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!

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