Czech cuisine on the map

Visitors are pictured at a food and beverage stand in the Czech Republic hall at the world's biggest Exhibition for the Food Industry, Agriculture and Horticulture in Berlin, Germany. Picture: EPA

Sunday, November 21, 2010

FOOD in the Czech republic has long been known for being unpretentious and stolid "food for diggin' holes", as an American expat once put it to me over a large plate of doughy knedliky (dumplings) and boiled meat in a Prague brewery.

This traditional lumpen fare is what tourists still expect to eat on a trip to eastern Europe and there are still many places where you can sample it. But the past few years have seen a slew of contemporary restaurants open in Prague, offering excellent modern cuisine.

My first encounter was with Andrea Accordi's sumptuous homemade ravioli at the Four Seasons' acclaimed Allegro restaurant (Veleslavi{aac}nova 2a, fourseasons.com/prague) which raised the bar for Prague dining and, in 2008, was the first to be awarded a Michelin star in a post-communist country. It was about as far from stodgy as you can get, and in the same class as the restaurant's romantic vistas across the river towards Prague castle.

V Zatisi restaurant in Prague. Haute Czech food has long been available in Prague at establishments such as V Zatisi (Betlémské nám/Liliová 1, zatisigroup.cz/en/vzatisi), whose tasting menus, while pricey, are nothing short of a culinary revelation in terms of "updated" local cuisine. The kulajda soup is served with sour cream and a quail's egg, the pan-fried pike perch (or zander) is superb, and the apple strudel would be suitable for a Habsburg monarch.

Less formal, slightly cheaper and more focused on the Czech culinary traditions of duck and game is U Modré Kachnicky (Nebovidská 6, umodrekachnicky.cz), whose cosy interior is reminiscent of a grandmother's home, and the food accordingly comforting. The richness of dishes such as wild boar and glazed duck breasts (not to mention the excellent sauces) similarly hark back to an older and more refined era.

More and more restaurants in the city are busy upgrading familiar prosaic classics into lighter and ultimately more palatable fare. Pavel Maurer, the man behind the Prague-based Grand Restaurant guide and the annual Prague Food Festival (praguefoodfestival.com), is one of the key protagonists in a growing network of people who are changing the image of Czech cuisine, aiming for both higher standards and more affordable prices. "Most of our good food habits were destroyed under socialism," says Maurer. "During this time, there were only three kinds of foreign restaurants in Prague: Russian, Indian and Chinese. You had to book a table two months ahead. Other restaurants cooked pretty much all the same food with very limited variants." Things are very different now. Last year, around 50 new venues opened, many of them run by restaurateurs aware of an increasing, recession-led demand for simpler food that is good value for money and preferably local, yet without the stodge. This year's Grand Restaurant guide, which draws on an anonymous group of chefs and critics as well as the general public, to rank hundreds of Czech restaurants, underlined a new shift away from upmarket international eateries (Allegro slipped down the list, despite holding onto its Michelin star) in favour of places such as Lokal (Dlouhá 33, ambi.cz), which offers simple, good Czech dishes.

The Guardian
 


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