Monday, December 8, 2008

Restaurant Review: Lehká Hlava

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 15/11/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When Lehká Hlava first opened, I thought it would never last. Its location on a tiny side street – the shortest in Prague, in fact – seemed too secluded to get much foot traffic, and its vegetarian menu seemed a little too wholesome for a nation of dedicated meat eaters.

I was wrong.

In the past few years, Lehká Hlava has become one of only a handful of Prague restaurants that turn away hungry customers on a regular basis. Even on a Monday or Tuesday night – days when some waiters barely lift a plate during dinner service – reservations are a must.

Before the floods of 2002, the same space was occupied by Dobrá Čajovna, a company that has opened a series of cozy teahouses across the Czech Republic and now even has a couple of branches in Wisconsin and Vermont. But none of them appear to match the charm and secrecy of the original Boršov location: the candlelit room strewn with pillows and Persian rugs where tea drinkers sometimes took naps; the brighter front room, more suitable for reading or long chats with friends; the old-fashioned bell that guests had to pull on in order to be let inside.

I get a little nostalgic visiting Lehká Hlava sometimes, even if the restaurant does have some of that same comfy feeling to it that the čajovna once did. The back room, whose cave-like dark blue walls are dotted with tiny lights for stars, is especially popular – I wasn't able to reserve a seat there on either of my most recent visits. The other large room is nicely designed too, although it is so packed with tables that it can sometimes feel uncomfortably cramped (there is also a separate salonek that can be reserved for small groups who want a little more space and privacy).

Good thing Lehká Hlava has such a unique atmosphere, because the food is a bit lacking, even if it is pleasantly inexpensive. Like many vegetarian restaurants, this one will serve dishes from just about any kind of cuisine (Mexican, Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern) as long as they don't contain meat. The menu is fairly large, and with the restaurant so busy, the solo chef in the tiny open kitchen must be under quite a bit of pressure every night.

Sometimes, the stress seems to show in the food. The grains in the bulgur wheat risotto (135 CZK) were tough, while the tempeh that came with it was dry and shriveled, as if it had been heated more than once. Besides that, I didn't much like the concept of the dish, which paired an oily mixture of stir-fried vegetables and bulgur with a dollop of peanut and sun dried tomato pesto. The idea may have been to give the dish some more flavor – which it definitely could have used – but the pairing seemed more careless than creative.

There are a few other bizarre combinations, too: hummus served with tortilla chips (80 CZK), for example, or a carrot cake doused in melted milk chocolate (70 CZK). The hummus with chips was a little off-base (classic toasted pita bread would really work better), but those with a very sweet tooth should find the carrot cake to their liking. Made from millet instead of regular wheat flour, and spiced up by coconut and fresh ginger, the very dense and moist cake took well to the high-quality chocolate sauce. The same kind of chocolate is used in Lehká Hlava's popular hot chocolate (50 or 70 CZK; try the delicious Aztec version with chili and walnuts) and fruit fondue (80 CZK).

I also enjoyed a main course of grilled goat cheese with gratinated potatoes and sautéed fresh spinach (165 CZK), layered with a top crust of crispy cheese and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts. It's a well-thought-out, satisfying vegetarian entrée. The eggplant quesadillas (135 CZK), meanwhile, were mediocre at best but at least partially redeemed themselves with the very good homemade guacamole and tomato salsa that were served as accompaniments.

Credit should be given to Lehká Hlava's imaginative drinks menu, which features a variety of fresh juices, including the Heart Core (50 or 65 CZK), a combination of freshly-pressed apples, carrots, and ginger. They also do guarana cocktails, fresh lemonade with mint, and something called the Greenhorn, made from young barley shoots, in addition to serving a small selection of wines and leaf teas. Finally, we have a restaurant whose non-alcoholic menu offers more than just Coke and mineral water.

I wouldn't recommend the mineral water, by the way – apparently they pour it into glasses from a large bottle, so it is often completely flat once it reaches the table. And don't try asking the waitresses for ice with your fresh juice, because they'll probably forget to bring it; the service may be friendly, but it's unreliable (you may find it easier to dine here during their monthly brunch, when the food is self-service only).

Lehká Hlava does have its faults, but at least it's doing something different from the countless copycat restaurants that have saturated our dining scene – which may be part of the reason why people keep coming back. There's really nothing else like it, and the love and care the owners have put into the space are palpable. I'm hoping a few more risk-taking entrepreneurs will step forward in the near future. Prague, and all its hopelessly bored restaurant-goers, would almost certainly welcome the change.

Lehká Hlava

Boršov 2
Praha 1
Tel: 222 220 665

Open Mon–Fri 11:30–23:30, Sat-Sun 12:00—23:30

photographs 1, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others

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