Fish School

Get caught in the current of one of Prague's finer fish restaurants.

The monk fish is not one of nature's pageant winners; its cavernous jaw and oversized head make it one of the fishmonger's hard-sells, especially if it is lined up beside one of the more sympathetic household species of fish, such as the trusty mackerel. Don't be put off by nature's little cloaking devices, though. Enjoying seafood to its fullest is about experiencing inner beauty. If you are about to experiment with new tastes and are put off by the monk fish's grin, make sure that you have a seasoned skipper handy to guide you through the rough waters of choosing the right seafood at the right price.

This is what I found at the Rybí trh ("Fish Market") where the waiter's knowledge of each piece of seafood bordered on the sublime. It's not as if I didn't try to trip him up with my complicated questions and expose him as nothing more than a carp-eater. The man simply knew his fish and let me know it. This, I was later told, is thanks to the owners' active participation in determining the menu and training their staff. They are the same owners, in fact, who launched the restaurant Flambee, which was partially destroyed last month by the very waters that power the fresh fish world.

Rybí is not cheap, but if you're after exotic, fresh seafood prepared in a professional manner, this should be your restaurant of choice. Appetizers run the gamut of salmon and tuna variations - smoked and raw -as well as the ubiquitous oysters. Of the two soups on the menu, the better one should be the classic Bouillabaisse. Don't be fooled, the Bouillabaisse is not just a fish stew -it depends more on the process than the type of fish used. (In French, bouillon abaissé means "to reduce by evaporation.") Like a spaghetti sauce, its recipe is one part family tradition and two parts chef secrecy, and rightly so. According to Greek mythology, Venus used this filling fish soup to make her husband Vulcan sleepy so she could diddle with Mars. Use it at your own discretion; I skipped it to keep my wife honest.

The real reward is in the fresh seafood filets, which are a permanent feature of the menu. Although the prices may be prohibitive, my advice is to skip the cheaper classics like squid and cod and go directly to octopus, mahi-mahi, St. Peter's fish or the ominous monk fish mentioned above. Fresh seafood really has a more rewarding taste than frozen. Octopus, for one, is chewy enough before undergoing any flash-freezing process aboard fishing vessels now roaming the high seas, and your local quasi-French restaurant might not be able to grill up such exotics like those at Rybí trh.

Another fine filet comes from St. Peter's fish, and let me tell you, he ain't pretty either. Named for the two spots on the fish's sides that are said to be the fingerprints of St. Peter himself, this heavy-finned fish has a firm, white flesh with a mild flavor. The texture of the fish, by the way, is very important, at least for the cook. It determines how many ways the filet can be prepared. The chef at Rybí trh offers three preparations: grilled, steamed or broiled. St Peter's fish is a great griller, since its flesh holds together well. And since it is mild in flavor, you can easily add a sauce to it. Here, Rybí trh has a few of its own, all rather French in design.

Now to my monk fish.

This beast is often called the "poor man's lobster," since its tail is primarily what you eat and it's similar in texture and taste to the wonderful Maine lobster, (which is available, by the way, for the hefty sum of 1690 Kč). I asked for my monk fish grilled and, for consistency's sake, I ordered grilled vegetables to go along with it. A word of advice to sauce users: If the flesh of the fish is mild in flavor, get yourself a sauce and bon appetite. But any medium to strong-flavored fish would lose its uniqueness to a sauce of any kind. Don't hide your robust fish in sauce, love him for what he really tastes like. I poured a bit of extra-virgin olive oil on my monk (a trick I learned in Nice) and it really was one of the best fish experiences I have had.

Despite the quality dinner, the dining area was remarkably empty. "Business is a bit down, due to the floods," the chef explained, a fact I noticed in my own places. "But we always have a reliable clientele." He pointed outside to two men eating dinner in the garden area.

I remembered the time that I was eating dinner at Delfy, the Greek restaurant in Podoli, when Vaclav Klaus walked in, snarled at me and the other diners, and proceeded to sit with his back to the rest of the guests. He had just lost the election the day before.

Rybí trh is for seafood lovers or for those who are eager to try it but don't know where. If you belong to the latter group, I have a suggestion. Go to Rybí trh's website () and order a gift certificate for 2000 Kč. If their boast is right, then it will be delivered to you anywhere in Prague in less than 24 hours, accompanied with a long-stemmed red rose. When you arrive at Rybí trh that night, be sure to stick your gift rose in the mouth of that monk fish. Since you will have to wait before the inner beauty arrives on your plate, this will at least help cosmetically to come to terms with your dinner.

Tracy Dove is a professional restaurateur and gourmand. He can be reached at [email protected]

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