La Bodeguita del Medio: Karpova, Prague, Czech Republic
It’s a world away from the cobbled streets and commercial humdrum of Prague city centre but it is in fact right at the heart of the Old Town and a restaurant popular with both tourists and locals alike. Prague delivers a number of different cuisines, notably popular are Italian and French but cuban and creole?
The place is a jungle. The windows at the front open right onto the pavement, allowing for easy access between bar and street, where two muscley Amercian 60’s cars are parked to add to the atmosphere. The walls are covered in a rainforest scene, creepers and potted plants dangling from balconies while the tables have glass tops so you can entertain yourself by peering at the sand and shells stored inside. You can choose to sit near the bar, where the chatter is loud and lively, or retreat to the inner depths of the surprisingly large building where quiet dining tables await you beside murky fish tanks and dark wooden staircases that almost resemble tropical trees.
The waitresses were all smiley, keen to top up our wine and water glasses and managing to not make it look like a chore. Lively music beats in the background, quiet enough to be unobtrusive while keeping the place fresh and vibrant, not that it needed to with the influx of clients; young, old, drinkers, diners and from all over the world too.
But to the food. Oh the food. Someone in this kitchen has their head screwed on the right way for quality. You can spot several traditional cuban-style dishes on the menu such as the ropa vieja (shredded beef) and arroz congri (red rice with beans). It’s the Eastern Cuban cuisine that dominates, with African and Carribean roots, but the more European cuisine of Western Cuba can also be found in the paellas, salmon and spicy bean soup. More eye-catching items might include the lobster in papaya sauce and fried malanga (a Cuban vegetable like potatoes.)
A starter of goat’s cheese gratin was, as my companion declared, “the best goat’s cheese starter I’ve ever had.” I can tell you that that’s a few. The cheese was of a fantastic quality – soft and creamy – sitting abed a light, flaky pastry, while the dried tomato on top provided that savoury aridity. The presentation was very chic and, admittedly, it surprised us as we expected something a little more “bashed-out and served-up” style given the lazy, cocktail-bar surroundings. A swirl of balsamic vinegar completed the dish and what a great start it was.
For mains, we picked two from the cuban specialities and a seafood dish, keen to see how it fared in a landlocked country. 4 fat tiger prawns baked in sea salt with a garlic puree rubbed off any doubts about that. The pink-white flesh was not at all chewy but juicy and complimented by crunchy crumbs of salt. The garlic puree was smooth and pungent, whipped to be light and delicate. A side of grilled vegetables consisted of courgette, tomato and pepper, the black lines scored across the chunky pieces – basic but with that fantastic chargrilled taste.
Ropo viejas, also written as beef jerky, was shredded beef that first looked like beef stew. How fooling appearances can be. The spicy marinade elevated the already good-quality beef to a smoky, tomatoey medley, the sauce being a good addition. A mound of white rice was a little formal in its dome-mould, out of touch it seemed with the rest of the laid-back but sharp presentation. However, it fell apart into the salsa and was cooked to a t. Flavoured with oregano and lime, the dish had typical Cuban seasonings and did them justice.
Finally, was fried pork chunks marinated in lime and orange, served with rice congri. The pork was overdone, becoming chewy which let down the rest of the dish because it was presented beautifully in an oblong of dark rice and beans, scattered with onions and coriander. The orange was a little subtle due to the overcooked pork though the lime was prominent and the rice added a nutty undercurrent. Congri is the classic beans and red rice which have been cooked together and these small beans had a delicious bite to them. If it had not been for the pork, it would have been faultless.
Persuaded by our waitress to have a dessert because “we do excellent desserts I think” we opted for the only Cuban sounding choice: roasted banana and pineapple flambeed in Cuban rum with caramel, green pepper and vanilla ice cream. Need I say more? The fact that these ingredients came together in such harmony showed the creativity and skill of the chef. The banana, or plantain as it turned out to be, was served in its skin, drizzled with rum, caramel sauce and caramelised sugar though the pineapple looked suspiciously like it had come from a tin. The green peppercorns were fiery, scorching down your throat so that you reached for another spoonful of the ice cream – definitely not a dollop of Haagen Dazs which was also, rather disappointingly, on the dessert menu. It didn’t take us long to agree with the waitress.
The great thing about this restaurant is not only the food; it’s not terribly expensive but very good value and has such a colourful, dynamic atmosphere that you would think attention to detail on the cuisine would be lost. Far from it. None of it is terribly imaginative, albeit traditional Cuban but the quality and authentic ingredients make it a winner.
Going to Prague? Forget Czech and go Cuban. Not going to Prague? Well you need to re-think your next holiday then.