Though the heart of a restaurant should always lie in its kitchen, the service and atmosphere are also vital organs. That applies doubly to places where the food is sturdy but unexciting, by which I mean Eastern European places. You can only get so far with sausage, tripe soup and dumplings, standard fare in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If Czech food were exciting, no one would have invented frilly blouses, or polka, or pilsner beer.
The Prague Deli has stood on Queen Street West near Palmerston Avenue in one form or another since 1968, and for nearly two decades before that, the space was a Czechoslovakian ham shop. A place like that comes with an awful lot of history, and through the years, as its audience changed and the deli modernized (albeit slightly), the Prague has managed to maintain its character and dignity. The place stayed busy with a mixed crowd of Queen Street locals and far-flung regulars. Which is why it’s so mystifying what Dejan Lazic, the restaurateur who bought the deli’s lease last May, has done with the place.
Where once there was a lively charcuterie counter inside the front door, and a front-and-centre grocery display with jars of imported jam and sausages and Czech Smarties and sugary oddments wrapped in cellophane, now the room, remade as Prague European Kitchen, is stripped down and modernish – or, as the less diplomatic might call it, bleak. The deli counter, which remains well-stocked and, by all accounts fully operational, has been moved to the back room, out of sight, like an unwashed elder uncle. The only immediate sign of where you’re at is an antique butcher’s scale set inside the entrance, with a sack of flour and some wood chips and a prewar leather suitcase on it. It looks like the set dressing from a straight-to-video art film about the love between a lonely but well-intentioned street mime and a Cesky terrier with a thirst for blood. Even Restaurant Makeover couldn’t have made the room more sad.
The food is sturdy: There are sundry pork products, rabbit and dumplings, dill, beets, paprika, and even very good tripe. Mr. Lazic has hired Jake Paradis, a 24-year-old chef who worked most recently as a chef de partie at Jump, in the financial district, to run the menu. Mr. Paradis spent a good deal of time as a boy in his Slovenian grandmother’s kitchen, according to a bio provided by the restaurant. He’s broadened the offerings out beyond Czech food, to Hungarian goulash, deep-fried Edam cheese sticks and a pork, lamb and beef burger called “The Balkan Threesome.” These items achieve much of what you can ever really hope for Eastern European food: They fill you up, stick to your ribs, go well with beer, etc. Occasionally Mr. Paradis’s cooking even accomplishes slightly more than that.
The chef stuffs perogies with pork and hot banana peppers, for instance, in what fully deserves to become a late-night classic; there’s a bit of heat, a whack of sour cream, satisfying bacon nubs served with them. His cabbage roll also toys ever so slightly with tradition: The cabbage is juicy and fresh-tasting, the rice and meat inside are loose instead of doughy, and his sauce tastes like fresh tomatoes, much more Naples than Vaclavske Namesti. Nice touch.
Those Edam cheese poppers look and play much like zoo sticks. I like them: A cheap trick’s not a bad trick if it’s good. He plays it straight with his cold smoked fish plate, piling good fish alongside pickled beets, sour cream and mediocre potato pancakes; they taste like they were reheated from a ready-made stack.
The seared rainbow trout, served with fingerling potatoes and sliced, hard-cooked egg, failed long before it reached Mr. Paradis’s kitchen. The fish tasted muddy, like cheap tilapia or pond-raised carp. There’s superb farmed trout available in Ontario; Mr. Paradis should avail himself of some.
Almost anybody could love his tripe soup, though: The broth is comforting, dark and serious, soft organ jazz with a hot pepper downbeat; the tripe is mild and tender and cut so that it doesn’t look or taste on your tongue like stomach lining.
Lovers of braised beef are likely to lust for Mr. Paradis’s short-rib sauerbraten, though: The meat is moist and jiggly and is served with sliced dill pickles and a bed of light, deep-fried dumpling noodles called halusky. I’d also order the suckling pig palacinky – milky roast young pork wrapped in crepes, and served with applesauce.
Even the Balkan Threesome, a classic Mom burger seared in a pan and set on a way-too-big bun, is tasty (and fun to order, depending on your fondness for double-entendre).
Dessert is less so, particularly the “bread pudding” that’s made from doughy white dumpling slices and appears to be modelled after French toast.
The night I had it, the batter hadn’t soaked more than a millimetre into the thick slices, so they were fine-tasting on first impact, but dry and pasty and rib-sticking for all the wrong reasons once you got fully into the bite.
Afterward, one of my tablemates walked through the empty deli section in the back room and discovered an array of more traditional desserts – ones that hadn’t made the dinner menu. He brought back a sandwich made from meringue and slathered with a paste of one sort or another. One of the ladies who’s been baking for the Prague for years had made it, a staffer told him.
It tasted light and luxurious, gloriously sweet and old-fashioned, as though it had somehow absorbed the old soul of the place. We each took a bite and marvelled.
To serve that brutal bread pudding while burying these in the back made no sense at all.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution