Whether Prague is in the middle of summer or the depths of winter, you could be forgiven for thinking that most restaurants serving up Czech cuisine hardly think to change their menus. A light summer dish on a lunch menu in late July can seem harder to find than an empty table at Letna beer garden. But after months of avoiding goulash, pork and dumplings as much as possible, when the nights start to draw in that heavy Czech fare suddenly starts to seem much more appealing.
At U Stolu on Lucemburska in Prague 3 there are plenty of familiar, heavy dishes – beef tartare, pork knuckle, svíčková na smetaně – on the menu year-round, but some of their offerings change with the seasons. On a recent visit, as the last leaves were falling from the trees, they’d just started serving their autumn/winter menu.
It was a weekday night and we’d managed to grab the last free table in the busy and fairly loud (but not deafening) dining room. The interior of U Stolu is welcoming, with the warm colors of the exposed brickwork, seating and newsprint-themed wall décor contrasting with brighter, modern touches, such as the unusual silver colored ceiling lamps, alongside a few antique knick-knacks like old cameras, film rolls and books. The overall effect is cosy without feeling cluttered.
Their summer menu had plenty of relatively light options, though in large portions. On previous visits I’d been unable to resist ordering their chicken drumsticks – six fat, succulent pieces glazed with honey and ginger, served with creamy garlic and tangy chilli dipping sauces – almost every time, and they were consistently good. Sadly but unsurprisingly, they’re not on the new seasonal menu. Instead, we were tempted by autumnal dishes like grilled duck breast with artichoke puree and a chestnut and cognac sauce, and a roast leg of goose with apple and sauerkraut just in time for St Martin’s festival.
Kulajda, a creamy potato and mushroom soup flavoured with dill, was also a new addition, and one of the most impressive of the dishes we sampled. There was plenty of fresh dill and a touch of vinegar, and the yolk spilling from a perfectly poached egg added yet more richness.
Just as warming was the kaldoun, a soup you don’t tend to see on a lot of Czech restaurant menus, traditionally made from poultry giblets – duck, in this case. The broth tasted rich and intense, with plenty of duck meat along with wide parpadelle pasta ribbons, and tiny pieces of carrot and onion. The meat was smoky and flavourful yet dry in places, and while the pasta ribbons were perfectly cooked, they were very long, making the soup a little messy and cumbersome to eat.
There’s pork belly and pork knuckle on the menu, but the roast fillet of pork was a slightly different and more colorful offering. The meat was wrapped in bacon and a light, crispy pastry crust, and served with a tangy tomato marmalade and bright green spinach spaetzle – small, soft dumplings made of egg, flour and in this case, spinach – which livened up both the taste and appearance of the dish. The bacon was smoky and perfectly cooked, but unfortunately the large piece of pork tasted underseasoned and wasn’t very tender. The tomato marmalade saved the dish from being too dry and bland.
The most standout item we tried was the grilled filet mignon with Cabernet Moravia sauce, with rustic, thick-cut chips and a warm tomato, bacon and broad bean salad. The steak came cooked perfectly medium rare as ordered, and the tenderness and flavor fell just short of that found at some of the better and more expensive steakhouses in town – pleasantly surprising as this steak, complete with sides, was just 330kc.
The Cabernet Moravia sauce was worthy of a special mention; a red wine reduction which was rich, sweet and sticky on the lips, and perfectly complemented the flavor of the meat.
The 2011 Cabernet Moravia was exceptionally light, fruity and easy to drink, and there was also a soft and velvety merlot on offer that day. U Stolu takes its wine list seriously, with a good assortment of both Czech and imported wines on the menu, and a selection of wines by the glass which changes daily.
For dessert, we tried the chocolate brownie with oranges marinated in red wine and star anise, and blinis with forest fruits and crème fraiche. The brownie was really a chocolate-covered square of fairly light sponge cake, filled with chocolate cream. Unexpected, but still enjoyable. The marinated slices of orange which accompanied it were much more interesting, with a mellow, sweet, only slightly citrusy taste. The blinis were warm circles of pan-fried dough, crispy on the outside, smothered in crème fraiche and a tart and slightly overpowering sauce of redcurrants and forest berries.
Our waiter was friendly, efficient and as attentive as he could be, but as on previous evening visits he was the only member of staff in the busy restaurant, and despite his best efforts service could’ve been better with more staff. We went without bread, our plates sat uncleared for long periods of time, and we had to ask for water a couple of times before getting it, though unlike a lot of places they do offer tap water.
At lunchtime, service is quicker but the food is less interesting. On a recent lunch visit, there was a beef burger which, though well-cooked with a hint of pink in the middle, was underseasoned and so small it was almost lost among the salad on an oversized brioche-style bun. Chicken in paprika sauce was also small and quite dry. Though no one expects too much from a lunch menu, it’s worth noting that there’s a big difference in quality between this and the regular menu.
U Stolu is good for a relaxed meal with friends or family, particularly those who are visiting and want to try good-quality local food and wine – but without the smoky air and surly attitudes found in some traditional Czech restaurants. The bright, cheery atmosphere along with a hearty meal and some good Moravian wine would be warming enough on even the coldest evening this winter.
Luxemburska 6, Prague 3
Open: Weekdays 11.00-24.00, Weekends 12.00-24.00
Tel: 222 211 702