After hearing drastically polarized opinions about Restaurant U Cedru in Dejvická, Prague 6, I had to find out for myself what all the fuss was about. Coincidentally, my dining experience in this quaint establishment unfolded in two contrasting parts.Furnished with dark wood and draped in deep crimson, the U Cedru atmosphere appears a modest backdrop to the platters of Lebanese cuisine, which pepper the small, faintly lit dining room with vibrant color. Delicate glass chandeliers of blue and gold sparkled above the heads of my companion and I, and we admired their artistic intricacies while we waited for our server to approach. Fifteen long minutes later, we had counted the chandeliers and determined they were identical. Oh, the laborious effort of conversation between two very hungry people.
Friday night reservations weren´t necessary. Although there was a steady flow of patron traffic, it was rather quiet for a restaurant´s peak dinnertime window. Which is why we couldn´t understand the server´s delay. My darting eyes once saw him engrossed in some kind of reading material behind the bar. Then I wished that I had his mobile phone number, because when the tranquility of the room was cracked by a pop-music ring-tone that sprang from behind the cash register, our server attentively retrieved the call on his mobile and chatted for a bit from behind the bar. I wanted to ring him and place our order.
I was certain we missed the US presidential inauguration by the time we ordered. Never mind the cold, unfriendly demeanor when he finally approached our table, acting as though our order was a complicated annoyance. I still had faith in the night, and was far too eager for Lebanese fare, the epitome of the Mediterranean diet, and a long time favorite of mine that I´ve gone without since living in Prague.
If “grand” implies abundance, the “Grand Plate of Hor d’oeuvres” should be renamed, since it is literally a bite-sized taste test of each of the popular Lebanese staples. It seemed the best way to sample these favorites—and the most economical, at 250 CZK a plate—but in the future, I´d order the items separately, as it´s too many “tiny” tastes. The tabbouleh was the only somewhat plentiful portion, but tabbouleh is everywhere on Lebanese dishes; it´s like grass. The baba ghannouj and hommos arrived on the plate invaded by flowery arrangements of cucumbers and tomatoes in their center. When I picked the unnecessary pieces out so that I could experience each cool, smooth bite on its own, the scoopable sum was little.
Kibbeh is a meat appetizer (usually lamb) that is prepared in a variety of ways and can be eaten cooked or raw (usually the latter). The one small piece of kibbeh on my “grand” plate was alluring enough, with its distinct flavor and soft texture, to make me wish for a separate order of this traditional starter, instead of the falafel plate we ordered.
Part of my utter delight with Lebanese fare is all the dipping to be had. The fact that I am an over-dipper and should be in DA, may have intensified my disappointment with the starters, which had a highly imbalanced ratio of dip to the dip-able (why oh why is this so common?). Over-fried, ultra-dry falafels and chewy bread were unsuccessful on their own, and begging to be dressed up in moist coats. While the hummos and baba ghannouj were quite pleasing, the portions were a tease on each dish they accompanied. I asked my server if the falafels came with tahini. He lifted a leaf of lettuce that lay beneath one of the deep fried golden spheres, and pointed to traces of the cucumber sauce as I squinted.
As much as this cuisine is bursting with fresh vegetables and herbs, and can fill a vegetarian´s appetite with earthy and robust flavors, meat-free, it typically consists lots of lamb and poultry. Yes, it was an evening of carnivorous indulgences, so I was pleased my dinner date was an Aussie, and I could order a plethora of grilled delights guilt-free.
What began as a rather unsatisfactory experience ascended dramatically in the second segment of the evening. The pivotal point was when the mixed grill dish—absolutely to die for—was delivered by a new server, friendly and attentive, and who filled my long-empty glass immediately upon catching sight of it. As he busily tended to our table, my companion and I busily evaluated the selection of brochettes. The kafta´s vigorous flavor was beyond gratifying; the chicken was unbelievably tender, and the lamb was so juicy and savory that I hardly needed to ‘dip´ the forkfuls. That says a lot for me.
The extensive menu selection of main courses is without elaborate, mouth-watering descriptions, and much of it seems a bit plain; for example, “the pork kebab: grilled marinated fillet.” Even on the aesthetic front, these dishes appear undressed, but they pack enough intense flavor to constitute not just a meal, but an experience. The farrouj mashwi, boneless chicken marinated and grilled, was divine. Incredibly tender and juicy, the chicken beckoned our forks to return in between sampling from the other four protein-filled platters, until it was the first empty plate. An extra small side of a thick garlic sauce escorts the farrouj mashwi, but look out: it packs garlic gunpowder, and a tiny bit can set off a powerful blast.
The fatti is fun, and not just because the name provoked us to giggle like twelve-year-olds over obvious (lame) jokes. It´s a unique combination of textures and tastes, and overall a successful gastronomical opus: toasted pieces of pita, layered with compressed chic peas, followed by a layer of shawarma-style lamb and nuts, and topped with tangy yogurt.
We were in food comas, but I encouraged us to make it to the finish line with at least a taste of the desserts; and besides, baklava is like an embellished piece of candy. While the little square of sweetness was nothing to write home about, the katayef was blissful, and worth the lengthy wait (which our server warned us of). It´s a deep fried Lebanese pancake, stuffed with a mixture of walnuts and sugar, and it is so delicious that there wasn´t a single crumb left. I´d return for this dessert alone.
By this time, the server was onto me, and the eyes of staff members were curiously peering around the corner. The server was very concerned with my impression, and I told him, smiling, “The evening changed course when you came along.”
Alright, so I didn´t really say that, but I wish I did; it´s true.
U Cedru´s owner tracked us down outside as we were leaving, and pressed me for comments on my dining experience, which my overly stuffed, slow-motion state made difficult.
“Listen, you can call me anytime,” he said, as he handed me his card, “And we can go eat real Lebanese food.”
U Cedru Restaurace
Národní obrany 693/27, Prague 6
+420 233 342 974
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Jessica Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org