Not many restaurants opened in Prague this year have stirred so much emotion and caused so many heated discussions as Eska, the latest restaurant by Prague’s ubiquitous Ambiente group of restaurants that already owns and operates such heavyweights as the Lokal pubs, Cafe Savoy, Cestr or La Degustation. Eska is Ambiente’s attempt to redefine what modern casual Czech cuisine is, so of course it got people talking.
Ambiente will always find it a bit more difficult to warm the foodie circles up to their new openings because they are not exactly the mom-and-pop underdog people tend to root for on a subconscious level. They are not, by definition, the hidden gem you will keep for yourself from your friends and the wide public. No, they are the big money, the 700-employee behemoth that, in a way, defines the Prague food scene, so of course they will have as many haters as they have fans, if not more. But regardless of that, they are one of the biggest trendsetters in Prague when it comes to food, so when Ambi talks, or opens a restaurant with an entirely new concept for Prague, you listen.
Also, the stakes were heightened by the fact that the restaurant, which opened early November, was a long time coming, with the first planned opening date in May or June, and the information was leaking fast. We were supposed to see very modern design of an eatery that combines a restaurant, a bakery and a coffee shop. While the restaurant was not going to be purely vegetarian, it would be inspired by Nordic cuisine with all the associated fermentation and pickling, and focus on seasonal vegetables. And it should have been unlike anything in Prague yet. So how is it, really? Should you care? Or visit? Here’s our thoughts.
“We plan to open a butcher shop.”
That was Tomas Karpisek’s answer just less then three years ago to a question about his plans for vegetarians. Oh boy, how time flies. Eska has, from the very beginning, profiled itself not as a vegetarian restaurant but as a place with strong focus on vegetables. And they have delivered on the promise by taking traditional vegetables and highlighting them not as a side, but the star and centre of a dish. Also, the traditional Czech protein-and-a-side concept is gone. We’ll see what the conservative Czech customer will have to say about the change. Their signature dish? Fermented red wheat with mushrooms and egg.
“Just like Sansho, but Czech."
Hana Michopulu tweeted that Eska feels like “Economy class at La Degustation”. It does make a lot of sense, and there are clear connecting points between Eska and the Michelin-star-awarded La Degustation. No wonder when you consider that Eska’s kitchen is run by Martin Stangl, a former sous-chef at the latter.
So is Eska ”just like Sansho, but Czech”, like Mr Sahajdak, La Degustation’s Executive Chef was plotting to open some time in the future? No, probably not. But the truth is that it brings some fine-dining techniques and paradigms to a place that is, at least as far as the visuals and the service are concerned, much more relaxed and casual than your Prague’s standard fine dining place.
Sure, there is not a single restaurant in Prague that would seriously enforce a dress code, but let’s be honest here: some Prague’s fine dining restaurants can be pretty snobby and posh. Eska, while having a team of chefs with fine-dining background, does follow much plainer, younger and streamlined aesthetics. Just take the staff’s uniform: jeans, canvas sneakers, white collarless shirt, and an apron. The same goes for the school furniture used. All this shows inspiration from some of London restaurants like Lyle’s, Restaurant Story or The Clove Club, which may all have Michelin stars but appear to be younger and more casual that many restaurants in Prague that want to wow you with Zalto wine glasses and complex flower arrangements. We like the trend Eska sets here.
One two, one two. This is just a test.
Eska opened when we were vacationing in the US. (We keep asking, "How could they do that to us?") Anyway, it was fun reading the comments on the prices, especially the breads with spreads, from across the pond. Yes, clearly CZK 100 (USD 4) for a piece of bread made in-house from high-quality flour, with a spread made fresh on the spot is way too much. It was fun reading this in NYC in between our bites into the USD 15 Black Seed bagel. Bread. USD 4. Expensive. Well, we don’t think so.
The price of bread aside, Eska’s restaurant is really a test of the Czech diners whether they are ready to accept that “value is created in the kitchen”, as Mr Karpisek mentioned in our interview recently. Some high-end restaurants buy expensive to sell expensive. A piece of seared foie gras costs a lot because of the price of the product, not the technique. Eska does the opposite: it takes something much simpler (like onion) and makes a dish out of it with a price not based on the product alone but also the skill in the kitchen and the time it takes to create the dish.
Coffee and cake
And the testing does not stop there. Eska may be testing Czech diners and their perception of value, but it also seems to be testing grounds for what might be further expansion of the Ambiente group going forward. A chain of bakeries? Why not? Specialty coffee? Absolutely. The focus on coffee in Eska is evident, from the high-end espresso machine to the brew bar upstairs or the cold-drippers downstairs. Actually, we dare say that Eska is currently the only restaurant in Prague where coffee gets the same attention as the food, at the risk of being accused of some poser attitude, as apron-clad baristas consult your coffee pairing with the dessert at your table.
The same extends to the staff. One thing you’ll notice right away: every member of staff seems to enjoy what he or she does and young energy fills the room. No one who works here, either in the kitchen or on the floor, appears to be over 40. Eska seems to have been acquiring talent from other Prague’s establishments: chefs from Cestr and Four Seasons, sommelier from Vinograf, the main barista from Anonymous Coffee and another from Café Lounge. All of these could later manage their own operations.
So how is it?
Hey, we like it quite a bit. Sure, we could complain that the bread is not perfect yet, that some items on the menu are not as good as others, or that there were issues with consistency. But that’s all beside the point. We like the trend Eska sets here. You see, Prague is an anomaly where half-baked concepts with unexciting menus can survive for years, while they would have to close after months elsewhere. Eska seems to have set its aim higher. With its eyes pointed both North in terms of the cuisine and West in terms of the aesthetics and atmosphere, it is a place that does not want to be good in the context of Prague. It wants to be good in the context of food scenes that are, let’s be honest, ahead of where we are. Even at the risk of alienating some of Ambiente’s fans and loyal customers.
Is this the future of Czech dining? Only time will tell. But it’s a place that is young and fun and willing to take risks. Ambiente showed true guts by opening Eska, a restaurant, bakery and coffee shop in one. In an ideal world, modern Czech dining would be reimagined by three likable punks who cook like angels in a converted, run-down warehouse. But this is not an ideal world. Let’s hop on and enjoy the ride anyway. We know we will.