27 June 2023
Kraków is like cholent: you can sample a little or dive straight in, cutting through the layers into the depths of history. Each story about Kraków’s Kazimierz district starts with synagogues, temples and tenement houses, and each chapter tastes different.
The Izaak Synagogue in Kupa Street soars so high you have to raise your face up to the sky to see it. Built in the 1630s, it is named after its donor Izaak Jakubowicz, an elder of Kazimierz’s qahal. Look how different it is to the squat Stara Synagogue, the boxy Remuh and the ornate Tempel Synagogue built a few centuries later! The vast interiors are decorated with stuccos and polychromes, and the prayer halls for men and women are linked by arcades. Until the Second World War, a bustling fish market operated by the synagogue. Photos from a century ago show glistening piles of fat carp and perch, moustachioed catfish from the Vistula and grinning pike.
Once, the entire district was fragrant with cholent; today, golf carts bring lazy tourists snapping pics. Those more imaginative picture Kazimierz as it might have looked over the centuries, other sense the fragrance of celebratory dishes. Today, very real delicious smells lead us to the low threshold of 7 Izaaka Street, the former residence of the founder of the synagogue and now home to the restaurant A la Carte.
Legend has it that Jakubowicz dreamed that there was treasure hidden under the old bridge in Prague. He believed in dreams, so he immediately travelled to Prague only to find the bridge guarded by soldiers. He was about to turn back, but he got chatting to one of the officers and told him about his dream. The soldier retorted that he’d been dreaming of treasure in the oven of the home of the poor Jew Ayzik Jakubowicz in Kazimierz, but he wasn’t foolish enough to go all the way there to look for it. As soon as Izaak got home, he took the oven apart, found the treasure, became rich and built the synagogue and his own factory. As you cross over the threshold, you go down, way down into the cellars. There aren’t many places in Kazimierz where you can delve so deep.
The story of the place is shown on a colourful tapestry illustrating Izaak’s dream in a style resembling that of Chagall. It was made by Celine Levitan, descendant of Isaac Levitan, a favourite painter of Pavel Tretyakov. Celine specialises in artistic fabrics, and she meticulously reconstructs past events to build stories of rabbis from Chełm and illustrate the fates of notable Jews such as Izaak Jakubowicz and Menachem Kipnis. The figures adorning the restaurant walls seem to dance to the music by Justin Hurwitz, performed beautifully on piano.
Renowned restaurateur Adam Gessler serves the dishes himself in the style of a French maître. Each element is placed meticulously on the plate in the right order, beautifully arranged and sprinkled, doused and seasoned as appropriate. Heavenly herring are given time to infuse the linseed oil and are generously topped with onions and soured cream. Chilled beetroot soup is served in dainty bowl ahead of the elegant tench with roe of other Polish fish and topped with dill sauce. Each soup and main course – from herring to steak, maczanka [local stew served with bread – trans.] and chicken Kiev – is accompanied by specially matched wines from Gessler’s Gascon vineyard or potato vodka and Armagnac. Of course the maczanka is kosher, made with pulled beef – it would be unthinkable to bring pork to a place with such history.
Izaaka Street is just a tiny fragment of Kazimierz, almost like a scrap from Levitan’s tapestry. It’s a place imbued with atmosphere, history and soul, filled with flavours, like a cholent. The walls of A la Carte reveal further layers of history: Ashkenazi musicians drawn in bold lines dance around the starched tablecloths. A beautiful street filled with delicious fragrances, Monsieur Adam bowing low over the diners’ plates, busy chefs in crisp whites… Another journey back in time.
Polish philologist, sociologist, diplomat, musician, commentator on cultural life, music lover, Programme Director at KBF, currently Deputy of the Mayor of the City of Kraków for Culture.
The text was published in the 2/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.
ul. Stolarska 12Kraków’s Dominican Monastery is one of just remaining three in the world which has...
ul. Tetmajera 28Rydlówka, a one-of-a-kind destination, has multiple links to the art of the Young Poland...
al. Waszyngtona 1A place of remembrance devoted to a Polish and US freedom fighter, a popular destination for walks,...
St Benedict’s Church
ul. StawarzaThis small church can be seen from within only once a year, and its interior conceals a groin vault...
The Jan Matejko House
ul. Floriańska 41This is where the most famous Polish painter of the 19th century, whose paintings generations of...
WawelThe cave that the legendary dragon inhabited leads down from Wawel Hill to the bank of the Vistula....