Monday, October 20, 2008

Restaurant Review: Luka Lu

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 27/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Every week, I have the task of figuring out which restaurant I'm going to review next. I take into consideration the kinds of places I did recently, what people might enjoy reading about, and any interesting tips I may have received.

Once I've made a decision, I schedule my visits. I like to go at least twice to each restaurant, preferably for both lunch and dinner. Eating at the same spot two or three days in a row can be kind of boring, so I try to leave some time in between.

And then I need to work out who's coming with me.

Believe it or not, it can be hard to recruit people. Friends and family who once saw eating out with a restaurant critic as an exciting novelty have started angling for a little more choice in the matter, realizing that they'd prefer to eat at the restaurants they already know and love. "Can't we just go to Café Savoy again?" they say. "We know it's good." One friend has even become convinced that her presence is a curse and the food turns out to be bad every time she comes along (it has, but I'm pretty sure it's not her fault).

Although trying out restaurants that I otherwise might never set foot into is part of my job, eating alone isn't all that fun. That's why I occasionally do my restaurant-going companions – and myself – a favor and pick a place I know they're going to love.

This week, that place was Luka Lu. When I wrote about it for a different publication some time ago, I brought my brother along to dinner and he fell in love with a certain octopus dish he tried there. So he was very happy to have an excuse to visit again.

As his luck would have it, of course, the restaurant didn't have any octopus left. After the waitress informed him of this, my brother promptly shot me an accusatory look, as if I was the one who'd done Luka Lu's grocery shopping that day. He reluctantly picked another dish.

Fortunately, it's hard to make a bad choice at Luka Lu. The menu features a nice selection of Balkan- and Italian-inspired meals, including čevapčiči, pastas, and various fish entrées. It's not the most sophisticated food in the city, but that's partly why I like it. This is straightforward, family-style fare, the kind you might find in a tucked-away little restaurant in Sarajevo, or, better yet, on the dining table of a Balkan home.

Luka Lu describes itself as the child of an adventurous Italian father and a calm, simple Bosnian mother. This assessment makes perfect sense: the unpretentious food is, naturally, the work of the mama. And you only need to take one look at the interior design to see where the boisterous Italian side comes in.

Owner Veso Djorem's long culinary career has seen him open ten different restaurants in Prague and Sarajevo, including the now-defunct Dolly Bell in Vyšehrad and another Malá Strana spot called Gitanes. His ventures are known for their signature decorative style: colorful and cluttered, with the occasional upside-down table hanging from the ceiling.

Glance upwards in Luka Lu's front room and you'll see a fully-laid-out sewing table, complete with machine, half-finished garment, and a pair of fluffy slippers. Bright murals depict a cartoon-ish harbor, and wooden windows and a little balcony are superimposed on the walls. It's playful kitsch, warm and welcoming and entirely different from the morose minimalism espoused by so many Prague restaurants.

But the best part of the interior isn't even visible until you turn a corner and walk down a narrow hallway. That's where you'll find Luka Lu's winter garden, a beautiful, airy room with a glass ceiling, pretty tiles, and plenty of plants. There were a couple of new additions here on my last visit, neither of which I'm too sure about: a big soda fridge and a birdcage full of squawking parakeets. The fridge detracts from the atmosphere for obvious reasons; the birdcage does add some liveliness, but assorted avian debris had ended up on the table and chairs we were led to by the waitress. We ended up changing seats.

In the very back of Luka Lu is a beautiful outdoor courtyard with wooden plank floors and glowing lanterns. I discovered this gem of a garden a little too late for the summer season, but I'll be sure to remember it for next year. The service can be a bit slow – especially if you're sitting in the rear areas – and there's been the occasional mix-up on my visits there, but at least everyone's friendly and relaxed.

Luka Lu (which translates as Harbor Lu) has been designed to evoke a konoba, or traditional Croatian-style seaside restaurant equivalent to a Greek taverna. Fittingly, seafood is the specialty here. Besides the aforementioned traditionally prepared octopus (350 CZK), there are also fried anchovies and fried sardines (175 and 180 CZK, respectively), and various fresh fish prepared on the restaurant's lava grill.

Red meat lovers will appreciate some of the Balkan specialties, such as the tasty kebab-like čevapčiči (160 CZK for 10 pieces; they're not as good as some I've had in Sarajevo, but are still worth a try) and the rich pljeskavice (something like a hamburger patty) stuffed with cheese (195 CZK). I was especially impressed by a traditional lamb dish (285 CZK) made in a special pan called a sač – the meat was so juicy and tender it was falling off the bone.

The broken English on Luka Lu's website says that "Wicked tongues say that most people cross the Vltava river and stay in the Lesser Quarter because of [Luka Lu]'s untameable beauty and not because of good food and wine." They're selling themselves a little short. The atmosphere might be the big initial draw, but there's more to like than the pretty décor.

Just ask my brother. Octopus or no octopus, he's already itching to go again.

Luka Lu
Újezd 33
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: 257 212 388



Anonymous said...

Yes, nice atmosphere and decent Balkan dishes. Not the best čevapčiči that I've ever had though. Personally I'd give them three spoons for atmosphere, food and service and I would go again but only if in the area.

kenn Q. said...

its good to here nice comment on this post. hoping that one day i can go there. :(