Eating in Warsaw – U Kucharzy and Stary Dom

It feels like it is always winter in Warsaw. The city is flat, like a prairie or steppe. Once a beautiful city, Warsaw was virtually razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1944 in brutal reprisal for the Polish resistance. It was rebuilt by the Communists into squat utilitarian concrete blocks. Only the old town, also destroyed by the Nazis, has been reconstructed in a painstakingly exact facsimile of the beautiful gothic historic center that used to exist. Warsaw’s streets are broad and straight, and an icy Siberian wind sweeps from east to west.

I was in Warsaw most recently in December, with my mother. It was brutally cold; a dull leaden sky hung low over the city, through which one could occasionally catch glimpses of the sun, a distant icy disc. It snowed every day. The snow blew down the tram lines and squeaked underfoot. Softened by years in temperate Seattle and gentle, gray London, I was so cold. Moisture from my breath condensed and froze on the scarf I had wrapped around my face. I breathed in shallow little gasps. I was too cold to think, too cold to talk. It was in Warsaw that I discovered I have Raynaud’s disease, in which decreased blood flow to the extremities causes them to turn white and numb. My mother and I would set out to walk the city. I would last twenty, maybe thirty minutes before my toes would lose sensation, and then start to ache. There was a narrow window of time, at this point, before the pain would become unbearable and I would have to stop somewhere warm.

On Saturday my mother and I took the tram to the corner of Jerozolimskie and Marszalkowska and then walked to Nowy Świat on our way to the Old Town. It was early afternoon, past lunchtime; we had maybe an hour more of daylight. My mother had a destination in mind, U Kucharzy, in what used to be the hotel Europejski, one of the few buildings that survived the Nazis. A wonderful example of Art Deco opulence, the Hotel Europejski stolidly faced its arch-rival across the street, the elegant Art Nouveau Hotel Bristol. The Gessler group has taken over and renovated what used to be the vast kitchens below the hotel. They’ve kept the massive oil stoves, the tiled walls, and the checkered floors. On a far wall in a small dining room is an enlarged black-and-white photograph of the hotel in its heyday, thronged with people in elegant formal dress. From a distance, they almost look real. DSC_0698bI am just old enough to remember the bread lines before Solidarność, people shivering in heavy coats as they queued for food rations. My grandparents were more fortunate than most; with a daughter living in the West, they could go to the “dollar stores,” shops where for hard currency one could buy foodstuffs not available in the government-run food stores. Polish cookery, like the rest of Poland, suffered through much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Since embracing capitalism, Poland has undergone an ecstatic culinary renaissance. Dishes not served in restaurants for fifty years are being rediscovered and faithfully recreated.

U Kucharzy is a loving and unironic homage to Poland’s magnificent culinary heritage. The waiters are men and exceedingly polite. Dishes are prepared and served with a flourish tableside also by men, nervous and white-coated, wearing tall chef’s hats. We ate nóżki wieprzowe, pork knuckle that quivered splendidly in aspic, steak tartare, sliced from a filet in front of us, chopped, and mixed with mustard and pickle, and móżdżek cielęcy po polsku, veal brains on toast. These were seasoned with onions and parsley, and scrambled in a pan with obscene amounts of butter and an egg yolk. They had the texture of soft scrambled eggs and were almost too rich to eat. Perhaps my favorite dish was the barszcz z uszkami, literally translated as borscht with “little ears.” It was a clear, hot, juniper-scented beetroot broth in which floated small dumplings, joined at the center, and stuffed with cepes. DSC_0699a

DSC_0703a

DSC_0704a

The meal, with two glasses of wine and tea, cost 172 złoty, or slightly less than sixty dollars.

We staggered out into the icy street. It was a few weeks before Christmas and Nowy Świat was beautifully illuminated in the dusk. We were only ten minutes from the old city, a short enough distance for me to walk before my poor feet demanded warmth. The cobblestones in the great sloping square gleamed with ice, and the graceful narrow buildings shone green and gold against the dark sky.

