At the Oasis
Slowing down for an authentic Middle Eastern meal.
Podolské nábře?í 1 in P4
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Národní obrany 47 in P6
If you pay the check before 11:00 p.m. at a Lebanese restaurant, then you’ve done
something wrong. European palates and eating habits are nothing like their counterparts
in the Middle East, where relaxation and social bonding are key to the evening
meal ritual. Dinner the slow way simply tastes better, something you can learn
at either of Prague’s finer Lebanese restaurants, Sultan in Prague 4 and U cedru
in Prague 6.
Here you should consider not only what you are going to eat, but also how you
are going to eat it. When it comes to food, Arabs are grazers. They pick at their
food over several hours of talk and gossip while lounging on fluffy pillows and
listening to music. Dinner is the main event of the day in a Lebanese household,
and there is no rush, even though the meal may start as late as midnight. Guests
– sometimes lots of guests – are the social spice thrown in to complete the evening.
This communal element is missing in Prague, laments the owner of Sultan, Dr. Bessisso.
According to him, hospitality knows no extravagance in the Arab world. He claims
that 20% or more of a Lebanese’s salary is generally spent on celebrations – i.e.,
eating and drinking. This voluntary entertainment tax is spent in any number of
ways, and, according to Bessisso, no one is counting. At Sultan, there are large
booths with the ubiquitous fluffy pillows so that a group can unwind and dine
in luxury, but smaller parties have to do with the classic chair and table concept.
Coffee is customary before a meal, not after. Both Sultan and U cedru have a special
combination of Arabica beans that they use as their signature blend. Arabian coffee
is a special mix of light and dark beans, roasted separately, with a dash of cardamom
for aroma. But pay attention to the sugar content: the more joyous the occasion,
the sweeter it gets. Flatter your host – or Lebanese waiter – and order it good
and sweet. It’s barely a thimble full, but it is high-octane and tasty.
The high caffeine and sugar content lead to chatty behavior, so let yourself go.
The idea is to create an atmosphere of talk and snack, and the standard second
course is a Mezza, or mix of dishes from the appetizer list. I was especially
curious what an Arab diner would order as opposed to a European one, and Dr. Bessisso
explained the difference in more than diplomatic terms. For one, non-Arabs tend
to stick to tried and true favorites like hummus, falafel and baked aubergine.
These are top choices of course, but the Lebanese cuisine is built for more, and
natives of the culture know this.
Fresh vegetables are important, and are invariably prepared with garlic and olive
oil. They must be light, since one mustn’t fill up too soon or the evening will
end prematurely. Vegetable breaks keep up the pace. Unfortunately, Prague is sunk
in a root-vegetable geography that makes it hard to be authentic at home, so put
yourself in the care of trained culinary experts. All the cooks at Sultan are
Lebanese, while the ones at U cedru are well-trained Czechs.
The meat of choice is lamb, and here the diner becomes a bit wary. The gamy taste
of this animal can be strong. When prepared properly, however, there should be
only a hint of this flavor. According to Dr. Bessisso, the main dish is kibbeh
– chunks of lamb meat pounded by hand into a paste over several hours. Bulgur
wheat is added, then it’s pounded some more. You should eat it raw, but the faint-hearted
can settle for fried (kibbeh makli, at Sultan, 140 Kč, at Ucedru, 90 Kč). Of the
two restaurants, only Sultan serves it raw in the traditional style (kibbeh nayeh,
I’m not afraid of lamb, but I chose the homemade sausages, sojok, from both menus
(Sultan, 140 Kč, Ucedru, 90 Kč). Sultan gains my favor with this dish, since U
cedru made theirs from beef. While the spices were gratifyingly hot, Ucedru’s
version lacked the breadth of a lightly spiced lamb. Of the fresh spices used
in Arabic cuisine, cilantro is one of the loveliest greens in a salad, while fresh
mint makes lamb go down in a mouthful of wonder. Some may find the former overpowering,
but that all lies in the hands of the chef.
Of the dry spices, allspice is dominant, while saffron and cumin are used sparingly.
The use of such spices is critical, since overuse can cause an acute state of
digestive despair and cause you to avoid Lebanese food ever after. If you follow
the Golden Rule of Lebanese culture, you will fare better: eat slowly, talk, drink,
and watch the belly dancers.
Belly dancers are good for the digestion. Here again Sultan pulls ahead with a
voluptuous team of young Czech students from the Conservatory of Charles University,
led by a Moroccan woman of wide belly dancing experience.
The familiar, anglicized word “harem” comes to mind at the mention of belly dancers,
but one mustn’t forget its origin. Harem actually equates with the English word,
“forbidden,” though its original use in Arabic (closer in meaning to “wrong” or
“bad”) in this case is fully understandable. Its opposite, halal, means “correct,”
but in regard to food, it is similar to the common Hebrew “kosher.”
The food at both Sultan and Ucedru is halal: the animals were slaughtered according
to Islamic law. Indeed, the New Zealand lamb used by Sultan comes with a stamp,
and much of what is produced there is exported to Muslim countries and beyond.
U cedru buys its meat locally.
In the final analysis, Sultan wins my vote for superior atmosphere and quality,
though U cedru offers a pleasant, low-key alternative. Regarding price, Sultan
is the more expensive of the two, but the food and service reduce the sting. For
this review to be comprehensive, Pasha restaurant should be included, but it is
still under reconstruction due to flood damage. They plan to reopen in November.
No matter where you choose to eat, the key is to slow down and turn off your mobile
phone. “Eat, drink and be merry” may be an English phrase, but if you add the
words “some more, and some more,” you’ll start to understand the Arab idea.
Tracy Dove is the owner of Bohemia Bagel. Reach him at email@example.com
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