Czech food

(Nearly) Licking Fingers at La Degustation

La Degustation is a special place for us. You see, we met online. Before we even met in person, we chatted about our favorite places to eat in the city. Jan actually always wanted to go to “La Degu” but never had the chance, so he suggested a dinner there as the setting for the first date. Zuzi freaked out: “OMG, I don’t even know the guy and we’re going to have a date at La Degu?” So she bailed out, making up they had a closing at work (she was still a lawyer working for big law). In the end, we settled for something less fancy and quicker. Didn’t matter, really. We obviously hit it off. 

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We did go to La Degustation some time later to celebrate Zuzi’s birthday. In the meantime, La Degu became the first Michelin starred restaurant focusing on Czech food. We absolutely loved it: the food, the atmosphere, everything. Yes, it was pricey but we felt it was definitely worth it: familiar Czech tastes but with a modern presentation. 

Now we have decided to visit La Degustation again to celebrate our fifth anniversary. (Feels like the twentieth, Zuzi likes to say.) We were a bit nervous: we have been recommending it to our guests but have not really eaten there for nearly two years. Would it be still good?

We were lucky to get the table right next to the kitchen (totally by accident - no hidden perks there). La Degu changed its layout about a year ago and now has an open kitchen with a central table where all the dishes are put together in plain sight. It’s a great spectacle: you can see the chefs preparing the dishes and the whole scene looks like a Formula 1 pit rather than a kitchen. No talking but instead total focus on the food. Everybody knows exactly what to do. 

What we have always liked about La Degu was its relaxed atmosphere. Unlike some other Michelin star restaurants we visited, it does not feel stuffy at all and you don’t have to worry about using the wrong fork. Mr Sahajdak, the Executive Chef, wants a dinner at La Degu to be fun (he even said he wanted the guests to lick their fingers), and we think they have achieved that.

So how was it? We absolutely loved it again. The reasons why we would recommend La Degu are simple. They try to use only Czech ingredients, especially for their Czech tasting menu. They have a purchasing officer who calls the Executive Chef every morning and tells him what he found that day on the markets and in the farms. Mr Sahajdak then creates the menu for the day. Their dishes are also based on old Czech recipes, especially those found in the 1894 cookbook by Marie Svobodova, a Czech Julia Child before there was Julia Child. 

They work with seasonal products only. They have a rule that no ingredient should be on the menu twice, with two exceptions: butter and salt. All the dishes made perfect sense to us as Czechs: local flavors fine-tuned to perfection in a stunning form and with modern presentation. 

We had the more extensive menu paired with Czech wines. The sommeliers do actually suggest Czech wines first, and they do have great wines, including limited editions that are rarely seen elsewhere. The number of sommeliers matches that of the waiters. Besides the wines, La Degustation pairs the cheese course with an IPA beer by Matuska, a Czech microbrewery. The dessert (bread ice-cream) is also paired with smoked grape juice, one of the highlights of the dinner by itself.

We really liked all the courses. Our highlights included the smoked beef tongue with yellow pea and apple, which had fantastic texture and rich flavor; the perfectly cooked peeled barley, herbs and horseradish side that came with the chicken course; the melt-in-your-mouth poached trout with kohlrabi and almonds, and the “skubanky” course (absolutely amazing combination of silky potato dumplings with pork cracklings and kefir dressing), and.... you see we can't actually agree which dish we liked the best.

For us, La Degustation fills a very big void on the Prague culinary scene: Czech cuisine approached in a playful and modern way. A visit to Budapest shows that the Hungarians are not afraid to update their traditional dishes. On the other hand, Czech food tends to be presented mostly as pub dishes - greasy and in huge portions - served with lots of beer. We think that's a shame because La Degustation shows that a modern approach to Czech classics can in reality produce exciting results.

The only downside was the final bill :-) But still, comparing La Degustation to other Michelin star restaurants in Berlin, London or you name it, the experience was worth every penny. 

