“Polish cuisine,” Mike from Yonkers wrote in his email to our group alerting us of his Astoria-located choice called Zlata Praha, and what he thought they served there. “Unlike most of you, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of tasting cuisine from that part of the world.”
He was obviously absent when we traveled to Greenpoint a few years ago to dine at the Old Poland Bakery and endured silent glares from the waitstaff and local clientele as we devoured enormous platters of kielbasa, pierogies, and boiled beef for next to nothing. But after a quick visit to Zlata Praha’s web site, I noticed the proclamation that the restaurant was the city’s number one destination for Czech and Slovak cuisine. Mike from Yonkers was going to have the pleasure of dining on food from that part of the world, though in this case, just a little bit west and south of Poland.
Walking past the bar area, where pictures of Czech and Slovak celebrities — hockey players, tennis stars, unknown singers and actors — adorned the walls, Zio and I entered the empty dining room, where only the rumbling from the N and R trains on the elevated track above 31st Street intruded on the silence. We were shown to a table with tablecloths and cloth napkins tucked ornately into stemmed wine glasses. A stuffed deer head smoking a pipe peered over the room.
Zio noticed that there was an outdoor garden. It was a pleasant evening; we hadn’t dined alfresco in many years. So despite what Zio, showing off his expertise in such things, pointed out was a decorative rock that really was camouflaging rat poison, and with the distinct smell of fresh bug spray in the air, we decided to eat outside.
I was thirsty and the Pilsner Urquell displays were enticing, but our smiling waitress, instead, recommended her favorite Czech beer called Staropramen. I figured she knew her stuff and went with her choice. She returned with a thick, cold mug of what was a full-bodied, rich-colored brew that was better even than the very good Pilsner Urquell.
We sipped the beer and pondered the typically hearty Eastern European items on the menu — schnitzels, sauerbraten, goulash, pierogies, potato pancakes, and assorted dumplings.
Of the cold appetizers, a selection of head cheese was debated roundly between us. “I’d get it,” Mike from Yonkers said boldly, but he was the only one that would dare attempt to penetrate the gelatinous mix of animal body parts that was an acquired taste none of us had the desire to acquire.
The head cheese was nixed, instead replaced by an order of the comparatively tame herring in cream sauce. We rounded out the appetizers with a sampling of potato pancakes, dense and bland (the accompanying apple sauce was very much needed), and a kielbasa, Czech-style, which tasted just like the Polish counterpart with mustard, ketchup, and fresh horseradish that was minus the accustomed zing.
While we waited for our entrées, we listened to Zio complain about his current residence on a rustic Connecticut lake. “I gotta get outta there. There are canoes,” he moaned and shook his head.
Before we could make sense of his objection to canoes, the entrées arrived. The ever-smiling waitress placed a plate in front of me with a Frisbee-sized, flattened piece of pork fried in potato pancake batter while Rick, sitting next to me, was the recipient of half a duck that looked like it had been cooked with a blow torch. He offered samples for all. I declined, but Gerry took a bite. “Very good,” he proclaimed. “Good and gamey.”
“Definitely gamey,” Rick sighed.
I sawed through the wiener schnitzel, cutting off portions for all who wanted a taste. I was more than happy to share the pork, which could have used a generous portion of Tabasco to spice it up. I was more protective, however, of the very good potato salad that accompanied the meat.
Trying not to be negative and suppress the unusually good spirits he was in (the prospect of a trip to Italy within days will do that), Eugene mentioned that the sauerbraten he ordered “didn’t have much meat,” under the brown, soup-like gravy it was immersed in. Mike from Yonkers had the same gripe about his goulash and agreed to help Zio with his order of chicken paprikash that was supposed to be red with paprika but had a goulash/sauerbraten-like dull brown tinge. Gerry, however, is generally easy to satisfy, and he plowed through his order of spaetzle with feta cheese without objection.
Zio and Mike from Yonkers were the only ones who could manage the large portion of apple strudel topped by whipped cream and ice cream after that leaden meal. And the more I sat there after all that food, the nearby rat poison and the smell of bug spray still evident, the more I wanted out of Zlata Praha no matter how enjoyable the company and food was.
I signaled to the waitress and asked her for the check. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment she was waiting for. Her ever-present smile was now glowing. “Here I am,” she said and stood there, waiting for my response.
The food and beer had obviously dulled my thought process. Gerry nudged me with a grin. “Get it,” he said. She was still standing there smiling and I still didn’t get it.
And then the Czech went to get the check and I finally got it.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.