Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sahara Café

"One of the common denominators I have found is that expectations rise above that which is expected."
-George W. Bush, Sept. 27, 2000
I first went to Sahara Café right after it opened. I thought it was a great looking place, in a nicely reconstructed old building, but the menu was pretty limited at the time.

Later, I read The Prague Post's review of the newly opened Garden Restaurant downstairs at the Sahara, back in December 2006. Critic Dave Faries enjoyed what he called "a tremendous steak" of Argentine beef, and used words like "tender, silken and densely flavored."

So, with expectations held high, we went for a try.

And I'll say it was good. And expensive. And it didn't meet my expectations. I expected the best and, for me, it didn't make the cut. So, as good as it was, I was a bit disappointed.

The Sahara steak was about the same price as La Casa Argentina. I've had my problems with that place, but the Argentine steak at La Casa was definitely better.

So, Sahara Café didn't make it into my rotation.

Until recently.

I returned with a friend and brought along slightly lower expectations. And guess what happened? I've been a couple of times now to the upstairs Sahara Café, and I liked just about everything.They don't call it tapas, but the upstairs Sahara Café menu offers many small plates, mostly in the 60-120 CZK range. The menu calls it Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.

They start you out with very nice bread. It comes with soft, almost melted butter and a sweet red onion relish. I detected a touch of wine in it. It is great, one of the better and original complements I've had with bread in a long time.

My friend got "Arabic Salad" for 65 CZK. It was a very nice combination of finely chopped peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and various leaves mixed with olive oil and lemon juice.I believe there was some red onion in there, too. It reminded me of a non-liquid version of gazpacho. Very good.

I sampled the "Spanish Empanadas" for 50 CZK. They are folded puff pastries, filled with chickpeas, eggplant, and onion. It is served with a spicy and very tasty Moroccan tomato sauce.I liked it, but there were just three of the little turnovers. They were gone in six bites.

I ordered the Oriental-style tuna tartar. I got the 75 gram starter portion for 220 CZK. You can also get 150 gram main course version for 390 CZK. And it also comes Siciliana-style, but I didn't ask what that was.I have to confess, I was talking and not focusing much on deconstructing the dish, but my recollection is that the chopped, raw tuna was mixed with cilantro, soy sauce, and ginger. I do remember it was fairly salty and not so much like other versions I've had. No wasabi. But I still enjoyed it and would try it again. There is also beef tartar for the same price.

I got a taste of the lamb kebabs, which are 90 CZK. These are actually mini lamb-burgers, topped with a little chopped tomato.They did have a nice lamby flavor, and the chopped meat was mixed with herbs and spices. They are served on top of a yogurt-tahini mixture. I must say I'd prefer chunks of grilled lamb, rather than ground meat.

Other highlights of the starter list are octopus salad (120 CZK), hand-cut Patanegra ham (240 CZK), grilled mushrooms (80 CZK), and foie gras (200 CZK).

One of the standout features of Sahara Café is the space itself. I'd say it is one of the most beautiful and best-designed restaurants in the city.Different dining areas are separated by curtains hanging from the high ceilings. The floors are high-quality wood that looked like teak. There is a beige-white color scheme throughout, with a few dashes of color.It is also very large. It is filled with stylish, comfortable couches with throw pillows. Those seats are often filled with Prague's nouveau riche, expats, and people having business dinners. But I also saw many couples on dates, enjoying the dark, romantic atmosphere.It was empty when I was there, but it can get quite full on a weeknight. I enjoyed my evening visit so much, I thought I'd come by on a weekend afternoon to try a few other things. I sat out on the deck in back.This area has a view of the restaurant's beautiful garden. It's nice, green lawn takes up most of the courtyard, with tall, leafy trees framing the area.I would always choose the garden tables with this view over the tables out in front on Náměstí Miru. The tiers of canvas umbrellas look great, and they did a fine job restoring the building that houses the restaurant. Anyway, back to the food.

For a starter on my second recent visit, I ordered the goat cheese crostini for 80 CZK. It's a piece of toast with olive oil, topped with grilled tomato and baked with goat cheese. It is small, but the goat cheese is nicely warm and moist. The whole thing is on top of some ruccola leaves.I don't have a list of the main courses available and the Sahara Café menu is not available on line at this time, but I ordered the barbecued pork ribs for 380 CZK. They unlike almost any I've had before. I liked them.You've heard the phrases "meat falling off the bone," and "fork-tender?" Apply them to these ribs. The slightest touch and the meat is free. I tried picking them up and eating a few, but they are better suited to knife and fork.

The ribs are covered in barbecue sauce that I thought, at first, could have had a little more kick and character, maybe some tartness. The are sweet, but not cloying.

By the end, I had more appreciation for the subtlety of the sauce. The ribs had rosemary and sage sprinklied on top, and the herbs really did add a unique tone to such a familiar dish.

Sahara Café is not cheap -- all those little dishes can add up. My weekend lunch, with a couple of bottles of mineral water, added up to 558 CZK. The evening snacks were around 500 CZK. But I feel I got value for money.

Now, after all this, it would not be unexpected if you have high expectations about Sahara Café. However, I'd suggest you lower them a bit. There's a much bigger chance you'll enjoy this place.

Worked for me.

Sahara Café
Námestí Míru 6
Prague 2 Vinohrady

Tel. (+420) 222 514 987


BlackGirl said...

I've been to Sahara thrice now. A beautiful space. The relish that accompanies the [generous] bread basket is quite delicious. The ribs? I just about fell over when I sampled them off a friend's plate. What did you think of the service?... I had a chat with the owner about it during one visit. I told him his staff needs to be more attentive. Finally, I'm surprised you came away with so many pictures of the place. I tried once and was told indoor photography wasn't allowed. Something about the effect on the antiques or some such thing. Overall, a nice post.

Brewsta said...

Thanks, BG.

During the day visit, the service was quite good, but it was around 3pm on a Saturday and almost deserted in the back room.

In the same area on weeknight, it was busier. I did neglect to mention the waiter did go missing in action for quite a while, but otherwise was OK. I was there quite late and it got empty by the end.

Both times, I took pictures when the waiters were out of the room. However, I also got busted at the very end. Never happened before.

On the discussion board, one person said he had very good service, and another said it was terrible.

Anonymous said...

This is a good review and nice site. I just have to add my two cents about the waitstaff at Sahara, though, as I had an awful experience there today. One of the umbrellas blew over on my friend and I, shattering my wine glass and getting red wine all over my friend and her purse. The waitstaff not only took 5+ minutes to address the situation and come over with a wet rag (they were too busy tending to the table next to us), but replaced my wine with only a tiny amount (much less than I'd had left before the umbrella shattered my glass). The cherry on top was the bill. Apparently they automatically give you double the amount of wine (and at double the price) listed in the per-glass menu. I never would have ordered a 180 crown glass of wine at a place like this, but because I drank it, they haughtily told me that it was my problem, though I was unaware it was double the normal amount. Really awful management. I will never return.