Restaurant review: Hospoda
New York gets its first Czech gastropub.
Mon Sep 12 2011
Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz
Smoked beef tongue at Hospoda
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
If your memories of Prague are a collegiate haze of 50 cent beers and $3 beds for the night, steam table stews and gray rail-station links, then consider Hospoda your adult update. The Czech capital, evolved a bit from its days as a backpacker hub, is now a cosmopolitan city with serious food worthy of an export. And this stylish eatery on Manhattan's Upper East Side—an American offshoot of La Degustation, one of Prague's most successful restaurants—offers a very good intro to the new ideas percolating there, east of the Danube.
The restaurant adds a culinary component to the screenings, lectures and gallery shows offered upstairs in the Bohemian National Hall (the city's Czech consulate and cultural center). Pioneering Czech graffiti artist Masker etched striking scenes into the dining room's wood-paneled walls, backlit so they glow. And Hospoda's beer-cooling system, encased in glass beneath the bar, may be New York's most state of the art. But it's the accomplished food that's the real draw here. To kick off a meal, the bubbly servers deliver a few complimentary iconic Czech tastes: a shot of chilled, bitter beer foam and a generous plate of herby whipped cheese on caraway toast.
Expats hoping for further evocations of the traditions of home might be surprised by the progressive fare that follows. Most of the offerings here are Czech in the way Ferran Adri's cooking is Spanish. The kitchen reinvents classic dishes, replacing a heavy Slavic hand with a sensibility that seems almost Nordic—featuring naturalist plating and a forager's focus on seasonality.
The small tasting plates are arranged under three general headings, highlighting ideas from the "Greenmarket" and classic "Czech" larders, plus the "Chef's" own imaginings. The lines between these categories are pretty fuzzy; the dishes, ever evolving, are mostly seasonal, Czech and creative at once.
Take the Potato Variation, a starchy abstraction served at dinner one night. This beautiful landscape of golden pebbles, purple chips and white puree is like a humble peasant's supper made much more intriguing with milk skin draped on the tubers and a grassy garnish of purslane and lovage. Tender poached tripe, a traditional component of a wintery stew, is transformed here into a summer dish, the chilled innards tossed in a refreshing slaw of green apple, plump raisins and champagne vinegar. Carp, a Czech staple that's usually fried, is pan-seared here, the meaty fish soaked in a light lemon sauce with a roasted-onion puree.
Even the most humble Bohemian dish gets a modern spin—flatiron steak, tender like very good brisket, bathed in dill cream that's been frothed in a siphon. There's beef tongue too: The supple batons, poached and smoked like haute cuisine deli meat, are stacked with pickled onions, gold-pea puree and a smoked tongue demi-glace.
Though desserts here remain a work in progress—the hunt for a pastry chef is ongoing—they're already impressive. Fluffy dumplings filled with fresh market apricots are boiled to order in one creation. In another, a chocolate shell is melted tableside in a warm chocolate bath, unveiling the rich ganache core hidden inside.
This is all a long way from the Eurail Pass Prague of years back. If Hospoda's any indication, the city these days must be a fine place to eat.
Eat this: Potato Variation, tripe salad, flatiron steak, smoked beef tongue, chocolate ganache
Drink this: Hospoda serves just one brand of beer, Pilsner Urquell—perhaps the country's most famous export. It's treated here like liquid gold, delivered within six weeks of kegging and precisely chilled at 44 degrees. The restaurant offers four different pours ($4.50--$8), showcasing the breadth of sweet and bitter tastes, depending on the amount of foam in the glass (ranging from all foam to none at all). Finish your meal with an herbaceous shot of Becherovka ($9), the Czech Republic's most popular digestif.
Sit here: The best seats in the dining room are smack in the middle, where you can catch the action out the windows and at the bar. The restaurant also doubles as an upmarket caf, attracting solo patrons from the cultural center under the same roof.
Conversation piece: Many of the key staffers here are Czech imports: Beer-tender Lukas Svoboda came over from Prague to set up the beverage program. Chef de cuisine Marek Sada worked at the sister restaurant, La Degustation, under executive chef Olda Sahajdak, who also commutes between the two cities.
321 E 73rd St between First and Second Aves (212-861-1038). Subway: 6 to 68th St--Hunter College. Mon--Sat noon--midnight. Two-course prix fixe: $32; three-course prix fixe: $45; seven-course tasting menu: $88.