It may not exactly be the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks of gastronomy in Europe, but Poland, with its abundance of produce, and rich culinary traditions entrenched in East European history, throws up a pleasant surprise – or five – when it comes to food.
There is an ancient tradition in Poland of welcoming guests with bread and salt to show hospitality – the bread symbolises trust, and the salt, endurance. While this custom has been relegated to special occasions like weddings in the present day, the psychology of hospitality remains intact – albeit with culinary offerings slightly more varied than just bread! Although bread does feature heavily in any Polish menu, thanks to the abundant production of a variety of grains, so does a variety of fresh, seasonal produce, and high quality meats – it’s not without reason that Polish sausages are known around the world for their unique, subtly spiced flavours!
From the typically Slavic meat-based hearty heavy cuisine of the Middle Ages, to the scarcity-driven communist era frugality, when the Poles had to get inventive with their food, thanks to the rationing, the Polish culinary culture has evolved in a zigzag fashion rather than in a lateral direction to emerge as a fresh, new, sustainability-focused cuisine – with much more to its credit than Pierogi (the quintessentially Polish dumpling dish, stuffed with cheese, meat, vegetables or potatoes), and sausages.
In recent years, chefs and restaurants are drawing on their rich, French- and Italian-influenced culinary heritage, and reinterpreting them for the modern palate, to make for a foodie scene that is unmistakably exciting and vibrant.
And it all begins here in capital Warsaw. Prettier Krakow may well be the better known tourist destination – and let’s face it, grey, modern Warsaw, with its war-ravaged past doesn’t exactly impress with its predominantly Stalinist architecture – but it is the destination to head to, to find the urban sophistication, and cutting edge of trends in Poland, both culinary and otherwise.
In Warsaw, there is as much to see from a historical point of view as there is of contemporary culture. There’s no missing the legacy the Soviets left behind, whether it’s the Palace of Culture & Science – a dark, imposing structure dominating the city’s skyline that is sarcastically referred to as Stalin’s gift to Poland that no one wanted – the moving war memorial, or the bullet holes that are still evident in some of the historic doorways preserved in the since rebuilt Old Town.
The Old Town, along with the adjacent New Town – only called thus because it was the first settlement outside the medieval walled city that is the original Old Town, but with architecture that’s older than most of the rest of the city (confusing, I know!) is a good starting point, where most of the important historic landmarks, including the Town Hall and Royal Castle have been faithfully rebuilt in the 1980s to now be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The mainly pedestrian zone, set by the Vistula river, and dotted with squares and lined with cafes, shops and restaurants, is the ideal place to soak in the heritage of Warsaw from the middle ages right up to the 20th century. Alongside all the history, however, there’s an up and coming art and design scene in Poland as well, which is worth checking out, whether it’s fashion labels like Gocia Baszynka, whose edgy style is making waves across Europe, or places like Soho Factory, a complex of formerly dreary factories in the abandoned Praga district on the right bank, that have been revitalised to turn into an urban cultural district of galleries, boutiques, design and media studios. Soho Factory is also home to interesting restaurants, testament to the new energy being infused into the city’s dining scene.
To tap into this, steer away from the tourist traps of costume-wearing ‘traditional food-serving’ venues where you will find mediocre food, and make like the locals with our insider guide to the top five restaurants where you can truly enjoy contemporary Polish cuisine.
Rozbrat 20 Bistro & Restaurant
Tucked away in a quiet riverside suburb, this is a smart bistro typical of the new wave of modern European restaurants taking Warsaw by storm. Inside the intimate space, with black and white photos lining the walls and fresh flowers adding life and colour, the chef serves up a small, French-inspired menu featuring seasonal ingredients – think cream of white vegetable soup with potato foam, guinea fowl with mushrooms, and perch with asparagus. The highly lauded chef, who even has a chocolate fondant dessert named after Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry whom he’s friends with, successfully recreates the buzzing vibe of other European capitals with the perfect combination of exclusivity and good food. www.rozbrat20.pl.
Restauracja Dom Polski
Sure to be found on any list of must-visit restaurants in Warsaw, this family-run establishment which recreates the food and atmosphere of ‘Poland between the wars’ is the ideal place to get a taste of the traditional in a suitably homely setting. Located in a converted house in a wealthy residential district, with several small interconnecting rooms decorated with china cabinets, portraits on the walls, and dressers with memorabilia, and a lovely conservatory, the restaurant is cosy and inviting. The flavours of classic Polish cuisine is recreated in the menu – including family recipes handed down through the generations – with a slightly lighter, healthier twist, and using seasonal ingredients. Whether it’s a fermented rye flour soup with mushrooms, roast duck with fruit sauce, or their array of signature desserts which they are known for – don’t miss their dessert trolley, or the tempting display trays placed near the entrance – such as a delicious meringue cake, the food stays true to its roots. Busy with everyone from locals celebrating a special occasion to in-the-know tourists, it’s not hard to see why this restaurant is so popular. www.restauracjadompolski.pl.
