Fast food in the slow lane
Flash forward to 2018 and the same stonemasons - as well as shopkeepers, students and chief executives - will probably prefer bun bo nam bo or pho soup for lunch at one of the city’s fast and cheap Vietnamese noodle restaurants, which have appeared by the dozens in the Czech capital.
What had not shown up, however, was the idea that Vietnamese cuisine could be taken seriously, with complex techniques and in a fancier setting.
That changed with December’s opening of Taro, a surprisingly chic bistro in the up-and-coming Smichov neighbourhood south-west of Old Town. Run by brothers, Khanh and Giang Ta, Taro has no evening à la carte menu (there is one at lunch), instead offering just two options for dinner: a four-course tasting menu at 890 koruna (R520) or a seven-course menu at 1290 koruna, not including drinks. Cheap noodles these ain’t.
Nor is it speedy, with Taro’s seven-course dinner menu clocking just under three hours.
“A lot of people here think that Vietnamese food is just fast food,” said Khanh Ta, the chef. “We wanted to show them that it can be something more. We can play with it more. We can make it more sophisticated.”
A deconstructed gyoza started things off on my visit, topping a crisp won ton cracker with sweet and spicy candied ginger, a tender bite of smoky Peking duck and an aromatic cucumber gel for a crunchy and fragrant amuse bouche. Seven equally creative courses followed, often balancing sweet notes with bracing acidity: a sweet-and-sour sea bass tartare, decorated with apple chips, mango chunks and creamy avocado purée, tasted more like a ceviche, while a green mango salad bathed in crisp passion fruit dressing contrasted tropical fruit flavours with juicy of slow-cooked beef tenderloin.
The restaurant’s menus change constantly, based on seasonal ingredients. Whatever Taro serves, the mix of Czech and Vietnamese flavours seem to define Prague. Take, for example, the buttery pork belly, a local delicacy for centuries, cooked sous-vide and served with house-fermented radishes and a peppery-sweet hoisin demi-glace.
In a nod to Vietnamese tradition, the bun ca fish soup, made with rice noodles and aromatic dill and perilla leaves was made with carp from South Bohemia, famous for its fish ponds. Just as the techniques (and the price tag) are far beyond the basic pho joint, Taro’s décor is another big step up, with cool, custom neon art in one corner and a library of cult cookbooks displayed along another wall. The counter seating is set up around an open kitchen, which directs the diner’s eye to where the magic is happening.
- New York Times