Krakow's culinary scene has come a long way from the stodge-filled, carb-laden grub of a Poland emerging from the shackles of communism. In the last few years the southern Polish city has placed itself on the gastronomic map, ushering in a new breed of restaurants that play up creativity, seasonal flavours and quality ingredients. From retro restaurants with junk-shop charm in the boho-cool Kazimierz quarter to fine dining and vodka tasting at a woodland manor house – Krakow is finally ready to be feted for its food.
Eating in the Old Town
Observing the crowds milling around the arcades and the Gothic St Mary's Church, you would be forgiven for thinking that Rynek Główny, Europe's largest medieval square, is a culinary tourist trap. Yet overlooking all the action is Wesele, a wonderfully cosy, country-cottage style restaurant. It dishes up authentic Polish cuisine with an international twist, along the lines of beef stroganoff with chanterelle mushrooms served in a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough bread, and saddle of roe deer marinated in red wine and served with blueberry jelly.
Also in the Unesco World Heritage-listed historic centre is old-school Kogel Mogel, where a red velvet curtain swings open to reveal intimate, wood-panelled dining rooms lit with candles and strung with heart-shaped wreaths. The menu is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the communist era, with dishes such as “Revolutionary Herring” with tart apple and pickles and “Red Soldat” rabbit in a creamy dill sauce. A “Tractor Girl” pavlova with hot cherries and kogel mogel (Polish eggnog) end a hearty meal nicely.
A breath of fresh air on Krakow's nascent fine dining scene is Ancora, a vision of crisp, pared-down sophistication that opened in 2007. Celebrity chef Adam Chrząstowski prepares fusion cuisine that sings of the seasons with a razor-sharp eye for detail. Starters such as herring marinated in boletus mushrooms served with rye pancake and apple salad are followed, for instance, by a palate-awakening cucumber sorbet spiked with bison grass vodka and mains including slow-cooked lamb saddle with Provençal herbs and buckwheat.
There has been much talk of late about Gessler we Francuskim, too, run by TV chef Adam Gessler since 2011, where bare plaster walls give an urban edge to an otherwise grand, high-ceilinged setting, with dark wood wainscotting, crisp white linen tablecloths and brass light fittings. White-jacketed waiters serve well-executed Polish classics such as wild boar pate and pork knuckles with cabbage to the table, and the three-course express lunch is a snip at 20 Polish zloty.
On the southern fringes of the Old Town, close to the hilltop Wawel Castle complex which dates to the mid- 11th Century but was rebuilt in Renaissance times, is homely, family-run Pod Baranem. Here, locals gather below wooden beams and lanterns to devour Polish food that makes the most of seasonal produce; try the roast venison with porcini mushrooms and moist piernik (gingerbread) served with cherry vodka.
One of the first phrases visitors to this hospitable city learn is na zdorowie (cheers), and no evening is complete without a vodka nightcap. The vaulted Wodka Cafe Bar, just east of Rynek Główny, stocks 100 different varieties including hazelnut, quince, pear, peach, mint and grapefruit flavours alongside traditional favourite Żubrówka bison grass vodka, which is a dry, herb-flavoured vodka distilled from rye.
Krakow is rightfully dubbed a ciasto miasto (cake city). One of the finest places to indulge your sweet tooth is in the bohemian surrounds of Jama Michalika in Krakow’s Old Town, where curved lines, polished wood, stained glass and oil paintings take you back to the glamorous Art Nouveau age. Soft lighting creates an inviting glow in this coffee house, which opened its doors in 1905 and was once home to the Zielony Balonik (the Green Balloon), a literary cabaret founded by Krakow poets, writers and artists who performed regularly until 1912. Today locals and visitors pour in for coffee with whipped cream and a piece of decadent hazelnut tart, chocolate cake or cheesecake – all served with a dollop of nostalgia.
In contrast to such old-world grandeur is the contemporary Cupcake Corner, 650m south of Jama Michalike. Bringing a slice of the US to Poland, it cafe serves freshly baked cupcakes in flavours like vanilla latte, blueberry cream, and caramel apple with fair-trade coffee.