Written by Christopher Alice
Stepping in through the small, unassuming door high up on Hradčany’s Úvoz street, a first time visitor to Malý Buddha would be forgiven for thinking they had suddenly been transported to a completely different place and time. The restaurant, one of the more senior members amongst Prague’s burgeoning number of far-eastern eateries, certainly has the atmosphere part nailed down. A narrow entrance hallway opens into an elongated, low-ceilinged cavern-like chamber, with a sparce bamboo fence partition cutting through the middle to enhance the coziness. Candles and rice-paper lamps emit a soft orange glow, and the smell of exotic incense wafts through the dim air. The feeling is decidedly mystical, and indeed the restaurant is adorned with a small altar to its namesake in the rear should the mood strike you.
If only the fare were as distinctive as its environs. Although the food is by no means lacking in quality, my companion’s assertion that Maly Buddha’s entrees were hardly distinguishable from her local Chinese take-out joint was not entirely unjustified. Plates of chicken, pork, beef, or shrimp served with either rice or noodles, and differentiated by slight variations in vegetables, beans, or sauce should sound ring some bells with anyone familiar with Prague’s countless illustrated-menu hole-in-the-walls. Some dishes manage to rise above the mediocrity, in particular one of the house specials, “The Nightmare”, a spicy (by local standards) combination of beef and sweet chili with onions, garlic, and lemongrass; mussles with ginger is another inviting option if more simplicity is desired. The chicken and golden mushrooms my companion ordered, and the pork with bamboo shoots and soybeans I had this time around, while pleasant, failed to ignite any gastronomic excitement.
There is a nice selection of vegetarian dishes as well, which generally follow the tried-and-true formula as the other entrees but with tofu or Chinese cabbage. The salads suffer from the same flaw: although you can choose from three types of shellfish, or the interesting Shaolin (picante) salad, most of the offerings differ by only one ingredient. These main dishes and salads are complemented by three types of soup (chicken, vegetable, or prawn), but a conspicuous absence of any appetizers (save spring rolls), compounded by the small size of the entrees, means diners may find themselves leaving hungy unless they had the forsight to order four or five things. The dessert menu, limited to only two items- fruit, or fruit, essentially- isn’t there to save the day either, though admittedly, Asian restaurants aren’t typically visited for their excellence in this department.
The lackluster cuisine is somewhat offset by the generous drink list, mostly comprised of various teas. Everthing from gunpowder and ginko to genmaicha (rice tea) is on offer, a few of which the menu claims have special (or bizarre) properties, such as Chinese Friendship Tea, or the intriguing “Man Power Tea”. Sake and rice wines are present as well, in addition to more rare treats such as a delectable appertif made from the fruit of lychee trees. Western-style alcohol is available in very limited quantities, but the atmosphere of Maly Buddha and any serious consumption of alcohol seem diametrically opposed.
Indeed, it is this atmosphere that stands out as by far Malý Buddha’s greatest asset, and is arguably the reason why a large number of regulars continue to return. A shame then, that your zen can sometimes be spoiled by the erratic service. Our dinner arrived quickly, almost disturbingly so, which only served to highlight to contrast with the glacial pace at which our drink orders and check were taken care of. At least the staff is pleasant, as opposed to too many Czech establishments, and the price, at about 300Kc per person, isn’t exorbitant by any means.
Malý Buddha’s success is a prime example of how dining out is about more than just the food served. On the right night, relaxing and sipping tea with a couple friends in Buddha’s belly is the perfect end to a hectic day. On all those other nights though, 300Kc is a lot of money when that Chinese take-out joint around the corner is beckoning you.