Israeli-run kosher restaurant goes upscale in old Prague

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Fellah, a 29-year-old Israeli, is the manager of Metzada, a strictly kosher restaurant that opened recently on Michalska Street in the heart of Prague's picturesque Old Town.

The establishment is one of a growing number of Israeli-run businesses in the Czech Republic, such as the clothing chain Himi Jeans.

The businesses are aimed as much at tourists as locals. Millions of people visit Prague each year. These visitors include many Jews, drawn by the famous old Jewish Quarter and Jewish Museum. Three locally run Jewish travel agencies operate in Prague, specializing in tours of Jewish sites.

At Metzada, Fellah explains, "upstairs" is the meat section, a cozy dining room seating 55, elegantly decorated with old furniture, paintings, photographs and fixtures designed to evoke the atmosphere of a prewar Central European Jewish home.

Downstairs, on street level, is the dairy section, a more casual, cafe-style environment offering snacks and light meals against a background of dried flowers, potted palm trees and cool jazz.

"If someone asks for milk in his coffee upstairs, it means he came here not knowing what kosher means," Fellah says. "It gives me the opportunity to explain about kashrut and our traditions."

Metzada is an upscale kosher restaurant for the public at large, not just Jews who keep kosher, according to Fellah. Founder and general manager is Israeli Eli O'Hayon, an observant Jew who has lived in Prague for six years.

Says Fellah, "We don't want this to be just a kosher kiosk. We want this to be like any other exclusive restaurant in town — top quality."

Metzada's downstairs dairy restaurant and cafe opened around the end of February. The menu includes mostly Israeli food such as falafel, hummus and tahini, plus salads and other vegetarian fare and pastries.

Prices are moderate by Western standards — it is possible to have a light lunch or snack for less than $5.

The meat restaurant upstairs opened in late March and aims to attract the business and professional communities as well as tourists.

The menu includes Central European Jewish specialties such as stuffed carp and roast duck with cabbage. Dinner for two with wine — kosher, from Israel — could easily cost more than $75.

"It's expensive, but why not? This is an expensive restaurant," Fellah says. "Plus, just being kosher means that there are extra expenses."

Metzada maintains separate dairy and meat kitchens. The premises and equipment are inspected and certified by Prague's rabbi, who also selected a mashgiach (kashrut overseer) to supervise food preparation. A shochet, a ritual slaughterer, is brought in from abroad.

A Czech-born Israeli chef taught local, non-Jewish chefs how to prepare the dishes.

"You can imagine the problems I had teaching the waiters and other personnel," Fellah says. "Telling them that, for example, if they are missing a fork upstairs they just can't come and get a fork from downstairs."

Until Metzada opened, observant people could eat kosher food only in a little snack bar in the Jewish Quarter, or in the restaurant housed in the Jewish community building, the Jewish Town Hall, where the food, ambiance and service are no-frills.

Fellah says he wants Metzada to take its place among other top-of-the-line ethnic restaurants in Prague's rapidly expanding dining scene.