“ Address: 2-6 Shakespeare Street / Newcastle upon Tyne / NE1 6AQ „
Recently an acquaintance of mine who had just returned from a long weekend in Krakow was overheard boasting of having dined on steak three nights running; I can't say whether this was because he considered a good steak there to be so cheap that he could afford to eat it every night, or because he's just an irritating little show off who delights in not experiencing any of the local culture when he goes abroad. I wanted to ask why he hadn't eaten any traditional Polish food, some pierogi perhaps, or stuffed cabbage leaves, but I kept it buttoned. Personally I'm always happy to have a plate of Polish food so I was pleased when a second Polish restaurant opened here in Newcastle upon Tyne; although I'm a fan of the first restaurant (Gospoda) I hoped that the new restaurant might have some different dishes.
'Krakow' occupies the basement of premises just round the corner from Newcastle's Theatre Royal, a minute's walk from the Monument which is the heart of the city centre. The premises used to be occupied by a short lived (but highly regarded) restaurant called 'Starters and Puds'; I never got to eat there so I don't know how much the interior was altered for 'Krakow' but I have to say that the arrangement of little interconnected, low ceilinged rooms, works very well in creating the ambience of a traditional Polish inn. It's a really cosy environment with lots of authentic decorations and furnishings. We'd hoped to be seated at a table at which two wooden settles had been covered with sheepskins but we were ushered into another room instead where we were the only diners. It was cosy, but I really wanted that sheepskin!
We'd booked in advance, taking advantage of a Living Social offer that comprised two starters, two mains and two drinks (soft drinks or beer). As far as the menu goes there were very few options that could not be ordered as part of the offer so, at least as the food goes, we did feel that Krakow was entering into the spirit of things and providing a genuine deal. We both ordered beers by brand name, (a Lech for me, a Tyskie for him) and expected that, for the deal, it would be a 330ml bottle; however, when the drinks came they were just half pints and were brought in the glass. We weren't convinced that we'd been given the brands we'd asked for.
There's a decent wine list which includes a house red or white priced at a reasonable sounding £13.70, Polish bottled beers priced at £3.60 (also a delicious sounding mulled beer with raspberry syrup and spices for £3.80 for a half litre) and a short cocktail list which has been tweaked to give it a Polish hint with cocktails including the very tempting Apple Crumble Szarlotka (£5.50).
The menu gives a good choice of homely Polish dishes. Pork features heavily, coming in many guises, usually accompanied by potato, beetroot and cabbage, individually or in combination. There are some meat free dishes and a few fish dishes too; though the meat free dishes are not very inspiring and are on the whole quite stodgy, it's good to see that they have used soya as a meat substitute in some traditional dishes, and made others meat free so that vegetarians can sample some Polish specialities.
For our starters we chose borscht - that eastern European/Russian beetroot broth, and another Polish classic dip pan fried pierogi stuffed with meat and sauerkraut. Actually my starter was described as 'Sauerkraut and mushroom croquettes served with a mug of sweet beetroot soup' but the soup was the star of the show. The croquettes were more like a pancake that had been folded around a cabbage and mushroom stuffing then fried. The coating would have been better had there been more crumbs and it needed to be a bit crispier. The filling was a bit on the bland side and lacked seasoning. The soup on the other hand was a triumph; it was just sweet enough with a hint of sour and then the familiar earthy flavour of the beetroot. Since it more akin to a consommé than a broth it wasn't too filling.
Himself took the pierogi: the name translates as 'little pies' but this ravioli type dish can be found in many forms around the world (Russian pelmeni, Georgian khinkhali, Chinese spring rolls to name just a few). The outer casing is a bit like pasta but much thicker and fortunately these weren't too thick as they can be too thick and therefore stodgy. Surprisingly frying them seems to make them less stodgy than if they are simply cooked in stock but a couple are still more than enough for a starter. Like the croquettes the pierogi filling laced seasoning which was a shame because the shell was tasty and there was plenty of filling inside.
A whole trout (£15.10) was my partner's choice of main and this came with a herb butter and chips (alternatively you could choose mashed potato), the latter being homemade and utterly delicious. The fish was well cooked with a lovely golden skin. There dish was billed as coming with salad and there was a small pile of rather feeble salad in the form of dry shredded lettuce and a few bits of chopped tomato but, much better, was a good mound of shredded cabbage and carrot: this was quite sauerkraut-y but without the really strong pickled flavour.
I had chosen the 'minced beef & pork schnitzel fried with onion seasonings served with mash or chips and warm beetroot salad' (£9.50); this is indicative of the tendency at Krakow to make the names of the dishes overly long. It would be less clunky to give a shorter name and then an explanation of the cooking method and accompaniments beneath that. This was not a schnitzel in the Austrian style where the meat is bashed out then bread crumbed for frying: this was more like a chunky minced meat rissole which formed the third of three dollops placed unceremoniously on the plate. The meat was undeniably tasty, well seasoned with the meat cooked but still tender but it did look very school dinner-ish alongside the mash and beetroot. The mash was creamy and smooth while the warm beetroot was a bit of light relief from the heavier components of the meal.
The food at Krakow is not bad; it is good home cooking and if you want to try some traditional Polish dishes you'll find a good representative selection on the menu. The prices however are too high given the presentation, ingredients used and the general ambience. After eating I was pretty sure that this is a reincarnation of Gospoda, moved to more obvious premises; if I'm right I can't help thinking that the change of premises has brought with it a higher rent and in turn higher price. Take the trout: £15.10 for a main course is pretty near the top end for a Newcastle restaurant and certainly you can pay that at some of the city's best regarded restaurants where that money would get you something really special. You can't really charge £15 plus for a main course then serve rubbishy glasses of questionable lager.
Even if the prices were tweaked a bit to make them more acceptable I'd still expect to see an improvement in presentation and more attention to detail. The plates were too small for the amount of food on them, especially for the fish which was difficult to eat as there was no space to move food around on the plate. The problem for Krakow is that they are serving what is really home cooking but charge prices more typical of smarter dining: they either need to find a way to refine their presentation to take the food about home cooking, or else restructure the pricing to make it more reflective of the cooking. If this hike has come about because of the new address, I'd rather they'd have stayed put.
We didn't have a dessert; it wasn't part of our deal and we'd had plenty to eat but we could have chosen from a few Polish specialities such as pierogi filled with jam, as well as more standard desserts such as ice cream, sweet pancakes and apple crumble (with a Polish twist).
We came away stuffed and satisfied but agreed that we were pleased not to have paid full prices for our meals. I'd happily award four marks for the food but only one for price and presentation, hence my overall rating of two stars which may seem mean given that I've praised the most of the food but I just can't justify those prices.
Restaurant Krakow is at 2-6 Shakespeare Street, Newcastle, NE1 6AQ
It's open Tuesday - Saturday noon - 10pm; Sunday - Monday noon - 9.00pm