Written by Eva Christiansen
Staff Writer, Expats.cz
Haveli is a Hindu word meaning private royal residence, the secluded area tucked away behind the palace.
This is where the royals invite special guests to discuss important matters of the state, but also to enjoy the best dishes by the best cooks, as much as a hundred of them, in the region. Thus, only these special guests can try a broad variety of food, beyond what is normally served in their own region. A wise diplomatic move, indeed. Who could dispute with the Maharajah when spicy, roasted smells are wafting from the kitchen, promising exquisite dishes never before tasted? Haveli, the restaurant, brings this tradition to Prague.
Open just two years; Haveli has quickly gained recognition as being an authentic gourmet Indian restaurant, not just a place that serves up greasy curry and lifeless vegetables. The interior is tastefully Indian, with Ramayana puppets and small, mirrored wooden window frames on the wall that open onto the mixed brick and stone wall behind. A soft bit of red curtain over the window to street level, and gentle, tinkling music complete the picture and set the tone for the unwinding that need to happen before you can attempt to eat the rich, but not large, portions. Even with a healthy appetite, you may find it difficult to complete the meal places before you, though the containers appear small. Special family secret, I guess.
A Tandoor is a special oven, with clay on the inside that cooks at extremely high heats. Most Indian restaurants don´t have such an oven, because it is expensive to bring such a heavy object from India, and they don´t make them here. So most of the menu items you see in other Indian restaurants, such as Tandoor Chicken is only imitation. And when you taste the Tandoor items at Haveli, you realize it is inimitable. The starter that we were recommended was called Murg Malai Tikka. It was served with a creamy, bright green mint sauce, in a brass tray over a teal light to keep it warm. While most “tandoor” cooked food is often quite dry, this was some of the softest, juiciest chicken I have ever tried, the “tandoor” part in this case meaning that the high heat had seared the potent spices into the meat, leaving delicious little char-burned flecks of crunchiness and flavor on the skin. These weren´t merely fatty pieces of chicken, they were quite lean in fact. Just unusually juicy.
Next up came the breadbasket, and this, too, was a departure from the norm. A huge fan of naan, I didn´t realize what a far cry from real Tandoor-baked naan the dense and floppy breads I´d been enjoying were. Naan baked in a tandoor is more airy, and dry – not greasy and heavy. Even the Laccha Parantha bread we ordered, which was described as being a layered buttery bread, was light and not at all greasy. Had it been any other way, it could easily have been too much of a good thing, once the rich entrees appeared.
We sampled the Handi Ghost, Khumb Mutter, and Zafrani Malai Kofta. Handi Ghost is a specialty from Kashmir, where they love they´re lamb. Cooking it several times over, at very low heat, allow the meat to absorb as much spice as possible, while still remaining supple. Chewable. The perfect consistency for chunks of meat that are surrounded by a creamy spinach base. Again, I´m a big fan of the “saag” family of spinach purees, but this was beyond those sometime bland, often greasy, creamed spinach dishes. The bitter, peppery spices that went into it brought out the natural zing of the spinach leaves, and it seemed like a pretty healthy choice.
The Khumb Mutter was recommended when I asked what a vegetarian would want. The peas were still green and had good texture, despite being cooked, and it didn´t look like they came from any can. The menu described corn as an ingredient as well, but after seeking it in vain I was explained it meant corn flour, not bits of corn. That might help to explain the substantial consistency of the sauces, and their ability to fill. But it was the mushrooms that had me in bliss.
They were big slices of earthy mushrooms that must have been sautéed separately before making their way into this otherwise saucy dish. I was told they were “just champignons” but for fried mushrooms to stay that big and textured, I know they´re not buying their fungi from the grocery stores I frequent. The same is true of the spices. They are flown in from India, because anything less just wouldn´t work. Luckily, the Haveli owners share their goodies. A small store next door sells the spices they import, among other things.
The third dish we sampled was on the milder side, which was a welcome relief from the two other, spicy but balanced, dishes. Zafrani Malai Kofta is made in a tomato-based sauce, flavored with saffron and therein lay two “kofta” which was described on the menu as a dumpling. This “cottage cheese dumpling” had the consistency of fluffy mashed potatoes, with chunky little nibbly bits to keep the mouth engaged. Creamy, and sweet, I found myself going back to it, each time appreciating the subtle saffron flavour.
In accompaniment to this delicious array we drank King Fisher, a typical Indian beer. The wine list is impressive, and offers many selections that cannot be found in stores. There are fine Australian wines, some Californian wines not commonly found in the Czech Republic, such as Beringer, and even the frankovka they stock is of a variety only available directly to restaurants. We were happy with our beer. But there is a drink here, a rare drink I´ve never seen before, that blew me away and wasn´t even alcoholic: Thandai. This tea is made from Almonds and Pistachios, is creamy, but not thick, and flavored with cardamom. The 100-krone price tag makes it something you want to nurse, but the lingering flavor of subtle spices and creaminess make it all the more suited for a slow, satisfying sipping. It can be enjoyed hot or cold.
I´m fairly certain anything Haveli has placed on their menu is something they´ve worked on until it reaches their high standard. The wait staff was more than happy to answer questions, even silly ones, so don´t be shy if you need a little guidance to help you get your order right. The food takes a while to prepare, but rest assured – this is a good thing. Haveli seems like more of a customer service oriented restaurant that most here in Prague, as you can tell from their menu – which was not merely translated, but written with thought and proofread to remove all those tragically funny mistakes. No “chocolate mouse with biscuits” here, I´m afraid. The air of concern with which they approach the food they prepare is refreshing. I only wish I´d been able to eat more. Ah well, there´s always next time.
Haveli can be found at Dejvická 6, Prague 6 (near the Hradcanská metro station) Open daily from 11.00 – 23.00