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 Italian cuisine.
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 personal favorite.
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
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 evening.”
Hospůdka U Kašpárka, Dubečská 4, Praha 10, tel.: 274 784 127