While Krakow is known as the gem of Poland’s tourist industry, with its beautiful old town spared from the ravages of World War II (and The Culinary Diplomat certainly loved it – see below for links), Warsaw is its underappreciated capital – and it has a lively international food scene befitting of any European capital. Not to mention that your Euros, Dollars, or other home currency likely will get you further than in its more openly dazzling neighbors. My favorite meal during my short time in Warsaw this year featured the hearty, yet elevated traditional Polish cuisine with a great group at Stary Dom.
Unlike charming, cozy Krakow, Warsaw was not spared wartime destruction. Today, it is a rebuilt city with a post-war, Iron Curtain mix of classical European architecture and brutalist Cold War-era structures. Its rebuilt, medieval Old Town is the colorful tourist centerpiece, surrounded by it’s not so new New Town (well, ok, it is rebuilt), comprised of more classical 17th to 20th century of an otherwise focused city.
But most of Warsaw’s livelihood is dispersed throughout the rest of this liveable city and its suburbs, interspersed with lovely parks, like large Lazienski Park, which reminded me of the stately Woluwe Park in Brussels (it’s a great place to run and explore).
Most of Warsaw’s best restaurants are well outside the tourist footprint of New and Old Town. Warsaw offers quite the cosmopolitan mix of international cuisine, with abundant Italian restaurants (not to mention delicious and cheap compared to much of actual Italy), cafes, patisseries, and chocolate chops, including its famous regional export, Wedel. Yet no trip to Warsaw is truly complete without Polish cuisine from it’s famed restaurants, such as Stary Dom (translates to The Old House) or Oberża pod Czerwonym Wieprzem (“The Red Hog”).
Stary Dom is the type of bustling restaurant that locals or local expatriates show off to their colleagues, friends, and families for special occasions. What its spacious dining rooms lack in contemporary elegance, it makes up with the coziness of your grandparents’ dining room, harkening back to the restaurant’s 1950s origins. And the decor certainly comes second to the perfectly executed flavors and presentation of Poland’s most beloved dishes.
Deciding what to order is a challenge, with such a large menu packed with delectable comfort food. I highly recommend dining as a group and sharing a few appetizers and desserts (if you can dare not to keep one all to yourself!) to fully experience their Polish cuisine. One not to miss appetizer is their Beef Tartare, assembled tableside by a chef. Side note: it’s fascinating to see specific dishes that originated in one location becoming loved regional dishes somewhere else – with their own spin. Central/Eastern Europe seems to really have adopted and adapted beef tartare as a regional specialty, with each country adding its own flare – seasonings, condiments, etc. Fun fact: the true origin of steak/beef tartare (formerly made of horsemeat!) is unknown. Some theorize it originated from the Mongols or Tatars in Central Asia, who supposedly tenderized their meat while carrying it in their saddles; its first known appearance in restaurant culture was actually in the United States – notably in New York, but it found its way into French cookbooks and European cafes in the 20s and later, after World War II. Anyhow, beef tartare takes on its own incarnation in eastern Europe, often swapping dill pickles for capers and adding spicy, whole grain brown mustard to the traditional diced onions and egg yolk. Stary Dom’s is as good as its reputation – but I think we collectively wished we’d ordered multiples of it – which, we later reneged on, since our other appetizers, entrees, and deserts washed away the pang of disappointment of wolfing down the tartare.
For other shareable appetizers, we chose traditional cheese and potato pierogi and herring – both quintessential examples of Polish cuisine. Both were expertly and simply executed. Stary Dom also features traditional meat (veal) stuffed pierogi as an option, but again, with an exhaustive list of appetizers, it’s hard to choose only a few!
Onto the main courses. Our group ordered several different entrees (one per person) – notably their most well-known specialty, the roast duck with red cabbage and fluffy potato puree, and the Golanka (pork knuckle). The pork spare ribs and beef cheeks also made an appearance, with a deep, rich sauce and potato puree. I ordered the duck, and it was incredibly flavorful, with perfect crispy skin. While I tend to like my duck to be cooked to medium or medium rare if possible, Stary Dom’s is roasted and fairly well done, yet it retained its moisture and flavor.
No Stary Dom experience should end without a proper dessert. Like a high-end New York diner, Stary Dom’s dessert case, filled with drool-worthy tortes, cakes, and bars, summons even the most stuffed diner’s second stomach. I should mention that every one of us ordered a full dessert – that certainly speaks to the quality and irresistibility of Stary Dom’s offerings. Nearly everyone ordered something unique, but the group favorite was the chocolate praline torte (so much so that I missed out after my colleagues ordered the last three pieces – fear not, I did get to try it and it was fantastic). I ended up ordering a caramel and chocolate ganache topped shortbread bar that exceeded my expectations. I would certainly order any of their desserts without hesitation if I returned.
As our evening concluded at Stary Dom, I left with a heightened appreciation of Polish cuisine and hospitality, and a greater appreciation for my colleagues and the stories our Polish food and drink brought out from all of us.
Want more of Poland? Check out these previous CD posts: