Isabella: The Italian-Swedish connection
Written by: Tim Gosling
Photo: Dorothea Bylica
Prague's highest-profile chef now has his own domain. He mesmerizes
diners and gives himself peace of mind by offering only the finest contemporary
The route down to this brick and salmon-pink cellar twists through
the marbled innards of the Hotel Bellagio in Josefov. Still, perseverance
can be rewarding. It took Lars Sjostrand 10 years to find his way
here through the kitchens of the city's top eateries.
Having originally come to work with Tommy Sjoo at the Brasserie
Mozart in Obecní dům, Sjostrand went on to kitchens such as Kampa
Park and Reykjavik, remembering his lack of Czech language as one
of the greatest challenges in the early days. Dedicating himself
to learn five words a day he managed two. He now has bilingual
rule over his environment.
The atmosphere amongst the chunky black tables is understated.
Sjostrand happily remarks that clients tend to spend hours over
a meal and then checks himself. "I don't have clients," he
says with distaste for the phrase, "I have guests!" Perhaps
the low-key vibe at Isabella stems naturally from the leadership
of a chef. It's a backdrop to the "Italian-menu-with-a-twist":
a blank canvas, awaiting color from the kitchen. Firstly, a rich
red is courteously served. All wines are Italian; apparently Sjostrand's
A strong knowledge, cost-driven philosophy and special daily offers
make some excellent examples very accessible. Warm goat cheese
with an aubergine and leek quiche leads off the serious business.
Mellow and soft, unlike the more usual French variety, once heated
the cheese rises and becomes fluffy, almost like a soufflé.
Raising the standards of food throughout the city is a responsibility,
the achievements enhanced by chef-led restaurants, suggests Sjostrand.
From the pressure they apply on suppliers and thereafter the quality
introduced to the city, he claims it all filters down to the supermarket
shelves. The healthy selection of soups stars "crayfish soup
`a la Lars". It's not typically Italian, admits the Swede,
but is demanded by many of the regulars. Sjostrand enjoys adding
his own idiosyncrasies to the cuisine, and points out how "forgiving
an Italian kitchen is. As long as you have garlic, onions, basil
and good wines and olive oils, you have free hands to be adaptable."
The chef says his interpretation is modern, bringing presentation
to the fore and doing away with the interminable courses of tradition
to combine appropriate companions on the same plate. He provokes
flavors that are more definite: "If something has basil in
it, you should be able to taste it". Sea-food cannelloni is
a popular choice from amongst the half-dozen home-made pastas.
Laughing that his interpretations may surprise a few Italians,
he counters that he's never had complaints. In fact, he claims
that at the end of a week's worth of dinners, one group of Italian
contractors invited him to Bologna to show them how to make pasta.
Sjostrand is animated when describing the creative process of cooking,
mimicking an artistic stereotype as he describes sitting bolt-upright
in bed and rushing to the kitchen to make the black pepper sauce
in which he had dreamt the seared blue-fin tuna bathing. "It
was bloody terrible," he says of that first attempt. It now
forms a sublime puddle lapping at slabs of fish perched atop a
spinach and lemon risotto.
The energy drops when discussing the necessary partner to his art: "A
chef has to learn to be a business man," he rues. "You
can't order in kilos of truffles, nor have oysters flown in from
Maine - which is, of course, what I want to do!" Instead he
admits that he knows in his head "the cost, to within five
percent, of any meal I'm thinking of adding to the menu".
When it comes to preparation, Sjostrand demands consistency as
the central pillar of success. "A chef should be proud to
sign his name to every dish".
Having always loved the grape distillate, Sjostrand is happy to
have developed a relationship with a family-run Grappa producer
in Northern Italy. Eight varieties offer a spectrum, from sweetly
sharp to dry and perfumed, all providing a welcome kick to the
oesophagus, which aids digestion and slumber. But Sjostrand is
after more than merely settling his stomach: "Even if you
don't make the best margins," he notes, "you have to
offer quality and value. It means you can sleep at night."
Sjostrand won't be sleeping too much in the near future however,
having just opened a new venture starring his favorite cuisine.
Cajun and Creole dishes will exit his kitchen at Ellington's Eatery & Entertainment
around the corner from Isabella.
U Milosrdných 2, Praha 1
tel.: 224 819 957
Photo: Dorothea Bylica
on the ritz
IN A NEIGHBORHOOD not exactly renowned for upscale
cafes, this relative newcomer may change the face of
dining in lower Žižkov.
Stylishly minimal interior design, with chic fixtures
and flat-screen TVs, make Cocafe's appearance an immediate
standout on the Biskupcova tram stop. Steak, salads and
pasta appear on the menu, but it's the cre`pes and galettes
that are attracting discerning diners - from the "New
York" barbecue chicken entry on the savory side
to concoctions featuring sour cherries and thick cream
for those seeking something sweeter.
In the evening, cocktails become an additional draw,
while the tunes take a definite upbeat turn.
Cocafe - Cre`perie & Cocktail Bar
Jana Želivského 29, Praha 3
tel: 222 580 590
FARTHER AFIELD: U České koruny
Looking for original dishes? You'll find them at the U České koruny
restaurant in Lipnice nad Sázavou. The building where Jaroslav Hašek
wrote his world-famous Švejk is now under the management of his great
grandson, Martin Hašek. He and his father, Richard, refurbished the entire
building and established a little pub on the ground floor, of which their
famous ancestor would certainly have approved. You can sample the original
Hašek's goulash and Kočičí tanec (Kitty Dance), the master's favorite
dishes, prepared according to preserved recipes of Rézinka Špinarová,
who cooked them for Jaroslav. The menu includes many Švejk variations,
such as Captain Ságner's ribs, Baloun's pork medallions with baked Roquefort,
and Palivec's chicken steak. Hašek and Švejk lovers will enjoy the many
original documents on the walls. If the weather's cold, you can order
Hašek's favorite grog, about which he wrote in Švejk: swimming the English
Channel is a piece of cake after you drink it.
U České koruny
Lipnice nad Sázavou č. 55, tel.: 569 486 126
How to get there: From highway D1, exit to Humpolec and follow the signs
to Světlá nad Sázavou. Beyond Kejžlice, turn right to Lipnice.
managing director, Scala
"I love the restaurant U Kašpárka in Strašnice. Although I also
like the Potrefená Husas, Ambientes and Grossetos, which offer great
food, drinks and excellent service, this place is still the best. The
interior resembles a cozy English pub, with interesting nooks. The service
and cooking are flawless, and the prices reasonable - but what really
gets you is the atmosphere. I've favored the place for over 10 years,
and apparently I'm not alone as its popularity keeps increasing. Although
it's situated in an unremarkable house on an unobtrusive street, without
a reservation you don't have a chance of getting a seat even on a Monday
Hospůdka U Kašpárka, Dubečská 4, Praha 10, tel.: 274 784 127