One of the unintended effects of Communism in Europe was that it preserved traditional cooking techniques for a lot longer than in many other places in Europe. The Iron Curtain acted as a culinary time capsule: While much of the West was moving forward with the industrialization of its food production, people from Bucharest to East Berlin to St. Petersburg were still picking wild tea leaves and pickling their own cucumbers.
The benefits of this are still evident today. If you go to a farmers market in Poland, you won’t see too many overpriced artisanal cheeses or produce labeled organic because those kinds of products represent a backlash to industrialized food. Instead, you will find seasonal fruits and vegetables at fair prices, and the carrots and potatoes the farmer pulled from the ground probably will still have dirt on them.
Wait, let me walk back my use of the word “benefits” above.
Sure, this culinary time capsule is great for me, but I didn’t have to live through 44 years of travel restrictions and bread lines. Those who did spent a good decade distancing themselves from traditional foods. Families began eating pineapples and bananas for dessert. Trends in exotic restaurants waxed and waned. When the sushi restaurants closed, the burger joints stepped in to take their places.
It has only been in recent years that Polish chefs were able to embrace their traditional foods — think seasonal or preserved fruits, seasonal or pickled vegetables, buckwheat, sausages and potatoes, especially in Poznan. The trick for them is to balance the traditional and the modern, as most Poles probably aren’t yet ready for chefs to dust off their great-grandmothers’ recipes for duck blood soup.
Great Poznan Restaurants
Here are a few restaurants in Poznan that have found a way to balance between tradition and modernity, and their kitchens are turning out some great dishes.
This restaurant, located in a brewery in an impressive building on the medieval market square, stepped its kitchen up a few notches when it brought on two-time Bocuse d’Or finalist chef Rafal Jelewski. Chef Jelewski began making everything from scratch — from the mayo to the decadent vanilla ice cream with pistachio sauce — and I hope no one will take offense at my saying the food is now the brewery’s main draw.
We started with a cold beetroot soup that the kitchen reserves especially for guests. The base is marinated beets and kefir, then throughout are dabs of cream and dill (traditional) as well as sun-dried tomatoes, capers, onion and garlic (non-traditional). To be completely honest, beets and kefir are two of my least favorite foods on the planet, but the soup was so good I would have had a second bowl if I could. We followed up the soup with a slow-cooked beef tenderloin coated in truffles and olives. And I only need to say: The beef was so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon.
Sadly, chef Jelewski was killed earlier this year in a traffic accident. His protégé, Pawel Rozmiarek, has taken over the kitchen, and we were the first guests to be served the cold soup since the former chef’s passing. It was an honor, and I cannot say enough good things about Brovaria.
Stary Rynek 73-74, Poznan
+48 61 858 68 68
Located just behind the Poznan Cathedral, Vine Bridge is the country’s smallest restaurant with a dining room capacity of about ten. That means diners will get personal attention from chef Radek Nejman. We were the only diners for lunch on a Wednesday, so I leaned over into the kitchen to watch our first dishes get plated.
We started with a phyllo pastry with beans, Serrano ham, cream and a dressing of herbs and orange. No one in the kitchen seemed to know the name of the greens this dish was served on because the chef simply picked them in the wild around his home outside of the city. We then followed the first course with a slow-cooked pork loin with cauliflower mousse, red pepper mousse, a vegetable ragout and dried sausage crumbles. Dessert was a sorrel sorbet that within minutes melted onto the caramelized black currant and turned into a wonderfully delicious goo.
On sunny, summer days the Vine Bridge crew steps out onto the adjacent bridge and cooks meals using solar energy. This alter ego, called Sun Bridge, is Poland’s first solar restaurant.
Ostrówek 6, 61-122 Poznan
+48 61 875 09 34
TOGA’s terrace overlooks the Freedom Square and would have made for prime people watching had the meal not commanded all my attention. Owners Piotr and Ewa Michalski stopped by our table to greet us and recommend a couple of dishes. We took Piotr’s advice and got the watermelon and feta salad, then the pork cheeks.
The salad was simple enough — watermelon, feta cheese, some mint and cracked pepper — but the way each ingredient complimented the others made for a delicious and refreshing salad. The pork cheeks came from a local breed of pig from Zlotniczki and were served on top of buckwheat and glazed with an orange sauce. This was a perfectly delicious example of how to modernize traditional, local ingredients.
Pitor himself offered some sage advice afterward: “If you see cheeks on the menu — pork cheeks, veal cheeks, whatever — don’t ask questions. Just order it.”
Plac Wolnosci 13, Poznan
+48 61 853 03 45
Students and young professionals have slowly helped gentrify the Jezyce neighborhood, and the casual bistro Yezyce Kuchnia embodies these changes pretty well. The day’s menu items are hung on a bulletin board with paper clips; there are IPAs in the fridge; there is a hammock on the patio; and you would be forgiven if you thought you had traveled too far west and ended up in Berlin.
But then the menu brings you right back to Poznan. A couple of appetizers we tried definitely get my recommendation. The first was chicken livers with apples and zucchini. I was told chicken livers with apples is a typical dish in Poznan, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who ate this often. The second was a plate of roasted potato halves with a cottage cheese-and-spices mixture called gzik. In a perfect world, sports bars would substitute potato skins with these.
Szamarzewskiego 17, 60-514 Poznan
+48 61 663 05 06
Gospoda pod Koziolkami
Back at the old market square, the restaurant that translates as “Tavern Under the Goats” goes all-in on the traditional motif. That’s cool with me because the pierogi and beers were plentiful. Pierogi don’t require a story or careful analysis. That meant I was able to relax and just watch the people go by. Sometimes, comfort food on the terrace is all a guy could ever ask for on a warm Thursday night.
Stary Rynek 95, Poznan
+48 61 851 78 68
Written by and photos by Eric Barrier for EuropeUpClose.com
Full disclosure: The City Promotion Office of Poznan and PLOT, a local non-profit tourism organization, arranged and sponsored all of these meals. I am eternally grateful.