Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Krakow Food Review - Melange in less than a square mile

Krakow is an interesting city – it would have as many churches per capita as Varanasi has temples, but many more times as many pubs per capita as well! For hundreds of years it was Polish capital, not only political but spiritual and academic as well. And now, arguably, the hottest tourist destination for the young traveler in Eastern Europe. So, while many restaurants and cafes are housed in medieval buildings, many of them erstwhile subterranean wine cellars, the ‘food scene’ in Krakow is young creating a beautiful blend of old and new.
This blog is a review of some of my experiences eating from roadside kiosks, in upmarket restaurants and being treated to home-made specialties.

The most celebrated restaurant in Krakow is Wierznyk on the Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square). (http://www.wierzynek.com.pl/). The inauguration of this restaurant in 1364 was attended by royalty from across Europe. In more recent times, I was only following the footsteps of George Bush and Steven Spielberg to this restaurant. My dining experience would suggest that this is a great place for ceremonial occasions with with waiters and waintresses in traditional dresses, palace kind of ambience and good food.

I don’t claim to understand the nuisances of Polish cuisine, but if good Polish food is all that I am looking for, I would head to Pod Aniolami on Grodzka (www.podaniolami.pl/ ) which has some great grills. Duck, goose legs, pork chops, wild board steak and more. And if a pig-out is the agenda of the day head out to Chlopski Jadlo(www.chlopskiejadlo.pl/) and order the Peasant’s Bowl which has more meat than you would need for a rugby team. Pork, beef, chicken, potatoes, apples all on one wooded tray – don’t I look lost with all the food in front of me in accompanying photo (the Peasant’s Bowl seems to be their mascot occupying a place of prominence on their homepage as well). Vegetarians be warned that if three pots of salads kept in a corner isn’t you idea of a meal, then stay away from this place or eat the potato wedges and grilled apples hidden underneath all the meat.

Pod Krzyzykiem (www.podkrzyzykiem.com) - I think anyone who pronounce the name right, shoudl get his meal free. This place has a bit of a character, a bit of a poor man's Wierzynek. Food is good, service a bit cermonial and you can see a model of central krakow under your feet. It has an interesting model of the town center under a glass floor which is the first thing the waiter will show you before leading you to your table or, if in a large group, a very nice private dining area.

If number of restaurants are anything to go by, then Italian seems to be the most popular cuisine. Olive at the Sheraton with a near perfect seafood risotto and Da Pietro (www.dapietro.pl/) on Rynek Glowny with an interestingly presented garlic soup in a bread-bowl, represent the top-end. Our experience at Il calzone was good, with one of the very few places where you caught a waiter’s attention before losing patience. Tasty food along with a good service makes is amongst better dinning experiences. Maybe die-hard Neapolitan fans would find the thin crisp crust of Rome-type pizza not the ‘real thing’, but why to nitpick? Our experience with Trattoria Soprano (http://www.trattoriasoprano.pl/) was better than the one a Del Papa (http://www.delpapa.pl/) , but maybe because everyone in our group was already drooling over good-looking staff at Soprano. Aqua e Vino (http://www.aquaevino.pl/) , in my view is over-hyped, though could be a destination of choice for someone looking for a lounge with good Italian food to go with. The minimalist modern décor makes the ambience a bit a different compared to most restaurants in old-town which over-play their basement location with exposed brick walls, rugged wooden furtniture etc.

Krakow isn’t the place to try Indian food if you are neither Indian nor British. If you belong to either of these nationalities and cannot do without a curry fix, then you have two and a half choices. Bombaj Tandoori (http://www.bombaj-tandoori.com.pl/) in Kazimierz has taken ‘adaptation’ a bit too far, and most dishes are bereft of spices, and very bland even for a chilli-phobic person like me. Padre serves both Italian and Indian food, and hence makes the half of my two and a half. Good samosas, tasty chhole, tawa (griddle)-parathas are the highlights. But it doesn’t have a tandoor so you cant have the kebabs or naan. The best bet in town for Indian food is Indus Tandoori (http://www.indus.pl/) , owned and managed by an Indian with Indian chefs. Naans are a delight specially the garlic version. Kebabs, dal and curries are above average. Biriyani in all the restaurants in Krakow is a botched up curry-rice rather than the Awadhi or Hyderabadi dum-biriyani which is the gold standard in Biriyanis.

Some other ecelectic experiences include a nice ambience and good food at Ipanema (http://www.ipanema.pl/), a Brazilian restaurant – don’t ask me if it is authentic or now, as I have no idea! Gruzinskie Chaczapuri (http://www.chaczapuri.pl/ ) is a chain of Georgian restaurants around the town center, with ordinary food albeit with large helpings which is a double-whammy for some and saving grace for others. Rooster (http://www.rooster.pl/) is a restaurant chain more famous for its skimpily clad waitresses than its food. This being a family blog, we don’t have any photographs here! But don’t be stupid and opt for seats on the terrace as we did, as you will find the waitresses wearing jeans due to the strong breeze across the open terrace and the food having turned as cold as the waitresses. Though not a bad place for sandwiches, burgers and fries. Piano Rouge (http://www.thepianorouge.com/) is a Jazz Club and restaurant with live music and an option to book a table in a small secluded concert area. Good Italian food rounds up the offering.

But the most amazing experience I have had is eating Oscypek (smoked ewe’s milk cheese from the mountains) sold grilled at some stalls on the Rynek or in the shape of moulded cylinders in subways and some other places around town center. Buy it, slice it, grill it on a pan and enjoy it along with Zurawina (a cranberry preserve). A close second would be the cookies from some of the cukernias, like Cukiernia Michalscy on Slawkoska St., the sandwich varieties with either jam, chocolate or cream between two cookies more popular among kids. In the same tradition of baking, I would put the variety and quality of all breads. For an Indian used to only two types of bread - white and, if lucky, brown -, even after six months, I get confused about what to buy.

Not to forget some really good Lody (ice cream shops and cafes) and famous chocolate cafe named Wedel's. For those with sweet tooth, and if you are as lucky as I am, you would get to taste home-made desserts like the yoghurt-jelly dessert shown. This has a yoghurt base with peaches in jelly top – the one in the photograph was made by Renata, a colleague of mine who loves to bake and treat (and we are blessed for it!) as do her mom and grandmom. Another interesting cake I came across was custard filling in center. I have beed treated to a different type of cake / dessert every single day for the last working week preceding Christmas – poppy seed compote rolls to marble cakes and more. While you can go to many of these restaurants during a weekend trip, you would need to make some Polish friends to experience all this hospitality!

Egypt Foodlogue - All the Conquerers on a Platter

In more than 2000 years since Christ, Egypt has been under foreign occupation for all but last fifty odd years. If you include Alexander’s occupation, then this period of foreign occupation started much before Christ, continued through Roman, Arab, Turkish and British occupation. Now with this as history, it isn’t surprising that there isn’t much of a ‘cuisine’ that Egypt can call exclusively its own. Most of the popular dishes in Egypt would be claimed by Turkish or Lebanese as theirs in origin. Still what makes Egyptian food, rather food in Egypt, interesting is the uniqueness of the eateries, people who sell/serve the food and those who eat it. This is the criteria I used to list some of the gastronomic experiences from my trip to Egypt.

Fuul, mashed fava beans, and Tamaiyya, fried fava beans popular elsewhere as falafel, are standard fare. While the whole world is familiar with falafel and fuul is isn’t very exciting unless you have grown up with it, Koshary is a popular street food which would make luxury traveller forget five-star dinning and help the backpacker save precious bucks. Rice, pasta, lentils, tomato sauce and crispy fried onions are all tossed together in a bowl and your only choice is how much you want to spend. The way the Koshary man scoops each ingredient from the pots in front of him and tosses them in a bowl, reminds of the bhelpuriwalas back home. And it’s a greater sense of déjà vu’ when each customer has his own instructions for the amount of spicy tomato-chilli sauce that needs to go in. It’s a filling meal which even at the most popular Koshary in Cairo, Al Omda (6 Al-Gazaer St., Mohandessin), cost you anywhere between twenty to thirty rupees.