We know where we will be celebrating our twentieth anniversary…

La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise

Website * Address: Hastalska 18, Prague 1 * Phone: (+420)222-311-234 * Open daily from 6pm


Best schnitzels in Prague

There’s nothing that says Sunday home-made lunch more than a schnitzel to us. We all grew up on schnitzels here and we dare to say that even the worst cooks among us (that would include Jan, too) could probably say how you bread a piece of meat for a schnitzel.

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Now, the Czechs have the amazing ability to bread nearly everything: while the Wiener Schnitzel is typically made of veal, most Czech schnitzels would be probably made of pork (either the leg or the neck) or chicken. That said, Czechs can bread and fry nearly everything: mushrooms, cauliflower, zucchini and, famously, cheese (most foreign visitors mistakenly - and mercifully - think the fried cheese in Prague is mozzarella sticks. It’s not, it’s fried breaded Eidam cheese). 

The schnitzel is also where Central Europe meets in one delicious, breaded and fried union. Wherever you travel - Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava or Munich - the odds are you will bump into a schnitzel on the menu sooner rather than later. Sure, Viennese claim the Wiener Schnitzel, but if you look at the Cotoletta alla Milanese from Milan, Italy, for instance, you’ll get nearly the same thing. A proper schnitzel is all about texture: the meat should be tenderized into smaller thickness and the breading should be crispy, not soggy.

Schnitzel in Prague is served mostly with potato salad, which, by itself, is a matter for an entirely different - and probably heated - debate. Another option is to have it with creamy potato mash. Together, they make a wonderfully tasty combination that reminds many Czechs of their childhood because, let’s face it, the best schnitzels are always made by grandma!

Now, if you regrettably do not have a Czech grandma, where can you have the best schnitzel in town? We have a few tips.  

Cafe Savoy

In addition to one of the best breakfasts in Prague, Café Savoy also serves near perfect schnitzels in our book. Made of pork, it is served here with potato salad and, unlike in many restaurants in Prague, with cranberry compote. We also like their higher-end “gourmet” option that includes fried sweetbreads. The size of the portion is right, too. You can also get the veal schnitzel, but my-oh-my, the price is quite high. [website]

Cestr 

Unbeknown to many, Cestr also serves one killer of a chicken schnitzel if you ask for it. Whenever we served it to our guests, it was one of the favorites, especially when paired with their awesome milk mash. Now, this is an off-the-menu item that may not be available every single day, but it is usually prepared for kids, and for good reason: even the pickiest Czech kids will east a good chicken schnitzel when everything else fails. [website]

Lokal at Dlouha St 

This popular pub serves two types of pork schnitzels. One is made of the roast pork leg, which is fried on butter (just like their fried cheese), while the roast pork neck schnitzel is fried on pork ard. The former one will be leaner, the latter will be a bit fattier but also juicier. Again, paired with their potato salad, it’s a winner. [website]

Krystal Mozaika Bistro

If you want a proper veal schnitzel, head over to the Karlin district and try Krystal’s version fried on butter and served with a leaner potato salad version. Finish it off with their fabulous plum dumplings served in butter with poppies, plum jam and a dash of Slivovitz, the local plum brandy. [website]

SCHNITZEL RECIPE

Normally, we would put our own recipe here. But we will make an exception today and instead post a link to a great Wiener Schnitzel recipe by no other than Ewald Plachutta, the founder of the famous Plachutta restaurant in Vienna. It is so well made (and with pictures!) that we thought not posting this one would be a big mistake. For the recipe, please follow this link.

Bon apetit! 


What to eat in Prague: Czech sweet buns

Today, we have a suggestion what you should try when you are in Prague. A true Czech classic. Only a few things remind us of our childhood more than a tray of hot, wonderfully fragrant buns prepared by our grandma. The magnificent bun is even embedded in the local mythology: whenever Honza, the smart popular hero of many Czech fairy tales, left the house to fight the dragon, break the princess' evil curse or do whatever was on the agenda that day, he always first ordered his mom to make a few buns for the road. One of the most common children's disputes was the favorite filling: plum jam? poppies? curd cheese? Our grandmas always preempted these disputes by making sure the tray included a few of each. A popular breakfast treat, the poor grandma had to wake up early in the morning to make sure the yeast dough was ready by the time we sprang out of bed. Luckily, you don't have to - you can simply stay in bed and go to one of the following places and buy them. Easy!

