Updated: Feb 2
Open daily 12.00-22.00. Address: Plac Wolnica 4, 33-332 Kraków. Phone: +48 12 430 0358.
The Asian food explosion in Krakow that began in earnest about seven or eight years ago has been well-documented, not least in this blog by yours truly. And I am a huge fan of this development, having lived through the dark days in this city in the early 2000's when, if you wanted Asian food, you had to consign yourself to one of the many dingy 'Vietnamese-Chinese' places scattered around Krakow's backstreets and suburbs. MSG-packed meals of variable quality but at milk-bar prices were served by disinterested staff in chilly premises, and they were oddly popular – so much so that many of these stalwarts still stubbornly survive today. Luckily, Horai ('Paradise' in Japanese) opened in 2006, and things started to look up. It was an instant hit, providing the first real Thai curries, noodle dishes and (good) sushi in the city at modest prices and in comfortable surrounds. Since then, competition has come and gone, hipsters have moved on to hipper things and Horai has moved premises (albeit only to the other side of Plac Wolnica) and yet it remains steadfastly to its blueprint of providing pan-Asian food at affordable prices. As a resident of this area, I decided it was time to revisit the place and check out whether it is still cutting the mustard (or chilli). Also, it's recently had a makeover and has had a change of menu, so it was definitely time for a reappraisal.
The first thing you notice when you enter Horai is the laid-back feel of the place. Tastefully-lit tables, the odd pot-bellied buddha and an exotic fish tank and evocative shots on the wall of south east Asia set the right tone, and the music is relaxing. An interesting wall design with rocks behind a wire mesh gives it an original feel. In general, the atmosphere is mellow and there are usually only couples or small groups here rather than families or parties. A couple of Zen-like sushi masters prepare their wares in view of the customer, and the fresh seafood, salmon, butterfish tuna etc is on display, to forego, presumably, the oft-made claim of places like this not selling fresh fish. The sushi selection is extensive. In fact the menu in general is bewilderingly long and unwieldy, something that these days seems to have become a complete restaurant no-no. I'm not quite sure why this is; maybe people don't like too much choice anymore in these days of mass dumbing down; I'm pretty sure it has something to do with Gordon Ramsey – or Magda Gessler, if you prefer. I have found over the years that this is not a drawback in Horai, because I have yet to come across a dish that I've been genuinely disappointed with.
The menu has been changed, although I have to say it's largely cosmetic. Has the restaurant missed a trick in not fully refreshing the menu? Time will tell. It may be a big risk to chuck out all the dishes that have served it well. However, adding new dishes keeps things fresh. The menu has more order to it now, and feels less unwieldy; a few dishes have been subtracted and one or two added. There are more pictures. Suffice to say that your strategy in Horai should probably be to know roughly what you want before you enter – Japanese in the form of sushi, ramen or tempura, Thai in the form of Pad Thai, various curries and other rice/noodle dishes; Chinese, Indonesian and even Korean form the majority of the rest of the menu. My one criticism here is that there could be better signposting in the menu as to where all the dishes actually originate. I ordered a beer (Tyskie wheat beer, 9zł) and noticed there were a few Japanese beers available in small bottles for about 14zł. My partner ordered a choya plum wine (15zł). As a long-time visitor to this restaurant, I have tried most of what is on the menu, but I hadn't fully investigated the sushi options - of which there are four pages. I decided to have some sushi as a starter. Kasia ordered a urimaki set of six which comprised of grilled butterfish in teriyaki sauce (29zł) and I got six karamaki karifornia – crabstick, prawns, avocado and mayonnaise (28zł). I've never had bad sushi here, and the portions are always pretty good – delicious sizable chunks of nutritious rice and fish. The lightly heated karifornia were particularly good. The dishes were so well-presented and the ingredients here so fresh that it's a surprise to me that more people don't talk it up as one of the best sushi options in town.
Next, I tried a spicy Thai fish soup – this is one of my favourite soups in any cuisine, and when done well, it can literally alter your state of mind – especially in the depths of winter when it can be a real pick-me-up. Luckily, here it is. Simultaneously sweet, sour, salty and savoury, it contains fried fish, mushrooms, shallots, lemongrass, ginger, tomatoes, water chestnuts, chilli and lime, amongst other things. It's extremely rich, tasty and very filling. At 15zł, it's very well-priced, because the 350ml serving will leave you satisfied and in need of no more than a average-sized main. In fact, after just these two courses I was quite full already. This soup had just the right balance - loaded, but not over-loaded, with both ingredients and taste.
Moving on to the main course, my default option in this restaurant is usually a Thai curry. They are the creamiest and most authentic Thai curries I've tasted in Kraków, and I noticed that you can now order green, yellow or red curries to your preferred level of spiciness with whichever meat (chicken, pork, beef or duck) you like – and there is a vegetarian version for each (25-30zł). Bami Goreng (29zł) is also a long-time favourite – an Indonesian noodle dish with beef, chicken and prawns. However, I decided to try one of the new dishes on the menu. I had wanted to try the new crispy duck wraps with hoisin sauce (15zł), but unfortunately that wasn't available, so instead I went for Paitan Ramen (30zł).
Served in an 800ml bowl, there was no way I was going to finish this. It comes with a huge portion of noodles - as well as sliced pork, pak choi, a fermented egg, shiitake mushrooms, beansprouts, chilli paste, a slice of seaweed and a reconstituted fish slice. This type of ramen is served with an opaque broth – it's super-thick and for me more flavourful than the clear broth. The slices of meat were tender and nicely crisped on the outside - how I like it. I enjoyed it immensely. Again, I'm surprised that no one talks about Horai when it comes to ramen options in Kraków. Just over the road at Akita, queues are snaking down the street, so there is clearly a big appetite for this dish in Kraków right now. I'd put this fact down to snobbishness – I've tried ramen at both places, and for me there isn't a great difference. It's certainly cheaper here. As with sushi, perceptions are probably that it can't be as good as at other because it's not all they do. I'd question this perceived wisdom though.
The dessert list is short and fairly unimpressive, compared to the vast array of savoury and spicy dishes. This reflects Asian cuisine well in my experience, where soups and main courses form the mainstay of diets and sweet food other than fruit is notable by its absence. The green tea ice cream was off the menu unfortunately, so I went for 'exotic fruits' in syrup. It's basically just lychees and pineapples out of a tin. Best to skip it. I concluded the meal with a pot of green tea and reflected that, despite the competition, this is still the daddy of Asian restaurants in Krakow, and the benchmark to which others must aspire. It ticks all the boxes – choice, quality, portions, price – and does it all without too much fuss. It's the perfect place to go if you're in a group who want non-specific Asian food and you can't decide what, but it's also perfect for a quiet meal with a partner or solo visit. Almost everything on the menu is high quality, and you can return on numerous occasions without becoming bored. I should know. For me there is no higher recommendation. Paradise indeed, for all Asian foodies.
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