DSC_0711aOn our last night, on the recommendation of my mother’s friend Grazyna, we went to Stary Dom, in Mokotow, an area that was very elegant before the war and in which some pre-war buildings still survive. Stary Dom exuberantly celebrates Polish cookery. Unlike U Kucharzy, it feels casual, like a country restaurant. On the walls are wonderful old photographs of Poland at the turn of the century. The service is warm and personable.

Stary Dom is Warsaw’s self-confident riposte to the French bistro. At the start of our meal we were brought soft brown bread, flecked with oats, with pickles and a tub of seasoned, spreadable, pork fat. We ate zurek, a classic Polish sour rye soup, exquisitely tangy, with chunks of kielbasa and cepes, and ozorki w sosie chrzanowym, delicate veal tongue in a dill sour cream sauce, and toasted each other’s health with icy shots of vodka which, incredibly, was cheaper than my beer. For our main dish, we shared piesceń z dzika w sosia z jałowka, a speciality of the restaurant. This was wild boar, which my mother tells me is first marinated in vinegar and spices to tenderize it, accompanied by a cepe-rich red-wine reduction with notes of juniper, sweet stewed beetroot, and delicate potato dumplings. Dessert was an old-fashioned, uniquely Polish “cake,” another speciality, which consists of layers of meringue, sandwiched around soft, fluffy pistachio-meringue cream.

Stary Dom is a wonderful restaurant, at once assured and comfortable. Stepping out into the bitter icy night, I felt utterly charmed, lucky, and eager to return.

The Upshot

Restauracja U Kucharzy

Ossolinskich 7, Warsaw, Poland

+48 22 826 79 36

Website: http://www.gessler.pl/newruk5.htm

Price per person: Approximately $30

The verdict: I’d eat here again

Stary Dom

Ul Puławska 104/106, Warsaw, Poland

+48 22 646 42 08

Website: http://www.restauracjastarydom.pl/

Price per person: Approximately $40

The verdict: Must try!

Cold tram line

Cold tram line

Cold, instagrammed, looking towards the river

Cold, instagrammed, looking towards the river

On the wall at Stary Dom

On the wall at Stary Dom

An excerpt from the menu, translated, at Stary Dom

An excerpt from the menu, translated, at Stary Dom

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Eating in Warsaw – U Kucharzy and Stary Dom

  1. I absolutely love it when somebody takes me somewhere that I have never been. Especially when they bring it to life as beautifully as you have here. (Yikes, sorry about the Raynaud’s though.)

    • Thanks Michelle! The Raynaud’s isn’t a big deal, unless I am somewhere cold, in which case it is profoundly inconvenient. Nothing more than that though. But it was such a part of my chilly misery in Warsaw that I had to talk about it in this post.

  2. Oooooh, i can almost feel the cold from here! That is one evocative write up. I had a friend who spent two years in Warsaw teaching English and he also talked about that extreme cold. Well, extreme for us UK brought-up softies that is.

    I love the sound of food though properly hearty and harking back to an elegant tradition now almost a century old. It reminds me of the feel of one or two Budapest restaurants I went to, out of the centre. Old school and elegant in a way you don’t really find over here in the UK any more. Delicious and interesting food with heritage.

    • That is exactly right. I’d love to travel to Hungary for that reason, the proud devotion to culinary heritage, which is a particular provenance of Eastern Europe, I think — probably because it was so nearly lost during the Communist era.

  3. When I read your posts, especially your travel ones, I feel transported to the very place you are describing. It’s as if I am there as well. Your beautiful description of your meal at U Kucharzy makes me want to get on a plane this instant.

    As a little girl in the Philippines, my favorite soup was a noodle soup with bits of pork and calf’s brain. That’s one of the things I miss most about my childhood and my native country.

    daisy

  4. so much raving about it over twitter, so I HAD to come over and read this. what beautiful writing, feel like I’m transported to warsaw, it’s almost like a lazy sunday novel I’d dive into. love the description of all that food especially, they sound so wonderfully old-fashioned and delicious. x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s