Monday, January 14, 2008

Restaurant Review: Maze Prague by Gordon Ramsay (CLOSED)

There's been a lot of twittering over Michelin stars in Prague lately. Will we see one in the next year? And if so, which restaurant will be the first to receive the famous French accolade?

Much of the hype can be attributed to the recent arrival of Gordon Ramsay's Maze, which boasts sister locations in London and New York. Ramsay may be best-known to the masses as a hot-tempered TV celebrity chef, but he is a culinary master in his own right, having earned no fewer than twelve Michelin stars over the course of his career.

Do Ramsay's world-class standards hold up even in Prague? Well, kind of.

It's hard to find much fault with the kitchen; the food is every bit as good as you'd expect. A frothy Jerusalem artichoke velouté (250 CZK) is paired with a luscious duck ragout so supple that the meat almost seemed to dissolve upon contact with the tongue. A side of buttery cep (porcini) brioche that had been cleverly molded into little mushrooms was just right for absorbing this very rich and wintry appetizer.

No less filling was a hearty entrée of braised beef short rib with bacon, mushrooms, and baby onion (700 CZK). There isn't much ingenuity on display here -- this is more or less a classic beef Bourguignon. But it's beef Bourguignon at its very best: incredibly tender cubes of meat in a velvety red wine reduction, enlivened by the sweet pop of pearl onions and a few satisfyingly smoky chunks of bacon. Unfortunately, the mashed potatoes served on the side were overwhelmed by too much heavy cream and butter, resulting in a drippy, sauce-like concoction that didn't taste or feel like potatoes and would have been better off eaten with a soup spoon.
The sea bass (650 CZK), on the other hand, was a joy to eat. The flaky hunk of fish was lightly seasoned and perfectly cooked, topped with a layer of skin so crisp and salty that it reminded me of dried seaweed. Dotting one side of the plate were one-inch squares of sweet and sour infused bell pepper as bright and juicy as red Jolly Ranchers. And the ever-so-slightly-spicy couscous was just moist enough when tossed with a smattering of fresh tomatoes.

I could write an entire post about maze's desserts. I still might, one day; pastry, after all, is head chef Philip Carmichael's specialty, and it shows. A super-moist sticky toffee pudding (250 CZK) drowns in a bath of hot caramel and roasted nuts, a dollop of crème fraîche spooned over the cake to dilute its sweetness. A warm, vanilla-specked rice pudding (250 CZK) is served atop cooked raspberries in a picturesque, heat-resistant glass jar. A hot chocolate fondant with honey and milk ice cream (250 CZK) is an exemplary version of what is now a very common dessert. And don't be put off by the idea of the peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich (250 CZK, pictured below). It's wonderful, and probably different from what you might expect.
I wish I could say that the service at Maze is just as good as the dishes I've described above. Sadly, it's not even close.

The food always arrived promptly, there were no mix-ups, and the staff was courteous enough. But there are some serious gaps here:

1) On one visit, our party of five had two large bottles of water on our table, one still and one sparkling. Although our initial server had marked the labels with numbers to keep track of who was drinking which, he and his colleagues repeatedly doled out the wrong type of water to each person. They seemed to have a knack for swooping in to our table and dumping water in our glasses so quickly and confidently that we didn't have enough time to tell them that they were, once again, giving us still instead of sparkling and vice versa. "Oh, I'm sorry," the server would say. A couple of minutes later, the same mistake would happen again.
2) During the same dinner, a server leaned over one of us to fill another's glass, thus bringing his armpit intrusively close to my companion's face.

3) The servers appear to have a system of whisking away bottles that still have a centimeter or two of wine left in them, as if they were empty. Presumably, there's a staff leftovers bar somewhere in back lined with the remnants of our Sauvignons.

