Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sansho, Prague

Soft-shell crab slider with wasabi mayo

Halfway through our meal at Sansho the owner, Paul Day, passes by our table and asks us how we're enjoying the food. Anna promptly replies, “It’s really good.” I've just had a mouthful of some seriously tasty Beef Rendang and blurt out, “It's amazing!” Without a second thought, Day says, with genuine sincerity, “It's not amazing.” And with that he carries on his way.

Maybe it's modesty. Maybe it’s the high standards he expects of himself after working in Michelin-starred establishments. Maybe, just maybe, the Thai food he creates cannot, in his eyes, come close to the ‘real deal’. Whatever the case - for us - the whole experience was unexpected. Thai food in Prague? And good Thai food at that.

It’s not as strange as it sounds, we later found out. The Czech Republic has a huge Vietnamese population, over 10,000 of whom live in Prague according to the 2011 census. They are the country's largest immigrant community; so it stands to reason that Pan-Asian cuisine is something Prague-dwellers are familiar with. However, it's perhaps not at the level of sophistication that Day brings: soft-shell crab sliders, pork and watermelon salad, and that 12-hour Beef Rendang.

Pork and watermelon salad
Opened in 2011, Sansho is Day’s first restaurant; and judging by the turnout on a Tuesday evening, it's not doing too badly. Admittedly, it is high tourist season - we're flanked by a large group of Australians on one side and an American couple on the other - but the buzz about the place seems to have stayed strong. It's sparsely decorated and staffed with easy-going, somewhat Bohemian Czech twenty-somethings.

Paul Day was senior sous-chef at Nobu and worked under legendary David Thompson at Nahm, the world's first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin star - so, despite what he says, the food is very good. He offered to choose our courses for us, presumably to showcase the best of Sansho, although judging by the other dishes we saw flying past us, I'm not sure there'd be any dud courses in this place.

Beef Rendang

The meat dishes are the real treat. Given Day's background, it's no real surprise. Raised in Stafford, he was working in a butcher's shop at the age of 13; a shop which he ended up owning then selling when he was 18. With the proceeds he moved to London and started as a butcher in Chinatown, working in various restaurants as well. It's a passion he has brought to the restaurant and the city: he's started his own butcher's shop called the Real Meat Society (superbly branded, by the way) which provides all the meat used in our dishes. He's also committed to improving local farming practices and confessed in a radio interview his interest in "changing the Czech palate." You can see what he means: the pork belly is cooked five different ways in a three-day process and the rendang contains 21 different ingredients. The beef salad featured some incredibly tender steak and a complex array of non-native herbs.

The seafood was surprisingly good, considering the Czech love of meat (in particular pork). The Soft-shell Crab Slider is sensational: the delicate bun giving way to deep-fried crustacean with a hint of a heat from the wasabi mayo. They're deceptively simple and so good you immediately want another. The slider, along with the clams in an aromatic broth and salmon sashimi, were fine examples of less Thai-inflected cuisine that Sansho is capable of. 

Sansho - Interior. Like some hip New York gallery.

The only letdown was the desserts. Sticky toffee pudding and baked cheesecake could be staples of Thai kitchens for all I know; but I seriously doubt it. It's not that they were bad necessarily, it's just that on a sweltering summer's evening, we craved something with coconut, mango, and lime. Thankfully, they'd mixed some refreshing cocktails, a cucumber collins and a watermelon cooler, that did a good job of staving off the heat.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that rarely have I ever been as satisfied with a meal as I was with the tasting menu at Sansho. This may be down to my 'sunny' holiday disposition but I'd like to think that my critical faculties were still intact. Don't trust me? Then, there's only one way to find out.

Petrska 1170/25
110 00 Praha (Prague)