Updated: Feb 2
Open daily 9.00-24.00. Address: Beera Meiselsa 18, 31-058 Kraków. Phone: +48 509 413 626. @ facebook.com/hevrekazimierz
This week I decided to drop in to a place right on my doorstep. Hevre (Hebrew for 'Friends'), a converted synagogue in the heart of Kazimierz, which opened about a year ago, is one of those places becoming more common nowadays which is quite difficult to categorize. By day it's a cafe which sells breakfasts and lunches, and by night it transforms into a hipster-ish bar which also does an interesting range of Galician/Jewish-inspired food from a short but imaginative menu. (Galicia being the name of this region of the Austrian Empire). In the hands of the same team who are behind Alchemia and Bunkier, it seems to be in good hands and looks to be an addition set to last in Kazimierz's competitive market. The first thing you notice when you walk in off the street is how different it appears inside to most bars or restaurants in the area. There are a number of peeling frescoes on the wall which remain from the original mid-19th century building, and, though faded, the paintings of Jerusalem show their original colours and give the room a great deal of ambiance.
They remind you of the history of this area, and indeed I would have loved to see some information somewhere telling me more about the building. It's been in use as a bar before, but this is the first time these frescoes have been revealed. Tables and chairs fill the floor, the usual Kazimierz jumble of different styles. There's a balcony above, presumably the original mechitza used to separate men and women, and a couple of huge Pilsner tanks containing the frothy Czech stuff that is served from taps at the bar below. All in all, a pretty wonderful space, and for me, arguably straight in at number one for original bar of the year award. Alright, this is Kazimierz and truly original places are few and far between anymore, in thrall as they all are to Alchemia and Singers' blueprints which seem to have dominated since about the mid 90s. But...I feel this really is an eatery which is trying something new.
Speaking to head chef Marek Rusiński, my impression was reinforced. “We try to source locally-made produce and offer Polish food which isn't like in other places” he confided over a coffee. “our aim is to try to serve high-quality but affordable Galician classics and Central European Jewish dishes. We try to use old recipes or unusual combinations.” Trained in London and with experience in Canada and the U.S, Marek certainly has the experience to back up his kitchen's ambition. I've walked past several times and noticed very good value breakfasts (10zł sets which I'm rarely up in time for) and lunches (20zł for a different soup/main course option each day). I decided to try a midweek lunch before coming back at the weekend for an evening meal. It's an ideal place to come for lunch, as it's rarely busy and you don't have too long a wait. I was there on a Thursday, and the soup was cream of parsnip and potato – a very healthy and hearty bowlful went down well on a freezing day. The main course, honey-glazed pork ribs with roast potatoes and salad, was one of the finest lunches I've had at this price. The meat, tender and well-cooked, slipped off the bone and the fat was deliciously crunchy. The sauce, with black peppercorns, was rich and tasty. The portion – huge. A glass of homemade lemonade – included – washed it down well.
Returning the following Saturday evening, the food had a hard act to follow, and so did the ambiance. It's a completely different vibe at the weekend; if you want to get a table and eat, definitely book ahead. We arrived at 8pm and every seat was taken. In fact, it's not the ideal time to go for a meal, so if you do, best to do it as a social event with friends in a convivial (if not raucous) atmosphere. That's not to take away anything from the bar itself, which clearly has several guises. The music is set to mid-level and is mainly noughties electronica – think Air, Caribou and The Knife. Bleeding edge, in 2009. Done that challenge yet? Me neither. The crowd – late 20s and 30s hipster in the main.
We sat at a high table with stools by the edge of the room and ordered a couple of starters and a some drinks. My beer – a Czech Pils (10zł) – came with a pleasingly frothy head. In fact, you can order your Pilsner with three differing levels of frothiness. This is the only place in Krakow to sell unpasteurized Pilsner from the tank, which will delight Czech beer lovers. However, there is a surprising lack of variety. Pilsner dominates, and although there are one or two other options (Kozel), it's a bit disappointing in that respect.
