Double fantasy

Praha is good for the taste buds and the soul

Susan France

What with all the wood furniture and the fireplace and the quiet and the snow, Praha feels like a model of a restaurant in a miniature holiday village. The keeper of the restaurant is a nonagenarian with very poor hearing, and she struggles with the weight of our coats as she checks them upon our arrival. Down the hall from the coatroom is a modest wooden bar in a small room with a friendly bartender. To the left is the dining room, and that’s where we’re led on a recent weekday evening. 

We sit at a table beside the fireplace. There are holiday lights strewn around, and festive fixtures have been placed on chandeliers, awnings and side tables. It feels familiar, as it would to anyone with a small amount of Northern European roots. Praha refers to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and the restaurant used to be the Old Prague Inn. The business was passed down in the family to Monica Smetana, who re-opened as a restaurant about a decade ago, after training throughout Europe.

The menu highlights the staples of Czech, Austrian, German and American cooking, while filtering each dish through Praha’s unique style of home cooking. There are also beers and wines on the menu from Eastern and Northern Europe.

The meal starts with a bowl of carrot cream soup. Its consistency is medium-thick, with soft and small shreds of carrot adding texture. The taste is rich and sweet from the added cream, and whatever fruitiness can be pulled out of a carrot is pulled out in this soup. Fresh black pepper adds a pleasant kick to the soup, and the bowl ends up being an ideal warmer on a cold and snowy night.

The next plate featured Hungarian gulasch with a side of spaetzle. The chunks of pork in the gulasch had clearly been braised and slow-cooked for hours, if not a day, in a savory and robust brown gravy. The pork fell apart with the slightest effort — gravity was really enough — and it was the perfect flavor and texture to eat with a forkful of spaetzle. The spaetzle, little soft egg noodles, were thick and short. They had a satisfying springiness and chew, and consumed with the brown gravy, it was an indulgent side. The whole dish, aside from delighting the tongue, warmed the body with fat, salt, carbs and goodness.

Then there was the Praha Haus special: a massive plate of roast duck, rahmschnitzel, weinerschitzel, dumplings, potatoes, red cabbage and vegetables.

The rahmschnitzel was a thin-sliced cut of pork bathed in a cream, vermouth and mushroom sauce on top of the dumplings. The pork was tender and its flavor benefitted greatly from the richness of the dressing, while the texture of the meat benefitted from the sauce’s thickness.

The weinerschnitzel was an exceptional take on the classic dish. Very thin and tender pork was coated in a crispy, perfectly apportioned breading. To develop such a satisfying and flavorful crisp while also keeping the crust so thin was no small feat.

The red cabbage wasn’t as spiced as it might be elsewhere, but the thick strands provided a nice texture to mix in with the other food on the platter, and it still possessed the characteristic cabbage tang.

The only miss at dinner was the roast duck, which was disappointing. Served as a half bird, the skin was nicely seasoned and crispy, but the meat was overdone. The flavor was right, and we ate it all nonetheless, but there was something to be desired in the moisture level of the meat and its texture.

Fortunately, the meal ended with an exceptional apple strudel. Warm baked apples filled a thin and chewy pastry crust aside whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. The temperature play between the cold cream sides and the warm strudel was a delight. It was a final note on a meal that balanced old and new cuisine, and intrigued both the taste buds and the soul.