Simply Good: Yeast dough is really the specialty of this small bakery in the Karlin district. Buns with poppy seeds, plum jam or curd cheese is not where it stops - it's where it starts: you can have kolachees, the "Czech sweet yeast dough pizza", or wonderful cakes with streusel, which is also their forte. The owner, a former corporate executive, is a great lady. This is the place we go whenever our grandma is not available for service :-)

EMA Espresso Bar: You know what is better than a great, tasty bun? A bun with a cup of great coffee! And that's exactly where EMA excels. EMA's baristas are living proof that you don't have to be a bearded hipster with inked forearms to prepare a cup of tasty coffee. Just don't sit on the bench near the entry - that's our spot! 

Café Lounge: EMA's older sister also serves the Czech buns. Although they may serve other sweets, we always keep coming back to the classic.    

Sisters: Sometimes you can find the sweet buns on the menu of this cool and lovely bistro that focuses primarily on the modern versions of the "chlebicek", the classic Czech open-faced sandwich. A perfect ending to their daily soup and one or two sandwiches. 

Bistro 8: For those visiting the National Gallery or the National Technical Museum, this popular hipster hangout in the heart of the Letna district is a must. Recently expanded, they may now have more space and time to bake the Czech buns more often!

One word of caution: sweet buns are highly addictive. But don't worry - even when you leave Prague, you can get your fill wherever you live with the recipe we have adapted for you. Sadly, our grandmas passed away before they could share their secret recipes with us. Luckily, we have found a perfectly good substitute: a recipe published by our friend and popular food blogger, Lucka of the Chez Lucie fame. If you wish to get a taste of what Lucka does, you must visit Café Lounge where she works as a pastry chef now that she's left her corporate job for her true passion. Alternatively, EMA Espresso Bar, Cafe Lounge's sister, gets the same products. So, without further ado, here's the 

Czech sweet buns recipe

For the dough:
- 600g all purpose flour
- 100g caster sugar
- 80g butter or lard
- pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs
- 250ml lukewarm milk
- 30g fresh yeast
- 1/2 vanilla pod or a teaspoon of vanilla extract
- zest of one lemon
---
For the fillings:
- 250g full fat creamy farmer’s cheese
- 50g powdered sugar
- 1 yolk
- juice and zest of half a lemon
- handful of raisins, previously soaked in rum
---
- 300g plum jam
- ½ ts cinammon
- 3 tbs rum
---
- 3dl milk
- 60g caster sugar
- 200g ground poppy seeds
- 3 tbs rum
---
To finish:
- 1 tbs melted butter
- 2 tbs rum
- icing sugar

How to make the buns:

  1. Always take all ingredients for the dough out of the fridge about 2 hours before you make the dough.
  2. First, prepare the starter: in a small bowl I mix the fresh yeast with a teaspoon of sugar, 3 tablespoons of lukewarm milk and a tablespoon of flour. Cover the bowl with a tea cloth and leave the dough to raise for about 30 min.
  3. In the meantime, mix other ingredients in a big bowl and when the yeast is ready, mix it in. 
  4. Now comes the hard work - kneading. But don’t worry – there’s a shortcut. It’s called the kneading machine. I just like kneading the dough with my hands, I’ve always found it relaxing. Whatever way you choose, work the dough really well and let it rise for about an hour under a tea cloth in a warm place.
  5. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3 and prepare the fillings. For plum jam or farmer’s cheese fillings, I simply mix all the ingredients together. For poppy seed filling, I put the milk on the stove until it’s warm and then add all the other ingredients and cook the filling until it thickens. I put it aside and let it cool down.
  6. When the dough is ready, roll the dough on a floured board into about 1cm think dough. Cut the dough into squares (about 7x7cm – 3x3 inch) and put different fillings into the center of each square. Then wrap each square together into a small bun. Put all the buns on the baking tray one next to the other and then butter them with melted butter mixed with rum. Let the buns raise for about 10 min and then put them into the oven and bake them for about 30 minutes until golden brown. 
  7. When you remove the buns from the oven, butter them with butter and rum once again. When we have visitors, I usually also sprinkle them with sugar. 

