In my last Czech Impressions post, I gave an overview of Moravian wines, so it only makes sense to focus now on the region’s gastronomy. Moravia may not be the new Tuscany, but you can have a tasty, interesting meal with a decent glass of wine — and you’ll see considerably fewer tourists. The comparison with Italy isn’t completely out of place; the Czech poet Jan Skácel famously called the town of Mikulov a “piece of Italy moved to Moravia by God’s hand.” And after visiting Prague or Karlovy Vary, you certainly won’t think that the restaurants in Moravia cater exclusively to out-of-towners. Let’s take a look at three noteworthy eateries in Mikulov and nearby Lednice.
Marcel Ihnačák Restaurant, Mikulov:
Located in Hotel Tanzberg, Marcel Ihnačák Restaurant welcomes you with an impressive sculpture of a golem, courtesy of the eponymous pub next door. “What is the Golem of Prague doing in little Mikulov,” you may wonder…
The main menu, which according to the web site offers “international specialties” with “local ingredients,” looks 90% Italian to me. Yawn. I didn’t come all the way here to eat pasta and risotto. But more interesting is the much shorter Jewish menu, dubbed “what used to be eaten in this house.” So far, we’ve got an Italian restaurant with a Scandinavian rustic interior, a golem statue, and a Jewish menu. What’s going on here?
It turns out that the building used to be a provincial rabbinate, home to a rockstar rabbi. A Jewish settlement appeared in Mikulov as early as the 15th century, when Jews were expelled from neighboring Austria. In the 16th century, when the town (then called Nikolsburg) became the seat of the regional rabbi of Moravia, it grew into a cultural center of Moravian Jewry. The famous rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel officiated here for twenty years as the second regional rabbi, between 1553 and 1573, apparently in the building that now forms Hotel Tanzberg. What makes Rabbi Loew so famous to dummies like us is that a couple of centuries later, the legend of the Golem of Prague gave him paternity of the eponymous creature, which he would have created while officiating as a rabbi in Prague. The Jewish settlement of Nikolsburg started to shrink when freedom of residence was conceded to the Jews in Austria in 1848, and it pretty much ceased to exist during World War II as a result of emigration and the Holocaust.
Does Marcel Ihnačák — a Slovak chef famous in Czech Republic, cookbook author, disciple of Jamie Oliver, and posterchild of the Lidl supermarkets —really know what Rabbi Loew, creator of the phantasmal Golem, ate in this house in the 16th century? Who knows, but let’s play along for the time of this meal.
For starters, the liver pâté is made with chopped liver, onions, and moderate seasoning. It’s very soft, and doesn’t have a strong liver taste, which is a plus if, like me, you’re not crazy about liver. It’s not nearly as good as the liver pâté I make (seriously), but it’s certainly more traditional. The side bowl of raw cherry tomatoes and scallions makes for a refreshing garnish.
The chicken soup with dumplings is a very rich chicken bouillon, bursting with chicken flavor, complete with chunks of excellent chicken, a mirepoix of carrot and parsley root, and chopped dill. The dumpling (singular, it turns out) isn’t a traditional Jewish matzah ball, but something similar to a Czech bread dumpling. Very good.
Next comes my favorite thing of the whole meal, the duck pastry. As the menu says, it’s a “pastry filled with duck meat, with white cabbage and plum sauce.” The pastry itself reminds me of a Central Asian samsa: it’s got a triangular shape, and it’s topped with black and white sesame seeds. The dough is puff pastry, and the filling is nearly 100% duck, nothing else (except for caraway and other seasoning). The duck is moist and seems to have been stewed first. The stewed white cabbage (same thing as green cabbage, just paler) is simple but good, and the plum sauce is quite sweet but goes very well with the duck. It’s a classic pairing, but it’s well made, and if you think the pastry’s filling is a bit frugal, it works great when you eat everything together.
The veal steak comes from the “Italian” menu, though it can certainly pass for a Czech dish. It arrives cooked medium, topped with a plain mushroom and butter sauce. But the star of the show? The mashed potatoes! I don’t know where those potatoes come from or what variety they are, but they taste great. The chunky mash is mixed with sautéed onion and garlic, and sprinkled with scallion greens. Save for the stupid lettuce whose dressing leaks into the meat sauce, this is a good, simple dish.
Kudos for the super-flavorful ingredients throughout the meal.
The restaurant offers a good selection of local wines. The Tanzberg Maharal 2011 remains in the Jewish theme, since “Maharal” is an acronym for Morenu Harav Rabbi Laib, Our Teacher Rabbi Loew. This dry red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (a výběr z hroznů, if you remember the Czech wine classification), and it’s one of the better wines I had during my trip, a little bit more full-bodied and complex than most others.
