One foot in the past, the other in the future. Eternal monuments, well-kept secrets, revolutionary restaurants. The Czech capital is more vibrant than ever.
Tomato, dill, plum. Trout, elderberry blossom, leek. Golden beet, ricotta, poppy seeds. Dumplings, cabbage, onion. In the kitchen overlooking the elegant low-lit dining room, an army of cooks perform a dance that extends to a handful of tables with what seem more like small sculptures than simple three ingredients dishes. Spheres, powders, liquids and drops of gel delicately interact with flavours that are one minute smoked, the next dehydrated, but always surprising. The show continues with ox tongue, giant mushrooms, juniper, pork neck, apples… And ends with an unusual combination of stout, caramel and nuts. Each stage is paired with artisanal juice: sage; carrot and apple with hints of horseradish; wild currant with rosemary; grape soda. Welcome to Oldrich Sahajdak’s kitchen, where nothing is as it seems.
Forget goulash, potato soup, breaded and fried cheese, sauerkraut. In recent years, Prague has seen a veritable gastronomic revolution and the traditional, heavy dishes of the East, perpetuated by winter’s chilly temperatures and arduous years of communism, are no longer the staple diet – or not necessarily, as they were until recently. This isn’t cutting ties with the past. What Chef Sahajdak rather pompously calls La Degustation Bohême Borgeoise is a re- -interpretation of classics. A boldness that has earned him the country’s first Michelin star for a 100% Czech menu.
Sahajdak isn’t alone. Five minutes from his restaurant, chef Radek Kasparek (star of the local Masterchef) shimmers at Field, where he oversees a team dedicated to amazing diners. This involves a mixture of delicate textures and flavours with occasional pyrotechnics using liquid nitrogen bubbles and creamy foams bursting with flavour. The result? Another Michelin star in Prague. Close by is Karlín, the fashion district and host to more metamorphoses. Boasting a rather industrial feel, Eska epitomises all the big city hipster stereotypes: it makes its own bread (naturally fermented, of course), is dedicated to kombucha (fermented Indian tea), and serves artisanal tonic water in its G&Ts. The menu is an ode to vegetables, where dishes such as potatoes draped in ash are accompanied by smoked fish creme. In the neighbouring Nejen Bistro, edible clay and carrots on fire share the menu with chanterelle mushrooms, leg of lamb and tartars on dishes that, once again, look like works of art.
Majestically constructed over a thousand years ago on the banks of the Vltava River, Prague, the City of Towers, escaped the World War II bombings unscathed and remains one of the best-preserved cities in Eastern Europe – and is more vibrant than ever (as well as tastier).
Home to the world’s largest castle according to the Guinness Book of Records (a complex covering over 70,000 square metres, now the President’s official residence), one of the planet’s most stunning bridges, and a collection of churches and grandiose temples, the city has managed to modernise without losing its soul. Today, the medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and pastel-hued art nouveau façades rub shoulders with the futuristic features of design hotels, as well as intrepid projects such as the Lanterna Magika Theatre, a glass-fronted building next to the very traditional National Theatre, and with the boldness of the contorted lines of the Dancing House, designed by Croatian architect Vlado Milunić and the Canadian Frank Gehry.
The iconic Television Tower (216 metres tall) is now a more amusing sight since it became home to the “babies” created by the most famous contemporary Czech artist, David Cerny, in the early 2000s. The Holesovice neighbourhood is always surprising, whether it’s because of Dox, the city’s first contemporary art and design gallery, which has an immense zeppelin replica floating over the building, or spots like Vnitroblock, an old run-down factory that now houses shops, cafes and art studios, often with the sound of DJ sets.
The days still begin in classic cafés, like the Savoy, which was opened in 1893, where traditional Czech food meets French cuisine for delicious breakfasts. Later, it’s time to visit beer gardens, the city jewels that explain why Prague has the highest per capita beer consumption on the planet. That’s the obvious stuff. However, the essence of Prague always leaves room for new and old (re)discoveries.
The unexpected includes things like the first edition of Heroica, Beethoven’s third symphony, on display in the Lobkowitz Palace collection, below the castle (which also houses one of Velázquez’s Meninas). There’s also the majestic National Library, a baroque building in the Klementinum complex, replete with books collected from 1600, with impressive ornate gilded carvings and a ceiling fresco depicting the Temple of Wisdom. Like the brewery tucked away in the garden of the Brevnov Monastery (993), the oldest in the country. Like the now-deactivated underground water treatment plant that Hollywood has used for films like Mission: Impossible. Or the interior stairs of the iconic House of the Black Madonna building, which is home to the Czech Museum of Cubism, which looks a bit like a lamp when seen from the bottom up.
The list can be extended further to things such as the new Museum of Communism; revisiting flavours of the past at the brand new Kuchyn, a restaurant that goes against the flow by offering classic Czech cuisine with a new twist (the food is in copper pots on the hob and includes dishes that speak directly to the Czech heart); and a visit to the dilapidated corridors and rooms of Invalidovna, a magnificent building inspired by the Parisian Invalides, and built for the same purpose (a dormitory for war invalids). Currently, in a state of semi-abandonment, there are guided tours and it’s popular with film directors and stylists because of its unusual design and decadence avec elegance. The purest essence of Prague.
by Rachel Verano /// photos Bruno Barata
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