Eating with the Adversary

When writers at Prague Compass were planning a review of international restaurants in Prague, we realized that coincidentally, our top choices were all cuisines from countries that have "issues" with the West. Seeing this as a good chance to open our minds as well as our mouths, we embarked on a culinary tour that bucked all travel advisories and trade embargoes... and we uncovered some of the most unusual, happenin' cuisine in Prague.

Afghanistan: Ariana
Ariana is tucked into a side street off Dlouhá, but stepping into its one large room is like stepping into a different continent and time: pre-9/11 Kabul. Ariana is a hangout for Prague's small but tight community of Afghan exiles; on a Friday night, eight men gathered around a long back table, their voices carrying above the Indian pop music. The decor is modest, with Afghan rugs and nicely upholstered chairs, but plain tablecloths, kitchy posters, and the lighting a little too bright. Czech customers filled out a few tables, but the restaurant was quieter than it deserves to be.

Although Afghan cuisine has much in common with Turkish cooking, Afghan food tends to be hotter and less sweet. Ariana has a wide selection of unusual dishes you won't find in the average Turkish restaurant and this variety, and its novelty, are Ariana's greatest strengths.

The menu forewarns that "cooking lasts at least 20 minutes," so while waiting we munched on a light Persian flatbread and a hot chutney that was more like a green Mexican chili sauce than an Indian chutney. There is no special Afghan alcohol on the menu (these are good Muslims), but the bar has a full complement of liquor, Czech and French wines by the glass and bottle, and Pilsner on tap. We tried the dogh, a yogurt drink with small cubes of cucumber and dried mint. It was not as sweet as the Indian and Turkish versions and a little heavy; I resisted the impulse to impolitely mix it with my food like a raita.

As an appetizer we sampled the fried aubergine (39 CZK), deservedly a customer favorite. Melting slices of aubergine swim in a tangy onion and tomato sauce, topped with yogurt dressing and dried mint. This dish is available as a main course (149 CZK) with bread and rice for vegetarians. We also sampled the steamed spinach with leeks, which was tender and not oily, but a little bland. Then the kofta arrived: ground beef medallions in a fragrant sauce with onions, green pepper, garlic, and ground coriander. I broke a 15-year ban on red meat to taste it (ah, the sacrifices one makes as a restaurant reviewer!), and it was almost worth it. My dining partner Dani, who considers himself something of a connoisseur of Afghan food, described the kofta as "very good".

The ashak (169 CZK), though, was our hands-down favorite. Flavorful steamed leeks are stuffed in dough pockets, bathed in sauce with split peas and minced mutton sauce, and topped with yogurt dressing. The ashak has a truly unique taste and texture-this, now, was worth eating red meat for. Dani´s comment was, "If I came here 50 times, I would order this dish 50 times.".

Mantu (also 169 CZK) is a variation on the same theme, with minced mutton instead of leeks inside the pockets, giving this dish a meatier flavor and texture. We also tried the qabuli uzbeki, a golden basmati rice pilaf with minced carrots and juicy raisins (199 CZK), and the chicken and turkey kebabs, which were a bit disappointing because the meat was fatty (229 CZK).

For dessert, we enjoyed the milky sweet tea flavored with cardamom and cinnamon (30 CZK) along with a flattened mass of halvah and sliced almonds (25 CZK). Water pipes are available to smoke for 150 CZK, though these are reportedly not the best in town, since the cheap coals can get through the filter.

Ajmal Omar, a regular and friend of the owner, says that because Afghanistan is at a geographical crossroads, Afghan culture is a mix of influences. "The music is Indian, the food is Turkish, the language is Persian and the way of thinking is similar to Russia." Ariana used to be called "Kabul," but changed its name after 9/11. Omar says that although he has received different treatment from Westerners since that time, Prague residents have always treated him courteously

Ariana's prices are mid-range; expect to pay 200-400 CZK per person for dinner, including drinks, appetizer, main course and dessert. The lunch menu, is a good value at 89 CZK, and includes soup, a main course, and rice.