4) I don't like to use other people's anecdotes in my reviews, but I feel obliged to mention the experience of a dear friend of mine who, incidentally, is very knowledgeable about food and wine and has made a successful career for herself in the culinary world. She recently dined at maze with a large table made up mostly of other women. The sommelier, assuming that my friend didn't know what she was doing, hovered over her shoulder invasively as she scanned the wine list, despite the fact that she was clearly unnerved by his presence.

When my friend told the sommelier that she'd opted for a Russian River Valley Cabernet to accompany their meal, the wine waiter promptly informed her that she had chosen badly. "That," he sneered, "is not a good wine for women."

Um. What?
Is that really what we're dealing with here -- service that is capable of being not only amateurish and dishonest, but also condescending and sexist? How very embarrassing for Maze. And how unappetizing for the rest of us.

Michelin and its stars would be well-advised to keep a safe distance from this particular branch of Maze, or they run the risk of soiling their hard-earned reputation. If Mr. Ramsay were to have consulted me while he was considering opening a restaurant here, I'd probably have given him a similar warning about the city of Prague. Many foreigners running a business here will tell you that, for whatever reason, it's very, very difficult to train local staff, especially in the area of service.

But it's certainly not impossible, as a handful of establishments has shown. Until Maze figures out how to fix its weak service standards, the delectable accomplishments of the kitchen will be soured by a nasty flavor that's put on the table far too often around here. And that, as they say, would be a damn škoda.

Maze by Gordon Ramsay
V Celnici 7 (in the Hilton Prague Old Town)
Prague 1 - New Town
Tel: +420 221 822 300



Katerina said...

Um, what? "If Mr. Ramsay were to have consulted me while he was considering opening a restaurant here, I'd probably have given him a similar warning about the city of Prague. Many foreigners running a business here will tell you that, for whatever reason, it's very, very difficult to train local staff, especially in the area of service."
Well, well, well, that's a statement worthy of analysis in and of itself. A bit of a sweeping judgment, as well as unfair to those restaurants in Prague that do have good service - and they exist. But if the Czech service standards are so damnably low as you seem to think, isn't it then up to those sophisticated foreigners to raise them through training? But, IS there training? DO the restaurants in Prague really train their staff? How does the 2% unemployment rate influence the quality of service? Are there perhaps significant cultural differences between the Czech and international clientele in terms of service expectations? There are many factors at play but, again, good ("Western style") service in Prague is not an impossibility; to simply say, "Czechs give bad service and are hard to train" is plain lazy and smacks of the arrogant 'expat ghetto' attitude so often exhibited by Prague-based foreigners.

There's no excuse for that dumb-ass comment on the part of the sommelier/waiter, but to just say "Czechs are all like that, I could have told you so, you can't train them" is equally obnoxious.

Anonymous said...

Ouch! You certainly know about obnoxious! The review never said most of the things that you seem to believe it said. If you like to read some polically correct beige and grey stuff, look somewhere else. We like it like this! Long live opinions!

Ben Hodson said...

Do you think you might add a rating for value? The prices you quote are on the stratospheric side for Prague. What did the whole bill average out to per person? Just a thought. For me value is a very important part of going out to eat.

Laura Baranik said...

Hi Ben! maze definitely isn't cheap, but I think the value is very good. A three-course meal for two came to about 4,000 CZK, including a bottle of wine. Some other high-end places charge around 1000 CZK per entree; at maze it's 650-700 for what might be the best food in Prague. It's also considerably less expensive than Ramsay's restaurants in London, for example.

I always try to take value into consideration when I rate restaurants, but I see your point about knowing just how much money a meal is going to cost... I'll give it some thought. Thank you for your comment!

Ben Hodson said...

Thanks Laura. My wife and I have a sitter for the kids 2 nights a week so are always looking for a good dinner. Looking forward to more reviews. :)

Anonymous said...

