KRAKÓW, POLAND: Restaurant Starka

Located in the Kazimierz, the city’s Jewish Quarter, Starka turned out to be so good, it was the only place I ate dinner while in Kraków.

A bit of background may be informative. My grandmother was born in the Polish town of Zatoka in 1895 and emigrated to the United States at the age of 16. In my mind, she set the bar for Polish cookery, as her pierogi (Polish dumplings) were the best I’ve ever had. So, during my recent trip to Poland, I went in search of my grandmother’s pierogi.

At Starka, I may have found them.

Barszcz czerwony, or beet soup

My first visit to Starka was on my first night in Kraków. The delightful starter arrived while I was sipping on a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Solid food would begin with a basket of salted bread sticks and rye bread accompanied by butter infused with garlic and parsley. Then, based on the recommendation of the owner Joanna, I ordered Mrs. Rysia’s Pierogi Ruskie or Russian Pierogi and her barszcz czerwony, or beet soup.

To the accompaniment of classic jazz being played in the background, I was taken back to my childhood with flavors very similar to those I remembered my grandmother laboring to create. Starka’s pierogi, with a filling of potatoes, cheese, and cream cheese, were very close to those on which I grew up. My grandmother would have approved.

Next, to the beet soup, which was a clear beet broth with a touch of sweetness (but without julienne beets as in Russian borscht) in which were floating several ucho (Polish for “ear”). Similar to tortellini, they are pasta ribbons stuffed with parsley.

While the pig’s knuckle also got my attention, I was beginning to approach my limit and certainly wouldn’t have been able to properly appreciate 500 grams of “crispy, boneless pig’s knuckle” on my first night, so I made a reservation to go back a second night.

Two house made, flavored vodkas

What I did enjoy were Gabriel’s house-made flavored vodkas. With my bar tending experience, I fail to understand why so many manufacturers of spirits insist on making flavored vodka with artificial ingredients and, as a result, artificial aftertastes. Vodka, which is generally about 40 percent alcohol, naturally dissolves other organic material and will pull the flavors from a number of foodstuffs including vanilla, ginger, mango, horseradish, etc. No need for chemicals; natural is better. Starka obviously knows this well.

On my first visit, I sampled four flavored vodkas: rowan berry, mango, cranberry and cumin. Rowan berry is the fruit of the mountain ash tree, thought by many to be poisonous and therefore avoided. Which is good for the rest of us. Mango and cranberry speak for themselves, while the cumin vodka had a bit of sugar added to round out the smokiness of the spice and keep the potion in the category of either an aperitif or digestif.

Returning on my second night, I opted for a glass of Chilean Carmenere to start, followed by a bowl of żurow, a traditional Polish soup made with rye, white sausage and egg. Żurow is one of those dishes that is going to be different every place you have it because so much of the cook’s interpretation goes into it. As such, it’s often hard to say one is better than another; often, each is good is its own way, and so it was at Starka where the żurow was flavorful and the “sour” subtle.

Crispy pork knuckle

Next, on to the half-portion (250 grams) of crispy pork knuckle. Served with kiszona kapusta or sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and three sauces for dipping the pork - horseradish, barbeque sauce and brown mustard -  it met my need for comfort food in a big way.

I ordered a house-made horseradish vodka to accompany, thinking the natural horseradish flavor and pork would go well together. However, Starka added a bit of sugar to its horseradish vodka and, to my palate, those particular sweet and the savory flavors fought with each other.

Next, I selected the malinowy, or raspberry, vodka. While that too had sugar added, it worked with the fruit flavor and delivered a sweet-but-not-too-sweet after dinner sip. Finally, my server brought me a hazelnut vodka. Also with just a bit of sweetness, it reminded me of Frangelico for grown-ups. Again, a very pleasant digestif.

I found the ambiance of Starka particularly appealing. It’s a small restaurant – only about 55 seats – arranged in two separate rooms. The front room, where the bar is located, handles about 18 seats while the rest are in the rear of the building. Lights were low, décor was modern but subdued. Because it is both small and very popular, especially with visitors to the city, reservations are a very good idea. I watched Joanna apologetically turn away party after party which, unfortunately, had not bothered to phone or email ahead.

Don’t make the same mistake or you may miss out on what will be one of your most memorable dining experiences in Poland.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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