Korean/Japanese: Hanil
Open three years, this classy, popular hideaway on the Vinohrady/Žižkov border combines a wide selection of Korean dishes with some of the freshest sushi in town. Its tasteful decor is distinctly Japanese, with wooden booths, marble tabletops, and soft light from Japanese paper lanterns. Korean and Czech chefs prepare sushi at the four-seat sushi bar while harried but friendly staff fly past. Korean music is detectable in rare quiet pauses beneath the hubbub of customers; reservations are recommended.

We started with tastes of Korean spirits: soju, a mild and smooth rice spirit, and insomju, an earthy ginseng spirit, both made onsite and 40-80 CZK per shot. Other drink options include saké and plum wine, Czech and international wines and beers, and Japanese tea.

Kim chee, Korea's national dish, makes a good appetizer at 85 CZK. Though the cabbage had been marinated in vinegar and spices for two weeks, it still tasted fresh and crisp, with just the right balance of sour and spice. Other appetizers include variations on sashimi, seaweed, bean curd, and tempura.

Another quintessential Korean dish is the thin beef marinated in a traditional sweet sauce with onions, zucchini, and sesame (450 CZK), a house secret recipe. The beef was just the right texture; I was actually beginning to enjoy this whole cow thing. We watched other interesting Korean dishes zoom past, such as "belly of pork with vegetables and spicy sauce" and "rice with vegetables, meat, and hot sauce contained in a very hot stone bowl," crowned with a sizzling fried egg (320 CZK).

The second half of Hanil's menu is devoted to standard sushi and sashimi favorites. At 75-100 CZK a piece, it's Western-priced like other Prague sushi, but the portions are slightly larger than in many restaurants.

We tried the white tuna, red tuna, and salmon sushi and sashimi. Each piece had perfect texture and flavor, melting deliciously on the tongue. The California maki's rich avocado (12 for 350 CZK) made it perhaps the best I've tasted, even in California. The fish seems very fresh, though its origin is another management secret. The rice, a make-or-break component to sushi, also has an ideal weight, stickiness, and fragrance. If you come with friends, the sushi-sashimi-maki set is a good choice, with 40 gorgeous pieces of 10 different varieties for 1,450 CZK. Smaller sets are available for less.

We met Jay, a newly arrived expat who was working five jobs so that he could eat sushi, and this was his first taste in Prague. His dish was generous portions of eel in a sweet orange sauce; although the eel did not dissolve under his chopsticks as he had anticipated, he was happy to have his craving sated.

Hanil's desserts include stewed lychee and mango, and Japanese rice cakes with red bean paste. For dinner, expect to pay 400 to 700 CZK per person; Korean and Japanese lunch boxes are available for 240-340 CZK. Hanil is a classy place to satisfy a longing for Asian specialties... though it might only make you want more.

Cuban: La Bodeguita del Medio
La Bodeguita del Medio, or "the little store in the middle," is a Cuban restaurant, cocktail bar, and cigar lounge-but more an experience than any of these things. Boisterous and fun, it's a rabbit warren of rooms packed with reveling locals and tourists. Professional salsa dancers grace the scene three nights a week, to the jolly music of a live Cuban quartet. In the warmer months there is garden seating in back. Just opposite the Starometské metro on Kaprova, La Bodeguita is a convenient place for entertaining large groups, beginning a night on a town, or grabbing a late dinner after the theatre (the kitchen closes at 1 a.m.).

La Bodeguita first opened in Havana in 1942 as a general store, and is now an international chain of 12 restaurants. Customers can write graffiti on the walls, between autographed photos of famous guests such as Pablo Neruda and Ernest Hemingway, who used to enjoy mohitos at the original La Bodeguita and coined their slogan, "My mohito in La Bodeguito."

These legendary drinks are not as sweet as others you'll find in Prague, and the mint flavor is more subtle. The result is a mellow, quickly consumed beverage that packs a wallop. Another Cuban specialty is the cherry-flavored daiquiri frappé, generously sized and very sweet. The caipirinhas , Brazilian cousin to the mojito, are a good variation on the theme. An extensive cocktail menu includes an entire page of different whiskeys, and yet another menu lists dozens of Czech and international wines.

