Monday, February 9, 2009

Restaurant Review: Dahab (CLOSED)

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 17/01/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

How much does it cost to make a bowl of hummus?

The much-loved Middle Eastern spread's main ingredients are chickpeas and tahini, along with some garlic, olive oil, and lemon. So if I told you that someone was charging 225 CZK for a serving, you might think that was a bit much -- even if it was a reasonably large portion and came with a few pickled vegetables and (stale) pita chips.

But there is at least one restaurant in Prague that can get away with charging large sums of money for chickpea paste. Its name is Dahab, and it has a unique calling card: its colorful Arabic-style atmosphere. Although the main room is large, it still feels cozy; stained-glass lanterns hang from the vaulted ceiling, Persian rugs cover the floors, and the air is thick with the sweet scent of shisha tobacco. In the back of the restaurant are private salons where patrons can sit on the ground and sip tea from low tables or have a full dinner for up to 35 people. On the weekends, there is live music accompanied by belly dancers (more on them later), and it is a favorite hangout spot for Prague's Arab community.

So coming to Dahab is something of an experience, which might explain not only the high prices, but also the fact that the restaurant's reservation book is often completely full.

In its original incarnation, Dahab was a couscous house inside Roxy, where club kids could chill out and sip tea in between bouts of frenetic dance-floor activity. Then the restaurant moved around the corner, expanded its menu to include Middle Eastern as well as North African cuisines, and later – during a post-flood renovation – opened a fast food eatery facing Dlouhá. The fast food place, called Yalla, is in my experience not fantastic (although to be fair, I've only ever tried it in the wee hours of the morning).

The food at Dahab proper is definitely a step up, but it still leaves something to be desired. For a sampling of the restaurant's specialties, guests can order one of the mezze platters, such as the Grand Royal Mezze (800 CZK per person) – a feast that includes couscous, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, chicken drumsticks, grilled lamb cutlets, merguezi sausage, fried eggplant, pickled cheese with olives, vine leaves, tabbouleh salad, harissa, and pita bread. That sounds like a lot, and it is, although the portions of each dish are actually fairly small.

I just wish the cooking itself was a little bit better. The stuffed vine leaves were flavorless, poorly-wrapped, and filled with undercooked rice. The falafel tasted as if it had been fried in oil that had been used a few too many times, and I've had better tabbouleh at far cheaper restaurants. For the money, one would hope to find some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city.

Not the case here, unfortunately. My lamb chops baked with herbs and served with spinach couscous (520 CZK) were overcooked, fatty, and didn't taste especially herb-y. The couscous was all right, but the dish could have used some kind of sauce, as it was fairly dry. I'd also hoped for more from the chicken tajine (295 CZK), a Moroccan stew of meat, vegetables, and dried fruit slow-cooked in a special clay pot – the chicken was nice and tender, but the tajine lacked the complex blend of spices that is characteristic of North African cuisine.

I did very much like the chickpea shoraba (80 CZK), a hearty soup served with some unfortunately chewy croutons, and the homemade merguezi (lamb sausage, 380 CZK). The selection of teas is good too, though I'd venture to say that charging 100 CZK for a 0.25L pot of Yogi tea (black tea with spices, milk, and honey) might be overdoing it a little.

The wait staff is decent (if sometimes a little forgetful when it comes to refilling drink orders) and seem to do quite well even when the restaurant is very busy. Apparently, however, tips are included – which I didn't realize until we had received our bill and noticed a 3x 100 CZK service charge added to the 3500 CZK total sum. Including service is the restaurant's choice, but since it's not the norm here, it only seems fair to make that fact very clear on the menu so that customers don't over-tip unnecessarily.

So you might end up paying more than you wanted to for food that was pretty good, but not perfect. Will you come back? You just might, especially if you happened to visit Dahab on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening. Those are the days when dinner is accompanied by a keyboardist wailing Arabic songs – and a live belly dancer.

I'll admit that when I heard "live belly dancing," I expected the performer in question to be of the curvaceous Middle Eastern variety. Instead, the dancer was a tall, slim blonde named Šárka, dressed in sheer pants and a jewel-encrusted bra. As she gyrated her hips and smiled seductively at the seated men, including my own male dining companion, I realized that the fascinating story I was in the middle of telling would have to wait. All eyes were on the dancer; she was completely mesmerizing.
At one point, several of the Arabic guests stood up and began dancing, too, and singing and clapping along to the music. Next to my table, a grinning middle-aged couple was recording the performance on a video camera. It turned out that those were Šárka's parents, and they were very proud.

And we, like everybody else – and in spite of Dahab's imperfections – were having a lot of fun.

Dlouhá 33
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: (+420) 224 827 375

Open Mon-Sun 14:00-01:00

photographs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is it illegal for restaurants to charge for service in this country?
I know of many restaurants that charge service only to foreigners. I've been to a couple of those in the centre. I speak pretty good Czech so when I got the check I wasn't charged service, yet, the tourist at the table next to mine were....
Can it be that you were ripped off?

Anonymous said...

pivní filosof: well it is actually illegal not to pay for the servis. Remember there is a special place in hell reserved for non-tipers.

Pivní Filosof said...

Sorry mate, but tipping is not mandatory, it is something I choose to do if I consider the service, food and experience in general so deserve.
The prices at a restaurant are calculated based not only on the cost of the ingredients and the work of the people preparing the food, but also include the wages of the waiting staff, so I am already paying for the service. Then it is up to me whether I give a bit extra or not.
And please, don't start with the "waiters are paid very bad" bollocks, because nobody is forcing them to take that job and also, there are a lot more jobs where people are paid even lower and I am sure you don't tip them.
BTW, my comment was about the extra charge for "service", which I believe it is illegal.

Mark said...

Radost does the same thing, which I consider to be very cheeky and bad karma. I am sure countless people don't realize they are already being assessed 10% more and top up the bill even higher -- and I can't imagine servers rushing back with the money to let them know the tip was already included. I don't patronize Radost for this reason (and also because the food and service are just bad). Thanks for "tipping" me off about Dahab ...

Anonymous said...

It is illegal to charge for service, i.e. radost charging 10%, and I can't believe they get away with it.

CS said...

Unfortunately Dahab has closed down - their is a message on their website saying that they will re-open somewhere else. Hope so, it was a good mix of atmosphere / food / smoke! (although the service was pretty slow).

Laura Baranik said...

Yes, Dahab has closed -- too bad. I hope they find a nice location for their new place.

Dahab will be replaced by a new concept restaurant from Ambiente called Ambiente Lokal: a Czech pub with good quality, classic local food.

Kacenka said...

Are you serious? Ambiente lokal? Ugh, the chains need to stop taking over Prague. :-(

Pivní Filosof said...

I wonder if they will have good beer as well....
I would bet on an endless list of wines from all over the world (many of them subpar at luxury prices) and just tatless Pilsner Urquell from a keg for those who want to enjoy those Czech classics they way it should be...

Marlena said...

This summer I studied abroad and me and a few girl friends went to Dahab. It was such a great experience! I never witnessed such a decorative and relax feel in any restaurant here in the states. We had a small sandwich and a drink, then decided to smoke hookah. It was a great relaxing night. I was shocked to see it close a few weeks later. Their website has a video up of the new locale but I can tell its not as nice as the old Dahab.