots of starched table linens and napkins.

Here, in Marconi, came the first vodka, Ostoya, made from wheat and not as sweet as its potato relations, apparently. It was served in a thimble-sized shot, as a great chaser and prelude to a Sicilian Nero d’Avola. My first night in town had to be Polish food, so I started with a superb whole Baltic matjes herring surrounded by delicate blobs of beetroot foam  – this preceded a hearty steak, described as ‘Polish aged bull entrecote’, which certainly provided energy and there was no space for plum pudding with suska sechlonska prunes. Breakfast was to prove another insight into Polish products and cuisine: a dedicated room off the main Marconi dining space must have had 200 or more items, including Polish crèpes with cottage cheese, stewed fruits, and dozens of cold cuts and cheese. I was quickly reminded that, without exception, coffee, and bread are first-class in Warsaw.

This luxury hotel’s elegant bedrooms include the unique Paderewski Suite, #211, with his music on the vinyls for the floor-standing His Master’s Voice gramophone. The suite also has a 1926-vintage sit-up-and-beg typewriter, a well-tuned Petrov grand piano – and views directly across Krakowskie Przedmiescie.

I must give praise to the hotel’s outstanding concierge, Michal Borowiak, who sensibly gives his direct contacts on the hotel’s local map. I have also not mentioned the superb sixth-floor gym, re-designed by a Jonathan Lourie favourite, David D’Almada of Sagrada, or the pop-up displays of local modern art arranged by the hotel’s number-two manager, Piotr Madej.  Now I have to return, to meet his boss, Roman Goetsch, sadly out of town during my too-short visit.

Soon there will be yet another vodka to try – Raffles Europejski Warsaw, opening this May, just across across Krakowskie Przedmiescie from the Bristol. Raffles will have its own special vodka blend. Chopin is creating a bespoke blend, with a hotel-specific label, apparently (this luxury hotel brand already has its own gin, produced by Suntory Beam-owned Sipsmith, who, as the gal has already recounted, bought it from its two creators, one a direct descendent of Sir Stamford Raffles). The big question is, of course, when exactly does Raffles open here in Warsaw? No exact date has been published but advance notice went out last week and, judging by a tour a few days ago, it could easily accept its first guests from 18 May 2018, one of the dates mentioned.

I was so lucky to be shown round. Soon, when you enter the main lobby you will be greeted by vertical floor-standing sculpture-lights, flickering like miniature Eiffel Towers. The three-floor building is an open square, around a courtyard that will have a conservatory restaurant surrounded by garden. Some of the inward-facing ground floor rooms will open into private garden-terraces, which should appeal to smokers. There are still reminders everywhere of the building’s history, which goes back to 1857, but see how original spaces have been brought into ageless modernity by skillful use of natural materials, predominantly Polish oak and the various-grey marble that lines most bathrooms. In some different, greys form mosaics of Warsaw’s Old Town skyline.

History is also shown in alcoves leading off upper corridors: each alcove is a reminder of a different stage of the hotel’s history, with suitable furniture. Obviously the present owners, who are led by a Swiss family are great admirers of Raffles Singapore, having worked closely with the designers, who are Barcelona-based Lazaro Rosa-Violan, of Studio Lazaro Rosa, and from Poland, WWAA, led by Marcin Mostafa and Natalia Paszkowska. It is all beautiful. The 88-seat all-day Europsiski Grill has, along its main wall, eight metre-wide blue on white show plates. A coat storage for people coming in from outside looks like a tall chest-of-drawers, but then a whole-half swings open to reveal the hanging rack.

Europejski was originally designed by Enrico Marconi for the Przezdziecki family, who still have a minority interest. During the years it has variously been a military academy and an Orbis hotel. It has never, however, had such glorious rooms as the Raffles Suite. I last saw GM Thomas Guss at Shangri-La in Abu Dhabi. Why move here, I asked? It was an opportunity he could not refuse and this will be one of the best hotels in Europe, he promises. There is a cigar lounge with 100-year-old carved ceiling, and a six-room spa which will use Polish-owned Sisley products, and yes, it will have a pool. And that vodka.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world.  Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

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