A surprising culinary find in… Nusle?! Oh, yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen. Hotaru Bakery may only be a year old, but it’s already developed a devout local following by those who swear the selection of breads, pastries, and quiches here are among the best in the city.
Situated in a standalone lime green house (reportedly a former electricity substation) in the middle of Ostrčilovo náměsti, Hotaru, as its Japanese name implies, is the neighborhood’s – or perhaps even the Czech capital’s – great big pastry “firefly”.
Owner and “champion baker” Rie Inagaki explains on the bakery’s website that she was encouraged to open Hotaru by friends who were constantly complaining about the lack of quality home-baked goods in Prague. Hotaru boasts that its products have no chemical additives and are freshly made on-site, a guarantee not a lot of other places, in this age of instant defrost, can dare claim.
Many of the sweet delights on display at this tidy nook are of Inagaki’s own creation, while others are inspired by traditional Japanese recipes. It’s difficult to pinpoint which is which. Nothing really looks very Japanese, save for the origami crane decorating a side shelf. In fact, the only item on the Hotaru menu that is a true Japanese treat is “an pan”, a sweet roll usually filled with red bean paste. But I never saw “an pan” during any of my visits. I did, however, pick up a “Ringo pan” one day, which seemed close enough.
Hotaru means “firefly” in Japanese, Inagaki explains on the website. Using that metaphor, her bakery is like “a little glimpse of light” at the center of Prague’s “dark world of pastries.”
It’s a rather bold statement, but with sadly few exceptions, fairly accurate. Despite Hotaru’s out-of-the-way location, it didn’t take long for word to spread, especially given the reasonable price list.
On a recent Friday, I found myself jammed inside the bakery’s cubicle-like front room with six other patrons; the place was full. While a small sign advertises coffee, there is no back room furnished with tables and magazines to browse while enjoying an afternoon pastry. The rest of the house appears to be a baking zone, closed off from public scrutiny, though I did catch a quick glimpse of boxes full of apples waiting to be cored in the hallway.
As I’d arrived rather late in the day, the pickings were slim, though the salesman kept assuring us that more was in the oven and would soon be out. No need to wait. I was next in line and with rapid-fire precision preceded to empty what was left in the display case. I heard the others sigh heavily behind me as I took the last of the tarts, a mix of apple, spinach, and corn (10 CZK a piece). There were no Hotaru specialty quiches that day, but on the top shelf sat two lemon cakes (25 CZK each), which I had not seen before and quickly added to my tally.
The selection seems to rotate daily, so when you see something intriguing on offer, it’s best to grab it – immediately. The salesman’s eyes bulged as he scurried around packaging my purchases individually in clear plastic sleeves, repeatedly thanking me, while apologizing to the rest of the room. As an afterthought, I ask him to throw in a couple of interestingly shaped breads behind the counter – a poppy seed roll in the shape of a flower (30 CZK) and another which appeared to have some kind of jam filing (20 CZK). That last impulse buy – misleadingly listed as a “ham roll” on my receipt though there was not a drop of ham in it – turned out to be my only misstep. It’d looked pretty but turned out to be rather dry and bland.
The rest, on the other hand, quite literally seemed to melt in my mouth, a nice blend of savory and sweet. The ensemble didn’t last long at my house. Now before you judge, I had help. And, with the exception of the bread rolls, the tarts and the lemon cakes are all bite-sized, as are the quiches (25 CZK each), which I picked up during an earlier visit.
It would be interesting to know if Inagaki, who studied in Tokyo, has any expansion plans in mind, given that her concept seems has taken off with little to no marketing on her part. I’ve been surprised by people’s automatic enthusiasm at the mere mention of the inconspicuous little bakery on the other side of the Nusle bridge. But while Inagaki extols a friendly, welcoming environment on her website, the reality is quite different. I emailed to ask if she’d mind if I stopped by for a chat. I wanted the ins-and-outs of Japanese pastries. Which ones did I absolutely have to try? Inagaki, however, could not be bothered.
“I’m glad that you have interest in my bakery, and I hope you are satisfied with our work,” she replied before declining the interview. The bakery’s website, she wrote, says it all. Anything else was not for public consumption. Touché.
Ostrčilovo náměsti 60, Prague 2
Tel.: 607 407 081
Hours: Monday-Friday 10am to 7pm
Crab tart (10 CZK)
An pan (15 CZK)
Chocolate tart (12 CZK)
Cinnamon roll (20 CZK)
Quiche (15 CZK)
Coffee jelly (30 CZK)
Ringo pan (13 CZK)
Margaret white cake (35 CZK)
Do you have a favorite exotic bakery in Prague?
Photos by Michael Heitmann / http://mheitmann.ch/