I am not a person who usually leaves comments on blogs etc but I must say, I am amazed with the parise heaped on "Maze". I attended Maze in the first week it opened and I will say that this is a poor representation of a Ramsay restaurant and does not compare to the other restaurants of Ramsay I have eaten in the past. I was with a table of five with a mixture of Czechs, Slovaks and Irish (what a combination) The presentation was good but the food was poor. I was expecting so much more but what I got was average and frankly can get better elsewhere in Prague. I was so unhappy I actually wrote to Gordan Ramsay giving him my opinion. He (his representative) actually wrote back thanking me for my feedback and apologized for the experience we had. They also said that they spoke with the head chef (Philip Carmichael)about it and offered that I return one day and I should contact them in London when that day will be as they said they can ensure me it will be better. We will see. BTW, I agree with some of Katerina's comments but I really do think that ultimely I did get good service and a prompt reply to my feedback. Although the expat ghetto attitude comment did make me laugh... as the reason why I dont post comments is that some Prague based foreigners are just plain arrogant... my attitude is if you dont't like it here... go home!

Anonymous said...

Before I start please be aware that although I love making and eating food I am no gourmand. I'm writing this review as a person who does not eat in restaurants such as Maze.
I went there a few nights ago to see what a restaurant under the Gordon Ramsay name had to offer. I came in excited and left a little disappointed.

The first problem started before we even got to the restaurant. My friend who was handling the reservation, for me and 12 other people, got a call from the restaurant around lunch time, of the day we had our booking. She was asked whether we made our choice. Of course she had no idea what they were requiring of her. It turned out we were all supposed to have choosen our menus from 4 available options. Since we hadn't done it she was requested to make a choice as soon as possible because they needed to do their shopping. Try to get 13 people to make a choice as soon as possible during lunch time. It was a bit frustrating.
When we got the menus on offer we had a though time picking. Most of us wanted one thing from different menus, but mixing and matching wasn't possible. I completely understand why they would want us to make a choice in advance, but couldn't we just have picked from let's say three starters, five mains and three desserts? (Especially since it’s not the cheapest restaurant). In the end none of us liked what we picked. We all had to go for the lesser evil. I chose a menu for 1750,-Kc with two starters and two desserts.

The evening came and we rushed off to the restaurant. The woman that greeted us was stiff and professional to the bone. I had to remind myself she wasn't a robot. She almost never smiled. During the course of the meal she would come to our table and if someone went to the toilet or for a cigarette she would pick up their napkin and without a word fold it and return it to the table. She made me feel like a pupil in an elementary school..
The other floor manager was nice though.

As the first starter I had a white onion velouté with poached quail eggs with crispy bacon, accompanied by brioche and cep butter. The only problem was ...they forgot the bacon. The soup was delicious but so rich I had difficulty finishing it. The second hors d'oeuvre was marinated beetroot with ricotta cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing. It was very good, top star. By then though I was praying it will take a bit longer for the main meal to arrive.

As main course I had steamed daurade Royale with candied aubergine, spicy ketchup and bok choi. The fish was excellent, but my stomach was too full of flavours to really appreciate it and my last bite of the fish took forever to swallow. The potatoes that came with it were lovely too but I couldn't eat them all. I was happy when they took our plates away.

I was looking forward to the chocolate and caramel trifle but they changed it again. We got custard cream with a sorbet on a jelly instead. It was beautiful but they were lucky we didn't ask where the trifle was. And last but not least Crème brûlée arrived, something I waited for all night. What a disappointment! It was incredibly sweet. I know the original is sweet too but why not ease up on the sugar so we can actually taste the wonderful cream? The Czech desserts don't tend to be as sweet and if the idea behind any Gordon Ramsay restaurant is to
adapt to local cuisine, Crème brûlée should be the first one to get a makeover.

The wine we had was very good. The prices were up there with Sputnik though. We chose the cheapest wines and they came at 900,-Kc a bottle.

All in all. The food was great but because of the quantity (two starters, two desserts) we couldn't really enjoy it. The atmosphere and staff still need a bit of tuning up. During the night I couldn't sleep even though I went for a long walk after dinner. My friend vomited a few times and another had stomach pains.

