bohemian rhapsody

hospoda

Is there something readily identifiable as Czech cuisine? Though I’ve spent time in Prague, I can’t for the life of me remember any food. (At that particular time in my life the city’s chief attractions were Kafka, Havel, and bottomless pitchers of Budvar.) Blame the Soviet Union, but I think if you put a gun to my head, I’d lump the Czechs in with every slavic variant of Eastern Europe: grey meat, grey veg, and some form of potato – lard binding it all together, natch. Not so much a cuisine as communism on a greasy plate. No wonder I’ve blocked out the memories behind an Iron Curtain. Yet as the Velvet Revolution proved all too well, sometimes change – like God – comes so quickly. Hospoda, a new restaurant on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall – itself a recently renovated holdout from the days when New York’s Yorkville and Upper East Side were a hive of mittel-European emigration – is doing for Czech food what the Plastic People of the Universe did for the Czech people: expanding the perception of possibilities. And it starts, as you’d expect, with Czech beer. There’s no getting around it as it comes to the table like an aperitif, whether you want it or not: lightly sweet pilsner with a creamy head of foam that’s so tasty you’ll toss aside the wine list and ask for a proper Krug-full. An appetizer of grilled hen of the woods is the next pleasant surprise. On a bed of tuscan kale and topped by a perfectly cooked parmesan poached egg there’s a meaty earthiness to the dish, complemented by a slow flow of viscous yolk that pools in a puddle of chicken jus and creates a sauce I’d be happy to lap up as soup. Fried egg bread sounds like something Elvis might have conjured up: Prague-style smoked ham, mustard, pickles, horseradish and apple relish on rye bread, dipped in egg and pan-fried. It’s like the bastard child of a grilled cheese and a croque monsieur – and equally delicious. A crispy veal schnitzel is fork tender and surprisingly light – even with a Yukon gold puree that has more cream and butter than I  generally consume in a week. The addition of pickled baby beets is a deceptively smart idea, bringing another taste and texture to the plate and elevating what could have simply been (very good) meat and potatoes. Prawns are another unexpected dish: perfectly cooked and succulent. I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the schmear of fennel puree but a brightly dressed salad of arugula with raw fennel actually made the puree unnecessary except as plate decoration – which it very well may have been, setting off the vibrant red heads of the prawns. I hope you’re noticing the trend here: traditionally rich, hearty foods updated and elevated side by side with seasonally appropriate yet geographically non-specific modern plates rich in flavor. It’s satisfying without being too heavy – or guilt-inducing. And global – as thought through by a Czech palate. Over dessert it all intertwines – and beautifully so, I might add. Crispy Czech pancakes layered with soft-poached granny smith apples would have been satisfying unadorned. Ringed with a crazy-delicious beer foam creme anglaise, however, it becomes a dish worthy of taking to the streets for. Hospoda chefs Oldrich Sahajdak and Katie Busch might not be rock stars – though with chefs you never know – but together they’re cooking up an altogether more appetizing kind of Prague spring.

grilled hen o the woods, tuscan kale, and parmesan poached eggs

fried egg bread with ham, pickles and horseradish

veal schnitzel

mayan prawns

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live blog: chow(der) hound

Local fish supplier Charlie Sexton has fished the waters off the coast of the village of Doonbeg for the past 25 years. The Atlantic coast is home to hake, cod, monkfish, and tiny prawns – all of which he catches to end up in the seafood chowder of Chef Wade Murphy, seen here teaching me how to do it properly, with the addition of clams, mussels, and salmon, in Darby’s at The Lodge at Doonbeg.

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more stars: ming court

After yesterday’s mess hall meal it was a no brainer to accept the invitation to dine at Ming Court, the Michelin two-star restaurant at Langham Place, Mongkok. I’ll be moving to Langham Place in a few days, too, so not only did it give me the chance to do a bit of neighborhood reconnaissance, but it also gave me the leisurely opportunity to sample the contemporary Cantonese menu of chef Tsang Chiu King. Sophisticated yet approachable - and very, very comfortable – it’s an engaging dining experience of traditional fresh flavors, creatively presented: a trio of dim sum; bean curd three ways – with prawns, braised with black truffle & gold leaf, and stuffed inside whole abalone with black mushroom; subtly elegant matsutake and bamboo funghi soup; stir fried giant garoupa; award-winning pan-fried chicken skin filled with chicken and black truffle, accompanied with sliced pumpkin; baked rice with chicken and cheese served in bell pepper; and a refreshing tofu bird’s nest “extravagance.” Best of all, the food doesn’t take itself too seriously. Chef Tsang is obviously – thankfully – focused on form following flavor. Which makes for happy palates – not to mention empty plates.

 

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