If you’ve never heard of an upscale, modern Tex-Mex restaurant before, you’re not alone. I was intrigued when Agave opened up in November. We don’t have a huge number of good Mexican restaurants here in Prague (who remembers that puzzling CN Traveler article that claimed we have loads of them?) so this was definitely welcome.
Stepping through the door on a Friday night, it was hard not to be impressed by the interior. We were amazed by the complete transformation from dingy, dated lunch stop for tour groups to sophisticated dinner spot, with its dark wood, dim lighting, arty tiles and vintage posters. I loved the showy centrepiece – a big Aztec-style pyramid behind the bar, stacked with tequila.
First things first: the margaritas were, well, perfectly fine. My male accomplice, who’d previously thought margaritas ‘a bit girly’, was immediately won over by their classic version. My own frozen mango margarita was more slushy than frozen. It didn’t take the crown from my favourite at Las Adelitas.
So what is modern Mexican, anyway? Here, the menu is a mashup of trendy bistro-style cooking and Tex-Mex, with dishes adorned not just with coriander but with things like pumpkin seeds, radish and quail egg. Items like duck confit with red wine-braised cabbage and Oaxacan mole inject some Mexican flavour into local standbys.
The menu includes a few too many hipster food fads for my liking – maybe that’s the ‘modern’ part. I’m talking about the two variations on pork belly, the unusual pickles, and the crispy pork skin with posh salt. Reading through the menu, I was half-expecting truffle fries and pulled pork to make an appearance. These sort of things are getting so tired and so ubiquitous in big US (and increasingly UK) cities that they’re becoming the stuff of parody. But obviously the owners of this restaurant are confident it will be a hit in Prague, where it’s all relatively fresh and new.
The restaurant’s website, which reads like the collective CV of the serial entrepreneurs behind Agave, tells us the menu has been ‘designed’ by one Christian Dolias. He’s the owner of a Las Vegas taco restaurant and creator of CutThroat Culinary– a collective of tough-guy rock’n’roll chefs who are ‘changing the way Las Vegas chefs view kitchen culture” (…because ‘kitchen culture’ clearly isn’t already macho enough.)
Call me Sherlock if you want – this somehow makes me doubt Mr Dolias is in the kitchen here at Agave. There was no mention of any particular chef at all, despite the blurb about food made with ‘heart and care’. If there’s no head chef leading the kitchen, then who’s caring? There was info about the owner, and the guy who designed the dining room, but the poor old chef didn’t get a look in.
Where there’s trendy food, you’ll often find crap cooking, bad attitudes and high prices (and not just in the US or UK – take Prague’s horrendous Nota Bene, where the fact that their bistro-style food is ‘cooked fresh’ is seen as an excuse for two-hour waits and for staff to scream abuse at customers.)
But at Agave, there was no sign of anything like this. The prices were decent for the area, service was smiley and quick, and the décor was classy. So far, so pleasantly surprised.
There was fresh and tangy guacamole, covered in a generous amount of creamy queso fresca and onion. The menu boasted that not just the guacamole but also the nachos – both plain and dark blue – were ‘housemade’, and they tasted like it. We devoured it all.
We were sat in what seemed to be their very darkest corner. I did my best, but I’m afraid you’ll have to use your imagination a bit with these photos…
We got yet more nachos with the black bean and roasted garlic dip. It was warm, comforting stuff covered in melted cheese, served in a small pan. This was apparently a ‘mix of Mexican cheeses’ which really could’ve been anything – it didn’t taste of much. The taste of the roasted garlic was also absent, as was the promised ‘bed of pico de gallo’.
Flavour had gone AWOL once again in the pork verde – described as slow-cooked pork shoulder with tomatilla salsa, white beans and mini quesadillas. The torn-up pork itself was lukewarm, dried out and actually hard in places. If it really had been slow-cooked, either they’d buggered it up completely or it had been done quite a while ago and left sitting in the fridge. There was very little spice to be found on the plate. Garnish was a drizzle of sour cream and some bits of chopped radish.
The two small chicken tacos were much better, but again, almost free from spice. There was plenty of the soft, torn thigh meat, smothered in chunks of creamy avocado and queso fresca and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, served on a plain flour tortilla. All fresh and tasty, but put together, it made for a bland mouthful. The only spice on the plate came from the sauces, served separately in little dishes (salsa verde, and a fairly spicy red sauce.) It seemed a shame to completely drench the tacos in sauce, but I found myself heaping it on – and sharing it out in an attempt to rescue the pork verde.
There was yet more creamy comfort food in the form of churros with some divine dulce de leche (caramel) and a shot of rice milk. The churros were very fresh; crunchy, crispy and hot. Nice, though if you want something more sophisticated to match the surroundings, their chilli chocolate cake with mango looked the part.
One of my favourite things were the unusual pickles I mentioned – the escabeche. A home-made mix of pickled cucumber, carrot, onion and chayote (a kind of squash.) With their sweet tangyness and mild, slow-building heat, I’d take these over the usual Czech pub pickles any day.
It’s still early days, and as the kitchen continues to work on its menu I hope they decide to spice things up a bit more. Maybe it’s that old fear of not catering to local tastes holding them back, but other Mexican places (with Mexican owners and chefs) are thriving despite loading up a bit more on the spice. I just don’t believe in the idea that Praguers won’t eat spicy food. I’m hoping Agave’s mystery chef, Mexican or not, will find the courage to throw in a few more chili peppers.
The food here is worth a try, and it’s unique to Prague at least. But if I want to – as Agave’s website suggests – add a little spice to my life, I’ll have to look for it elsewhere.