Other than Koshary what caught my attention the most was Fiteer, called the Egyptian Pizza, but more like a layered pastry. While there are savoury versions also, the sweet ones are absolutely mouth-watering like the one proudly displayed in the snap by this Big-B fan pizza boy standing beside his ingredients – desiccated coconut, cherries, roasted nuts, castor sugar. While my wife and year-old kid were getting irritated waiting for this pizza as a van fumigating the area had just passed by, this lovely guy insisted on placing each cherry at the right place and carefully pouring honey on top along some geometrical outline. I wish I loved my job as much! If you are in Aswan, don’t miss out on fiteer at Biti Pizza (Midan el-Mahatta) just outside the station.

While people go to Al Omda for Koshary or Biti for Fiteer, they go to Fishawy (off Midan Hussein, Khan el-Khalili) just for the heck of it. As queer in character as the 14th century market, Khan el-khalili, where it is located, people say Fishway has been open 24*7 for last 200 years. Maybe some of our BPOs concerned about ‘Business Continuity’ should check this place out! Patricia Schultz, author of the fascinating 1,000 Places to See Before You Die , lists this as one of the three places you should eat at before you die. It’s a bit like a Parisian café, where you see life in all its facets over a cup of coffee. But what you wont get in Paris is salesmen, saleswomen and saleskids selling you pyramid souvenirs, leather belts, hunters et al while you sip your ahwa (coffee) or shai (tea) or smoke your sheesha (a bit like hooka in India).

Naghuib Mahfouz Café’, in the same market, is everything that Fishway is not, but still an experience not to be missed. Managed by the Oberoi group, and Egyptian Nobel laureate Naghuib Mahfouz (he is to Egypt what Tagore is to Bengal) as the theme of the décor, it is distinctly upmarket. While many western tourists visit this place as they have been advised by the Lonely Planet guide that this is the only place in Khan el-khalili with clean loos, it is serves a variety of middle-eastern dishes like the Lebanese Arayes (grilled pitta stuffed with mince, tomato, onions). I would also recommend a visitor to try the bread basked with dips of choice (featured here is babaghanough, a roast aubergine dip, but you can also get labneh, a yoghurt cheese, or houmous).

Lobster sized prawns, fresh from a lake a few miles away, grilled in front of your eyes – if this doesn’t make you salivate nothing will. With an area of 5,250 sq. km, Lake Nasser created as a result of the Aswan Dam is the world’s largest man-made lake. Located a few miles away in Aswan is Chef Khalili (Sharia as-souq), a fish restaurant which has made the most of this water body. Its sells fish and shellfish by the kilo and what makes the experience unbeatable is that you taste the freshness unadulterated by excess seasoning or cooking. It is either grilled on a stone-grill, as the chef grills a kg of jumbo prawns in picture, or a oven/grill as was the squids I had.

A dinner at The Pharaohs (138 ,El Nile St. – Giza), another Oberoi run upmarket restaurant, is also worth the money essentially because it is a barge on the Nile and you can feel the nip in breeze from the river as the barge sways a bit. You can also dine in one of their cruise restaurants which anchor along the same barge.

I could not try the Nubean cuisine in upper Egypt, something I certainly regret. Having lost land to Lake Nasser and identity to Egypt’s complete identification with the Arab world, Nubeans do not have many restaurants which patronise their cuisine. I had a chance to enjoy their rustic yet soulful music during a felucca (type of yachts on the Nile) sail, was imagining how earthy yet tasteful must their food be.