Review: Karavanseráj

Naomi Boxall dines at the Prague 1 Lebanese restaurant

Expats.cz

Written by Expats.cz
Published on 26.09.2007 16:08 (updated on 26.09.2007)

Written by Naomi Boxall
for Expats.cz

Karavanseráj is a street level Lebanese restaurant on Masarykovo nábřeží, just south of the Opera House. It’s split into two halves, one section is more ‘restaurantesque’: dark floors, wooden square tables, white table clothes and mud walls. The other half puts you in a teahouse in Beirut, with a choice of brick walls or a sahara mural as your backdrop and batik paisley tablecloths and wicker chairs. Dark wooden floors throughout, the two sections are divided by a full bar and bookshelf arrangement where you’ll find an amazing array of guide books for your perusal, and also maps for various countries in a variety of languages and scales. And if you’re thus inspired to take off, there’s a free internet terminal, or bring your laptop and use the free wi-fi to book your holiday. There’s belly dancing on occasion, and a private room which would accomodate 30-50 people. This place has it all!

The menu is elaborate, extensive and thoroughly decorative, with pictures of ‘things’ from the east interleaved between the list of food items. I’m not saying that the cockroach kebab pictures were a welcome addition opposite the dessert leaf, but it was certainly a distraction from choosing any of the seemingly thousands of dishes on offer. There are copious vegetarian options on offer, but there’s no pork or beef, so think twice before you take a real carnivore (poultry and lamb are the meats). There are a few indian style dishes on the menu (including the mango chutney to go with them) so if you’re a bit wary of delving into the Mediterranean/Arabic hybrid that is Lebanese food, you can relax with more familiar gastronomic fare.

Expats.cz Rating
Atmosphere
Food
Service
Overall
From our plate
59 CZK Darjeeling tea
69 CZK Sambousek jibne
95 CZK Sultan’s snack
89 CZK Harem girls diet
38 CZK Pita bread (x2)
239 CZK Lamb foul medames
195 CZK Lamb jordan
98 CZK Baklava (x2)
78 CZK Moroccan mint tea (x2)
70 CZK Banana and chocolate with ice cream
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We quickly ordered enough mezze plates and pita bread to buy ourselves sufficient time to decide on our main dishes. The dips were superb, the baba ganoush sufficiently lemony and smooth, while the hummus was delicately flavoured with garlic and tahini. The salty cheese (feta?) in the deep-fried sambousek jibne was heated through and gooey, though I felt there could have been a bit more mint. The dolmas were over-lemoned for my taste, but the vine leaves themselves were thin and juicy, not the bitter, stringy bits of foliage on offer elsewhere. The sambousek lahme was incredibly tasty, spiced with cumin and cinnamon and vaguely reminiscent of a Moroccan pastille, albeit with lamb, instead of pigeon. The tabbouleh was coarsely chopped, diminishing the chance of the ‘parsley in teeth’ after-effect, but I couldn’t detect the spring onion.

The novelty of having lamb on the menu resulted in the selection of 4 different lamb dishes by our party. I’m always wary of ordering lamb in restaurants in case it’s chewy, but in all dishes, it was soft and tender. The lamb jordan was my favourite dish, fried potatoes and lamb cubes with onion, garlic, sweet pepper and coriander, a tasty and surprisingly juicy combination. The onion and garlic were invisible, but had left their fragrance embedded in the meat. Both the jordan and the biriyani were a ‘1 chilli’ on the menu, and the rating was taste-bud accurate. Biriyani is a complex dish to prepare, layering part-cooked rice and lamb into an oven proof dish etc. with a list of ingredients that can run as long as your arm, so few other than the dedicated cooks whip up a batch at home. Which is why it’s so gratifying to find a decent one ‘out’. This biriyani was softly flavoured by the cardamom, cinnamon and ginger, while leaving a clovish aftertaste in the mouth. The onion was chopped so finely as to, again, merely be a residue within the meat and rice dish. Delicious. Two very interesting dishes were the lamb foul medam, which is a slow cooked mixture of beans and lamb, dressed with lemon olive oil and cumin. Karavanseraj serve this dish with cous cous inside it, as though a warm winter soup. The lemon was slightly overbearing, but it was certainly a pleasant dish. From slightly further south, supposedly Berber country (North Africa, west of the Nile Valley), the lamb burek (minced lamb rolled up in soft phyllo pancakes) were spiced with cumin, coriander, garlic and onion. Or, at least, that’s what I detected – there may have been some cinnamon in there too. Bear in mind that burek can be found in national cuisine over a large part of the world, from Russia, through the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel to North African countries, and all are prepared slightly differently, so taste with minimal preconceptions.

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I’m a big fan of baklava; a little pastry and nut concoction drowned in honey always sound so tempting. Sadly, you’re better off giving it a miss; it’s dry. And when baklava is dry, a fork is not the utensil – a jackhammer might be. Thankfully, Moroccan mint tea helped the spoonful of baklava go down – though that in itself was a little lacking in sweetness – so perhaps make sure you get the two together and dunk!

Egyptians and Gulf Arabs call it “sheesha”, classical Arabic refers to it as a “narghila” (as do the Lebanese), the english a “hookah”, and occasionaly you hear the words “hubbly bubbly” used to refer to the noise made by a water pipe, as you smoke fruit flavoured molasses through cooled water. Karavanseraj has plenty of pipes, different ‘thicknesses’ of molasses on offer, and plenty of flavours; from silver apple, through two apples to Bahraini apple (I have a preference for the apple flavours, though honey and strawberry both featured heavily in my youth). It didn’t look possible to put fruit juice in the water – though, admittedly, we didn’t ask. The pipes only come with one piece of charcoal burning, and sadly, far from the tents in Arabia, there was no one carrying around a brazier for a ‘top up’. By the time we’d finished our meal, taken in the ‘teahouse’ section, every table had a pipe and was passing it around. You can ask for a number of mouthpieces to maintain a semblance of hygiene, but really…sharing is caring. Sometimes for bugs too.

The service in Karavanseraj was a touch erratic. If a waiter approaches a table near you, you’re best to catch their attention, as they might not swing around again for a long, long time. Fine when you’re digesting, not so good when you’re thirsty for a mid-meal drink! However, the entire scene is very relaxed, inviting and friendly. There are changing facilities in the bathrooms for mothers of young children, and high chairs and toys as well, so feel free to bring the youngsters down here. The food was good value, tasty and, LAMB! I’d go back there again and I’d feel no hesitation in advising it to workmates, friends and family. Go. Try it. If it’s been a while since you’ve had lamb, or lebanese/arabic food: it’s a must. Karavanseraj will probably become one of your stable restaurants, consistently good at what it offers.