Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant Review: Maitrea

There are no right angles at Maitrea. The solid-wood tables and chairs all have rounded edges, the doorways are arched, and the lamps are elongated and ethereal, like jellyfish in mid-swim. Even the point where the walls meet the ceiling has been softened with a tube-like rim and a neat row of colored stones.

Maitrea happens to be a vegetarian restaurant, but it is, first and foremost, beautiful. This has to be emphasized, because when a lot of people (myself included) think of vegetarian restaurants, we conjure up images of either unembellished, harshly lit cafeteria-style eateries or the kind of place where hippies sit on grotty carpets with their dogs and talk about marijuana marches.

Neither of these categories applies to Maitrea, which is creative but uncluttered, cozy but not dirty. It's actually spotlessly clean and, it has to be said, expensive-looking. All of the details – the sculptural fountains and custom-made furniture and mosaic tiles – couldn't have been cheap to put together.

And it didn't come quickly, either. The reconstruction of the restaurant and the building in which it is located was done in accordance with feng shui principles and took nearly three years to complete. The whole of the building is called Maitrea, too (a Sanskrit term that can be translated as "loving kindness") and is referred to by its proprietors as a "house of personal development." It hosts tons of vaguely Buddhistic gatherings: meditation seminars, spiritually-oriented lectures, and free-form dance classes. So it only seems appropriate to have a vegetarian-friendly eatery on the premises.

The Maitrea restaurant is run by Václav Stanislav and Martin Dobeš, who founded the veg hideaway Lehká Hlava three years ago. For fans of the original restaurant – which is fully booked on most evenings – the opening of Maitrea just off Old Town Square comes as a welcome expansion. The new place has two floors and seats ninety people, almost double the capacity of Lehká Hlava. Its upstairs space is airy, with high ceilings and large windows; the downstairs section is more intimate and features a couple of couches on a raised platform next to a modern-style fireplace.

Maitrea's menu is similar to that of its sister restaurant: a jumble of veggie-only dishes, from pasta and stir-fries to burgers and burritos. There's even a Czech option, a version of vepřo knedlo zelo (pork with dumplings and sauerkraut) – dumplings with sauerkraut and tofu pork. Sounds fascinating, but somehow I haven't felt the urge to try it.

I'm not crazy about meat substitutions, all those seitans and soy bacons; I generally find them weird and not particularly tasty. I'd rather just have a bunch of vegetables, with some beans or something to make up for the lack of protein. So I'm not sure why I ordered an okara burger (125 CZK), really (okara is a type of soybean pulp common in traditional Asian cooking). For a regular eater of real cow burgers like me, I could have expected that the non-cow version wasn't going to impress me much.

But for a veggie burger, it wasn't too bad. The bun was homemade, fluffy and dotted with sesame seeds. The toppings were decent – a nice slice of tomato, crunchy lettuce, and a garlic yogurt sauce. Turns out (surprise, surprise) it was the soy part that bothered me most. The patty was fried to crispiness on the outside, but kind of runny on the inside, like mashed potatoes that have too much cream in them. Coupled with the drippy yogurt sauce, the patty made the burger incredibly messy to eat. It actually did taste good, but because most of the dish was running down my arms and dropping onto my plate, I had to put it down pretty quickly.

The Mexican dishes seem to be better. I had a red bean chili (130 CZK) that came wrapped up with cheddar cheese in a cone-shaped tortilla. This wasn't especially authentic Mexican food – the chili was a little too sweet and lacked any sort of spicy seasoning – but it was beautifully presented and made with fresh ingredients. On the side was a scoop each of sour cream and red pepper salsa, along with a leafy mesclun salad. The guacamole (70 CZK) is listed as an appetizer and comes with a homemade brioche, but I ordered it as an accompaniment to my chili. It was tangy and made with real avocados, not from the bottle. Yay!

They're big on the homemade stuff at Maitrea, which is one reason why I like it so much. They have their own fizzy lemonade (mint or ginger flavor, 45 CZK) and bake their own chocolate chip cookies to go with mashed-up strawberries as a dessert (the cookies were a little on the tough side, actually, but you have to appreciate the effort).

Another reason to like the restaurant is that it's super-affordable, especially considering its location. There's nothing nearby like it – well, there is Beas, the vegetarian dhaba around the corner, but since they decided to change their system to self-service, it isn't what it used to be. Maitrea charges a comparable price for a lunch menu, 105 CZK, which includes the soup of the day (on my visit, a simple carrot soup with dill and yogurt) and an entrée (chickpea and peanut "perkelt" with bulghur wheat and rice). If you happen to have devoted your life to the spiritual side of things, you can do one better: monks, ordained clergy members, and "enlightened people" eat at Maitrea for free.

The expressed goal of Maitrea is to be "a pleasant place to meet people who are open to inspiration." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I do find Maitrea to be a pretty inspiring place. Maybe next time I visit, I'll meet some inspiring people there, too.

Týnská ulička 6
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 221 711 631

photographs Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 07/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Pivní Filosof said...

I'm not a vegetarian, but I do like eating and cooking veggie meals and, though I don't agree with them completely, I can understand why someone decides to become a vegetarian.

What I don't understand, though, is why do they eat those awful meat substitutes like tofurkey.

Anonymous said...

I categorize vegi food into 2 groups. Leaves and dirt. I put fresh fruit and vegetables into the "leaves" category and any of those meat substitutes, potatoes, avocados and rice into the "dirt" category. Your meal was mostly dirt, not that that's bad but it could be balanced with a bit more fruits. Most of the vegetarian restaurants go one way or the other.

When I was younger I thought it was great to eat a meat meal with a fake-meat side dish. A side of meatless BBQed ribs pairs well with a burger. Tofurkey tastes great with chicken.