The Unforgettable Folks Who Run Matuszeks

Times Staff Writer

I may have trouble remembering the restaurant's name, Matuszeks, again, unless someone tattoos it on my brain.

I may even forget what I ate there after a day or two, though it's the best Czech food I've had in my limited Czech food experience.

But I'll never forget the people who run it. They're unforgettable.

There is Jan. He's the tall, thin man in a coal-black mustache and rumpled chef's hat. It's not the stiff French toque , it's the soft "Cat in the Hat" hat, that plops over to the side, like a lopsided mushroom.

You'll recognize Jan standing outside at the door like a cardboard advertisement cutout, watching the cars and people go by on Sunset Boulevard.

He's out there when there is no one inside, which is quite often, because, after all, Matuszeks has been open less than a year.

Matuszeks appeared suddenly. One moment its predecessor, Sesame and Lily, was there. Then, before you could count to 10, the name changed to Matuszeks. The awning is still blue and the Christmas lights are still in the window. The decor, however, has changed from Oriental garden to Akron elegance. And it's as spotless as a cottage in Pilzen, where the excellent Czechoslovakian Pilsner beer they serve comes from.

Then there is Lidia. She's beautiful, a Czech beauty. She's Jan's wife, and mother of three gorgeous kids who come in now and then to eat the profits.

She's very funny and talks a lot.

"I am talking too much?" she asks customers whom she's held captive for 20 minutes.

"You are talking too much," says Jan, bounding into the restaurant from his post outside to put in his two cents, just in case the customer does not get the message that Lidia, who has already told you she is talking too much, is talking too much.

It's one of their acts, this talking-too-much business, and you get it 10, maybe 20 times during the course of your meal, like a Restoration comedy recitative, from the coarse pate to the delicately light homemade strudel.

In a way, you don't mind Lidia talking too much because she's so charming, and what she has to say is gripping. An inspiration, really, for those of us who have had it too soft.

"All right, it's long story, but I'll be quickly," she says in an accent that should be in a James Bond movie.

The couple escaped, so to speak, from communist Czechoslovakia about six years ago to be free to work on their art. Jan, a popular recording artist, and she, a singer, finally found a way out. She left first, without her children. "I wasn't sure if I would ever see them again, but it was only way," she said. The first years in the United States were difficult. She worked as a chambermaid, then as waitress, and he as busboy and later as a waiter in restaurants here and there. Their dream was to own their own restaurant where they could also perform.

"It was too long story, yes?" she asks.

The customer giggles nervously.

"I leave you now," she says.

"Good," says her husband, who has again overheard the conversation from his post at the door.

"Now I go to kitchen and cook?" he says, and disappears in the back. Seconds later he was back with pate, nicely presented in overlapping slabs. "On house," he said, running back to prepare the pork and sauerkraut and breaded veal cutlet we ordered.

I'm not an expert on the nuances of Czech cooking, but I do know good, fresh, well-prepared food when I see it. I would say that the Czech food prepared by Jan is probably better than average without having tasted any other, because of Jan's artistic soul. There seems to be special care in the seasoning and presentation typical of artistic people who love to cook.

"Every musician, they cook in Czechoslovakia," he said.

Jan also brought out sauteed chicken livers, for which, he said, customers return time and time again. And I believe it. The livers are marinated and cooked with onions, bacon and aromatic herbs. They were, without question, superb. The sauce, rich with thyme, allspice, marjoram and curry (a Jan touch), was good enough to sop up with the very good crusty bread they serve.

"Good?" Jan asks, making a special trip from the kitchen to ask.

"Very," we say.

He puts his hands to his heart. "The stone is on the floor," he said, meaning, I suppose, "That's a relief."

The house borscht was rich with chicken stock, studded with smoked sausage and vegetables and topped with a dollop of sour cream. Excellent. A mushroom soup contained potatoes, carrots and dumplings. Also good and rich. I also tried the lentil soup on another day, which was as good as the other soups, so you know that Jan has a touch with soups. Something to remember if you're a starving actor in the neighborhood--soup and bread will get you by.

Jan also served one of the lightest breaded veal cutlets I've had. It came with an excellent potato salad.

The pork with creamy sauerkraut and potato dumplings is not my idea of heaven, but I'll wager it is for Czechs raised on this national dish. The tender pork is served in rather large chunks and the sauerkraut has an unusual creamy texture, which I am not sure I like.

'Hots' on the Side

But I loved the goulash (kotelsky gulas on the menu). Jan adds chile on the side, thinking that Americans hate hot things. "Americans no like hots, so I put hots peppers on side," he said. He'll learn.

The cuisine of Czechoslovakia is based on the basic products of the Eastern European land where pork, preserved products and grains are mainstays. The cuisine is a variation of the cooking found in the Polish, German, Hungarian and other Eastern European cuisines, but with distinguishable differences, such as the creamy sauerkraut. The potato dumplings too are different from most Northern European dumplings tasted. These are more like potato pate, cut into slabs with a finish silky enough to skate on. A bread dumpling, which is served with marinated beef and goulash, also a national dish of Czechoslovakia, looks like a compressed slice of bread. Interesting, actually. The bread dumpling is laced with smetane sauce in a dish called svickova na smetane. The word smetane is a French variation of the Russian word smetana --sour cream. The chicken paprika (kure na paprice) is also worth a try. Good sauce.

If you have a sweet tooth, you'll want to save room for the wonderfully flaky strudel that Lidia herself prepares. At the restaurant she also prepares a cheese cake fashioned after the Italian tira mi su, which is better than most tira mi su in Italian restaurants. Try it if you get to Matuszeks. It's quite good. Then there is a crepe filled with strawberry and topped with a chocolate sauce and whipped cream that is light in spite of the ingredients. Beautifully presented and excellent.

There is more tasting to do; more adventure; more talk. And I can't wait. But just in case I forget the name of the restaurant, I'll have these recipes on hand to keep me going.

CHICKEN LIVER SAUTE

(Drubezi Jatra)

1 pound chicken livers, cut into cubes

1 small onion, chopped

4 slice bacon, sliced

1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste

2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika

1/2 teaspoon black pepper or to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons marjoram

1/2 cup water

Combine livers, onion and bacon in a hot skillet. Stir over medium-high heat 5 minutes until livers and onions are browned. Add salt, paprika, pepper, marjoram and water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

APPLE STRUDEL

(Jablkovy Zavin)

1 (17 1/4-ounce) package puff pastry

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup chopped almonds

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg, beaten

Mix together raisins, sugar, almonds, vanilla, lemon peel and cinnamon. Roll out 1 sheet puff pastry to 1 large 22x18-inch sheet.

Spoon filling across sheet lengthwise and roll, jellyroll fashion, sealing edges with water. Brush with beaten egg. Carefully place on greased baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 1 strudel or 8 servings.

CHICKEN WITH PAPRIKA SAUCE (Kure Na Paprice)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 (2 1/2- to 3-pound) chicken, split

1 cup water

2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika

1 teaspoons salt or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 quart milk

1/4 cup flour

3 tablespoons sour cream

Heat butter in skillet large enough to hold split chicken halves. Saute until skin is browned on both sides. Add water, paprika, salt and black pepper. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 hour.

Remove chicken halves and let cool enough to handle. Remove bones and shred meat into small pieces. Return to pan. Stir milk into flour and pour over chicken. Bring to simmer. Heat 10 minutes. Stir in sour cream until smooth. Do not boil. Serve with noodles or rice, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

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