If you go to Maze do not pick a set menu and don't eat the warm bread they give you during the meal. Go as a couple and pick exactly what you want in the number that you want.

Laura Baranik said...

Thank you for your review, anonymous. I have heard a few people complain about the limited menu options for larger groups. For thirteen people, the limit does make some sense -- but they should have warned you far in advance, not on the day of your meal.

When a friend of mine reserved a table at maze for just six people, the staff told them that they, too, had to choose from a limited selection. She refused, and in the end, they were all given the full menu. So it might be worth it to be a little tough with them, but the whole thing seems like a pain.

The moral: when you're eating out in a large group, you're better off taking your business somewhere other than maze.

Anonymous said...

I find the amount of criticism that has been levelled at maze here and elsewhere amazing and can only believe that it is because the restaurant is associated with such a prominent celebrity chef. If it were a 'no-name' restaurant in its first six months, people would be appreciating the contribution made by the kitchen to raising culinary standards in Prague and giving them time on other issues like training their staff. For goodness sake, we live in a city where even the major downtown shopping centre has to close for three weeks, do you expect a new restaurant to be immune from teething problems with its staff and suppliers?

But because it is Ramsay people are on the lookout to make a big name on sometimes petty complaints. I had to laugh that one of your correspondents - evidently a person of some importance - took it upon themselves to write directly to the man himself! I would say the offer of another meal which your correspondent is so magnanimously 'considering' should be seen as a major positive favour of the restaurant - try getting such a response from any other restaurant in Prague.

I eat at maze once or twice weekly since it is close by my office. Mostly lunch – I find their 600kc deal for three courses to be great value. I also travel a lot for business and eat out often in top restaurants in Paris, New York etc and I find that the maze kitchen comes closer to achieving both sophistication and simplicity in the same style as these other restaurants than any other restaurant in Prague - many of which seem to be trying very hard to imitate fine dining rather then demonstrating familiarity with it. The combinations of flavours on the lunch menu in particular are always interesting and uncomplicated – for example, right now they have a frothy, savoury and interesting lentil cappuccino soup with bacon and a fabulously firm and moist john dory with polenta, bouillabaisse and tomato, finished off with a genuinely crunchy nut sorbet and caramel-filled cheesecake.

Is my experience at maze always perfect? The food – yes, almost – the rest – well no, but it is always improving and it is the kind of restaurant which the Prague dining community needs to support if it wants to increase its access to the international culinary world. If Ramsay fails here, then do you think others will bother? They will write it off with much the same dismissal of local standards which the reviewer displayed and we will be stuck with the Kampa Parks of this city for years to come.

inthedistance said...

Hi everyone,

I'm a bit late to the thread, but I hope I can get some input from you.

I'm a graduate student in the US who's making my first trip to Prague in the middle of next month. So to start out, let's just stipulate that I'm on a budget that doesn't generally extend to Ramsay's establishments or anything with a Michelin star. I love excellent food and search it out as a treat, but by no means is it a regular thing for me.

Anyway, if the splurge of 2 weeks in the region isn't enough, I'm considering eating a Classic menu at Maze.

It's probably the closest I'll be able to come to Ramsay or Ducasse or Robuchon for a while. So while the reviews are mixed but positive, what's your verdict: should I do it?

And should I reserve now, or wait until mid-June and try turning up? And would they even take a reservation for 1?

Many thanks!


Laura Baranik said...

Hi Matt,

I think maze would be a good choice for you. The quality of the food is very consistent (or at least has been up until now), and you'd be able to try a celebrity chef meal for cheaper than in London or New York. There's no need to make a reservation now, but you might want to do so the week before your visit, since I've heard that they've been filling up lately. I'm sure they'd take a reservation for one -- it's a hotel restaurant, after all, so they're probably used to a lot of solo business diners.