The menu's most Cuban-inspired appetizers are the "octopus in garlic marinade" (135 CZK) and the shrimp cocktail (125 CZK). Presented in a clamshell, the tiny, delicately textured octopi swim in a fragrant sauce that balances garlic, red pepper, chilies, and lime. Our first shrimp cocktail was delivered to our table in a precarious state and landed on the floor; the second featured three delicious, grill-blackened prawns crowning an unremarkable "pink salsa" of shrimp and cream sauce. Other appetizers include chicken wings and "goat cheese on the grill served with spinach leaves, roasted pine nuts, pancetta and balsamic vinaigrette" (110 CZK).

When the restaurant first opened a year ago, the menu offered 60% Cuban food and the rest "international." However, manager Jan Mulac found that "Czechs are not so interested in Cuban food," and revised the menu to include only five true Cuban dishes buried at the back.

To sample a variety of Cuban tastes, the best choice is the mixed Cuban platter for two (455 CZK), which combines shredded beef stewed in peppers (bring it on!), tender chunks of lean pork marinated with garlic, breaded fish pieces, fried potato pancakes, earthy black beans, mild sweet salsa, a rice/black bean pilaf, and dried banana chips. It's a generous platter that holds plenty for two, subtly but authentically spiced.

For those who prefer non-Cuban cuisine, choices include an intriguing salmon roasted in banana leaves with banana tostones (270 CZK), grilled monkfish, several steak plates (which Mr. Mulac says has the reputation of being the best in Prague), and creamy pastas, as well as the daily chef´s specials. Vegetarians are directed to the "provencal vegetables aux gratin with Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce." Soups, salads, and side dishes are also available. Desserts include the 75 CZK cayo coco ice cream sundae with coconut liqueur, or you can splurge on a Cuban cigar in the upstairs lounge priced anywhere from 50 to 800 CZK.

If you dine sans cigar, expect to pay between 400 and 600 CZK per person. We agreed that the food is delicious, but secondary to the atmosphere of La Bodeguita. Service can be slow, but there are enough distractions that it hardly matters. At the table neighboring ours, three girls from Look Models were celebrating a birthday. They had had a few mojitos too many; one attempted to charm my uncomplaining dining companion and then stood on the banquet table of a dozen amused British businessmen and their wives. She salsa'd down the length of the table as the men looked up her skirt, until a manager pulled her off. She then began pounding the drummer's equipment, to his polite chagrin, while several of us got up to dance our own renditions of salsa. It was an evening not to be forgotten.

I admit that I had never tried Afghan, Korean, or Cuban cuisine until this assignment, which says as much about the exoticness of these foods as it does about my ignorance as a restaurant reviewer. It's not every day that you'll have the chance to eat these cuisines, and you can try them here in Prague for less than you'd spend in the West.

On a sobering note, Internet searches for "Afghan food" reveal more articles about food drops during the war than gourmet recipes. As Omar says, in today's Afghanistan, "if you even have the chance to get some food, you are rich." Eating food like Ariana's is only for royalty. There's also a desperate famine in North Korea, so the situation is much the same. And in Cuba, the original La Bodequito mojito is, at $4, 1/5 of the average Cuban's monthly salary. From this perspective, criticizing these restaurants seems a bit frivolous. We hope that the inhabitants of these countries will one day have the opportunity to enjoy the same kind of food that we found here in Prague.

The Details:

Restaurace Ariana
Rámova 6, Prague 1
tel./fax: 222 323 438
Open daily 11-23

Slavíkova 24, P3
tel: 222 715 867 Visa, Mastercard, AmEx
Open Mon-Sat 11-14:30 and 17:30-23; Sunday 17:30-23

La Bodeguita del Medio
Kaprova 5, P1
tel: 224.813.922 Visa, Mastercard, AmEx
Open daily 10:00 -2:00