Templ Hotel Restaurant, Mikulov:
Hotel Templ is also located in the Jewish Quarter, only a few blocks away from Hotel Tanzberg. Here, informs the web site, “gastronomy […] is inspired by the cuisine of the historical region of former monarchy and is presented in harmony with modern trends,” and the restaurant “takes pride in offering a large variety of the finest local and regional wine.” In fact, the web site is a lot more talkative about the wine than the food. The menu is definitely Czech, and here are some of the dishes that got my attention: smoked beef tongue with horseradish mousse and sour cherries; creamy soup of kohlrabi; grilled zander with creamy leeks and mashed potatoes; rabbit leg with mustard sauce and spinach dumplings; and sides of potatoes any way you like them. It’s not terribly original, but it’s a good introduction to the region’s cuisine.
First, I finally get to try a ramson cream soup! During our whole trip, I’ve seen this dish on menus throughout Hungary, Slovakia, and Moravia, but always ended up ordering something else. With our journey soon coming to an end, it’s now or never. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit disappointing. It’s very thick and very green (a dull green, at that), with a lot of ramsons and not a lot of cream. It doesn’t taste bad, but it’s pretty strong, and too plain. The little piece of smoked salmon in the middle of the bowl isn’t enough to create a diversion. Never mind; at least it helps me figure out how best to make my own version.
And how can one spend time in Central Europe without eating a pork schnitzel? It’s really on the thicker side for a schnitzel, but this is for the best, as it turns out to be very tender and cooked just right. It’s served with the inevitable warm potato salad — sour cream, potatoes, chives, bacon.
More pork, more plums, more mashed potatoes… here comes the pork loin with sour plum sauce and mashed potatoes with bacon, another classic. The pork loin’s not overcooked, for once, and as a result it’s pretty tender. This time the plum sauce, which comes with an actual plum cut in half, is very sour. The mashed potatoes remind me of the ones from Marcel Ihnačák Restaurant, except they’re mixed with parsley and bacon bits; they’re almost as good.
It’s funny to compare this meal with the previous one at Marcel Ihnačák. Some of the garnishes and sauces are the same, but at Templ two of the three dishes we ordered contained pork. Which just goes to show how similar Czech food and Jewish food can be, so long as you take pork out of the latter.
Grand Moravia Restaurant, Lednice:
Lonely Planet describes the Grand Moravia Restaurant as “Lednice’s best (out of an admittedly meager bunch).” Granted, people generally don’t go to Lednice for the food, but for the magnificent palace. Still, nobody says you can’t have both, and Grand Moravia’s web site is a bit more encouraging: “In our kitchen we only use fresh ingredients from the immediate surroundings, herbs from our own gardens, organic pumpkins from our field,” and “the menus are prepared with respect to regional differences and the seasons.” They even have their very own organic vineyard, Vino Cibulka!
Here too, the menu is classic Czech, though not always so predictable, and with a seasonal emphasis on spring at the time of our visit: salad of fennel, ramsons, and arugula; smoked trout with green lentil salad; foie gras in red wine and onion chutney; Moravian lecso with sausage; cream soup of oyster mushrooms, peas, and green asparagus; roasted leg of lamb with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes; cheese croquettes with ramsons and caramelized onion; dill sauce with egg and boiled potatoes (a curious sequence of words for a dish name… I’ve never ordered a plate of sauce as a main course).
The marinated salmon with beet sauce and fennel salad looks beautiful and doesn’t taste bad either. The cured salmon is slightly sweet and comes on top of a kind of beet purée. The salad combines raw green asparagus spears, thinly sliced raw fennel, and shallots marinated, presumably, in beet juice. And is that red beet powder or paprika on the plate?
The roasted suckling pig is also very good. I think this piglet was boned, then rolled into a roast with bacon. Roasted slices are reheated to order. The skin’s not very crispy because of the reheating, but the meat is tender and flavorful. The green peas are excellent. It seems a bit early in the season, but I wanna say they’re fresh. Then we’ve got caramelized onions (although the menu said they would be pears), potato purée, and a gravy made with jus, white wine, and thyme.
No complaints about the spring chicken supreme in a butter and ramson sauce with cheese croquettes, either. Moist chicken meat, crispy skin, and a hint of lemon. The sauce also comes with sautéed mushrooms. The croquettes remind me of the potato croquettes I made here, though I must humbly admit that I prefer mine (better texture). The menu says they contain cheese, but I can only taste potato and possibly ground almonds, which is interesting.
The wine list consists mostly of products from the restaurant’s own winery. The Cibulka Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2014 is quite nice. Unlike so many insipid rosés, it actually has a nose of red berries. The Lednické Zamecké (which means Lednice Palace) Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 2013 is a bit heavy on the oak, but very drinkable. The semi-dry Lednické Zamecké Zweigeltrebe Rosé 2015, on the other hand, is just so so.
Looking back at these meals from the comfort of my desk chair at home in NYC, it feels like we just went through a nice overview of Moravian cookery. We’ve seen enough dishes to spot a number of commonalities, like the omnipresent spring ramsons, the mashed potatoes with onions / scallions / bacon, or the plum sauce. We compared a local Jewish menu with the remaining pork-heavy regional cuisine. And we managed to eat only a single small bread dumplings over the course of three meals — this has got to be a record in Czech Republic.
Coming next time: the infamous Olomouc cheese!