Scene: Paul and I try a neighborhood restaurant down the street from our apartment. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s November. We’re tired. We’re hungry. We’ve just left the gym and have earned a good meal. We sit down at the one available table, unwrap ourselves from coat, scarf and gloves. And then it finally happens. After more than two months here: the menu is in Czech and so is our waiter. No English subtitles. No English interpreters. Ne. We’re on our own. I’d even left my Czech book (pun intended) at home.
The restaurant is crowded and boisterous. Good sign. Food must be yummy. Or maybe it’s the beer. Paul orders one, a “pivo”; one of the few Czech words in his vocabulary. I request a glass of wine. Fortunately, ‘chardonnay’ in Czech is ‘chardonnay’.
I try not to play the Ugly American who expects everyone to speak my language. I had a Czech c.d. in my car for months before our trip, but didn’t get beyond “thank you”, “excuse me” and “do you speak English?” It’s a tough language.
Paul and I study the menu as if one of us could do an AlanTuring and break the code. The boyish waiter delivers our beer and wine. Sensing our struggle, he tries to assist. Pointing to the first group of five dishes, he moos. Yes, moos. Ok, ‘beef”. We’re getting somewhere. Then this cute server moves his finger to the next group of menu items and snorts. Pig. Ah, pork. Not for me, but Paul perks up. Continuing his game of charades, the waiter points to the “specialty” group, and then to his knee. Uh, pork knee? Pig’s knuckle is a popular Czech dish; Paul had it in Prague and the portion was so large, it had to have been a knee. (Do pigs even have knuckles? Nevermind. I really don’t want to know.)
I decide to ask about duck, a popular dish on most Czech menus. Continuing our form of dialogue, I quack twice. The server shakes his head. Are the other diners staring?
Okay. I get out my IPhone and search for Restaurace Ferdinanda, and discover its website. Luckily Ferdinanda offers free WIFI, (a universal term) so my ATT international package overage doesn’t explode. Its FaceBook page pops up offering photos of its dishes and some translation. Pay dirt!
“Paul, look wild boar stew!” Something he’d like. It even looked good to me. (The stew part, not the boar.) My stomach’s growling. Ok, one meal down. Paul nods, closes his menu, and shows the photo to the waiter as he sets down our much anticipated drinks. This very patient young man shakes his head. “No goulash”. Right, I remember now. Goulash is stew. But no stew for you. Must be an old photo. Back to square one.
We divvy up the menu and try Google translate. We discover chicken with asparagus as well as four other chicken dishes with mysterious ingredients. We can do this! Then Google offers up “socks” as a translation for an item. Uh, oh. My appetite slows.
We gesture for another beer and glass of wine. Paul decides on a pork dish. Any pork dish. He’s the adventurous eater, except of course when it comes to socks.
The waiter sets down another pint. I point to the three chicken dishes and shrug my question. He walks away. Have I offended? Is he finally exasperated? But no. He returns with his own phone and translating site. “Popcorn,” he points to the second chicken item. “Popcorn?” Chicken with popcorn? I daresay its corn; the Czechs eat a lot of corn; even put corn on pizza. I wasn’t in the mood for corn. Popped or otherwise.
My hunger intensifies. Then I recognize “flank stejk”; two kinds. One comes with “pickled onions” per Google. The other? Who knows. Google’s at a loss. I order it anyway, pointing to my selection. I choose to ignore that the waiter responds by pointing to his belly. Is that where the cow’s flank is? Nevermind. I really don’t want to know this either.
“French fries?” the young server asks. Ah, another universal term.
“No.” I shake my head. He looks perplexed. Who refuses French fries, he must be thinking in Czech? The waiter then types into his phone, points to the flank steak, and shows me the word that popped up on his screen: “alone”. Huh? My flank steak will arrive alone? I envisioned a lonely slab of meat in the middle of a large white plate. Solo. Nothing else. Paul then Google translates mashed potatoes, perhaps not wanting the steak to be lonely, or knowing how much I love them. He shows the Czech results to our new friend.
“No“. Our very busy, waiter says. No mashed potatoes. Okay, not bearing the thought of an isolated steak, I ask about a small ‘salat’? (Yes, I figured that one out.) He nods and turns away. I don’t dare try to add, “hold the onions” even though I’m allergic.
I sip my chardonnay. Paul chugs his dark ale. We silence our phones and wait, bracing to accept whatever is served. At least fifteen minutes pass. Are they retaliating for our slowness? Finally, the waiter sets before each of us a wooden platter of food. Paul’s sizable pork knee, (or knuckle) is accompanied by a variety of sauces; and a grouping of crisp red peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Three slices of dark bread complete the dish. Great presentation as they’d say on the Iron Chef.
And mine offers no less. The steak is not alone at all. It’s embraced by of a bordelaise creamy mushroom sauce; the same crisp veggies and bread slices nestle against it. A fresh vegetable salat is at its side. I take a bite of one of the tenderest pieces of beef I’ve eaten in ages.
Another delicious meal in Hradec. We’ll be back. I wrote down the Czech name; the fourth beef item on the menu, so I’d remember.
Or maybe I’ll just moo.