Since you're thinking about going for the degustation menu at maze, I'd recommend a different restaurant as a possible alternative: La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise. They serve only seven-course set menus that change from week to week, and the food and service are really top-notch. One of their three set menus is based on traditional Czech food, too, if that interests you. Here's their site:

Enjoy your trip and happy eating!

R. said...

As a fan of the rice pudding with raspberry sauce (and therefore any excuse to indulge), I went to maze today with a foodie friend to celebrate her birthday.

I have to say that it will be my last visit for quite awhile.

Was the food bad? No. It was excellent. I won't be going back because of the terrible service we received.

Without boring everyone to tears with the details, the service at maze brings to mind flies buzzing a carcass. What should have been a quite dessert and coffee while my friend and I enjoyed our conversation, we had barely 2 minutes uninterrupted by the staff. This constant water pouring, entreaties to our well being and annoying suggestions for additional courses (where "no thank you" was not a suitable reply) was utterly inexcusable.

I kid you not, at least 8 different people dealt with our table during the 1 hour we were there. It took 5 people to deal with bringing me the check and when told how much I would like to pay, a different server brought back the entire change in large denomination bills. (In the Czech Republic the custom is to state how much you wish to pay with tip before the waiter makes your change.)

I would forgive this amateur over-serving at a nouveau Czech restaurant but was disgruntled to find it at an international caliber establishment such as maze.

Sorry Gordon. You might want to make a visit to Prague again.

Anonymous said...

Lets make it clear, maze Prague makes great food, as the owner of a quality restaurant I know very well how difficult and horrible it is sometimes with the service in this country. For this reason I have asked our wine suppliers to give regular training courses to our staff concerning the wine origine and how to serve their particular wines in a professional way. Not every restaurant can afford a sommelier. It is a great help and the clients getting the benefit. Think about that most waiters have never visited the big wine countries in their life. In my restaurtant we go from time to time with our wine supplier to France and Italy with people of my staff. Its the only way that they smell and taste the " fleur locale " from the country that you are cooking from. I mean when you cook and serve French food, then you should take your staff from time to time at least to France in order to understand, taste and probe the real French cuisine. The same for serving food, unless the cooking team and the waiters sitting at least once a week together, it could go eventually wrong. To often when i go to a restaurant they do not mention which food they serve, sometimes by reason they do know how it was prepared.
But most important is the service of the waiters. They are during three or four hours in constant contact with the clients. The main problem is that in Prague and most probably in order cities the waiters are changing every six months or at least once a year from restaurant. We were looking for new waiters a view months ago and almost every cv we received was from waiters who were changing every season. I agree it is not easy to work in such way. But even then it is the owner and the manager who constant most train the new staff otherwise i give the advice, dont start a restaurant.
It is an ongoing task of delivering the best service, the client pays for that. Nobody buys a Mercedes with three wheels. The same is for restaurants small or big, high or low quality food. The most important is " the Client is the King ". How difficult that sometimes can be. Kindness and a smile is the most important attitude in my restaurant. Sometimes this attitude makes up at moments that it is not so perfect as it should be. Last but not least, I found by myself that once week talking with your complete staff, even the cleaning lady, about the good and bad things can solve a lot of problems in your restaurant. Unfortunatly in Prague to often waiters say " it's another dummy tourist we will see him only one time, so dont worry about his comments". In our restaurant we have at each table a small paper were we ask our clients to give remarks and quotations concering the food, drinks, service, kindness ..., those remarks are discussed during our weekly meetings with my staff, and believe or not it's a great help for all of us. Every comment can help to improve your restaurant and thats needed. Restaurant owners should be aware, satisfied clients always come back.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Prague. Everyone had their chance to feel big by taking a shot at Ramsay so now he is taking his bat and ball and going home. Almost to the day I predicted it a year ago. Do not expect to see any other Michelin star chefs to bother with Prague for at least the next five years. For anyone that likes food, I hope you have your frequent flyer points stashed up. Otherwise, it's either 5,000kc a head at Four Seasons or back to the Kampa Parks. What a pity.