Written by: Tim Gosling
Photo: Dorothea Bylica
It is said that expatriate writer Ernest Hemingway had a hand in inventing the Mojito cocktail at La Bogeduita del Medio in Havana. Fast forward fifty years or so and that same drink is being mixed in La Bodeguita del Medio, only this time in the center of Prague.
The original La Bodeguita del Medio has been inebriating the population with music, dancing and rum in the Cuban capital Havana since 1942. The labyrinth of colonial-style chambers on Kaprova, opened in December 2002, is the eleventh and newest restaurant in a chain that stretches from Japan, through the Middle East and back to Central America, where a profusion of doppelgangers in Mexico, California and Guatemala surround the home turf. Roman Cibulka, managing director of parent company K.V.P Gastro – whose roster includes six other restaurants and a catering service – and his old friend from catering school David Šmídek, the restaurant’s manager, claim that by far the largest percentage of their customers are local, with a healthy helping of tourists in the summer. “Tourists see the name and recognize it,” says Šmídek.
The Cuban franchise grants a recognized name and support in finding the best authentic staff: eight Cuban professionals lead local teams in the kitchen, behind the bar, serving the tables and providing the entertainment. However, there are few demands on the local management, allowing them to craft a bespoke Cuban emporium, adapting the menu and atmosphere to suit central European tastes and conditions.
Although details like grafitti-covered walls may strike some as “enforced wackiness”, La Bodeguita’s authenticity is not fatally wounded in the process. Cibulka and Šmídek describe for instance the lengths they go to in sourcing unorthodox ingredients, such as platanas – large, hard, green Cuban bananas, a less saccharine fruit than the yellow crescents usually found at your local greengrocers, that are essential for the delightful desert of fried bananas with caramel.
The menu contains around a dozen or so Cuban dishes, selected by imported chef José Lambrada, as well as international offerings, with a heavy accent on steaks. “Most people want to try the Cuban dishes,” which can also be described as creole, according to Cibulka. This alternative moniker could be a little confusing. Granted there’s a healthy selection of fresh seafood on display, but further similarities with the spicy jumble of dishes to be found in Louisiana’s bayous appear few and far between.
Those wishing to interrogate a range of creole samplings can plump for the two-person mixed plates featuring either meat or seafood: the “Hemingway” seafood platter, or the blood-heavy mixed grill “Che Guevara”. Pulpo “El Morro” al ajillo, a spicy octopus salad marinated in garlic and served in a seashell, makes for an invigorating starter.
As far as atmosphere goes, flamboyance and passion just opposite Staroměstská metro station may smack of cliché, but Cibulka and Šmídek remain entirely unapologetic: “We wanted to do something different,” claims the manager. As some barometer of the festive spirit that reigns, the restaurant serves over three hundred Mojitos daily. Fuelled by copious servings of white rum, brown sugar, and citrus fruit, diners squeeze themselves into every corner in the evenings to abandon their pulses to the rhythms of the live music that breaks out courtesy of Cuban troupe Clave Mixta (save for a reverent pause on Sundays).
Salsa dancers entertain three days a week, and on Saturdays join forces with the musicians in the dining-hall down below to turn the heat up a notch or two. Salsa rhythms are notoriously contagious, and diners are accordingly invited to join the throng under the experts’ instruction. Crammed as the cellar is more often than not, one wonders where these lessons take place. “The people who want to dance find a place,” says Šmídek, grinning. “You can dance anywhere,” enthuses Cibulka.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Kaprova 5, Praha 1
tel.: 224 813 922
daily 10:00 – 02:00
All major CCs.
FARTHER AFIELD: Na Prachandě
On their way to southern Bohemia, lovers of authentic, traditional Czech cuisine often turn off the main highway and have a bite to eat at the restaurant Na Prachandě in Dobříš. The full parking lot is always a good sign for travellers, indicating that stopping by was no mistake.
The restaurant’s greatest hit is its so-called “specials”, dishes prepared in advance according to traditional recipes. Its fillet mignon and goulash are unsurpassed in the area, and the price/quality ratio is outstanding. The kitchen makes everything from fresh ingredients, and the size of the dishes will satisfy even the heartiest diners. Calorie-conscious diners can choose from a wide range of short orders, where you’ll find dishes prepared according to the latest rational nutrition trends. Also, you can combine a meal at your favorite restaurant with a visit to the local castle and its beautiful park.
Restaurace Na Prachandě
Pražská 469, Dobříš, tel.: 318 522 219, open daily 10-22
How to get there: From Prague towards Strakonice, turn off at Dobříš and at the city limit, past the railroad crossing, you’ll see Na Prachandě on your left.
Charles A. Lewis,
partner, EC Harris
“My choice of restaurant is Ambiente in Mánesova. It’s full of character and has a very friendly atmosphere. The staff are always pleasant and happy to advise you on the menu selection. The food edges towards tex-mex, but also has a great selection of steaks which come with a “chef’s tip” for the side order, which is normally worth following. The wine list is a nice mixture of Czech and international labels at reasonable prices. For those of us who live in the area, one of the great attractions is that the entire menu is available for “take away”. Finally, as you might expect, I eat there a lot – but I never tire of the menu.”
Ambiente, Mánesova 59, Praha 2, tel.: 222 727 851