Monday, August 06, 2007

Czech and Slovak Club

(Officially Czechoslovak National House)
74 west end lane
West Hampstead
London NW6 2LX
+44 (0) 207 372 1193

One of the many things I love about London is the historical oddities that you find around town. Some are relics of empire or war and some are just there because there is an individualistic and oftentimes eccentric nation living here. The Czech and Slovak Club is definitely one of those oddities.

Apparently, it was founded as some sort of social/drinking club for Czech legionaries/mercenaries/free Czechs during WWII up in Holborn but moved to West Hampstead 1946. The move was cause by some ban on drinking beer that apparently existed in Holborn in 1946. Can’t imagine such a thing. When the legionnaires bought the club house they had the financial support of the former Czech president Benes (he put up £3000 a bucketload in those days) and his former bodyguard is still living in the club and works the bar at 90 years old.

The Club has survived WWII and Communism and is still cheerfully serving great Czeck beer and food to the local community of Czecks and Slovaks. I used to live no more than 500 meters away but only managed to visit after I moved away from West Hampstead. The bar is well worth visiting by itself as it has the best Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar on draft in London but the restaurant is really a unique thing.

Basically, the Czech and Slovak Club restaurant serves traditional central European cuisine that is heavy on the meat, sauerkraut and dumplings. So rollmops, pickled sausage and potato and bacon pancake for starters would be typical. Fried goose liver with onion & bread is simply brilliant. It is not foie gras but it is heartstoppingly rich and on the basis that you only live once I would make a special trip to risk my life with that one.

Main course include meatloaf, pork, beaf, duck, boar all roasted, fried, boiled and invariably served with sauerkraut or dumplings or preferably both. To ensure no one leaves without receiving their full complement of calories they then cover everything in a cream sauce. Some choice examples include:

  • Beef goulash & dumplings (beef cooked with onion and spiced with red paprika and marjoram)
  • Szegediner goulash & dumplings (pork cooked with sauerkraut and double cream, spiced with red paprika)
  • Roasted beef tenderloin in blended cream and vegetable sauce & dumplings
  • Roasted duck (leg) with sauerkraut & dumplings
  • Roasted wild boar in cream sauce & side dish
  • Stuffed breaded Wild boar with pork belly bacon, onion and garlic & side dish

Now these menu selections may sound terribly heavy but rest assured that the Czech and Slovak Club restaurant also serves vegetarian dishes. My favourite would be the ever so healthy “LangoŇ°” that they describe as “deep fried dough topped with mayonnaise, grated cheddar, garlic and ketchup”.

I can for obvious reasons not eat at the club every night as I simply would not survive but I do think that for an occasional bout of excess they serve terribly good food. The menu descriptions also do not quite carry just how uncompromisingly they use cream and butter and other traditional ingredients.

For example, the wild boar in cream sauce and side dish (the only appropriate side dish being dumplings) is not just covered in cream sauce; it is covered in a carbonara style cream sauce. So cream, cheese and egg but dipping the dumplings in there is just perfect. The meat also was the kind you only get from someone who really understands about wild game. Strong tasting yet tender and cooked to perfection with just the right amount of pink.

We also had the other wild boar dish last time. It really consists of a large slice of belly bacon and fried onion between two large slices of wild boar covered in some think dough and deep-fried. It was extremely satisfying in a very overpowering kind of way.

We finished with a house speciality that really is uncompromising namely the “Apricot dumplings topped with butter, cinnamon icing sugar and whipped cream”. If there is such a thing as politically incorrect food this is it. The bloke who wrote “eat what you like and die like a man” would really approve. Now, a dumpling is water and flour mixed together and dumped in hot water to cook. Basically a vehicle for the tasty fat on your plate to travel to your mouth. So not dangerous at all as such.

What this dish consist of however, is a dumpling that’s been formed around an apricot. So far so good. They then glace it with cinnamon flavoured sugar, dump it on a deep dish and cover both the dumpling and dish with clarified butter. To finish off; a few large dollops of whipped cream. This really should not be as good as it is but I have to admit I love it.

The Czech and Slovak Club is a total anachronism in today’s health conscious world but I absolutely love the fact that they’ve survived to this day. It is also great value for money which is another aspect that you rarely encounter in London anymore.