Pak a Punch
Seeking spicy South Asian sustenance
South Asian cuisine generally means a feast. Rarely is it a solo affair, and
one of those intimate, multi-course European dinners is more the thing for a
couple. With a multitude of shared dishes traditionally self-served out of communal
bowls, Indian and Pakistani meals can feed your whole family, and your friends,
and your co-workers, and maybe that fat guy you stood next to on the tram last
week. Picture an abundant spread of piquant dishes served over rice and flatbread,
with relishes and pappadums, curries and kormas noisily passed around, the clanking
of spoons competing with dinner conversation.
Though the Czech palate does not warm easily to spicy food, Indian and Pakistani
restaurants have a strong but limited following here. Nature has not cooperated:
Jewel of India on Parižská, long considered Prague’s finest Indian restaurant,
fell victim to August’s near-monsoon; its cozy but pricey basement space is
now the daytime haunt of starch-eating, Staropramen-drinking construction workers.
Another high-rupee place, Rasoi, only recently reopened after months of reconstruction.
Still, the subcontinental scene seems to be building, particularly with the
addition of more moderately priced options.
One of Prague’s hottest Indian eateries these days is Haveli, which opened nine
months ago close to the Hradcanská Metro stop. A recent afternoon found a significant
swath of Prague’s South Asian-expat community crowded into the upstairs bar
watching the Cricket World Cup on television. The good-natured vibe seeped downstairs,
where an older Czech couple—not, I imagine, this restaurant’s target demographic—seemed
to be enjoying their lunch in the uncommonly lavish brick-lined interior.
Manager Jayant Sarkar says Haveli has drawn daytime diners with inexpensive
lunch specials, a sampling of items from the regular menu that can be prepared
quickly and cheaply. At 100 Kc each (including soft drink and a portion of the
salty yogurt sauce raita), the specials (served 11 am-3:30 pm) are nothing less
than a steal, and worth the trek for anyone who works anywhere along the A line.
My aloo vindaloo, a spicy potato dish served over a generous heap of basmati
rice, had both flavor and bite. You’ll be tempted to wash your meal down with
lassi and top it off with an excellent dessert, gulab jamun, sweet brown dumplings
drenched in saffron-infused honey and topped with pistachios. Haveli’s regular
prices are moderate to high, with a good selection of intriguing inventions,
extensive vegetarian options hovering around 200 Kc and meat standards such
as tandoori kebabs from the clay oven starting at 195 Kc.
Haveli immediately struck me as a place with a growing local following; Taj
Mahal always seemed just the opposite, a place for transient business travelers
to spend their per diem. But this old mainstay surprised me. The dishes are
good and the prices are high but not highway robbery. I recently enjoyed a vegetable
madras (oddly enough, spicier than the vindaloo at Haveli) with long, crunchy
green beans and a rather sweet shahi korma flavored with ground almonds and
coconut milk. The flavors of both sauces were good but none too subtle, and
by the bottom of the bowl they had overpowered the vegetables. A better choice
for less iron-clad palates might be prawn poori, curried prawns with a strong
tang, sprinkled with cilantro and layered on a base of flaky, sweet flatbread.
Main dishes start at 195 Kc, and Taj Mahal delivers to some parts of town for
a modest fee of 50-150 Kc.
Floodwaters ravaged the aforementioned Rasoi, but the Old Town basement eatery
with the euro-trash disco at street level is back. The owners have imported
new tandoor ovens from India and another batch of colonial decor for those nostalgic
for the Raj. The offerings are generally up to snuff, but the quality can range,
even within a dish. The vegetable samosa, a standard Indian starter, is just
so-so. A recent palak paneer had a rich piquancy, but the chunks of cheese in
the spinach dish had the consistency (and taste) of tough tofu. But dal makhani,
a dish of tandoor-simmered black lentils, is excellent, earthy and flavorful.
If there’s one thing about Rasoi that is definitely worthy of complaint, it’s
the prices, which top even Taj Mahal’s. Vegetarian dishes average 200 Kc, but
meat and seafood runs from around 300 to nearly 500 Kc—and that’s before bread
or rice, the latter of which will run a whopping extra 125 Kc. You’re paying
for the excellent location, directly on the beaten tourist path, and the sumptuous
Representing Pakistanti cuisine are Mailsi, in Žižkov, and Rana, near Palmovka,
two restaurants owned and operated by brothers Ali Nazakat and Ahmad Mehfooz.
Mailsi, named after the brothers’ hometown in the Punjab region of Pakistan,
offers a serene atmosphere and a more accessible location. Nazakat, the owner,
is solicitous and attentive; expect him to check up on the table shortly after
the meal is served, a kind custom that’s a rarity in these parts. The food is
on the middling side of good, with a handful of vegetarian options, and you
can leave fully sated on about 300 Kc per person, drinks and sidess included.
You’ll find similar, cheaper food and a local crowd—including a number of Asian
expats—if you venture up to Rana, also known as the Pizzeria Napoli. Two tram
stops from Palmovka Metro, Rana offers a menu of Pakistani dishes tacked onto
the pizza menu. On a recent visit I found myself discussing the whereabouts
of Osama bin Laden with an educated writer friend of Mehfooz. The man insisted
bin Laden was not only alive, but in the United States. “If I put myself inside
his bastard brain,” he says, “that’s where I’d go.” Like I said, it’s conversation
Dejvická 6, P6
Tel: 333 448 003
Open daily 11 am-11 pm
Škrétova 10, P2
Tel. 224 225 566
Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 am-3 pm and 5:30-11 pm
Dlouhá 13, P1
Tel. 222 328 400
Open Monday through Friday 11:30 am-3 pm and 5-11:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday
11:30 am-11 pm
Lipanská 1, P3
Tel. 222 717 783 or 603 466 626
Open daily 11 am-11 pm
Na Dedince 12, P8
Tel. 283 842 613 or 607 729 758
Open daily noon-11 pm
Scott MacMillan is co-owner of Tulip Café. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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