If there was one word I would use to describe dining in Poland it would be "surprising".
Surprising for the ingredients - like stuffed goose necks and smalec (pork drippings used as a spread on bread); the names of dishes - like Jewish caviar (which turned out to be largely chicken liver and boiled egg); and the locations of restaurants -including those housed in converted old bathhouses and brothels.
However, in terms of surprising flavours and presentation, there was one place that left a mark - the Copernicus, as intimate a restaurant as you could hope to find in the heart of Krakow's romantic Old Town.
The restaurant is part of the Hotel Copernicus - the only Relais & Chateaux property in Poland, and given the French brand's rich culinary roots, it's not hard to see why the food and service had a certain je ne sais quoi.
The surprises started pretty early with the amuse bouche, a moreish trio of pastry cones stuffed with a cream made from ricotta and forest mushrooms, and an appetizer of sharp Baltic herring with a beetroot salad.
And they kept coming...
Boldly flavoured starters of foie gras layered with gingerbread and plum, and sweetbreads served on a bed of saffron-spiced risotto...
Palate-pleasing mains that played with flavours and textures, including a creamy cabbage mash served with seabream and octopus and little balls made of what I believe was egg white. (The mysterious white balls definitely had me fascinated - I might try recreating them with egg white to test my theory.)
The other main - which I preferred - brought together autumnal flavours such as saddle of venison and a pear and pumpkin souffle.
Dessert also strayed away from the predictable, with refreshingly new flavours and textures such as pine ice cream served with a pine nut and poppy seed brittle that had that satisfying airy crunch of honeycomb...
And my favourite surprise of the evening - the sweet egg pre-dessert, which turned out to be an inventively constructed concoction of coconut cream and mango (the egg that isn't an egg pictured at the very top of this post).
Even the alcohol pairings eschewed the norm - with an Italian Recioto Di Soave being paired with the foie gras rather than a classic French Sauternes, and a deeply sweet quince liqueur accompanying dessert.
The best part about a meal at Copernicus Restaurant?
You don't have to head far to sink into bed after a decadently delicious dinner :)
The restaurant's location tucked away on the lower floor of what is one of Krakow's most atmospheric and storied hotels would be reason enough to pick it. The restaurant and most of the Hotel Copernicus' rooms feature Renaissance-era wood-beamed ceilings - and two of its suites even have beautifully preserved medieval frescoes, the staff were good enough to let us sneak a peak!
But even if you stay in one of the regular rooms as I did, I doubt you would find them lacking. The rooms have an easy elegance and have been thoughtfully restored with ingenious glass-paned roofs encasing the marble en suite bathrooms to preserve the original 14th century wood ceilings. Period furniture, full-length velvet drapes and hand-painted detailing on the walls gave the room a luxuriously warm feel in the depths of a chilly Polish winter.
Both the restaurant and the hotel are named after Nikolaus Copernicus - yup, the very same Polish astronomer you may remember from your old science texts who proposed the Earth revolved around the Sun. The famous astronomer used to visit the building in his day, at a time when it served as housing for the rich bishops who lived in the area.
The Hotel Copernicus is perfectly located for a post-dinner stroll, as Krakow's Wawel Castle, stately Old Town and popular Kazimierz district - home to the city's hippest bars and clubs - are all within striking distance.
If you prefer staying within its charming Gothic confines (it's very easy to succumb to that temptation), the hotel has a subterranean swimming pool housed in a medieval brick cellar of the same sort as you are likely to find many of Krakow's bars located in - and it's open 24 hours a day!
The Hotel Copernicus is meant to have an amazing rooftop, offering a panorama of the city's perfectly-preserved medieval skyline. Unfortunately as it was a fairly biting winter's evening, that vista remained unseen and I had to make do with the final surprise of the evening - a plateful of home-made Copernicus chocolates.
Needless to say, I wasn't complaining :)
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