ČR in the District of Columbia
Bistro Bohem updates a few regional classics for a gentrifying district in D.C.
Posted: February 27, 2013
By Vedika Luthra
FOR THE POST
The fat, starch and salt that make up a solid Central European meal also help make regional favored foods so out of vogue on the health-conscious coasts of the United States - aside from, say, ethnic enclaves in New York City.
Born in Ostrava, but now based in Washington, D.C., the restaurateur Jarek Mika has battled the stereotype of beef chunks, potato clumps and curdling gravy over the past year with his Bistro Bohem.
Where: 600 Florida Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
Tel.: +1 202 7355895
Café: Weekdays 6 a.m.-5 p.m.; weekends 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Restaurant: Daily from 5 p.m.
"I know Czech food can be awful if it's cooked based on the communist model," Mika said. "Or it can be amazing if it's cooked based on what my grandparents made 100 years ago during the era of Art Nouveau."
In a good economy, opening a restaurant can be a huge gamble; it is even more of a gamble in a time of fiscal hardship. However, Mika's eatery - which marks its first anniversary in March - has triumphed, thanks to smart business decisions, a host of regulars and cultural programming focused on Czech filmmaking and arts.
Mika moved to the United States 15 years ago to study international business at the University of North Carolina. He then moved to Washington, D.C. Over the years - 12 of which he spent in the banking sector - he developed a passion for the kitchen, which he found helped to reduce stress. "I started to cook for fun, and cooking for fun became a hobby, and I decided to cook for people, and friends, then the deal of the restaurant came about," Mika says.
Tired of the long banking hours, Mika decided to open a small bistro in D.C.'s rapidly changing Shaw neighborhood. He chose that location because "it provides for a really interesting clientele as the people who move into transitioning neighborhoods are usually people who are a little bit more avant-garde, a little bit more artsy, who might also be world travelers."
Mika has created a unique restaurant using Czech décor from the Art Nouveau period and a blend of family and traditional recipes that have been adjusted over time. Expecting his restaurant to be a small neighborhood establishment where expats, diplomats and diaspora from Central and Eastern Europe would come to dine, Mika was positively surprised when people began pouring in - regardless of their backgrounds.
"I thought I was one of the few people in Washington with that background in Central Europe, mainly because there was no other restaurant that featured the type of food," he said. "We have tons of restaurants that do Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Ethiopian food, but there was nothing from the part of Europe that I'm from."
After receiving positive feedback, Mika decided to expand his bistro, which can now fit 300 hungry customers. By day, the eatery is a café, where traditional desserts and light meals are served; at dusk, it turns into an eatery where the night crowd dines and gossips over the latest diplomatic and political fodder.
Bistro Bohem takes a fresh and healthy approach to potato pancakes and fried cauliflower, schnitzel and goulash. Everything is made from scratch. The bistro works on the slow-food philosophy of preparing everything fresh with seasonally available ingredients. Granted, Mika said, some of the ingredients come from Europe and simply aren't available in D.C., but he really would prefer to source everything locally.
The menu at Bistro Bohem changes every three months, enabling people to try a variety of traditional dishes that are flavorful and distinct, even from the Czech standards that have inspired them. "A lot of people come in and they say, 'Well, you know, we've been to Prague, we had great beer, we loved the culture, but the food we had was awful,' " Mika said with a laugh, "but what you guys are serving here is very similar - it's just tastier."
Mika also wants to advocate the vibrant Czech culture in Washington, D.C., because he feels it has been underrepresented. "Many people might know a lot of famous Czech directors or Czech singers, or Czech painters, but they won't know necessarily they are Czech," Mika said. With support from the Czech Embassy, the restaurant is running a film series this year focusing on works by or influenced by the Academy Award-winning director Jiří Menzel. Mika's effort to project Central European films in his restaurant allows him to serve as a sort of unofficial ambassador to the local area, supplementing the Czech Embassy's own cultural outreach. Bistro Bohem also recently organized a theater piece about the Velvet Revolution and is planning a photography exhibition examining Czechoslovak life under communism.
Mika's staff also is a mix of cultures; despite holding American passports, many employees have Central European heritage and grew up eating the dishes served. "People want to experience something different," Mika said. "So having authentic servers helps, because it's easier to explain the dish they grew up eating, rather than just somebody who works here."
It has been a busy first year for Bistro Bohem. "The most memorable moments for me are stories from people who open up about their past, regardless of how difficult the past might have been, and reconnect with their roots," Mika said. "Sometimes people start crying after having dinner, which at first I didn't understand because I thought there was something wrong with the food." Overall, Mika said, it has been a great year, and he is looking forward to many more like it. "I measure success by happiness," the former banker said. "It's great to see the same smiling faces come back again and again."
Vedika Luthra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org