PRAGUE — A second "velvet revolution" is spreading through this Czech Republic city.
Young chefs are using the latest culinary techniques to carve a fresh path for Prague's restaurant scene.
Wenceslas Square remains home to nearly every fast-food outlet imaginable, and the Old Town Square offers tourists a bounty of street food and "traditional" Czech dishes such as goulashes, sausages and dumplings served with lots of fine Czech beer.
But in the small, twisting streets away from the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti), small plates are multiplying, light sauces are replacing traditional ragouts, and degustation and sous vide appear on numerous menus.
In some instances, a happy marriage exists between traditional fare and modern preparation. The Blue Duckling (Nebovidska 6, 118 00 Prague 1, Lesser Town; umodrekachnicky.cz) is not a place for vegetarians. The menu of this ornate, antique-filled restaurant in the Mala Strana neighborhood is loaded with modern versions of traditional game dishes, and as the name indicates it specializes in duck. On our visit, seven different duck preparations were on the menu along with six other game dishes. The four versions served at our table came with lighter, more modern sauces and accompaniments. And all met with universal acclaim.
If you are really hungry, try the seasonal degustation menu. It includes such items as foie gras and wild mushroom pate, creamy chicken soup, sauteed pike, duck breast and dessert. The only drawback is that the Blue Duckling's concept of degustation-size portions is aimed toward the appetites of NFL linebackers.
The wine list is extensive and extremely varied. The number of good values far surpasses those that are overpriced.
Situated on one of those tiny side streets just off the Old Town Square, Divinis (Tynska 21, 110 00, Prague 1; divinis.cz) isn't the easiest restaurant to find, but the warm welcome you receive as you enter the cream-and-dark-wood dining room makes you glad you did.
The menu is filled with enticing choices (snow crab salad on pear carpaccio, trio of lamb), but listen closely when your server describes the specials. The warm appetizer special sounded simple: a grilled calamari salad. A large portion of radicchio, escarole and bib lettuces arrived topped with the tenderest, sweetest calamari I have ever eaten, none even as large as my little finger. The calamari were simply flash grilled with olive oil, lemon and salt.
The duck special entree was two hefty "logs" of duck breast served with a light red currant-rhubarb sauce and potato puree. It arrived perfectly medium rare and beautifully presented.
As I savored the last of my half-bottle of 2003 Solare from the extensive list, I opted for the selection of cheese instead of a sweet dessert. It was the perfect ending.
VinoDiVino (Stupartska 769/18, 110 00 Prague 1; vinodivino.cz) bills itself as a combination restaurant and wine shop, and its exceptional selection of wines surrounds diners in both its ground-level and cellar-level dining rooms. The focus on wines might make you feel that the food is secondary, but a few bites will alter that concept.
When the warm, fresh focaccia redolent with thyme and rosemary arrives at the table, diners realize this isn't your average trattoria. Slices of seared tuna topped with fresh mozzarella and dill drizzled with delicate balsamic glaze make a perfect first course. Flamed prawns served with a brandy cream sauce accented with saffron and tarragon may sound a bit heavy, but in the chef's hands the result is almost airy.
Located in an art nouveau building not far from the Old Town Square, Chagall's Club Restaurant (Kozi 916/5, 110 00 Prague 1; chagalls.cz) is a top candidate for the flag-bearer of Prague's culinary revolution.
This was the only true degustation menu I encountered: eight delicious courses beautifully presented and appropriately sized.
The chef's amuse-bouche of smoked veal slivers over finely diced pickled radish set a high standard that carried throughout the meal to the dessert, homemade vanilla ice cream and strawberry sorbet with fresh strawberries and rhubarb.
Trying to select the best course from the degustation offerings was a bit like trying to choose your favorite child. The scallops in sea urchin-mushroom cream sauce were spectacular, but the sea bass meuniere with scallions, black truffles and new potatoes was simply ethereal.
Though a wine accompaniment option was not available, the by-the-glass choices were plentiful enough to pair an appropriate wine with each course.
And that brings me to one weakness in this revolution in cuisine: Czech wines don't seem to have kept pace. I won't claim to have tasted most of them or even necessarily the best of them, but the Czech whites tend to be thin and somewhat astringent; the reds are flabby and structureless. Stick with the Italian or French wines to complement the exhilarating changes that are gracing Prague's tables.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun