Ten years ago, laborers hammering away at Prague’s cobblestone streets would probably break for lunch with bag of fluffy rohliky bread rolls and some sliced ham, if they couldn’t make it to a pub for goulash and dumplings. Flash-forward to 2018 and the same stonemasons — as well as local shopkeepers, students and chief executives — are likely to 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 over the past decade.
What hadn’t shown up, however, was the idea that Vietnamese cuisine can be taken seriously, with complex techniques and in a fancier setting. That changed with last December’s opening of Taro, a surprisingly chic bistro in the forever up-and-coming Smichov neighborhood southwest of Old Town. Run by two 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 (about $40) or a seven-course menu at 1,290 koruna per person, not including drinks. Cheap noodles this ain’t.
Nor is it particularly speedy, with Taro’s seven-course dinner menu clocking just under three hours. But when you’re sampling culinary bliss, who’s counting?
“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 flavors with juicy chunks of slow-cooked beef tenderloin.
That’s not to say you’ll have the exact same thing if you stop by: the restaurant’s menus change constantly, based on seasonal ingredients. Whatever Taro serves, the mix of Czech and Vietnamese flavors seem to define present-day 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, arrives at the end of the meal, but your waiter will point out that it was made with carp from South Bohemia, famous since the Middle Ages for its fish ponds.
Just as the techniques (and the subsequent 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 three sides of an open kitchen, which directs the diner’s eye to where the magic is actually happening. Sure, you can also do some decent people-watching. But at Taro, the focus is quite literally on the food.
Taro, Nadrazni 100; (420) 777-446-007; taro.cz.
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