Marbled with ash or stuffed with tofu, the pierogi created by Kraków’s brave new chefs are turning traditional Polish food on its head.
Sacred things are sometimes very simple, pierogi, for instance, Polish dumplings. They have been revered for centuries – not least for being so rich and greasy. Filled with pork or potatoes and cream cheese, the pale, crescent shaped dumplings sprinkled with fried onions arrive on your plate in a pool of melted butter. They’re available on almost every street corner in Kraków. But on Ulica Kanonicza, one of the oldest streets in the city, Michał Cienki has started a small revolution. At his new eatery Art Restaurant, which opened last year, he marbles dumplings with ash, fills them with aromatic goat cheese and serves them on lime-green chive olive oil topped with onions pickled in red beet vinegar and a delicate pea mousse. Cienki is only 27, but he has already received numerous awards for his innovative ideas.
“We give traditional food a new design,” says Cienki, a butcher’s son. His family has always loved to cook, but he’s the first professional chef. “We base everything on what my grandmother used to make,” he explains with a boyish smile, “but we cannot just repeat it.” Cienki has also redesigned the national Polish dish bigos, a sauerkraut and cabbage stew, by using venison fillet instead of the traditional meat scraps. This chef is reaching for the stars in a country where food is widely regarded as being bland and greasy and consisting of endless variations on meat and potatoes – and where the Michelin Guide has only awarded one star each to two restaurants, both of them in the capital, Warsaw. Michał Cienki would like to change this, saying: “I want to win the first star for Kraków!”
Communism collapsed before Cienki was born, so he never knew the strict regime under which restaurants used to operate. They had no say about what to serve or how to prepare it, and what one ate was not an individual decision. Those who rebelled against the culinary diktat were punished and the legacy of personalized recipes was lost. No wonder, then, that many Polish chefs so enthusiastically brought home the food they discovered in Italy and France once they were permitted to travel – opening pizzerias and bistros. But many have now rediscovered their own culinary tradition. Taste, quality and healthy eating are no longer contradictory terms in Poland’s second-largest city.
Three years ago, the restaurant Szara Gęś moved into a vaulted passageway on Rynek Glówny, the main square in the old town. Here, the appetizers include duck aspic with a sweet mustard cream and caraway pickles. The classic sour rye soup żurek is served with goose sausage and quail’s egg, and the baked leg of goose accompanied by red cabbage and truffle potatoes comes topped with oat chips. To round off the meal, there’s a Riesling wine from Srebrna Góra ten kilometers away. And last but not least: The European Academy of Gastronomy declared Kraków European Capital of Gastronomic Culture 2019. Related events have included a city-wide school cooking competition, a conference of European chefs and various restaurants creating menus that are a tribute to Poland’s culinary heritage.
This last development didn’t sit well with restaurateur Katarzyna Grüning, 47. “The city wants chefs to run to the library and dig up old cookbooks,” she says, “but are guests really interested in 200-year-old pierogi recipes? I don’t think so!” Many people consider her the enfant terrible of the restaurant scene. She wears her dark hair combed back; a black necklace contrasts with her white dress. The trained interior decorator has lived in Dubai and New York, travels widely and likes to eat in well-known Michelin-starred restaurants. Until two months ago, she and her restaurant Studio Qulinarne were competing with Michał Cienki for the city’s first Michelin star. “I brought black tablecloths and edible flowers to Kraków, as well as molecular cooking and the four-hands dinner” (multicourse meals prepared by two chefs). But it was all for nothing: “The Michelin tasters never stopped by!” Polish restaurant-goers weren’t easy, either. “At first, people were confused and wondered why the portions were so small.” Some even asked if the pigeons on the menu had come from the market square. But the real reason Grüning closed was because her lease was not renewed. She’s now eyeing an old factory in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, and also considering moving to Berlin.
Haute cuisine is still having a hard time establishing itself in Kraków. Oskar Zasuń, 28, worked as a chef at Studio Qulinarne. When he left, he couldn’t find a new job to his liking. So last summer, he and his wife Karolina opened the pastry shop Słodkości. Situated on a multi-lane road outside Kraków’s old town, it looks like a regular bakery from the outside. But inside, you find a candy-colored display of pastries and cakes that look like miniature works of art. There’s a pistachio cake in the form of a leaf, a round Sacher torte with an orange dome made of apricots and an almond cake in the shape of a red rose that Zasuń baked specially for Mother’s Day. “We don’t sell our pastries anywhere else,” he says, adding: “Everything is always gone within a day or two.” The chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast, the butter, cream and fruit are produced regionally.
“You can buy the best, most authentic food right here in Lesser Poland,” says Adam Chrząstowski. A chef with a philosophy degree, he worked in luxury hotels around the world until, one day, in China, he realized how much he missed Polish food. So he returned home, began managing a well-known Kraków restaurant in 2007, wrote a food column and appeared on TV, cooking only Polish food using regional ingredients. The 51-year-old (who primarily works as a consultant and vocational instructor these days), always finds these at the Stary Kleparz, the oldest market in the city, where bundles of asparagus stand upright in wooden crates, blueberries and apples are piled high and herbs and heads of lettuce proliferate in huge bunches. Some of the stalls sell suska sechlońska, the fire-dried prunes Chrząstowski uses to season his bigos stew; others sell the decorative, spindle-shaped smoked sheep’s cheese from the Tatra Mountains called oscypek. “Things like turnips, millet and organ meats used to be scorned as poor people’s food,” says Chrząstowski, “and today, beef heart is sold for about five Złoty a kilo – roughly 1.20 euros – as dog food. I’d like to show people that it can taste really good.”
For the increasing number of people who consciously avoid butter, cream and eggs (and eschew honey and meat) but don’t want to go hungry in Kraków, there’s also Veganic, which has joined a sushi place, a tattoo parlor, an electro club and a craft beer hall in the old Tytano cigar factory, a remnant from the days when people naturally enjoyed a smoke after their heavy meal. “At first, I was a afraid that a vegetarian or even vegan restaurant would not go down well here,” admits Veganic’s owner Iga Uniszewska, 52. But her concept has been well received. Inside, the front end of a car has been upholstered as a sofa, botanical drawings hang on the walls and the wallpaper is jungle themed. On the terrace, guests recline on painted green pallets or sit on flaking metal chairs with floral-patterned cushions. Comfortable they are not, but the menu and desert menu provide ample compensation, such as a basil, parsley root and lime parfait. Some people even come several times a week for the restaurant’s oyster mushroom risotto with pumpkin and vegan parmesan or Iga’s special pierogi: tofu dumplings served with roasted sweet potato. Krakow is ringing the changes: cześć and good-bye to pork and potatoes!
Out and about in Kraków
Enjoy a drink at the Forum Przestrzenie bar by the Vistula with a fine view of the castle.
Visit this website if you want to find out where top chefs go for food in Kraków.
The Rzeczy Same concept store sells polish design, like bedding with a forest floor pattern.
Jewelry designer Grzegorz Blazko makes rings that combine silver with colorful acrylic.
A remarkable ceiling painting adorns the lobby in the new Balthazar Design Hotel near the castle.
Start the day at the Hotel Stary in a pool beneath ancient arches that are more than 600 years old.
In August, Lufthansa is flying to Kraków (KRK) up to five times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to four times daily from Munich (MUC). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app