Written by Evan Rail
for Pulse Magazine
To get a better perspective on Prague´s recent culinary achievements, it might help to step back a bit. In this case, all the way to Hungary. For it was the Hungarian capital of Budapest, not Prague, that was always tipped to be the first city in post-communist Europe to earn a star in the Michelin Guide, France´s celebrated list of global restaurant ratings. As Hungarian gourmets often pointed out, Budapest always had greater fame as a culinary culture, fueled by great domestic ingredients like fresh paprika, rich foie gras, and the legendary, sweet wines from Tokaj.
And then came the news at the end of March. Prague, a city that was widely believed to serve nothing beyond stewed cabbage and dumplings, had somehow developed a strong enough culinary scene to win the first Michelin star in post-communist Europe.
For many, it came as little surprise that first star went to Allegro, inside the Four Seasons Hotel. Allegro´s kitchen is headed up by the young Andrea Accordi, who won an earlier star in his native Florence. An elegant, wood-panelled room with postcard views of Malá Strana and Prague Castle, Allegro has long been considered the home of the best service in Prague, if not the entire region, and recent menus have included such unusual appetizers as pan-fried scallops with coconut-milk tapioca, as well as handmade pastas such as tortelli stuffed with buffalo ricotta, castelmagno cheese, and candied cherry tomatoes. There’s even a whole Bresse poulet, the famous, blue-footed chicken from France, dressed here with a fresh morel sauce and served as an aromatic, elegant roast for two.
Many of the city´s other bright names are also in five-star hotels. The most famous is Maze, inside the new Prague Hilton Old Town, set up by one of the world´s greatest celebrity chefs, Gordon Ramsay. Just the third branch of Maze after locations in London and New York, Maze Prague was the first Gordon Ramsay address on the Continent.
Run by head chef Phillip Carmichael, formerly of the restaurant in London, Maze serves Ramsay´s signature cooking with a gracious and surprising nod to local traditions: offering housemade bread rolls that resemble Czech rohlíky; pairing its velvety Jerusalem-artichoke velouté with a brioche flavored with beloved Czech ceps (here called hříby), and offering a to-die-for glazed pork belly with green lentils as a main course, echoing the traditional Bohemian meal of New Year´s Day.
Not all of the city´s best restaurants serve such hearty Continental fare. Long before it became a trend, Alcron—inside the Radisson SAS Alcron Hotel—launched its menu entirely around fresh fish and seafood. Oysters, clams, langoustines, and lovely fillets of John Dory and halibut, are all shipped in fresh daily and paired with excellent wines from France and Spain.
Though hotel restaurants brought many of the first great restaurants to Prague, many of the new top picks have a lower profile. In Old Town, one of the city´s most dynamic new restaurants is Angel, where chef Sofia Smith creates a menu of pan-Asian recipes informed in part by her childhood meals in Malaysia: a refreshing, seared-beef and pomelo salad with green chili and garlic dressing; buttery pan-fried scallops with sweet coconutlaksa and pineapple sambal; tamarind-chili tuna and braised beef in red wine with ginger and star anise. Reflecting the other side of Ms. Smith´s background, a few classically British influences show up in the restaurant´s Sunday brunch menu—bangers and mash, sticky toffee pudding, and French toast alongside masala omelets and “coconut hangover noodles.”
Not far away, the haute-cuisine treatment has even been applied to local fare. Since its opening about a year ago, the Old-Town restaurant La Degustation has created an entirely new standard for Czech cooking, serving a seven-course tasting menu based around classic recipes from a celebrated 19th-century Czech cookbook by Marie Svobodová. Expect a meal that takes at least three hours and includes such refined local fare as poached Prague ham with raspberry foam and a tender beef entrecôte with a dessert-like cream sauce and loads of fresh dill. So much for the old preconceptions about dining in Prague.
And yet La Degustation still offers dumplings, in the form of a delicate dollop of chicken-liver pâté bathed in a fragrant, crystal-clear wildfowl bouillon. There´s red cabbage, too, but in a nod to the city’s new standards, this version is beautifully stewed, slightly gingery, and completely, 100% organic.