Written by Laura Baranik
Prague´s locals have found a new playground. It´s big, it´s loud, and it looks just like Argentina. Well, sort of.
La Casa Argentina is definitely a theme restaurant – though it´s of a different ilk than the American chains (T.G.I. Friday´s, Planet Hollywood) that have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to establish themselves here. All theme restaurants come with their share of gimmicky devices designed to inspire an air of authenticity: tackily-dressed waiters, various found objects, musical interludes. Somehow, when these elements crop up as shirt buttons, action movie memorabilia, and live renditions of the “Happy Birthday” song, Czech natives don´t get too excited. But make that fedoras, Maradona jerseys, and a couple of scantily-dressed tango dancers, and you´ve got a whole nation hot and bothered and clamoring to get a seat.
The small circus that is La Casa Argentina is divided into themed sections, most of which, on a Thursday evening, were jam-packed with customers. We were initially seated in the non-smoking garden, a kind of greenhouse that features a rock-embedded wall of trickling water and a pair of sad-looking live lizards. The garden is enclosed, but might as well have been out on the sidewalk for how drafty it was. After being informed by the maitre d´ that there was no way to turn on the room´s ice-cold radiators, we were moved into the back room – which, judging by the large helm at the bar and the painted deck mural, was the “ship.”
One decidedly unsubtle dose of Latin American flavor was presented by the hired dance couple, who, along with a blast of accompanying music from the speakers, intermittently swooped into our section to perform a short but passionate tango. The interludes were brief and the dancers very good, making it a surprisingly un-irritating addition to the atmosphere – although the occasional collision with the wait staff indicated the need for cleaner choreography of the personnel.
But in any Argentinian restaurant, the quality of the live entertainment is only of miniscule importance compared to the all-important national dish: steak. A cut of imported Argentinian filet mignon did not disappoint, with its remarkably juicy, cherry-red center and lightly blackened, pepper-encrusted surface, the meat so tender that a simple butter knife can detach each bite from the whole. Another steak was made not of beef but of tuna; garnished with thyme and only gently cooked, the tuna´s grey outer layer and near-raw rosy heart are a testament to La Casa Argentina´s superior grilling skills. But an accompaniment of grilled root vegetables is marred by an inexplicable smattering of fatty beef, stripping the veggies of their crunchiness and any inherent flavor. The additional side dishes – creamy mashed potatoes and veal ossobucco – are both unnecessarily rich, and only help in depriving the excellent tuna of the fresher, less heavy complements it deserves.
We kept our desserts relatively light, choosing the strawberries with aged balsamic vinegar and crčme fraiche and the grilled pineapple with vanilla ice cream and pistachios. The balsamico has turned syrupy and sweet during its eight-year lifespan, but still retains an acidic punch that lends a nice contrast to the fresh strawberries. A sprinkling of shredded mint and the dollop of vanilla-scented crčme fraiche rounds out the dish perfectly. An even more original dessert is the pineapple, which arrives warm and oozing with cinnamon butter and vanilla ice cream. Roasted pistachios and a garnish of fresh fruit make what would already be a fantastic dessert into a positively sublime meal-ender.
I wish I could write that our evening concluded on the high note of our final course, but it instead ended up devolving into a sullen extended wait for the bill. We sat in front of an empty table for half an hour while our tidy-happy waitress set placemats, prematurely removed patrons´ dinner plates, and refilled every water glass in sight, until I finally stood up and repeated my request. As we strolled out through the football hallway, past a designated cigar roller, and around an enthusiastic Argentinian band, I wondered if some of the finer points of restaurant management had been forsaken for a few bells and whistles. Or perhaps the staff, too, was finding all that noise just a little bit distracting.