Coffees

The hidden gems of Prague

It’s been a while since I’ve taken an absolutely agenda-free city break all by myself: no work or family commitments involved – so I was really looking forward to this three-night stay in Prague.

It is during such escapades that I truly appreciate the mission of A Black Spot; because, as a newbie to a city which I had not taken enough time to research before arriving, to follow a coffee trail of the best venues in town is as good a tactical plan as any – and that’s exactly what I did.

I had made a list of a few cafes that had cropped up on the internet as the most exciting ones in the Czech capital, and made a rough sightseeing plan around those on the map. However, even though I ended up not going to a single museum or to see the Opera, I only managed to pay a visit to three coffee shops – that’s how engrossed I was in the colourful display of history of architecture, and the magical spirit of Bohemia; but the cafes I did visit did not disappoint:

Original Coffee

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The first on the list was Original Coffee, located somewhere near the Bethlehem Chapel – I say somewhere, because by the time I left the hotel and realised I never noted down the address, I was without wifi and only had a wee dot on a map in the form of a phone screenshot taken a couple of days earlier, before arriving to Prague. I got a bit lost wandering down the narrow alleys around the church, having passed some inviting-looking cafes with outdoor seating on the way – a type of venue I decided to avoid after being told by some former residents to the Bohemian capital that they were typical “tourist traps” (not least like the cafes in Rome at Piazza del Popolo, where you can pay three times the price of an espresso at a cafe round the corner…).

Flat White at Original Coffee

Flat White at Original Coffee

Eventually, having made a full circle between the Chapel and the Vitava River, I found it: inconspicuous place with a modern sign and little more suggesting this could be a coffee haven.

However, upon entering you could feel a sense of freshness and liberty – the place was quite airy, and although the decor was pretty simple, it encouraged the visitor to come in and take a seat on a wooden bench with mismatched cushions, by a wooden table; that might be simply because the lunchtime heat was getting pretty heavy out in the open, but the cafe was nicely tucked into a shade of the buildings surrounding it, allowing both for warm air and fresh breeze to circulate freely.

The not-too-lengthy menu was mainly drink-based with a few snacky options and a couple of heavier eats; sadly, there was no mocha, and instantly recognising that English was not the main language in this place, I decided not to complicate things asking for a coffee with chocolate, and went for a flat white instead. I was so thirsty that I also decided to go for a kiwi juice alongside that.

Kiwi smoothie at Original Coffee

Fresh kiwi juice at Original Coffee

The coffee arrived prontissimo, served in a glass (suiting the hipster style of the place). I took a sip, and was hit by a first-of-a-kind sensation: the concoction was quite acidic, something I have previously experienced with a certain type cocoa in a mocha, or a “neat” espresso, but not a milky coffee like a flat white! Simultaneously, the texture was quite thin, closer to a brewed coffee, rather than an espresso machine drink (which might well be the case – Chemex, perhaps?). It was also pretty strong.

All in all, it was an interesting, and, I guess, quite nice cup of coffee, once I got over the weird and unexpected taste sensations. Now, the juice was a different story, as it took forever to arrive (I would have finished my coffee twice over in that time) – but once I got it, I loved it. It was extremely fresh, with chunks of fruit throughout, and vibrant flavours. After this serving, I really felt energised to continue my first proper exploration of Prague.

Flat White: 65Kč  (£2.04 aprox)

Verdict justification: They certainly know their bit about coffee, even if the initial experience wasn’t what I was expecting; and even though the staff seem to only know half a dozen words in English, they are still helpful and welcoming.

http://originalcoffee.cz/en/

Tricafe

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Czech trdelník with strawberry jam

Czech trdelník with strawberry jam

After cooling down with the juice at Original Coffee, the ultimate refreshment came in the form of a heavy thunderstorm which left me completely soaked through by the time I reached my hotel that afternoon. Any plans to visit a coffee shop had to be moved to the following day; I did, however, manage to get a taste of the local cuisine, by sampling some of the trdelník, a cone of rolled dough with a filling of your choosing (I went for strawberry jam) – I simply couldn’t resist it, as the smell filled the air of the Old Town from all the stalls and cafes that were making them fresh – and I didn’t regret the choice.

Anyway, the following day I was adamant to visit at least two cafes, seeing that I was due to leave for home early the next day; but first, my mission was to see the Prague Castle, which I knew would take a few hours. Once I climbed to Hradčany and had a walk around the St Vitus Cathedral, I made a stop for an Aperol Spritz at the Panorama Cafe, which provides a lovely refuge from the sun, heat and crowds, plus fantastic views of the city.

