Monday, July 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: U Koně

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 04/07/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

In Central Bohemia, between Prague and the Sazava river, is a so-called "micro-region" called Ladův Kraj. It was given the name after Hrusice-born painter, illustrator, and author Josef Lada, who used the area's rolling hills and picturesque villages as inspiration for his well-known children's books.

Four years ago, a pair of tourist trails was developed to honor the famous Czech personality and his homeland. The first, called "Pohádkové Hrusice" (Fairytale Hrusice) tours through Lada's hometown. The "Cesta kocoura Mikeše" (Tomcat Mikeš's Trail) is a considerably longer route and follows the supposed footsteps of one of Lada's most famous characters as he sets off on his worldly adventures with his dear friend, Pašík. At each of the twelve stops is a signpost with illustrations and an excerpt from "Mikeš."

The road from Hrusice to Říčany is 20 kilometers long, so if you decide to undertake the journey, you're probably going to make a few rest stops. Which brings me to this week's restaurant: Hostinec U Ko, located in Klokočná, the ninth stop on the Cesta kocoura Mikeše (titled on the signpost as "Mikeš straší," or "Scary Mikeš") and a very worthy place to fill your stomach, regardless of whether you've just trekked 15 kilometers or pulled up directly in front of it with your car.

U Koně has been around considerably longer than the Lada trails, or even Lada himself – the hotel and restaurant have been in operation since the 17th century. Currently helming U Koně's kitchen is Jaroslav Sapík, a former cook at the Prague Castle and, for a time, Václav Havel's personal chef. Sapík comes from a centuries-old family line of gastronomers, and at U Koně he has upheld his predecessors' commitment to serving high-quality Czech food made with fresh ingredients.

It's not a fancy place, but it attracts many of the well-heeled local families with cottages in the area. On a recent Sunday afternoon, U Koně was brimming with people; my companions and I were lucky to score a seat, even if we had to share the table with another party. We were in the front room, which is small and bedecked with antique kitchenware, faded family photographs, and old-fashioned radios.

Despite the clutter, the place felt clean and well-cared-for. A bouquet of fresh wallflowers in five different colors sat on a side table, and the scent of newly-cut jasmine blossoms graced the entranceway. Nearby was a family with several children, a rambunctious dog, and a human-sized teddy bear that required his own seat. Waiters bustled in from the kitchen, balancing plates headed for the much larger back room. Karel Gott and Hana Zagorová crooned in the background.

Because the menu is divided into two sections – one called "Jídla ze selských dvorů dle rodinných receptů" ("Family recipes from the farmyard"), the other "Rodinné recepty ze zámecké kuchyně"("Family recipes from the castle kitchen") – both of which have appetizers, main courses, and desserts, picking what to order can be mildly confusing. But once you do, you probably won't go wrong.

On the fancier (castle recipe) side of the menu is the Czech crayfish cream soup (165 CZK), a thick, deep red bisque that brimmed with the flavor of crayfish and had lots of chunks of the freshwater lobster's flesh. This was better and less expensive than the crayfish bisque at Café Savoy, which is also very good, but a little heavy on the cream for my liking – U Koně's version of the soup seemed purer, more honest. They serve it with a piece of toast that is decorated with a slice each of lemon, tomato, and hard-boiled egg (its yolk removed and replaced with black caviar).

The most famous dish at U Koně is probably the roasted wild boar piglet (360 CZK), not least because it is also its oldest. As the menu explains, the dish is "a specialty first prepared, according to our ancestral grandmother's documentation, in 1784 during the hunt at the Rájec-Jestřabí castle." Good thing the recipe was handed down over so many years, because it's definitely a keeper. Served over a sauce of wild garlic, with spinach, sauteed mushrooms, and round potato dumplings, the tender young boar meat had been larded to keep it moist and flavorful.

Although the boar was a hearty-sized portion, the roast duck with potato dumplings and red cabbage (285 CZK) was so large that we had it wrapped up with us for dinner at home later. This, apparently, is standard procedure at U Koně; we witnessed a parade of people (mostly women) wielding styrofoam boxes of leftovers on their way out the door. So even if the prices are somewhat higher than at other restaurants in those parts, you can be sure you're getting your money's worth.

Dessert was another pleasure: hot plum-filled dumplings (125 CZK), smothered in chopped walnuts, powdered sugar, and homemade whipped cream. And while the service was a little brusque (and a little quick to take away plates), I appreciated the waiters' promptness and no-nonsense attitude.

Mr. Sapík is known to be a a die-hard defender of Czech cuisine; he has said in the past that it can rival even the gastronomy of the French. And although I'm skeptical of that particular point, his restaurant has distinguished itself as a key propagator of good, wholesome local food – whether it comes from the castle or the farm.

We need more restaurants like U Koně. If I had my way, I'd place a couple of them in the city where I live, but the charms of Klokočná add a lot to the experience: just in front of the restaurant is a placid square, where there is a pond, an old scale, and a pretty World War I memorial.

You might even see Mikeš scampering across the grass.

Restaurace a penzion U koně
Klokočná č.p. 8
Praha - Východ
Tel: 323 641 186

Open Wed – Fri 16:00 – 23:00, Sat 11:30 – 23:00, Sun 11:30 – 21:00. Closed Mon-Tues.

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


Softik said...

Hi Laura! Glad to see that you also travel to exporience food outside of Prague. Do you plan to come to Brno? I would like to know your opinion on Laos restaurant here in Brno - Sabaidy. Family business, nothing fancy but tastes great - to me:-)

Laura Baranik said...

Thanks for the tip, Softik! I want to try to make it to Brno sometime soon.