Before visiting Poland, all I knew about its cuisine was that it was meat- and potato-heavy. While I don’t normally consume copious amounts of that combination, I didn’t mind the prospect of doing so. As it turns out, I was flat out surprised at some of the menu items I ended up eating. Yes, the old standbys of pork and pierogi were on most menus, but exciting things are happening in the world of contemporary Polish cuisine. Here are a few of my culinary highlights.

1. Cream of Pickled Cucumber Soup

Polish sour cucumber soup

After visiting Pope John Paul II’s home in Wadowice, we were treated to a meal at Miodowa 8, where the tiny town’s mayor dined with us. He was as eclectic as the menu: our first course was a soup, presented under a glass cloche that kept the steam in until the waiter (uncomfortable with so many travel writers snapping his picture) ceremoniously whipped it off to unveil a ghostly fog. Once that cleared, we could see the green soup. Despite how it sounds (warm cucumber??), the soup was amazing. It was topped with smoked tea, which provided a pleasant crunch, and deep in the bowl’s bowels, mascarpone awaited to be stirred in.

2. Kremówka

Kremówka

Little known fact: the Polish Pope loved him some Kremówka, a cakey dessert filled with cream and topped with powdered sugar. While we didn’t get the traditional version at the hip Miodowa, we did indulge in an updated version that was more like tiny cream puffs. I could do great things in my life if only I, too, had a steady supply of these.

3. Burning Rose

Burning Rose

Having seen a table full of Japanese visitors ordering a fantastical dessert made of cotton candy, then lit on fire to melt it to its raspberry center, we couldn’t resist ordering one to share at Szara Gęś in Krakow. Rather than being cloyingly sweet, the way fair cotton candy is, it was delicate. Once it melted, a small dish with raspberry something or other was revealed. There’s always room for a dessert like this in my stomach!

4. Potato Dumplings and Highlander Noodles

Potato Dumplings and Highlander Noodles

After we toured a lovely little heritage museum in mountain town Zakopane, we ate at an equally cultural restaurant, Karczma Regionalna Przy Młynie. There, the chef demonstrated how to make a type of flatbread made from potatoes, egg, and flour. The Highlanders, or the people who have lived in that region for generations, never wasted food, so when potatoes started to turn, they would use them for this dish. When they got even blacker, they made “black noodles,” another dish he showed us how to make.

5. Steak Tartare

steak tartare

By the last day of the trip, I swore I would never eat meat again. But at our final meal at Restauracja Stary Dom, I couldn’t resist the steak tartare, especially when I saw a chef diligently chopping it on display for the next table. By the time he reached us, I couldn’t wait to try it. The chef, who prepares about 150 plates of the restaurant’s celebrated tartare a day, fervently chopped raw steak until it was pulverized, then added onion, garlic, mushrooms, oil, and a few other ingredients to the steak in a bowl. After copious stirring, he plated enough to feed about 10 people, though only three of us ordered it.

6. Pork Knuckle

pork knuckle

After the tartare, I was a lost cause to the vegetarian regime. I ordered pork knuckle on a bed of refried cabbage. Maybe just one last porky meal…it arrived nearly as big as my head, its skin thick and crunchy. I could barely consume an eighth of the portion (they go big in Poland), though it was sublime.

Don’t get me wrong: I ate my weight in Pierogi at Zapiecek in Warsaw, and enjoyed plenty of traditional sour soup, żurek. But I was simply blown away by the innovation happening at restaurants all over Warsaw and Krakow. So when you visit, know that you’ve got far more to choose from than traditional Polish fare.