Czech, Please!

Little Bohemia's Old World Comfort Food Could Make Even Kafka Smile.

I HEARD LITTLE Bohemia serves great German food, but I found that's not true. While the food at this family restaurant on North Stone is great, it celebrates the cuisine of the former Czechoslovakia, specifically the western region, once the kingdom of Bohemia and later a province that included the capitol city of Prague.

What distinguishes Czechoslovakian food from other Eastern European fare? In a nutshell: no spaetzle, no pirogis and no stuffed cabbage rolls. But plenty of schnitzel, sauerbraten, pork galore, chicken paprika and behemoth dumplings. Little Bohemia will never be a magnet for vegetarian diners, but for individuals seeking a meal that'll stick to their bones (as well as their arteries), it's a winner.

Having taken up residence in Ciao Italia's former location, Little Bohemia retains a great deal of that restaurant's country charm. Stencils of grapevines still intertwine along the beams and arches, and the main dining space remains light and roomy. If a scratchy Caruso recording came lilting through the sound system, it wouldn't seem out of place.

These days, however, you're much more likely to hear a Czechoslovakian folk tune, something along the lines of Oktoberfest polkas and Danube waltzes. Owners Miroslav and Olga Urban have infused their restaurant with the flavor of the Old Country, which seems to begin with hospitality.

Servers are friendly and informal, and it's common for Miroslav and/or Olga to come out of the kitchen and ask how you're enjoying everything. The hospitable ambiance makes up for the occasional service lapse, such as beer served in unopened non-twist-top bottles sans opener or glass, and interminable delays in getting the bill. But for those with time to spend, Little Bohemia is grand.

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, each with its own menu.

A list of a couple dozen specialty omelets, bacon and eggs, and French toast characterize most of the breakfast offerings, yet there are detectable Eastern European influences as well, such as potato pancakes, fruit dumplings and a Moravian skillet (dumplings cooked with sausage, onions and eggs). Perhaps in deference to their new Southwest home, breakfast burritos are also featured, one rolled with a hefty helping of spicy chorizo.

The lunch menu features sandwiches, soups and salads, as well as entrees that are only slightly scaled down from the enormously generous dinner portions.

A steaming cup of chicken noodle soup, made with broken spaghetti-thin noodles, shredded carrot and onions, is good comfort food, if a little bland. (Whether positive or negative, Little Bohemia observes restraint when it comes to salt and pepper. Typically not one to tip the shaker when dining out, I found that I grabbed for the salt more than once during my meal.)

The house garden salad tosses together dark-green lettuce, tomatoes and red onion, with dressing (homemade dill, Italian and blue cheese) conveniently served in a silver boat on the side.

A grilled ham and Swiss on rye made a conservative but tasty lunch. Large oblong slices of rye cushion 2 inches of shaved Westphalian ham, faintly sharp Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato. Just half of this sandwich makes a filling meal, although it's as delicious as this standard ever comes.

Dinner entrees cover the spectrum of Bohemian cuisine, with dishes ranging from roasted duck to beef goulash and chicken cordon bleu. There is a line for "vegetarian entrée...ask your server," but meat is clearly the primary focus here.

There are a few appetizers listed on Little Bohemia's menu, but the rest of the offerings overshadow their appeal. We chose to concentrate on the main course, and given the gargantuan platters of food, this turned out to be sound strategy.

Little Bohemia's menu offers several schnitzel variations, including those made with chicken, pork or liver. I sampled the jager schnitzel, a large, flattened filet of pork loin lightly breaded, sautéed to a crisp amber and then smothered in luscious mushroom and carrot-flecked gravy. The pork schnitzel couldn't have been more delicious -- tender, with an ethereal breading providing additional crunch and flavor without overwhelming the rest of the dish. The slightly tangy gravy (sour cream, perhaps?) was full of rich, meaty flavor.

Czechoslovakian dumplings (served with the schnitzel) are formed into small rolls and sliced into thin portions. The dumplings have a bread-like texture, but what they lack in fluffiness they more than make up for in flavor, especially when enhanced with a slosh of that creamy mushroom gravy.

The Bavarian roulade -- beef pounded to wafer thinness, filled and rolled with potato and hard-boiled egg and topped with sable gravy -- was satisfactory, but lacked pizzazz. Sour cream, a hint of onion or a dash of spice could have livened the dish up. After the bold flavors of the estimable jager schnitzel, the roulade fell a bit flat.

A square of apple strudel and triangular slices of a sweet pastry called valasky frgal concluded the meal. The strudel contains thick, tender slices of cinnamon-scented apples between layers of golden pastry, but the other dessert was slightly puzzling. The slices of pastry appear to be covered with sweet cheese and pureed currants, but neither topping imparts enough flavor to be identifiable.

While not perfect, Little Bohemia serves some great Czechoslovakian food in gracious surroundings. Whenever the craving for schnitzel hits, I'll know where to go.

Little Bohemia. 1535 N. Stone Ave. 884-0000. Open for breakfast 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and dinner daily after 5 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu items: $1.75-$12.95.
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