Monday, September 28, 2009

Prague Food Part One: Luka Lu

If you’re on a detox diet, don’t go to Prague. Unless you are on the heavy meat-dumpling-goulash detox diet. All goulash, all the time. After my first week in Prague, I craved vegetables. Though the food was filling, I felt hungry after each meal.

I started to consider writing a sequel to “The Hunger Artist.”

A combination of Google and random luck saved me. One day, riding the tram to a reading at the Ypsilon, I spotted “Luka Lu” through the window. I’d read about this restaurant on-line. Had I gone in search of it directly, most likely I would have found one of the many KFCs of Prague instead. But in true Prague-style, it popped up just when I wasn’t looking. Here is a blurry picture taken at night:

Luka Lu was on the 22 tram line, halfway between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the outpost of the Wild Things. Tables on the ceiling, upside-down cats, and lamps of all shapes and sizes.

More than a restaurant, it was a delight. Though the waiters were surly and humorless, the bright colors and abundance of birds made it a friendly place. Fresh fish, vegetables, fruits, and chicken “beg” soup that the menu claimed contained aphrodisiacs. Luka Lu won me over in my first visit with Cindy and Shara, and I returned the next night, and the following week, and many more times before leaving Prague.

Each visit to Luka Lu was unique, an adventure in itself. On my first visit, we sat out front and people-watched while eating. The waiter had a grim, indifferent expression as we exclaimed over the food in true American-style.

On my second visit, I went with the women who adventured with me to Cloud 9, and we were shooed into the back garden with the bird cages and other Americans. It was cold that night and they brought us soft fleece blankets as we ate.

At one point, when my friend Toni got up to go to the bathroom, she discovered that the back door was locked. The old lock-the-tourists-in-the-back-yard routine. Soon someone freed us so we could settle the bill and head to Cloud 9.

I felt like part of the Luka Lu family by my third visit with Becca, who was teaching English in Prague and had already been navigating the city for several months. The waiter seated us at one of the coveted indoor tables. The meal started off with the usual: “beg” soup, house wine, homemade bread.

Things took a turn mid-way through my grilled fish when the owner started to bring us free wine. He poured the wine like water and showered us with random complements. During one of his table visits, he announced that it was his birthday. He planned to celebrate after closing with drinks and treats in the backyard. Would we like to join him? This felt like an exclusive invitation—the owner of my new favorite restaurant inviting us to his birthday party.

Thus began our trip down the rabbit hole with backyard toasts, free food, and the owner of Luka Lu introducing us to his bird menagerie. All entertaining until Becca and I realized that no other guests were invited. Just us, the owner, and a random waiter with pointy gray teeth wearing a fluorescent orange spandex top. This party needed about ten more people and less spandex to qualify as an exclusive social event in Prague.

I helped retrieve the birthday fruit salad from the kitchen, and the owner made an unexpected overture while I tried to balance a heavy half-watermelon full of chopped apples, pears, melon, and grapes. I almost dumped the whole tray of fruit down his front, but I was more coordinated than I thought. I could balance a heavy tray of fruit, ward off inappropriate advances, and navigate the narrow kitchen of Luka Lu all at once. Essential skills for a night out at a restaurant in Prague.

He protested, “It’s my birthday!” The famous “It’s-my-birthday” school of seduction, known to woo women across the world. I stuck with simple, clear messages. “No.” Maybe my high school Italian teacher, Mr. Hammond, was right. Maybe “no” was the only necessary vocabulary for travel in Europe.

Later, when we’d finished the toasts, fruit, and bird-watching, Becca and I started to leave. At a party of fourteen, this would have been easier, but since there were only four of us, it was a bit awkward. The party was about to be cut in half.

The owner led us outside and showed us his winged chariot: a shiny maroon Subaru that flashed its lights at his command. At first he offered a ride, until it became clear that we were heading to the same destination. After holding a brief conference in rapid English, Becca invited me to stay at her apartment in Prague 1 and I accepted. This plan made the most sense given the late hour, the sketchy transport options, and the fact that my class the next morning was also in Prague 1.

He withdrew his taxi service offer with an erroneous claim that the bridge we needed to cross was closed to cars. Becca and I set off towards her apartment through the winding narrow streets. We didn’t have far to go, and the streets were well lit. Once again Prague had confounded us. We thought we were going for a simple dinner, but it turned into a bizarre adventure. Eating out in Prague: it’s not what you expect.

On my fourth visit to Luka Lu, I brought a bodyguard. Actually, I landed there after a weekend trip to Cesky Krumlov with one of my co-travelers. By the time we arrived at Luka Lu, I was so hungry I would have dropkicked the owner myself if he tried to approach me with any more advances.

Each time I brought someone new to Luka Lu, I felt like the ambassador to Wonderland, Charlie with a ticket to the Chocolate Factory. I pointed at the upside down tables and miniature shoes stuck to the ceiling, the little balcony populated with kid-sized chairs. The waiter brought out free fruit salad after the meal, an offering of peace to a now-loyal customer.

My fifth and last visit to Luka Lu was on Cindy’s last night in Prague. She’d spent the earlier part of the evening photographing the Prague Castle at dusk while I babysat her date, a dud from Alabama interning and studying political science in Prague. Maybe he wasn’t a dud, but I’d just had a week full of mini-adventures and laughs and books, time spent scribbling and staying up late. My last week in Prague was full of all the reasons I’d come to the city in the first place, and now I felt vaulted back to Square One in true Prague-style. I sat at a café across from Cindy’s date, trying to follow his outline of his political viewpoints as “culturally libertarian and fiscally Keynsian.”

When Cindy appeared at the café, I practically begged to go to Luka Lu (no pun intended re: beg soup). Going to Luka Lu, I thought I could recover some of the magic of my time in Prague. The date went along in part because of his bizarre mission to take a paper-doll copy of the picture book character, “Flat Stanley” (he carried it in his shirt pocket), to every corner of Prague. He planned to photograph himself with “Flat Stanley” and enter it into some obscure contest.

I ordered all of my favorite things on the menu, but something was missing on my last visit to Luka Lu. Maybe knowing that it was my last visit took away some of the magic. Also, going there on purpose with a set plan, when the last times had seemed like gifts. Luka Lu must be visited on a lark or a whim, with friends and without seriousness. Like the laughing gas in Mary Poppins, seriousness deflates the magic of Luka Lu. Still, the food was delicious on that last night, as always, and we sat out front people-watching as in my first visit when Luka Lu was new and strange and amazing to me.

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