In high summer Prague’s old town can become quite intolerable. School kids, elderly Americans, and student backpackers clog up the city centre and castle under an indifferently hot Czech sun.
Of course one should always tick off the sights, but a more leisurely and authentic experience can be found in the outer districts of the city. Zizkov and Karlin are the hipster parts of town. Zizkov, the edgier of the two, is home to tumble down, beery bars, while Karlin has an airy, friendly, residential feel thanks to extensive development over the past decade. It’s also the only place to find good coffee in the city.
One of the recent openings in Karlin is Eska. An uber-cool bakery-cum-restaurant, which offers a Czech take on nouveau Scandinavian cuisine. We went for lunch.
It’s location, on a new development next to some barbed wire, gives the impression of a newly built arts university. It’s big and modern, with lots of glass, and dark wood. A few tables outside create a terrace, where I found balding Czech businessmen in tie-less suits drinking large glasses of high-mineral white wine.
Inside the restaurant is cool and white. The only suggestion of interior design are some twigs and foliage stuck on the walls and ceilings. The evening before we’d been in Field, where farm machinery had been suspended from the walls, and the amuse bouche had been served on moss. I wondered whether there was actually some conscious Czech trend in restaurants to bring foliage into the building, but my waitress explained this wasn’t the case. They’d been the Christmas decorations, and the owners had just left them up.
The atmosphere at Eska seems rather contradictory. On the one hand, it feels very relaxed. On the ground floor the artisan bakery does constant business, serving drinks, selling loaves, and making sandwiches. In the restaurant the waiters don’t seem to take things too seriously, and the random twigs on the walls left up since Christmas suggest that neither do the owners.
And yet, this chilled-out restaurant-cum-bakery serves a seven course tasting menu with wine pairings for lunch. I’d never seen anything like it, especially not for its very reasonable price.
The menu consists of elegant portions of earthy flavours. Beef tartare with light, fresh cornichons, grilled cabbage with onion sauce and flowers, a creamy trout and kohlrabi with light, peppery radishes – they’re robust ingredients but presented with a delicate artistry. Admittedly, sometimes the balancing of flavours is a bit off. The vegetables and anchovy sauce is two-dimensional: too many plainly boiled vegetables with inelegant dollops of custard-like anchovy sauce.
Given the price, Eska is rather perfect for a stylish, long lunch in Prague. The wine list is extensive. The waiters are knowledgeable and approachable, and the cool, white space creates an easy canvas for an enjoyable afternoon.
It’s an indication of how far Prague has come in the past five years that it’s now home to this kind of sophisticated restaurateuring. Of course you can still find the dark, subterranean bars which have always defined the Czech Republic’s mysterious, impish, noirish capital; but Eska and its ilk are pioneering a subtler, airier, and consequently more elegant, concept of Czechness. It heralds Prague’s entry into the league of some of the world’s most sophisticated cities.