Inside Tricafe

Inside Tricafe

Once on the Karluv Most on my way back, I took a look at my screenshot map with the dotted cafes, and noticed there was a venue marked quite nearby, so I headed semi-blind in that direction.

Having remembered the name had figured my “to-do” list, it was easy to find Tricafe, and I was glad to learn that the staff were a bit more savvy with English than the previous place – and that mocha featured on their menu.

I placed my coffee order in the small bar room, and moved next door, which looked very much like someone’s living room, with its round wooden tables and chairs, deep armchairs and a rug on the floor.

Mocha at Tricafe

Mocha at Tricafe

I helped myself to some water, displayed on top of a 60s cabinet (a welcome free offering I found customary in these Czech cafes) and my coffee was delivered soon after – to my surprise, with a marshmallow on the side. It looked promising, and proved to deliver on the taste also. It was pleasantly smooth, with a dense texture and sweet balanced flavour. There were tiny undissolved bits of chocolate on the bottom of the cup (once I got that far), which explained the rich taste; its only downside was the temperature, just below perfect, which meant it needed to be drunk quick, as every degree less made it taste more and more milky. To finish it off, the marshmallow proved a really good accompaniment to the mocha.

The place remained quite peaceful and relaxed, with a variety of people of all ages coming in and out. In all this, the only true confusing thing was the venue’s toilet door – it was designed to slide sideways, but with no door knob on either end, that proved a pretty tricky task…

Regardless, this is definitely a spot worth visiting, and – sorry Original! – the better coffee offering in the area.

Mocha: 85Kč

Verdict justification: Pleasant atmosphere and very good coffee (albeit, with its flaws)

http://tricafe.weebly.com/

EMA

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Not discouraged by the collecting clouds (I had taken an umbrella with me this time), I continued my discovery of Prague, searching for the hanging Freud (I won’t spoil the surprise by explaining what that means!) and a few other curiosities, but truly, my main mission was to visit at least one more coffee shop. Just as with Tricafe, I knew where I was heading (thanks to my mini-map) but had no idea what I’d find there… until, among the more industrial-looking Na Florenci street I saw the shop called EMA.

Inside EMA

Inside EMA

I entered the compact but simultaneously spacious (probably due to the very high ceiling) venue to instantly be immersed in the feeling that this was a place devoted to coffee culture. By this I don’t mean bags of coffee stacked by the walls and smell of roasting coming from the back room; in fact, I didn’t notice at first the multitude of different coffee processes that were taking place at the far end of the bar – what I did notice, was the atmosphere of professionalism and relaxation, merged under one roof.

The place – cleverly furnished to provide more seating than should have been comfortably possible – was cram-packed, but I was in luck: there was one seat, probably the best one in the house, bang in the corner by the window, still uncleared after the last customer. I saw it as I arrived, so I rushed to place my order for a mocha and one of the tasty-looking sandwiches displayed at the counter. The barista taking my order had an air of professionalism around her, tactile through her friendly attitude – I was liking the place more and more by the minute.

I took my place just in time, before a couple of new visitors arrived, followed by a party of four; this was obviously a popular establishment.

Mocha at EMA

Mocha at EMA

When my order arrived, it fit the script for an artisan coffee shop perfectly; before the tray with the sandwich and the beautiful coffee arrived, however, I had some time to observe what was actually happening behind the bar. It wasn’t an easy task, as there were customers sitting there also, but it looked like Chemex was used a lot, espresso for every drink was carefully weighed, and basically every single cup had a lot of attention devoted to it.

I could not wait to have a taste of my own brew so I went for it; it started with a bit of a scare when the first smell of it brung up acidic notes to mind… but once I tasted it, oh my goodness, I was in heaven. Quite honestly – hand in heart – I do not remember the last time I felt this speechless from a culinary experience. The texture was smooth and dense, the flavours were punchy sweet and perfectly blended. Tantalising. When I turned my attention away from it to have a few bites of my sandwich, and therefore let it cool down a bit, it seemed to have developed a slightly grainy texture – which turned out to be tiny bits of chocolate, deliciously melting in the mouth after every sip.

This was by far the best coffee experience I have had in months – all of it: from the venue’s decor, to the demeanour of the staff to, of course, the produce and the feeling of love for coffee, conveyed in the cup.

So, if there’s anything you have to do whilst in Prague, it’s to have a coffee at EMA – but, be warned! You might get spoilt for life…!

