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Prague's Traditional Reinvention

Touring Dlouhá street.

Photo: Monika Hoefler

“There’s definitely new interest among many Czechs—particularly, perhaps obviously, younger ones—in their aesthetic history,” Feldman says. She talks of Velćovský, a provocateur and dandy, whose Qubus atelier, a warmly lit and cheery space behind massive iron-studded wooden doors, is a few blocks away. He similarly plays with traditional craft techniques made thought-provoking with healthy doses of irony. (Feldman quotes him as telling her he’s “selling up parts of his childhood” with his design output, which includes porcelain sculptures—a pair of rain boots; a bust of Lenin; a bowl in the shape of the old Czechoslovakia—embossed with the traditional Bohemian zwiebelmuster, or blue onion, pattern.)

She also cites Prague’s premier fashion designer, Klára Nademlýnská, who plays up her Paris training over any professions of Bohemian inspiration, but in whose structured, uncomplicated designs one occasionally sees a flourish of peasant-style embroidery or a shape (a shepherd’s hood, for example) that speaks to a memory of some regional sartorial history. (Certainly the total disinclination to serve that prevails among the lissome, unsmiling girls in her shop on Dlouhá street is a holdover from the old country.)

Feldman takes me one night for a dining experience she says is a 21st-century Czech phenomenon that draws, as so much does these days, from the past. La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise (or Degustation, as it is known), was a revelation for Czechs as well as visitors to the city when it opened in Old Town three years ago. Executive chef and co-owner Oldřich Sahajdák assembled a nine-person team comprising some of Prague’s top internationally trained talent, variously poached from the city’s best restaurants (sous-chef Marek Šáda came from Kampa Park; chef du pâtissier Lukáš Pohl was formerly at Café Savoy) and lured home from abroad (sommelier Kristýna Janičková has worked at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London). Their mandate: Revive and add a contemporary twist to the haute cuisine traditions of late-19th-century well-to-do Bohemia.

The seven-course meal we enjoy is filled with dumplings—pheasant dumplings are served with wild poultry soup and quail egg, and barley dumplings come alongside poached beef oyster blade. It’s also gratifyingly refined, with traditional sauces reinterpreted as essences (and, yes, foams) and spectacular, almost architectural presentation. Equally refined are the room itself, with its low, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and the open kitchen, tiled in black and white and squadroned by an enfilade of grinning young sous-chefs who look to be having the time of their lives.

When queried on Prague’s changing visual arts scene, Feldman and Jaros—who are, as it happens, two of the city’s most articulate ad hoc ambassadors—both urge a visit to Dox, the buzzy contemporary-arts center that opened in October 2008. One of the first exhibits in this sprawling 1920’s metal factory (redesigned by the contemporary Czech architect Ivan Kroupá) was the enormous installation called Entropa, by Czech artist David Černý. A 40-foot-high mosaic suspended on a pipe system, with steam whistles and moving parts, it’s a wild sort of map of the 27 EU member states: Romania is a Dracula-themed park; the Netherlands a flooded plain dotted with half-submerged mosques; Italy one enormous soccer pitch on which players run chaotically in all directions. It was commissioned to be exhibited at the European Council building in Brussels for the duration of the Czech presidency, but generated so much controversy that it was dismantled and sent back to Prague—to the mixed dismay and amusement of art-savvy Czechs, who could have told any well-meaning Eurocrat that Černý, a self-styled enfant terrible and Prague celebrity, was not the guy for such a serious-minded job. (In the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, he painted a Soviet tank cotton-candy pink and affixed a huge raised middle finger atop it.) Post-controversy, Černý admitted that the 27 artists he’d listed as collaborators—one from each EU country—were all fictitious; the work was entirely his and that of two associates.

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