Restaurant News & Reviews

Czech back later, as Klara's evolves

I can't think of a better way to start a meal at Klara's, the Czech restaurant that opened last year in downtown Cary, than with egg à la Prague.

A single soft-boiled egg, still warm and split just far enough to reveal a peek at its golden yolk, nestles alongside curled petals of well-cured ham atop a bowl of creamy potato salad. And, since I can't imagine going to Klara's without a beer-drinking buddy or two to help me sample the selection of half a dozen bottled brews from the birthplace of Pilsner, I'd want an order of Klara's caraway-spangled potato pancakes as well. Devil's toast -- made with house-baked bread, liberally topped with a spicy medley of vegetables, salami and molten cheese -- is, of course, also a must.

But you won't find these earthy delights on the appetizer list. You'll have to turn toward the back of the five-page menu, after the entrees, where you'll find them under the heading of Beer Snacks. What you will find on the front page is an eclectic hodgepodge of soups, salads and appetizers, only a few of which are, in fact, Czech in origin. For every cesneska (garlic soup) and sopsky salat (a chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions and feta in a sweet-sour dressing), there are at least two options along the lines of Caesar salad, crab cakes and mozzarella caprese.

According to Klara Novakova, who owns the restaurant with partner Chip Sands, there are two reasons for the scattershot offering. First, in order not to alienate patrons of Vespa, the Italian restaurant that previously occupied the space, the partners chose to phase in the Czech menu gradually. A few vestiges of Vespa remain, including the complimentary bread and olive oil that you're served soon after seating. Second, Novakova points out that most restaurants in her native Prague offer a "European" menu that doesn't confine itself to the native fare of the Czech Republic.

Fair enough. But, given that Klara's is the first Czech restaurant in the Triangle, it's a good bet that those of us who have rarely if ever had a chance to sample the cuisine would go there precisely to get a taste of it.

Fortunately, the extensive entree selection provides ample opportunities to do just that. Unlike the appetizer list, the main course offering is predominantly Czech, with a spectrum from Bohemian roast beef with vegetable cream sauce to garlic-marinated "woodcutter" pork cutlet to roasted half duck with red cabbage (available on weekends, or with 24-hour advance notice).

Szegedin goulash, a Czech variation on the famous Hungarian dish, serves up pork in a pungent, paprika-laced sauerkraut cream sauce. Accompanied by slices of a dense, breadlike flour dumpling, it's a decidedly rib-sticking dish and possibly an acquired taste for some. Chicken Prague offers a slightly less adventurous alternative in the form of bite-size pieces of boneless chicken sautéed with peppers, onions and mushrooms in a sauce punctuated with ketchup and slivers of pickle.

On the other hand, another entree featuring tennis ball-size potato dumplings, stuffed with bacon and prosciutto and topped with caramelized onions, shouldn't have any trouble finding lots of fans. Nor should an impeccably fresh, crisp-skinned pan-fried whole trout with garlic sauce.

Desserts are, like pretty much everything else at Klara's, homemade. Tiramisu, chocolate soufflé, crème brûlée and affogato al café may all be fine. I can vouch for the excellent apple strudel, the closest thing to a Czech dessert I could find. It could do without the chocolate sauce garnish, though.

Service is accommodating, though the dining room appears to be frequently understaffed. Both times I visited, a single waitress tried gamely to cover the entire dining room, with mixed results.

Bare tabletops and pictures of Prague by Klara Novakova's father on sunny yellow walls give Klara's a casual European vibe. The mural of Prague on the back dining room wall is nearing completion. By the end of March, the cozy bar will dispense four draft beers, all Czech. In short, six months after opening, Klara's is a promising work in progress.