Eat Your Way East

New places to loosen your borscht belt

Tbilisi
Dittrichova 25, P2
Tel. 224 911 507.
Open daily 11 am – midnight

Restaurace “Traveller”
Pasaz U Radnickych, Havelska 9, P1
Tel. 221 111 820. Open daily 9 am – 11 pm (sometimes closes early)

Atelier
Nerudova 36, P1
Tel. 777 321 172. Open Tuesday through Sunday 11 am – midnight

Pill editors recently requested a round-up of Russian restaurants in Prague. Easy, I thought; I’ll just sample the sturgeon at a few stalwarts like Samovar and Rasputin, old local haunts ripe for rediscovery.

Try again. Lately, the Russian culinary scene seems as flat as an unfilled blintz. Vršovice’s Rasputin, home of hearty dishes from the motherland served to a tinkling Casio beat, is now a Sichuan spot. Old Town’s Blinis Bar shut its doors last August due to flood damage. And Samovar? It’s now the Georgian restaurant Tbilisi.

This last, actually, seemed a promising development—Georgia’s cuisine puts Russia’s to shame. Indeed, if you’re thinking of “doing Russian,” you could do worse than using Georgian food as a proxy. The Russian palate, attuned to the Siberian winter, prefers dark rye bread and heavy stews laden with cabbage, meat, fungus, pickled vegetables and subterranean rhizomes. Georgia was something like the New Orleans of the old Soviet Union; its inhabitants favor spicier, tastier fare, which is why expats in Moscow are known to favor the cheap Georgian eateries that abound in the Russian capital. Like those in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands, Georgian tables abound with piquant appetizers; main courses (consisting mainly of grilled meat, although Georgian food is, relatively speaking, vegetarian-friendly) play second fiddle.

Tbilisi—the restaurant, not the Georgian city—may not be the best local place to sample these delights, despite the presence on the menu of Caucasian standards such as lobio (a bean dish flavored with cilantro, mint and other spices) at rock-bottom prices. A recent visit to this uninviting corner haunt saw the writer turned away. A group of burly men congressed around one table; the hostess explained that a meeting was in progress and it might be better to come back later—or, better yet, call ahead. The windows are shaded, and a sign counsels guests to leave their dogs, mobile phones and handguns at home. Formal attire is required after 6 pm From the look of things, the owners of Tbilisi have, shall we say, other sources of income.

You’ll have better luck at Restaurace “Traveller,” a modest, brick-lined pizzeria with Russian and Georgian dishes on the menu. Part of the ethnic smorgasbord in and around the Havelská market, Traveller offers Georgian specialties such as hachapury, a sort of Caucasian calzone oozing with salty cheese and greasy goodness (a mere 50 Kč and highly recommended), and shashliky, a cold, spicy dish of chicken or red meat defined by its walnut-based sauce. There’s also Russian pelmeny (stuffed dumplings) with sour cream, potatoes or curds, and the enticing if somewhat mysterious kaurma, which is liver, lungs and heart stewed with onions and spices. (Liver, lungs and heart of what? They don’t say.) But you’ll have to come early to get lobio; on a recent visit the kitchen was all out of the coveted bean concoction.

Two white lights. First, none of these dishes sell for more than 100 Kč. Second, the name notwithstanding, you won’t find any loud-mouthed backpackers flipping through their Lonely Planets at Traveller. The only expats hanging around hail from the south and east; you’ll find them talking shop, placing bets at the betting parlor next door, or just passing the time of day.

Strictly speaking, Malá Strana’s recently opened Atelier is neither a Russian nor a Georgian restaurant, but it serves home-cooked Russian meals to “friends and friends of friends,” which means pretty much anybody who calls ahead and orders a large dinner of pelmeny and borscht. (Disclosure: I divulged my Pill credentials when I called ahead to arrange such a visit. My usual policy is to dine incognito.)

Opened in January in a honey space up three flights of stairs on the route up to Prague Castle, Atelier has yet to pick up much business, although the springtime arrival of the tourist traffic on Nerudova could change that. Owners Alexander Krivcov (who hails from St. Petersburg) and Eva Krivcova (of Pardubice) are planning a “Russian musical salon” on Tuesdays starting next month (augmenting a regular slate of informal parties), and plans are afoot for a chill-out lounge in the cozy upstairs attic, with DJs and beanbag chairs.

Though the menu features a meatless section (Mexican chili beans, risotto, and an omelette), there’s not much else suitable for vegetarians, especially if Alexander is cooking Russian. Specials include a “Plate Port-Royal” consisting of every kind of meat you can think of served with French bread and a dipping sauce, and trout stuffed with olives, cheese, ham, champignons and garlic. Prices won’t break the bank, with most main dishes on the regular menu listing from 100 to 200 Kč, and students get a 10 percent discount.

During my tour I asked Eva Krivcova why there aren’t more Russian restaurants in Prague, in light of the large emigré community here. “Russians cook at home,” she says. “That’s why we have a restaurant—because we don’t like to go out to restaurants. And that’s why we try to do it like it’s our home.”

Scott MacMillan is a co-owner of Tulip Cafe. He can be reached at letters@pill.cz.

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