I noticed a lengthy craft cocktail list however which may make up for that; something called a Cuckoo's Nest with a tarragon-infused gin, bourbon and bitter lemon (29zł) sounded intriguing. Kasia ordered a rosé wine – a Hungarian variety called Rozsa Petsovits Syrha (16zł). Service, understandably, was a bit on the slow side. Waitresses could have been a bit more in abundance. I went for 'Jewish caviar' (16zł): chicken liver pâté, marinated in herbs and brandy and served with pickled cranberries and caramelized walnuts. I've tried this dish before, in a Jewish restaurant in Kazimierz Dolny, and it was quite different – ground liver, eggs and onion mixed together and served on bread. This version was much closer to traditional French pâté, with a rich, buttery taste and the white fat on the edge. However, served with freshly-cooked crusty brown bread, I found this dish very tasty and a satisfying (if somewhat heavy) starter. Definitely good value. Kasia's starter, a cheese board (quite steeply priced at 35zł) was excellent – a selection of local cheeses (including a very good blue, and goat's) with caramelized nuts and honey, and more home-made bread.
Another Jewish dish followed: 'Gęsie Pipkie' (20zł): Goose stomachs braised in onion and curry sauce, served with challah bread, fried brussels and pickled beetroots. This dish was even heavier, and I'd not recommend having this as a starter as I did if you intend to follow it with a substantial main. In fact, it would suffice as a main on its own. Particularly in this type of informal situation. The dish itself I found very interesting – although 'stomach' sounds unappetizing, the small chunks of meat in it were quite tasty and succulent, and again the sauce rich and quite unusual – dark and gravy-like. The fried brussels were crisped well, and the beetroot a good side. Kasia had gone for a veggie burger, which was again ample in size and, she reported, very tasty. The hand-cut fries which I tried in their jackets were nice. Other non-meat dishes are few in number, but there is smoked trout and falafel.
After all that, my main was mercifully quite a modest dish (relatively speaking): a Hungarian spicy beef sausage (Debrecen style) served with braised sour cabbage, pickled mustard seeds and demi-glace sauce (29zł). Basically, the Hungarian version of bangers 'n mash. I found the sausage to be highly-seasoned, and much more similar to the kinds of sausage we get back home, particularly in Northumbria and Cumbria. The demi-glace sauce (gravy to me) was rich, with a hint of red wine, while the mustard seeds added that extra piquance. I'm not a massive fan of sour cabbage though, and I'd have to say this part let the dish down for me; the tartness for me is just a bit too much, although it's probably done as it should be.
I could have – and should have – avoided a dessert, because by this stage I was truly stuffed. However, stalwart that I am, I duly got a wedge of chocolate cake, which served with cherry sauce, proved to be entirely the wrong choice at this stage. Luckily, Kasia helped through this testing portion, extremely rich and laced with sugar as it was. I'd have appreciated it a lot more on another occasion I'm sure.
I concluded the meal with a glass of Hungarian Olaszrizling white wine (16zł), a very crisp and smooth medium dry from Badocsony which had the interesting note on the wine list of being 'how wines used to taste before WW1'; I pondered that this may also have been how cafes, bars or indeed restaurants may have been before 1914 too, in the fag end of the Austrian Empire. For, if nothing else, those times brought to this region of the world a measure of culture, an interesting mix. Jewish culture, funnily enough, is hard to capture in Kazimierz today. There are no Jews around, synagogues are closed most of the time (or converted) and the food is found in only a handful of restaurants. Hevre does a very rare thing in this most special and loved part of Krakow; it brings together those elements to make something far bigger. Its lunches are some of the best value meals you can get in Krakow - even milk bars would struggle to compete - and with the quality on offer, that is impressive. A meal at any time of day though is highly recommended, as is a good Czech beer. It is, I think, the new cultural icon of Kazimierz and as such deserves your attention – whether for a casual drink, snack, meal, or full-on night out. You'll be with friends.
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