Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Restaurant Review: Alexander's

If Alexander's was to remain in business for any longer than a year or so, I'd be surprised.

On a recent Saturday night, the newish Vinohrady restaurant was nearly empty. When my companions and I walked inside, the waitress looked a little confused to see us there. The space felt quiet, almost sterile. Only a block away, Aromi was packed as usual. Some of its customers were seated at the bar for lack of tables, but they didn't seem to mind.

Alexander's has only been open for about six weeks. Still, there's something so bland, so completely nondescript about the place that I can't see the atmosphere being much better even if every seat was full.

Just thinking about the decor makes me want to take a nap. It's kind of bright, with white walls and lots of pinewood. There are a couple of gilt-framed mirrors. A purpose-built wall separates the kitchen from the dining room, but you can see into the cooking area from most of the tables anyway. The whole thing feels unimaginative, poorly conceived, and not especially welcoming.

With an atmosphere this miserable, it's going to be hard for Alexander's to draw people in. And that's a real shame, because the food is very good. Alexander Hüllen, the head chef and proprietor, has worked in a few Michelin-starred kitchens, and his past experience is evident in his well-executed, refreshingly unpretentious cooking.

The roast chicken breast with honey-lemon sauce and tagliatelle (330 CZK) tasted both sophisticated and homey, like upscale comfort food. The meat was moist and tender, its skin crisp and lightly charred. A handful of lightly cooked broccoli was tossed in with the noodles and the thin, buttery lemon sauce. It's a simple, memorable dish.

Then there was the slightly racy carrot soup with ginger (90 CZK) (I'm going to assume they meant to say "spicy"), which was so good that it prompted one of my more superlative-prone companions to declare that "you can search the world over, but you're not going to find a better carrot soup than this one." And he may even be right. The Alexander's version is sweet and slightly creamy, with a sharp, gingery bite. Best of all, there are a few orange slices in each bowl, which provide a great tangy touch.
I'd have liked to have tasted some of that acidity on the grilled pikeperch with dill sauce (340 CZK), but I enjoyed the dish nonetheless. The mashed potatoes and creamy dill sauce were very good with the flaky freshwater fish, and the lightly pickled cucumber slices were pleasantly crunchy.

Since the menu changed almost completely between my first and second visits, some of the dishes I sampled are no longer relevant for me to discuss here. Those included a very tasty fried goat cheese with beet carpaccio (pictured above) and a wonderful homemade ginger-coconut ice cream and fresh pineapple dessert. The dessert I tried on my second visit, a nut parfait with apple-fig chutney (140 CZK) wasn't nearly as good -- it was bland and overwhelmingly sweet.

I wish I could transplant Mr. Hüllen to a different space, one that would entice patrons rather than repel them. I'd also get him some new house staff (our server was nice, but she didn't speak a lick of English -- an odd choice for such an expat-heavy neighborhood) and a decent interior designer.

Unfortunately for Alexander's, it's probably too late to do all that. Still, you might want to give them a try, if only for the truly honest, truly tasty, almost-home-cooked cuisine.

U Kanálky 14
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: 222 210 582

images: alexanders.cz

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