Hookah, line and sinker

Prague's hookah havin' tea rooms and the search for descent cous-cous

Dahab Dlouhá 33 (entrance on Rybná),
Staré Mesto, P1
Tel. 224 827 375
Open noon-midnight daily

Masná 8,
Staré Mesto, P1
Tel. 222 315 983
Open noon-midnight daily

Karma Lounge
U Milosrdnych 4,
Staré Mesto, P1
Tel. 224 813 706
Open 11am-1am daily

As a cultural phenom, as a curative to beerhalls and a dim place to take a girl with hippie propensities you just can’t do better than a tearoom. But drinking holes, like people, can only be truly loved when they drop the pretense. Pretending to profundity is a business doomed from the start.

Tea rooms are where I take my friends when they visit Prague for the first time. If I really want a sensei, I’ll head for the tea shop on Národní next to Café Louvre and pick up a cheap and excellent packet of loose-leaf tea, and brew it with the technique once showed to me by the zen mogul Luboš Rychvalský, the owner of Dahab and Boršov, who developed a teahouse company that now operates 22 satellites in the republic.

Rychvalský, a former student of religion and Hussitism, traveled to India, China, Nepal and Africa to buy tea and study steeping methods. All of this was set in motion by an impulse he once had to set up an exotic tea salon for a New Year’s party of Václav Havel’s during the heady days following the Velvet Revolution.

The trippy atmosphere, dim, incense-tinged spaces for sipping, black-robed servers, quality and breadth of teas have combined, with his business acumen, to set this guy up for life. It’s also given the rest of us dark, warm places in winter in which to sit on the floor and share a water pipe, or hookah with girls named Sun Child.

Taken for what they are, a few of these places are indeed endearing. And some even manage to avoid serving completely brutalized couscous. Some, mind you.

Dahab is arguably the best-developed tearoom in the nation, with multiple full-on tile mosaic bars, carved green wooden benches, a surprisingly full menu and more hookahs than you can throw a raspberry tobacco pouch at. Nepalese Yogi tea, Chinese red or South American macha are all served with aplomb, this last with a metal straw that’s not for the uninitiated.

Hint: metal conducts heat. Rather well.

With intimate lighting, iron cages used as lanterns and a soundtrack of world electronica that goes perfectly with the brews, Dahab is clearly ahead of the pack. Bean addicts need not fear—capps and ‘pressos are on tap along with the dozens of teas. No danger of falling asleep due to supreme mellowness, then.

Regarding eats, a creative menu features some Arabic-styled offerings that do their bit to keep up the harem vibe. Stuffed tomatoes and zucchini, baked eggplant and a selection of tagines (65-120 Kč), the sumptuous North African-style dish named after the conical ceramic it’s baked in, come off pretty well. Little plates of dates, dried figs and the orange slice salad, meanwhile, make for delectable lighter noshes you wouldn’t find anywhere else in town. A few other dishes, like the bland goat cheese and the couscous are frankly flavorless. The apparently not-so-well known trick to a good couscous is the liquid you stir into it, which infuses the tiny cubes of dried semolina with flavor. Anyone who’s ever tasted one, redolent with the tang of stock and tomato sauce, can tell you that the ancients knew what they were doing—couscous, pasta’s forerunner, was brought to Italy by invaders from the Arab World.

Tea at Siva is pleasant, and certainly quiet enough, planted in a rock-walled cellar hidden so far beneath the streets of Old Town you may need to bring your own oxygen. And the staff can, perhaps understandably, forget about you down there. Eating is a bit more risky, with the chalva, baba ganoush, foul medammes and nuts and harina soup probably the best offers. “Kuskus” is on the menu, but, again, only for the cavalier or those born, cruelly, without taste buds.

Hookahs abound and one particularly dark back room down in the catacombs comes replete with a pillow-padded floor. It probably leads to all sorts of complicated situations. The best mix of tearoom, music lounge and credible eatery is the Karma Lounge, which, if you can avoid the belly dancers (8pm-late Fridays), is enticingly mellow. Lunch specials of Indian pakora and bhuna are a major appeal, as are mezes, or traditional Lebanese mixed platters (95 Kč). Mild yogurt-curry korma, and more fiery chicken and lamb curries (165-220 Kč) will start you up as well, served by kindly, reasonably swift hippie girls.

Overall it’s a rich mosaic of a place (as in bordering on identity crisis—even its street-side signage can’t seem to keep up with the concept: Karma Lounge, Music Bar, Lulu Café...), with groove DJ platters spun, girls in veils shaking it... But considering the conventionalism and shared cookbooks widespread in this town, that should only be encouraged.

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