Wherever you have the buns out or at home, enjoy! We know you will.


Čestr's potato milk mash

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Now, if you have joined us on the food and culture tour, you will confirm that one of the most popular dishes served include the potato mash at the Cestr restaurant. Yes, the simple mash blows everyone away. Why? Well, because it is not that simple. The “milk mash”, as they call it at Cestr, is a bit more difficult to prepare that your ordinary mash, but the result is worth it. You should not expect a Joel Robouchon-style butter fest but a delicious, fluffy mash with silky smooth texture. You know it’s good when you go to a specialty steak house and the potato mash still gets a special mention every single time, right?

Now the good people at Cestr, or, more precisely, Mr Lukas Drab, Cestr's sous-chef, have published the recipe for their famous mash in the monthly magazine issued by the Ambiente group of restaurants (which include Cestr). Just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner preparations. What a coincidence! Now if you want to be the star of the Thanksgiving family dinner, or if you just want to prepare a really good potato mash, read on. We are reprinting the recipe with the original photos, which we kindly given to us by the management. The key to the recipe is following the instruction, and not counting the calories!

Cestr's recipe is based on the following ingredients:

  • 1.8 kg (4 pounds) potatoes
  • 1 liter (34 oz) milk. The potatoes will cook in milk, so you should have enough milk to cover the potatoes in the pot. We are talking about whole (full-fat) milk, preferably organic.
  • 100 g (7 tablespoons) butter
  • a bit of salt. The exact amounts of butter and salt may vary and you should adjust them to your taste.

It all starts with the selection of the right potatoes. Here’s the rule of thumb: they should be good. Go figure, right? They should be firm and not too starchy, and should be free of sprouts. They do tend to change the selection of the exact variety at Cestr, so you don’t have to worry about that very much. Our guests did not get to taste the mash during the summer. The explanation is simple: new potatoes are not suitable for the mash, since their higher water content will break the texture. That is why they wait for about two months in the summer and then start making the mash again only when the potatoes are ready. 

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1. First of all, peel the potatoes and soak them in water to get rid of the starch. At Cestr, they soak the potatoes over night, but half an hour will do in household conditions. 

2. Cut the potatoes to smaller cubes and cook them in water for about 5 to 10 minutes, continuously scraping off any starch foam that is created on the surface. 

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3. Get rid of the water and simmer the potatoes in hot milk. The milk should be hot, not cold. (Cold milk will stop the cooking process and that’s bad for the mash). The milk should simmer, not boil. The more fatty the milk, the easier it burns at the bottom of the pan. Cook the potatoes until very soft for 25 minutes or so.

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4. Drain the potatoes, keeping the excess milk of later use.

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5. Put the potatoes in a mixer bowl, add butter, and start mixing with a whisk. First whisk without any milk and start adding the milk later to achieve a silky texture of the milk. The amount of milk needed may dramatically vary depending on the variety of the potato used.

Finally, a word about salt: Salt is added when the potatoes simmer in milk, and then again when the mash is being whisked.

We hope you will enjoy the recipe!!! If you do follow it (and we hope you will), please comment on the results and do post pictures of your mash! Happy Thanksgiving! 


Susta Strudel: The Myth, Busted... (Recipe included)

The Susta strudel is an establishment you simply have to know about to find. There are not signs, directions, no online presence, no advertising, nothing. Mr Susta bakes his strudels in a side street of the Zizkov district in the shadows of the Vitkov National Memorial (a sight we definitely recommend that everyone visit), in the "kocarkarna" (formerly a small storage room for baby carriages) of a prefabricated panel house from the 1970s.