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Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 27, 2012

Lots of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, which makes you think of hearty comfort food. Filling food to keep you warm…and of course a pint of beer to wash it down.

That must mean we are thinking of Czech cuisine! O.k., well most people don’t exactly think of Czech food with Italian or French or Prague as a gastronomic capital like Tokyo or Paris. That’s fine because they aren’t, by a long shot. However, there are some terrific dishes in Czech cuisine and some excellent places to dine in Prague, as highlighted by this Serious Eats slide show.

I had an outstanding time in Prague two years ago, part of a 5 city, 15 night trip through Central Europe, including Hamburg, Munich, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. These cities are all better known for beer, opera, art, and pastries, but just like here in the U.S., the local, sustainable, organic, lighten up your meal movement has swept through these cities too.

For beer, no city except Munich can compare with Prague. I must have spent at least half of my trip in pubs, sampling homemade beers at U Fleku and U Zlatéjo Tigre, Pilsner Urquell at Olympia, U Vejvodu, and U Rudolfo, and the real Budweiser at U Medvidku. I gather that the craft brew movement has picked up even more the past two years in Prague, making it the Portland, Oregon of Europe. Even the old stand bys, Budweiser (Czechvar in the U.S.) and Pilsner Urquell are far more nuanced and enjoyable in Prague than the imported variety here, much like Guiness in Ireland and Heineken in the Netherlands are completely superior.

But to eat? Beer is liquid bread, right? Unfortunately the servers of my former newspaper have erased all my articles prior to a year ago and my computer’s hard drive crashed last Spring erasing records of where and what I ate. I do remember an outstanding traditional and not too heavy feast of goulash (more like a sauce than the Hungarian stew-like version) ad dumplings at the gastropub Lokal.

What pops in my mind is similar to what the slideshow displays: roast meats, purple cabbage, dumplings. I had that trio at least three of four times. Along with exceptional bagels at Bohemia Bagels by the Charles Bridge (owners from the U.S.!) and refreshing, somewhat innovative Thai cooking at Noi. Yes, good Thai in Prague with pad thai to rival the best I’ve had in L.A. or San Francisco. It’s a small, small world.

Prague now has two Michelin starred dining rooms with The Alcron and La Degustation.

Yes, Prague is really about the sights and the beer. Great marionette theatre too. Luckily, you can eat very well there too.

All of this meat and dumplings talk makes me yearn for…sushi. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a new film about the Tokyo sushi maestro Jiro Ono is showing the world about the incredible discipline and complexity involved in crafting arguably the world’s greatest sushi. Here’s a review of the film.

Unfortunately I could not visit the sushi bar of Jiro in Ginza while in Tokyo last June because he requires for diners to be able to communicate in Japanese, not exactly a strong point of yours truly. I did not have the chance to visit Sushi Mizutani either, considered the other King of sushi with Jiro in the Tokyo fish debates. Luckily I did have a mind blowing sushi marathon at Kyubei in Ginza, where uni after prawn after the most ruby red toro were placed before me. Jiro is presented as nothing but precise discipline during dinner service. My experience with Kyubei showed the same focus with the art of sushi, from massaging the still squirming octopus to the amount of wasabi placed atop the rice. Yet our chef loved to tell jokes and tell how he did not enjoy a meal at The French Laundry because the flavors were too salty and complex for his palate. At the three star Ishikawa in Tokyo, I also found that same focus of precision to the food, but also an unyielding glee in conversing with us as best as we both could.

Here’s what I learn from these experiences. Sushi at a place like Kyubei and I’m guessing Jiro will change your view of sushi forever. The fish is gold there.

Dining at a bar with the chef in front of you is immensely enjoyable, especially when the chefs are as fascinated to learn from you as you are to learn from them. It’s culinary diplomacy. This is why chef’s tables across the U.S. are becoming more and more popular (and expensive too).

Lastly, that discipline to cooking translates to cleanliness. Nobody wants to dine looking at a dirty kitchen. These sushi dens are immaculate, much like the sushi itself.

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