The Bill (£1 = 25 CZK)
Starters £2.40 - £5.50 | Mains £7.00 - £11.40
Desserts £2.40 - £3.60
Cooking 5.5/10 | Service 4/5
Flavour 4/5 | Value 5/5
In the mid 1990s when Bill Bryson was at his funniest, he had us chuckling with a wry look at ourselves in Notes from a Small Island, his tale of travels round the UK. Don't miss his account of trying to stop for a quick pint before visiting the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. When, a brief twenty years later, it was announced that he was publishing a follow up, The Road to Little Dribbling, I was sceptical. Things haven't changed that much, have they? Well I read the book and boy was I wrong.
So I shouldn't have been all that surprised by our little recherche du temps perdu the other week. In 2002 L and I honeymooned in Prague (start saving now for the 21st anniversary in April). Since then I've been back about a dozen times, primarily to visit family, the eldest daughter having worked and studied there, now with the added bonus of a young grandson. Having seen virtually all the sights there really is no cause for me to visit the centre. (Top tip for would be visitors - base yourself half a mile or slightly more away from the main square and prices plummet. An immaculately renovated four star hotel cost less than 200 quid for three nights.)
On the third day we went for a long meander and found ourselves in Josefov, site of the first visit. Our hotel, once a monastery, was now offices. A nearby informal French brasserie which we had often enjoyed now boasted a Michelin star and a 145€ tasting menu. So, with beer in mind, we turned to today's hero, which in our memory was a rather scruffy pub. It wasn't at all as we recalled but still very Czech, a series of long rooms and tables giving a tunnel like appearance. But an immaculate and spotless tunnel, beer being poured from large and gleaming tanks and wonderful cooking smells emanating from the back. Let's have the menu, please.
It turns out that this is now part of a small chain, seven outlets in Prague and a couple more further afield. In Britain that wouldn't normally be a recommendation, but this is rather different. The website describes it as a hip restaurant with an industrial decor & a menu of local ingredients cooked to order. The ages of the groups of pensioners, obviously regulars, might put a question mark at the adjective hip, unless the word replacement followed, but otherwise that's pretty sound. The place just had a good feel. Buzzing on a Monday in January, this is a space of perpetual motion with energetic and friendly staff delivering plate after glass after plate.
The menu comprises Czech staples - but it changes daily. The phrase Czech cuisine won't cause too much fluttering in the heart of the average gourmet, but this is a cut above. According to the website, their food is made using only fresh ingredients and spices sourced from renowned regional suppliers. And for once you can believe it. Everything is prepared in-house and they have a separate unit where they smoke their own meat.
To start you can, of course, have a variety of sausage plates, or ham or brawn or marinated cheese. I dread to think what the pork crackling spread might do to your arteries, but on the whole the food is much less lardy than in the bad old days. If you fancy a sausage and it's your first visit, beware. The puddle of mustard is of the rather good German style variety, with a pleasant balance of heat and sweet. You could happily spread it on their good rye bread and eat it just like that. But do not think that next to it you have grated cabbage. That, best beloved, is horseradish. Take any more than a smidgin and it will speedily work its way through every sinus cavity in your head before erupting simultaneously from ears, nostrils and eyeballs.
On to mains. A good chicken schnitzel came with about half a pound of potato salad. The Czech variety is perhaps closer to that which we know as Russian salad, and thankfully avoids the sweetness you may find in its equivalent in neighbouring Austria. A Hungarian goulash was fine, though lacking in paprika. I would like to have returned a couple of days later when a beef shin version was served. Czech "dumplings" resemble large slices of white bread and there were four of them on the plate. Two sufficed to mop up the massive puddle of gravy. Other mains include braised pork or pork belly, meatloaf and baked pasta. The latter isn't a veggie option, as there is ham in the 300 gram serving. For the gluttons among you, with a main course order they will serve you as much of the sauce and side dishes as you can eat.
Don't even think of crossing the border if you're a vegan, and if you're a conventional vegetarian be prepared to be disappointed. Fried cheese with tartare sauce and buttered potatoes is your only main course option, after your starter of marinated Olomouc curd cheese. Hey ho. Puds comprised two different profiterole dishes and a Czech biscuit. All with cream. You have to keep the fat quotient up somehow, even if your food is lighter than in days of yore.
I'm aware that this isn't everyone's style of food. When it's done well, as here, I love it. You will see from the waitress's preprinted order form that they expect a lot of beer to be drunk with it, and quite right too. Home made grub and a pint in tip top condition. If you're in old Prague town, seek out one of these Lokal gems.