Over the Coffee

A chat behind the kitchen doors with one of our favorite restaurant owners

Thin, energetic Petr Šilhavý scoots to the wooden table at his Universal Restaurant, plopping down his mobile, black leather notebook, and a red menu in the narrow space between two paper placemats. Dressed in a cheery plaid shirt, wireframed glasses perched in his short fair hair, he looks ready for a day at the beach, not at this busy Prague 1 restaurant which specializes in French and international food.

What’s good on the end-of-summer menu? we ask. He smiles and flips open the notebook-sized, hard-covered bill of fare. “We change our menu for summer,” he says, “to something more light, but satisfying.” And you don’t need a nap afterwards. The restaurant’s experienced French-cooktrained cooks see to that. (It’s true, he confesses, sometimes the restaurant has a lunch special that includes dumplings, “but only once in three months,” he says, as if it is only a minor coincidence.)

There’s Rissotto di Mare, for example, with tiger prawns and grana cheese. Or Moules Mariniére, creamy-white mussels served in their black shells, boiled with white wine and shallots, and served with French bread.

Šilhavý jumps up and vanishes into the kitchen, returning with a small white bowl.

“We also have a new soup for summer, a Vichyssoise,” he smiles, offering a sample. “It’s a traditional leek soup named for the Vichy region in France, a poultry consommé blended
with cream and potatoes.” Served chilled, it’s not as oily as a hot soup, he explains; “it’s more refreshing than comforting.”

Indeed, its smooth but light consistency and slight zing makes a good pick-me-up on warm, Indian summer days. He stops to answer a brief phone call, then continues, “Usually people eat the same way all the time. It has to be 35 degrees to change their habits,” he says, sharing some of his years of experience gained as the former owner of another restaurant, and current owner of Café Erra in the same neighborhood. “That’s why we change about a quarter of our dishes in summer.

“For example, we offer a true Caesar’s salad,” he continues. “There are many types of ‘Caesar’s salads’ in the world, but ours is the original – Romaine lettuce with grilled chicken, mayonnaise, anchovies, Parmesan and grana cheese. And very importantly, the dressing must be made with aged French mustard – with the seeds.”

He calls out a quick question to a passing waiter, smiles with satisfaction, and we continue: Now that summer gardens are starting to overflow with tomatoes, zucchini, and too much of many other fruits and vegetables, what does Šilhavý suggest an overwhelmed home cook should do?

“Grilling tomatoes and zucchini is always good,” he says, “as well as eggplant broiled with cottage cheese or stuffed with sea food – fruits di mare.” He also is partial to stuffed tomatoes, filled with tuna and cottage cheese. “Good for dieters, too,” he adds.

This time of year, fresh fish is also a good choice, and not only for dieters. So how does the professional select fish when he goes shopping?

“Never buy fish ‘on special,’” he chuckles. “Try to buy the whole fish and then cut it yourself, because then you know it’s fresh.”

So, what’s his favorite dish to cook at home? “I don’t cook at home,” he says.

Not even a little? Not even a peanut-butter sandwich after a late night? No,” he insists. “Maybe only a few little cheeses, and some wine. I always eat here,” he smiles, glancing around the sunny room, decorated in a campy French bistro style.

He then offers an insight that those chained to the stove or a sink full of dirty dishes will truly appreciate: It’s better to eat in a restaurant than at home – it’s not the cheapest, but it’s not that expensive, either, because restaurants buy special spices, meats, and so on in quantity. Šilhavý says it’s about 30 percent cheaper than buying food yourself from a grocery store.

“Try to make dinner for two for 300 crowns,” he continues. “You can’t, not if you have ingredients like cream, butter … the prosciutto, goat cheese, mozzarella that we buy from  our Italian supplier. It’s true that you’ll spend about 400 to 450 crowns here, but it’s always better to be in a nice restaurant… have some wine …”

And, of course, the kicker: “And no dirty dishes.”

A grinding noise roars from the street; Šilhavý jumps up again and looks out the window. “Excuse me please,” he says, darting towards the door. “I have to go check on this truck …
that’s … blocking …” and he’s gone.

Leaving us with only an empty bowl, a large soup spoon … and an appetite for more of that Vichyssoise.

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