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Czech, please!

By Evan Rail
Budget Travel
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(Budget Travel Onlineexternal link) -- The city once known for really dreary food -- from meat to potatoes and back -- has learned to lighten up. Even vegetarians can have a fulfilling experience.

In terms of its Gothic cathedrals and quaint cobblestone streets, Prague clearly ranks with any European capital. The food, however, has always been another story. Prague is still no Paris, but it's no longer ridiculous to mention the two cities in the same sentence.

In Old Town, the six-month-old Lehká hlava café defies a pork-and-potatoes stereotype by serving fantastic vegetarian food. The name translates as "light head," and the decor is a mind-trip of the first order, with coconut-shell spotlights, plush booths and an arched sky-blue ceiling lit with hundreds of tiny faux stars. They actually twinkle, or at least sort of throb. A hearty sweet-and-sour vegetable stir-fry, with glazed zucchini, carrots and smoked tofu, comes with a side of couscous ($4.50).

Also a newcomer to Prague's city center, Brasserie M hides on an overlooked street behind a massive Tesco department store. The French owner, Jean-Paul Manzac, was head chef at the Prague Marriott before opening his modern bistro last September. The onion soup is topped with gooey melted Comté cheese and emboldened with a shot of port ($5), and the buttery duck confit serves as comfort food for homesick Parisians ($13). Desserts maintain the high standards: Manzac uses his father's recipe for a slightly smoky chocolate mousse ($5.50), made with a secret ingredient he challenges everyone to guess. Armagnac, perhaps?

Another new French restaurant lurks behind the awkward name Perpetuum/Prague Duck Restaurant. One of the country's most beloved specialties, duck, is prepared with haute French techniques: The pan-seared duck foie gras is accompanied by a sweet caramelized pear and an aromatic thyme sauce ($13); the ginger-scented wild duck fricassee comes with locally grown carrots, zucchini and celery ($14). Old-school Czech desserts usually found only in Grandma's kitchen or traditional bakeries are also dressed up: Look for the buchta roll, filled with plum compote and covered in vanilla-infused cream ($4). Perpetuum has the city's most comprehensive selection of quality Czech wines; whites from cult producer Dobrá Vinice are among the country's finest.

Great continental cuisine makes sense, given Prague's location in the middle of Europe. More unusual is the current emphasis on Asia. Many restaurants have higher profiles, but Old Town's Yami has earned a following for its unorthodox fusion roll, a single-serving, burrito-size log of maki sushi stuffed with a variety of ingredients. One of the best versions is the Mermaid, an inside-out roll filled with shrimp tempura, avocado, crab, cucumber and teriyaki sauce and coated with bread crumbs ($8).

Beyond the city center, in the otherwise sedate Vrsovice neighborhood, year-old Valleta comes across as humble, with rustic wooden tables and paper napkins, and only a few cookbooks for decoration. Don't be fooled. Originally from a village in Southern Bohemia, chef/owner Filip Blazek fashions creative menus around seasonal ingredients. Many of Blazek's savory dishes have sugary notes, including a broccoli cream soup with sweet hazelnut dumplings ($1.75) and a roast lamb with sheep cheese and jam-like tomato preserves ($10.50).

Mozaika, in the nearby 19th-century Vinohrady neighborhood, is a long, narrow restaurant with romantic lighting and a number of intimate tables for two. Expats flock here, however, for some rather unsexy fare: Prague's best hamburger. It has tons of grilled onions, button mushrooms and a mound of melted cheddar cheese, all served on a homemade spinach bun ($7.50).

It wouldn't be Prague without pivo, or beer. There's an unpasteurized version of Pilsner Urquell that's only available in the Czech Republic -- a secret, even to most Czechs. Found at special "tank" pubs, which store the beer in sealed cylindrical tanks, it tastes far fresher than the exported version. BredovskØ dvur, a block from Wenceslas Square, sells half-liters for $1.25. This is an unfussy place, and a plate of pork ribs, slathered in honey and herbs and slow-roasted until the meat falls off in massive chunks, accompanies the beer perfectly ($7).


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Diners enjoy Prague's historic charm in Old Town Square.

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