On a recent foray in Georgetown I happened upon some goodies that made me pretty darn homesick. One ingredient in particular was enough to make me feel this way – poppy seeds ground up and mixed with sugar and apricot jam or honey to produce a thick, dense filling for a pastry which in Hungary is called mákos beigli. I found this rare treat at Capital Prague, a contemporary Czech-Slovak restaurant at the corner of M and Potomac.
The concept behind the place is similar to the one behind Balkan-chic Ambar: introduce a neighborhood to a cuisine that doesn’t get too much attention and package it in a way that makes it appealing to American gourmandes. So their schnitzel sandwich comes on a ciabatta roll, dressed up in mustard aïoli and the Strapačky (a Slovak dumpling-based spaetzle dish pretty popular in Hungary, by the name strapacka) incorporates high quality smoked pork where the traditional tends to use leftover bacon. The original names (diacritics and all) are maintained as dish titles with ample explanation in English underneath. Good sign. Unlike many Polish or Russian restaurants where I have ran into way too many Hungarian items which actually aren’t credited as Hungarian on the menu, Capital Prague has only two items on the menu that are actually Hungarian, the goulash and the Somlói galuska, which is a trifle or rum-infused sponge cake, pastry cream, raisins, walnuts, chocolate sauce and plenty of whipped cream. Another good sign. They also proudly separate out the Czech and Slovak entrees from the rest instead of trying to imply that a Grilled Mediterranean Sea Bass or a NY Strip Steak with mashed potatoes and sautéed onions are in any way Eastern European. Nothing but good signs.
But anyway, onto what I actually tried there, the strudels. The Apple Strudel was divine; moist and tart and comforting, much like a pie but in a more easy-to-hold serving style. Probably the greatest gift the Hapsburgs ever gave to all those countries once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Actually, the Ottoman Turks are really to thank for first bringing a version closer to baklava to Hungary. Through Hungary it actually made it to the royal family in Vienna. If only the Turks had just left out all that raping and pillaging and given us delicious fruit-filled pastries, our history would’ve been a bit more chill. Anyway… A thin, unlevened yeasty dough wraps around a filling of grated, cooked apples, packed with cinnamon, sugar and a few golden raisins as well. What makes a good strudel is having the perky, tart acidity of the apple not overwhelmed by sugar and herbs but curbed so that the final product doesn’t end up too sour. Capital Prague’s recipe achieves this – the apples are soft and left a bit lumpy, with a great balance of acidity and sweetness with warm tones from the cinnamon. The dough is also baked to perfection, chewy and soft with a caramelized crust. It might have been a bit nicer even to heat it up, but I got the strudel from the take-out bakery side of the restaurant instead of ordering it as part of a sit down meal. I’m sure it’s served toasty warm in the latter scenario. Next up was the Poppy Seed Kolache, a round of puffy, yeasty dough with a dollop of poppy seed paste in the middle. The dough is semi-sweet and has only a very feint hint of dulzor, allowing the mushy poppy seed filling to dominate in flavor. The filling at Capital Prague is actually made with plum jam instead of the apricot jam traditionally used in Hungary. This ingredient gives a necessary moisture to the dish which is otherwise pretty dry and yeasty thick. It also gives a hint of fruity sweetness. The poppy seed is topped with a simple little crumble of flour, sugar and butter, which becomes nice and crunchy, adding an additional sweetness to the dish. This crumble topping reminds me most of grandma-style baked goods; it’s that extra detail that a young’un would accidentally leave out when making a dish like this. To find out more about the history of the Czech/Slovak kolache (also called kalács in Hungarian, kolacz in Polish, kulich in Russian and kolač in Serbo-Croatian, read this awesome post on the history of the dish: http://thehistorykitchen.com/2013/08/20/kolache/ The dessert nearest and dearest to my hungry Hungarian heart was the Poppy Seed Strudel which came in the same yeasty layered pillowcase of dough as the apple variety, but was stuffed with a generous amount of poppy seed, jam and raisins instead. Although the dough may seem slightly undercooked to those not used to this pastry, it is actually baked to the perfect texture. It’s slightly chewy with a firm bite, slippery smooth and caramelized on the outside, dividing into natural flakes and furls as it bakes. The filling gushes out when the pastry is bitten into, coating the tongue in that wonderful jammy sweetness as well as the grainy texture and nutty flavor of the poppy seed. This was definitely a fresher version than the one my family gets at the Russian Bazaar in Boston, though definitely not on the same level as my grandmother’s beigli. It was also weird not seeing one stuffed with ground walnuts right next to it, as these two are always made together.
But I will take what I can get. And at Cafe Prague, it’s pretty close to exactly what I need.