Note: In July 2013, Hospoda hired chef René Bastien Stein, a former chef de cuisine at Seäsonal. The Czech theme was abandoned, in favor of New American beer-inspired cuisine—whatever that meant. That didn’t work, and Hospoda is now closed. As of February 2014, the space is Bay Kitchen Bar (BKB), a Hamptons-themed restaurant.
There’s always a place in my heart for restaurants that come out of nowhere—that neither set nor follow any discernable trend; that exist, for no other reason than someone believes in an idea.
Hospoda (“beer hall”) is such a place. Featuring Czech cuisine, it’s located in the newly renovated Bohemian National Hall, a landmarked building owned by the Czech government itself. No market survey could have inspired the idea; no restaurateur is likely to copy it.
I have visited no other Bohemian beer halls for comparison. This is probably a slightly more fancy version of the genre, with its striking black and gold panels and a glass floor in front of the bar that gives view to kegs of beer down below.
The company that operates the restaurant has 15 others in the Czech Republic. The executive chef, Oldřich Sahajdák, makes his home at one of these, La Degustation, which, according to a reliable report on Mouthfuls, is more upscale.
There is some evidence of cold feet, as a March post on DNAinfo.com mentioned a $76 prix fixe, later abandoned. That might have been a tough sell in a conservative neighborhood, when neither the cuisine nor the chef is well known.
In lieu of that, at least for now, the restaurant is offering two plates for $32, a remarkable deal. Each additional course is $12; desserts are $9. Somewhat confusingly, there’s also a separate beer menu that lists à la carte “beer plates” at $8 each, perhaps intended for snacking before dinner, although there is no bar at which to try them. The purpose of these wasn’t really explained, and we didn’t order any.
There’s only one kind of beer, Pilsner Urquell, but they serve it four ways, varying only in the ratio of foam to liquid. The foamiest, called “Sweet,” of which a sample is given as amuse bouche, is practically all head. The other extreme, called “Neat,” has practically no head at all. For $19, you can sample all four—not a bad deal, as it’s almost two full pints before you’re finished.
Right now, the wine list is almost a nullity, consisting of just two reds and two whites. Pours are stingy, but at $8 apiece one can’t complain. (The server told us that we could have brought in our own wine for free, but call ahead to ensure this policy is still in force, as they may not be so generous after their own list is beefed up.)
There is a nice bread selection. First comes a plate of sourdough slathered in cream cheese and topped with radishes (above left), then a dish of plain bread and rolls (above right), though without butter.
On the main menu, there are seven appetizers and seven entrées, each consisting of a list of three to five ingredients, with no indication of what is done with them. Fortunately, the servers know the menu well and answer questions patiently. An example is: “duck breast, celery, pear, sour cream” (above left): a thin, and somewhat bland, slice of breast, served cold, wrapped around a pear salad and topped with a celery foam.
Our other appetizer, “white asparagus, warm mayo, quail egg, bacon,” was breakfast topped with asparagus—fine for what it is, but unremarkable.
Lamb leg (above left) was the evening’s best dish, a tender (although small) piece of lamb in a carrot purée with thyme sauce and a bit of spinach. Beef oyster blade (above right) tasted like the inexpensive cut of meat that it is, but the creamy dill sauce was very good, as were the barley dumplings.
Macaroons (right) were served with the check. The dining room seemed to be about half to two-thirds full on a Thursday evening. Service was good, for a ten-day-old restaurant.
Hospoda is enjoyable, especially at the current price, and we appreciated a menu that’s entirely free of clichées. The chef isn’t working any miracles: the ingredients aren’t the best, and portions are on the small side. The cuisine is neither upscale nor rustic, but something in between.
With the Czech government invested in the restaurant’s success, presumably they’ll be given time to work out the kinks. I would dine here again, but I have to wonder how such an odd concept will play in the long term, after the curiosity-seekers have come and gone.
Update: As I expected, Hospoda continues to improve. On a subsequent visit, a substantial and fairly priced wine list had arrived, with suggested wines by the half-glass or full glass that pair with the menu, which is reprinted daily. Prices remain compelling: two courses for $32, three courses for $45, or a seven-course tasting for $88. I loved a snow pea salad (greens, kirby cucumber, peach, malt biscuit) and slow cooked rabbit (bacon, red cabbage essence, dumpling).
Hospoda (321 E. 73rd Street between 1st & 2nd Avenues, Upper East Side)