Rob Zack, the executive chef of Aspen’s newly reimagined Hotel Jerome, has spent considerable time reconnecting with his roots in Poland. His father’s side of the family is from Poland and so is his wife. Zack is particularly fond of Gdansk, a city on the shores of the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Vistula River. “It’s full of history and character,” he says. “I find it much more enjoyable than the touristy Krakow and Warsaw.” Mr. Zack has been making trips to Poland for the last 12 years and says the country is continually changing. “Poland has embraced capitalism and new restaurants are always just around the corner. In this day and age, with capitalism comes globalization. This is especially true in the Polish cuisine. I find Polish people very proud and protective of their cuisine, but I can see the mom and pop stores disappearing. They aren’t gone, just harder to find and more expensive.” Mr. Zack says the best way to find an authentic eating experience is to ask locals for the best spots. “Yes the pierogi are not to be missed, but don’t skip the smoked meats, fish, and sausage. I find Polish cuisine to be full of some of the best smoked pork products around. It’s a chef’s heaven. Oh, and don’t forget the vodka.” Here, he shares his favorite Gdansk restaurants, plus the ultimate doughnut.
“Bar mleczny (milk bar in Polish), is a Polish form of a diner that started in the late 1800s and offered both milk based food and traditional cuisine. Prior to World War I they appeared all over the country and offered relatively cheap, nourishing food. The concept survived through World War II. After the war, Poland became a Communist state and moderately priced restaurants such as these were declared capitalist and most of the restaurants were nationalized or closed down by authorities. Starting in the mid-1960s these bars were used as a way of offering affordable meals to the working class. The meals, subsidized by the state, were cheap and readily available to anyone. Many of these restaurants went bankrupt after the fall of the Communist system.
Some, however, were preserved as relics of the welfare state and began to make a comeback in early 2010. They became small, inexpensive restaurants providing authentic, good quality, Polish food and customer service. Bar Kmar is a perfect example of a bar mleczny. My apartment was one block from Bar Kmar when I lived in Poland. It provided me with many filling meals at an incredibly cheap price. The food is authentic, tasty, well prepared, and served quickly. Portions are huge and they have every type of Polish food imaginable so bring your appetite and your Polish dictionary. There is not much English spoken here, so come prepared to do a lot of pointing or referring to your dictionary.”
Pomorska 84, 80-34 Gdansk, 48/58-556-34-69, kmar.pl
“Located just off the old town city center on the Vistula River, Kubicki serves creative interpretations of traditional Polish cuisine. The dining room offers a modern take on the history of the building, and the servers are more than happy to give you a history lesson. You can also enjoy your meal on the beautiful riverside terrace. I’m not a pickled herring fan, but their version is superb. Also on the menu are creative versions of pierogi and a wonderful version of braised roulade (beef, bacon, and pickle rolls) served on top of groats. The fish is fresh and prepared with modern techniques.”
Wartka 5, Gdansk, 48/58-301-00-50, restauracjakubicki.com
“You can find paczki, Poland’s version of the doughnut, at any good bakery throughout the country. My favorite is in Sopot, a Polish beach town on the Baltic Sea. The shop is located in a small storefront at the eastern end of the main pedestrian mall, Monte Cassino Street. The shop does not have a formal name. Rather, the store sign announces the goodness that lies inside: “donaty na monciaku.” Get there in the morning and the staff will sell you paczki right from the fryer. Traditionally, they are stuffed with jelly, glazed, and sprinkled with orange zest. The dough is much richer than a traditional doughnut and a true work of art. They put any American counterpart to shame.”