Mocha: 65Kč

Verdict justification: For me, faultless.

http://prague.coffee/

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The Real Arabica

Coffee and dates reception at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Coffee and dates reception at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Despite my love of Africa and the Middle-Eastern culture, I had never dreamt about travelling to such an exclusive-sounding place like the United Arab Emirates, always setting my sights not further than Egypt or Turkey – but then, out of the blue, an opportunity arose for me to experience the Arabian high-life in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world. I did not hold any preconceptions about Abu Dhabi, so every part of the Emirati life I found captivating – even despite questionable (from a Westerner’s perspective) women’s rights which meant I had to be careful what I wore and what taxi I got into. However, having studied my travel itinerary, I had my sights set on pearls, yachts and Formula 1 – and never thought about coffee, until I reached my destination and was greeted by it upon arrival to the hotel.

In the Middle East coffee has a greater meaning than to serve as a stimulant for work or an accompaniment for a desert; it is an integral part of the Arabic culture, and a means of showing hospitality and courtesy. There are two brewing methods that are common in these parts; and although my visit to the UAE only lasted four days, I was lucky enough to experience both.

Saudi coffee

Dallah and f set at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Dallah and f set at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Saudi coffee, or Al-Qahwa, is characterised by the use of either very light or dark roasted beans and the addition of cardamom in the brew. As experienced at the Abu Dhabi Ritz Carlton and later on a pearl-diving boat during a trip with the local culture-guru Ali al-Saloom, it is  served from a special coffee pot called dallah into small handle-free cups called fenjan

As it was in my case, it is often used to greet guests, and served only in small portions at the time to allow the drink to cool down and be drunk quickly. The host will then refill the guest’s cup unless they see them shake the fenjan upside-down, indicating they are finished with it. It is often served with dates, from the selection of more than 400 varieties grown and sold in the region.

Ali al-Saloom, serving coffee to the guests on his pearl diving boat

Ali al-Saloom, serving coffee to the guests on his pearl diving boat

In both cases the coffee tasted more like a  tea in its lightness, and the spice notes were very subtle, if at all noticeable. It went nicely with the sweet date if you were after an aperitif – but on its own it was a refreshing, palet-clensing little drink. I can see how it is served universally to guests – you can’t really go wrong with this delicate offering which I doubt would upset anyone’s sleeping patterns even if consumed late in the evening. It certainly tasted of Arabic culture, even if it wasn’t exactly “my cup of coffee”.

Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee at the Mijana restaurant, Abu Dhabi

Turkish coffee at the Mijana restaurant, Abu Dhabi

The clue is in the name: this method of preparation is actually a trademark of Turkey, protected as its Intangible Culture Heritage by UNESCO. However, it was neither a UAE household or a Turkish venue that I was served it at – I actually ordered it at a Lebanese restaurant.

Whenever you buy beans at your local coffee shop and ask for them to be ground, you might need to also advise the barista on the type of grind you are after: from coarse, used for cafetieres, to – yes – Turkish. It is a very fine grind, usually of dark roasted coffee, which is then boiled in a pot called cezve, often with sugar, and then poured also in a small cup. Because there is no filtration at any stage of this process, the coffee needs to be set to settle for a short while, for the coffee grounds to sink to the bottom of the cup. With the cezve presented with the cup of coffee, the drink is also to be refilled – because you don’t really want to get through the whole contents of your cup, unless you like to chew on grainy coffee grounds (not the nicest experience, I vouch for that).

Since it was also my first time to try Turkish coffee, I sought recommendation from the waiter on how to enjoy it best – and he definitely disregarded the addition of milk if I wanted to preserve the true characteristics of the cup. He did ask me whether I would like my coffee prepared or served with sugar or other sweeteners, but I decided to have it straight. I have to say, this was the opposite spectrum to the Saudi brew. Being used to dark roasts, I did not find it overwhelmingly strong, but it certainly had a good kick to it – every time I refilled my cup. The portion for one lasted for 3-4 refills and I guess the main reason I quite enjoyed it – despite the lack of milk or chocolate – is that it balanced up perfectly a rather sweet panna-cotta-like desert. For this one it would be a thing of preference, however – a brew for strong coffee lovers who don’t mind a bit of grind between the teeth.

Cinnamon Mahalabia Milk Pudding - also with Turkish Coffee Granita - at the Mijana restaurant, Abu Dhabi

Cinnamon Mahalabia Milk Pudding – also with Turkish Coffee Granita – at the Mijana restaurant, Abu Dhabi

My verdict on the Arabian coffees overall? It’s a tough cookie and I would prefer to approach the topic from a cultural perspective. The two types of brew, and more importantly, their presentation and serving, certainly say a lot about the importance of the drink in the interpersonal relations in the region. I find it particularly mesmerising that so much thought and – more often than not – splendour goes into making this already special brew even more distinct and celebrated. For that reason, I would not mind partaking in the Arabic life more often… although probably running the risk of straining my hosts’ hospitality by asking for numerous refills.

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