Tuesday, August 4, 2015

a Tale of Two Strudels

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of industry, it was the age of waste, it was the age of wealth unheard of, it was the age of the basest poverty, it was the age of really amazing strudel, and it was the age of abominatory things made from apple. I have tasted the delicacy that is strudel across many a land - and by delicacy I mean some sugary apple slop plopped between two sheets of dough and baked on high. Really, not an overly delicate thing, kind of hard to mess up. Strudel was always a basic desert for me, nothing to get a craving for, until venturing into Kavarna Adria on Jungmannova Street. And then I realized what truly I had been missing, what the ideal of strudel and its heretofore introduction of the reality meeting said ideal. Upon walking into Kavarna Adria, I had left the cave of what I had known to be strudel, and emerged a changed man, a strudeled man.

The outside of Palace Adria
Like most cafes in Prague, Kavarna Adria has nothing to brag for in regards to service. Not kind and not rude, the service is simply there - the exact ideal of service in 19th century Europe, none of that fake American smiling coming from employees making below minimum wage working 12 hour shifts. The service at Adria though is actually a lot better than many Prague spots. The interior is in the what I call First Republic style - which is to say looking like your Viennese cafe of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, the kind of place that Kafka or Freud would have sipped on coffee and ate their strudels. It was artsy for the time in the art nouveau that was all the rage back then - Kavarna Adria specifically was a really edgy Cubist joint, everything quite square and pointy, with dim, covered electric lights casting a pale pall across everything. The outside looked like an Italian castle was processed through Google's dreamscape set on floral, with small floral details where there shouldn't have been. Situated three flights up, the balcony was high above Jungmannova, with a great view of the surrounding buildings whose styles straddled time like the foundations straddled the square below. 

It was there that the Mrs. and I first had our first Praguer strudels, in the dark winter of 2015. Perhaps in February, but it was definitely wintry weather, which means it was the perfect setting for a steaming strudel. It was brought before me on the platter, giant in size, fresh, the apples melting almost into the sauce, mixed in with walnuts, with cinnamon and nutmeg generously sprinkled over. On the side were three great dollops of cream and some home made ice cream. After my first bite, I finally could understand scene from Inglorious Basterds, where Hans Landa nearly has an orgasm over the strudel, and some strange and powerful tension built either over the strudel or the murder of Shoshanna's family, it's quite hard to tell. Here's the scene if you want to know what I mean (fast forward to 2:00):

Understanding that the Adria strudel was the very Platonic ideal of strudel, it became my new fascination in restaurants in Prague. Was this a common achievement that was before me, or was it a rarity? Authentic strudels - that is, those made in Germany or Austria - simply paled to it. I went to many restaurants afterwards and tried many strudels, many were absolutely delicious, yet they were still just shapes brought before the flames, just shadows on the wall. Until finally I went to Cafe Imperial, where I realized the truth about the great diversity of strudels.

I had passed by Cafe Imperial many times, each time peering in with peaking curiosity. It was another First Republic cafe, this one situated near Palladium in the heart of the wealthy locals district of the Old Town - by locals I mean rich expats, by which I mean mostly Russians. 
The original structure had been erected in 1914 as a last ode and testament of the collapsing Austrian Empire. It was recently renovated, setting it up as a top class destination restaurant. Indeed, the magnificence of the interior itself makes for a worthy visit. The interior breathed art deco. It was as though Dionysius created the place for to be his own dining room. Inside were huge white marble columns, carved from top to bottom with Greek mythological scenes. The back wall was also a giant white carving, a relief of perhaps two maenads holding a covered platter of the remains of a cowardly Orpheus after his vengeful murder at the hands of nude, lustful women. In this setting of the dictionary definition of decadence, and also with a glance at the prices, I thought I was assured to have a divine experience, expecting the pastry to have been made by the dying god's own thyrsus. If only the experience didn't stop there.

The waiter quickly guided us to a seat near the kitchen. It wasn't the best of tables, but as we weren't dressed in fine dining clothes, I didn't really mind. We spoke in Czech, but as we sat the waiter snatched the Czech menus from our hand and replaced them with English ones, along with the word, "English" spoken in a slightly threatening, slightly disgusted tone. But we already knew what we wanted. We were there for coffee and strudel, which we thought was a pretty standard thing at a place that advertises on its website that "coffee and pastry are always important in a Cafe of such style."

What followed next is what I understand how many religious conservatives see homosexuals as. What was placed before us was a real "abomination of the Lord", in such a way that no man could ever manage while lying beside another man. My soul was awash in shame and disappointment over such a cold, dead pomaceous atrocity that lay on the plate before me. It seemed as though they had cooked the thing last week and it had just sat there and possibly fermented during the delay, holding its own bacchanale of yeast and microbes. We had even watched the waiter gather our order together only a few feet away, in full view, with us whispering that it couldn't be our strudel, not so fast, not even heated up, nope it was our strudel. With those two clanks of plate that echoed off our fine oak table, served as though at a nameless Czech restaurant in the darkest dives of Sporilov named U Haseka or U Debilu or something such as.

I thought, maybe cold strudel was their specialty. Maybe it was part of the atmosphere. Back in 1914, it wasn't really possible either to just put something in a microwave behind a wall and heat it 
up a little, tricking the clientele into thinking it's fresh. That's all I had really wanted was a little bit of trickery. But maybe, just maybe, it was delicious cold. 

Containing my disappointment
I had a bite. It tasted as it looked. Stale, slightly fermented, perhaps with a touch of mold. I would have demanded something else, but for the way the waiter had shamelessly prepared it and put it on our tables. The Mrs. said, "Complain!" but I said, "To what use? If he's not even going to heat it up, and he's going to do it all in front of us, I don't think it will do much good. It's sad though, this interior had really got me excited as though I found a new spot. Even if we requested cream, I doubt we'd want to know where it came from!"

But as is the story with most Prague places, the more wonderful it looks, the more terrible it is in reality. The plain, Cubist Kavarna Adria will always hold the place of fine strudeling in my heart.

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