Restauracja Concept 13
Housed in a luxury mall, Viktat, this über-trendy restaurant with floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering expansive city views, and an open kitchen offering culinary theatre to rival these views, is modern minimalism at its best. With sleek monochromatic and wood interiors, slick staff, and innovative, contemporary cuisine the restaurant oozes a hip vibe from every inch. Not one for letting style take over substance, the creations of the Cordon Bleu and London-trained head chef, celebrating seasonal Polish ingredients, particularly vegetables, are delicious. Dishes like lobster bisque with ginger oil, and turbot with cauliflower and tarragon are best enjoyed at lunchtime in the sun-drenched space. www.likusrestauracje.pl.
Located in a converted warehouse in the Soho Factory complex, this restaurant opened in 2013 to rave reviews. The oversized loft space featuring industrial-style design with exposed brick walls, light wood furniture, and a funky grand piano setting the scene for live entertainment, is split into two sections - one side offering more sophisticated food, albeit in a relaxed environment, and the other, open 24 hours, specialising in traditional Polish comfort food. Kitchen theatre takes on a whole new meaning here, with a completely open island-style kitchen being the centerpiece, where you can watch the talented team led by award-winning chef Robert Kendziala create intricately crafted dishes. With a firm focus on fresh, high-quality regional ingredients (the chef enjoys strong relationships with his suppliers, and recognises the importance of provenance), the food brings back old Polish cooking techniques, and borrows the best from other regions – whether it’s Italian burrata or a magret duck from France – to make for a stylish, modern menu. So, whether it’s asparagus in butter sauce, chilled beetroot soup (an absolute Polish classic), deer medallions in Armagnac, or roasted duck with apples, depending on the season, you are guaranteed a meal where the ingredients are treated with care and respect, and allowed to shine through. With a culinary school component as well – they have fully equipped cooking stations within the space – they also offer cooking classes for up to 12 people. www.gessler.sohofactory.pl.
Platter by Karol Okrasa
Poland’s very own celebrity chef – Karol Okrasa has hosted TV shows, authored cookbooks, and won several awards – runs this Michelin guide-recommended restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel, where he brings to life his culinary philosophy of reimagining long-forgotten Polish flavours and traditions in a modern context. Drawing from childhood memories, and giving his dishes a playful twist, Karol treats his food as an art form, which is evident in the beautiful presentation of each course. Whether it’s the classic Pierogi given a gourmet makeover with duck stuffing served with a marjoram emulsion, or a sorrel soup elevated to five-star status with truffle oil; whether it’s the ever-popular goose, served here in a too-pretty-to-eat, marinated and smoked form with edible flowers, or local specialty fish zander, ancient grains like buckwheat and millet, you’re never too far from Poland’s culinary heritage, even if you’re enjoying it in sophisticated avatar and setting. www.platter.pl.
With agriculture being an important part of the Polish economy – Poland is the world’s largest exporter of apples, incidentally – you’re never too far from fresh, seasonal produce. Don’t miss a visit to Hala Mirowska, Warsaw’s largest covered market dating back to the 19th century, to get your foodie shopping fill. Skip the supermarket section in favour of the outdoor area to find farmers selling their fruit and vegetables in canopy-covered stalls, as well as bent old ladies selling a few boxes of berries or mushrooms, likely picked from their backyards or nearby forests, plus cured meats and sausages galore!
Like most of Europe, Poland has a rich heritage of confectionery, with cakes and pastries being an integral part of festive celebrations and even the daily diet. Don't miss these iconic dessert destinations:
When in Warsaw, make time for a short detour from the city into the lovely countryside – the historic town of Olsztyn in Poland’s Lake District, a popular weekend destination for Varsovian, is only a few hours’ drive away. Take a wander around the Olsztyn Old Town and castle, which, having been spared any bombing in the war, has its original medieval architecture well-preserved. Having been home to Copernicus for several years in the 1400s, the castle is endowed with a rich history. Soak up all the history with a wander around the picturesque town with cobblestone streets, before making your way to the Hotel Spa Dr Irena Eris, a unique wellness resort that is home to Poland’s first Slow Food restaurant. Set amidst lush lakeside greenery, the chic resort offers luxury accommodation, expert spa treatments, and delicious, wholesome food at the Restauracja Romantyczna – an intimate, elegant venue offering regional cuisine celebrating ingredients sourced from the West Mazurian Lakeland. Find out more from www.drirenaerisspa.com.
Getting there: Emirates Airline offers direct flights between Dubai and Warsaw, it takes around six hours. Ticket prices start from around Dhs3,600, www.emirates.com.
Staying there: The Intercontinental Warszawa is a centrally located hotel offering contemporary five star accommodation. Visit www.warsaw.intercontinental.com