Hospoda: Czech Please
Unless you're an old fogey or roll with the Hewitt/Spence set, you won't find much excitement in the 10021 zip code. Dining, too, can be a snooze, since restaurateurs often shun the leafy Upper East Side for trendier stretches of concrete further south. But Hospoda—a vibrant, new Czech restaurant located on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall—is breathing culinary life into East 73rd Street.
The space feels appropriately Euro: streamlined and sleek, but with an intellectual, arty vibe—it would have been Bohumil Hrabal's New York stomping grounds. Backlit wall panels stenciled with abstract graffiti depict pseudo-pastoral scenes. Simple wood tables and chairs add to the relaxed setting. Although quiet on weekdays, the place is bustling on Fridays and Saturdays as guests—arguably an older crowd—dive into complimentary steak tartare bites, and toasts topped with cottage cheese and sliced radishes.
Chefs Oldrich Sahajdak and Marek Sada have divided their menu into "green market," "chef's," and "Czech" subsections. For $32 you can get any two plates, which, with a dessert ($9), should satisfy most diners. Hungry folk may want to bolster up with an additional dish, though ($13).
The beautifully presented offerings change regularly, but many are variations on a theme: One day, pickled carrot adds a tart crunch to a block of shredded rabbit encased in a savory, wobbly aspic. The following week, white cabbage and apple top the gelatinous brick. Similarly, cauliflower purée and chanterelles garnish a single ravioli oozing a yellow-hued yolk, only to be replaced later with a deep-fried whole egg.
Don't miss a bounty of market veggies, glossed with "celery essence" and studded with earthy morels. The somewhat pretentiously named potato "variation" showcases every treatment the tater can handle: mashing, boiling, frying, and chipping. While starch-heavy, it works.
Skip over the slightly less impressive chef's selections for the decidedly tastier Czech dishes. Supple and fork-tender poached-beef flatiron steak comes covered in a cream sauce flecked with dill oil, creamy potatoes guarding alongside. Cabbage and dumplings accompany a succulent marbled pork belly. And a swoosh of split-yellow-pea purée (made with white beans at a subsequent meal) meets its match, surprisingly a slab of smoked tongue. All are outstanding examples of how to modernize classic Slavic flavor pairings—but do you want to eat them on 95-degree evenings? If not, file Hospoda away till autumn.
Another very minor quibble: desserts. Thank God the potato noodles—mashed spuds coated in bread crumbs, soaking in a vanilla crème Anglaise—have been banished from the bill of fare. A recent visit featured a well-executed cheesecake, though its peach-sorbet topping won the real accolades. Sweet buns also make a respectable showing, if not a totally memorable one.
European vintages dominate the short wine list, with a few American ones thrown in for good measure, but beer is the leading libation here. Specifically, Pilsner Urquell, the Czech Republic's unofficial beer. Made in Plzen since 1842, the world's first pilsner is the only brew available at Hospoda. But draught master Lukas Svoboda draws the drink in four distinct styles: creme Urquell (classic and balanced, with a thick head), slice (slightly bitter with a four-finger foam), sweet (milky, all mousse), and neat (sharp and headless). Don't order it neat, though—"It's not the Czech way," you'll learn. Rather, opt for the $19 sampling—several swigs in, or maybe in the throes of drunken glee, you'll understand why the Czech Republic tops the charts when it comes to world per-capita beer consumption.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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