Our new food writer, Knedlíky Etc's Miss Knedlíkova, unearths a hidden Malá Strana gem
Over the past couple of months, I've covered a wide range of cuisine on my new Prague food and drink blog, Knedlíky Etc -- from kebabs to the Kempinski, from sausage stands to SaSaZu.
But where to choose for this, my first of (hopefully!) many articles to appear on Prague TV?
Somewhere nice, but not too expensive. Somewhere relatively new, that people maybe haven't seen or heard of yet. Somewhere just a little bit different.
Having perused my color-coded Excel file of restaurants/cafés/bars still to visit (yes, I really am that anal), I hit upon Šafrán, a recently opened concept restaurant on the steps of Malostranské nábřeží. The concept, as far as I can tell, being that the menu apparently changes every week, and -- unusually for Prague -- they also have a salad bar.
I'm not sure if the notable lack of signage on the exterior is also part of said concept.
However, if the exterior of the restaurant is something of a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, by way of compensation the interior is duly warm and welcoming, with sky-blue ceiling and walls and quirky items of décor that range from Andy Warhol prints to a pair of old-fashioned weighing scales in the corner.
My first visit last week was made solo for a light lunch at the Šafrán salad bar.
I felt a little conspicuous being the only person in the restaurant at the time, apart from the one unfailingly courteous waiter, of course.
A large basket of warm bread -- white, multigrain and sundried tomato -- was brought to the table, served with herbed butter and salt -- an attentive and well-presented start to the meal.
Next stop, the salad bar, which I have to say was decidedly more modest that what I'd initially imagined. Apart from all the usual fresh salad ingredients, the bar also featured cheese and chickpea salad, cold tuna pasta, a variety of hams, a plate of caprese, bowls of olives, sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic, and last but not least individual portions of mushroom paté and smoked salmon mousse.
Additional dressings and olive oil stood to one side.
I tried a little of everything, though it is hard to tell from the picture. I could have really used a wider plate rather than a small bowl here, so that the individual dishes/dressings didn't get all mixed together where ideally I wouldn't have had them done.
I kept the pasta, paté and mousse separate for this reason.
Of these, my top dish was the salmon mousse, which was light and airy and went perfectly with the fluffy white warm basket bread.
Of course, the temptation at buffets is to always get your money's worth, and at 160 CZK for what I had I am not really sure I quite got mine -- had I gone back for second helpings I'd probably have felt a bit more justified, but I didn't want to spend the rest of the afternoon regretting my over-indulgence…
In the end, the total bill for lunch came to 200 CZK for the salad bar and Mattoni, and based on first impressions I was already looking forward to coming back to sample a proper evening meal the following day.
Fast forward 32 hours or so and I was back at Šafrán again for dinner, this time with my good friend Mr. Smorgasbord in tow. We were there for a couple of hours from about 8pm, but in all that time I think that again, disconcertingly, we were the only two diners in the restaurant.
We were served by the same waiter as the previous day, who again was impeccable in his sense of timing -- always efficient, never intrusive. He recommended the Tirolean Sauvignon Blanc (at 430 CZK one of the cheaper bottles) for wine, which turned out to be very zesty, fruity and definitely very drinkable.
For starters, Mr. S. went for the bouillabaisse with saffron at 75 CZK, while I went for the gazpacho with parmesan cheese at 50 CZK.
Apart from the salad bar, these were actually the only two starter options -- I'd have maybe preferred a little more choice here. Either way, of the two, I think Mr. S. made the better choice, his bouillabaisse turning out to be really flavorsome and made with generous chunks of seafood. My gazpacho was also nice -- much chunkier than previous versions I've had and with a streak of pesto oil along the side. The bowls were quite deep, so both portions were deceptively bigger than they look from the photos.
For the main, Mr. S. went for the leg of lamb baked with garlic and mint served with spinach and potatoes (330 CZK).
I immediately wished I'd done the same. I could smell the fragrance of the meat from across the table, and on sampling it we both commented upon the tenderness of the lamb and delicious richness of the sauce. I would definitely have this again if it's still on the menu next time round.
As for me, I was torn between the seafood saffron risotto and the black spaghetti with octopus, garlic and chili (both 250 CZK). I'm not normally into tentacles, but as we'd just been discussing culinary adventurism and the weirdest things we've ever eaten (scorpion, silkworm, mopane worm, and snake among others in my case), I decided to be daring and opt for the latter.
Unfortunately my daring led only to disappointment on this occasion. There seemed precious little octopus in proportion to the spaghetti, and what I did find was just that bit on the chewy side. I did detect pieces of garlic, chili and zucchini mixed in, but not in sufficient quantities to save the dish from an overall impression of blandness. I asked for a little more parmesan in addition to that shown in the picture, which livened it up a bit.
To round off the meal we split a crème brûlée with strawberries at 135 CZK, which was brûléed in front of us at the table with a mini blowtorch.
This was seriously nice -- not goopy or gelatinous like some crème brûlées can be, but thick and creamy with a perfect sweet crunchy topping. A definite all-round yum from both of us here.
Finally, a digestif of dry sherry (me) and tawny port (Mr. S.) rounded off the meal nicely.
In total, meal with tip came to about 1,500 CZK, which we both felt was pretty good value for three courses and immoderate drinks. I'd enjoyed the meal as a whole and would definitely come back again, and am only surprised that the place seems so consistently empty despite several rave reviews on Expats.cz and TripAdvisor. Not having a sign up outside surely can't do much in the way of attracting passing trade.
Still, overall, when it comes to ambience, service, quality and value for money combined, while not quite perfect, Šafrán in my opinion is truly a hidden gem -- and one that I hope will be discovered soon before lack of custom leads to the place losing its sparkle altogether…
Tel.: (+420) 257 224 633
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