Monday, May 26, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Savoy

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 17/05/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Café Savoy takes its tatarák very seriously.

I discovered this when I was unable to finish my portion of Savoy’s delicate beef tartare (198 CZK) at the end of an especially filling lunch. Even after all the other dishes had been cleared and I’d started on my cake and coffee, the staff still wouldn’t take away my leftover dollop of steak paste.
I didn’t much feel like looking at a pile of greasy topinky while I ate my dessert, so I asked a waiter to remove the offending plate. He lumbered over reluctantly.

"Well, if you ask me to take away your plate, I can." He paused.

"Yes, I would like you to take away my plate, please," I repeated.

"Was there something wrong with it?" He hadn’t yet picked up the dish.

"No," I said. "I’m just full."

Finally, he very slowly reached for the plate and carried it out of my sight. He definitely wasn’t happy about it, though.

Look, I know that in this country it’s considered sacrilege to leave a perfectly good piece of meat – let alone svíčková (beef tenderloin) – unfinished. But I eat out a lot, and if I were to finish every buttery morsel of every dish I ordered, they’d have to start rolling me into the restaurants I review.

And that wouldn’t be very discreet, would it?

The truth is that the tatarák at Savoy is excellent. So maybe the old guy just couldn’t understand why somebody would be unwilling to scarf it all down. But if I don’t want to finish my food, he has no business asking me why not, and he certainly shouldn’t be trying to make me feel bad about it.

Occasional lapses in service are Café Savoy’s only drawback. It’s a weakness that I find frustrating because I actually love Savoy to bits – and as regular readers might already have noticed, I don’t fall in love with restaurants too easily.

Café Savoy, with its huge windows and gorgeous, government-protected Neo-Renaissance plaster-cast ceiling, is an instantly impressive kind of place. On one side of the restaurant is an elevated seating area for smokers; the walls of the room around the corner are covered with wooden shelves stacked with bottles of wine and lit so that the bottles give off a warm glow. Savoy’s atmosphere is certainly hard to beat.

This unique space wasn’t always as pretty as its current incarnation. After it first opened in 1893, Café Savoy became a favorite haunt of local intellectuals (including Franz Kafka, who attended some Yiddish theatre performances held there). But when the property changed hands during World War I, the famous ceiling was boarded up and the café was transformed into small boutiques. The original plasterwork remained preserved under the suspended ceiling for the duration of the Communist era, during which the space was used as a police recruitment center. Post-revolution, Savoy re-emerged as a dingy, smoke-filled café.

In 2004, Ambiente Group took Savoy over and set about restoring its former glory. It is now one of the few restaurants in Prague that serves traditional Czech dishes made from high-quality ingredients. They’re not interested in cheating their customers here, and it shows. All of their meats are fantastic: the Prague ham, the frankfurters served with mustard and fresh horseradish, the aforementioned tatarák.

They win points for presentation, too. Order a cup of the delicious Savoy hot chocolate (55 CZK) and they’ll bring it to you in a little pitcher, and waiters pour the hearty soups (called "Restaurants" here, for reasons explained on the menu) into their bowls right at your table. The old-school details feel elegant and practical – not pretentious, as they might in a stuffier setting.

There’s one thing about Savoy that baffles me a little: it has two different menus. One is their regular menu; the other is something called the "Gourmet Menu." The Gourmet Menu offers fancier, more expensive versions of some of the items on the regular menu, along with some French-inspired extras. If you order food off the Gourmet Menu, you get to eat on a white damask tablecloth. If you don’t order off the Gourmet Menu, you eat on a bare table.

What is the point of this bizarre distinction? If I order the regular steak tartare instead of the Parisian steak tartare, am I unworthy of a tablecloth? And why does the whole restaurant have to know that I ordered from the less expensive menu? They should integrate the two – it’s perfectly fine to have varying price categories on the same menu, and it would create less confusion for first-time visitors.

That’s not to say that the Gourmet Menu items aren’t any good. I had an excellent svíčková na smetaně (beef in cream sauce made with real tenderloin; the version on the regular menu isn’t) that came with a saucière of extra sauce – an incredibly thoughtful touch. I can also recommend the homemade fruit dumplings (154 CZK). When I tried them, they were filled with fresh strawberries and served with do-it-yourself chocolate sauce, strawberry yoghurt, and breadcrumbs. And if you're feeling especially hungry one morning, be sure to check out their elaborate French, English, and American breakfasts.

I occasionally like to have lunch at Café Savoy by myself. There used to be a maître d' there who thought it was very charming to ask me personal questions about my life and to tell me what kind of mood he supposed I was in based on how much make-up I happened to be wearing that day. Why do so many waiters seem to think that a woman eating lunch and reading a book by herself needs to be talked to? Just get over it, please, guys. And while you're at it, bring me that matonka I ordered a half-hour ago. Thanks.

It seems that this man no longer works at Savoy, and I have to say that as annoyingly invasive as he was, I kind of miss him. But that's only because the service seemed to be much better when he was around. Some longtime Café Savoy regulars, including myself, have observed a lot of scowling, snappy, and impossible-to-flag-down waiters there recently.

They'd better manage to work the service problems out soon – in every other respect, Café Savoy is one of the best and most dependable restaurants in Prague. Unless something drastically bad happens, I'll still be a regular there. It's just too loveable for me to let it go.

Café Savoy
Vítězná 5, 150 00 Praha 5
Tel.: +420 257 311 562
Open Mon-Fri 8:00 – 22:30, Sat-Sun 09:00 – 22:30

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Restaurant Review: Monarchie

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 10/05/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Never open a restaurant where another restaurant has failed.

It’s a rule well-known among food industry professionals the world over. Some locations, no matter how good they may seem, will inevitably sink any dining establishment that dares set up shop.

Sometimes, the reasons for the curse are obvious – there’s not enough foot traffic, or there are no other restaurants in the area to help attract customers. In other cases, the spot appears perfect, but no entrepreneur seems to be able to make it work. A restaurant with an irresistible concept or a built-in clientele will occasionally manage to turn a doomed location around (La Degustation Bohème Bourgeoise’s address, for example, is the former home of at least two other failed ventures).

Monarchie is not one of these.

When Ivan and Dagmar Havel decided to open a restaurant specializing in Austro-Hungarian cuisine, Lucerna must have been the obvious choice of locale. The celebrated pasáž is owned by Mrs. Havel, after all, and for many years after its construction was at the heart of Prague’s cultural life – an ideal place, it might seem, to recreate the pomp and splendor of an empire.

But the drab little corner of Lucerna occupied by Monarchie is anything but grand. It’s a space better-suited to a second-rate boutique or snack bar than to a restaurant with big aspirations. Even restaurants with small aspirations (most recently, the internationally-oriented eatery East West) have failed here, which might have given the would-be restaurateurs a clue.

Small restaurants can have the advantage of being cozy, but Monarchie is remarkably cold and uninviting. Its lighting (provided by those brutal energy-saving light bulbs) is far too bright; together with the wraparound windows encircling half the restaurant, it makes the diner feel a little like an exotic animal on display at the zoo. And with only one other table to attend to on a Friday evening, even the waiter seemed to regard us as a particularly delicate species of bird, a flock of rare specimens that might suddenly flutter away if he made a mistake. He was kind, but his nervousness was palpable and annoying.

A tucked-away table in a nook adjacent to the main dining area (pictured above) appeared to provide an oasis of warmth from the garishly-lit front room. But after only a few minutes in the snug little alcove, we realized just how intimate our special table was. It turned out that we were seated in the anteroom to the toilets, and were thus subjected to the comings and goings of other patrons and the various sound effects (flushing, tinkling, and, God help us, farting) that a trip to the can normally entails. We asked to switch tables, and to his credit, the waiter was very obliging.

It would have been easy to build a wall between the salonek and the toilets and to put in a separate door leading only to the bathroom area. That, however, would have called for some expenditure – and investing money to improve their patrons’ experience just isn’t Monarchie’s style. It’s more their speed to opt for benches made out of particle board and chairs upholstered in fake leather and to switch off unnecessary lights to save on electricity.

With the rest of the restaurant put together so cheaply, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Monarchie’s food isn’t of the finest quality, either. One of their most typically Austro-Hungarian dishes, the tafelspitz (Viennese-style boiled beef rump, 180 CZK) wasn’t terrible, but its dry, almost scratchy meat was far removed from the juicy, melt-in-your-mouth beef cuts you’d find at a restaurant like Plachutta in Vienna.

A roast quarter duck (260 CZK) was inexplicably served with both sweet red cabbage and sauerkraut spätzle, a combination worsened by the copious amount of cracked red pepper that had been ground over the dumplings. Nearly everything, in fact, arrived covered in the same spice, including a foie gras terrine (369 CZK) and a fillet of pikeperch (260 CZK).

The tvarohové knedlíky (cottage cheese dumplings, 80 CZK) were spared the wrath of the pepper grinder, but they were pretty unsuccessful, anyway. The fruit inside was brown and watery, probably because they’d made with frozen strawberries, and the sour bits of tvaroh grated over the top didn't appear to be the freshest, either.

Of course, when you have very few customers, it’s hard to stay on top of all the elements in a sprawling menu like this one. But there is so much about Monarchie that feels lazy and cheap that I don’t think the dismal food is an accident. This is yet another restaurant that underestimates its customers, that thinks it can squeeze by even if the quality of the food is nowhere near the splendid Austro-Hungarian cuisine it promises to deliver.

I had an inkling of just how bad my meal at Monarchie was going to be once I became aware of an alarming series of atonal noises screeching away somewhere above my head. Quasi-classical dinner music, I suppose. Couldn’t they have just played Mozart? When the violins suddenly took on a thumping techno beat as their background, it was all I could do not to stab myself in the eye with my fork.

So much for Austro-Hungary. This is one restaurant that is very firmly rooted in the Czech Republic in 2008. And even a great location couldn’t have convinced anybody otherwise.

Restaurace Monarchie
Štěpánská 61
Praha 1 - New Town

Tel.: +420 296 236 513
Open Mon-Fri 11.00 – 23.00



Monday, May 19, 2008

Restaurant Review: U Kastelána

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 03/05/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

In U Kastelána’s early days, Prague-based businessmen would hop in their cars and drive the 200 km to Brno for lunch. After their bellies were filled up with sweetbread and fried pigs’ ears, they’d turn around and drive right back.

There just wasn’t anything quite like it in the capital city.

The golden age of U Kastelána is surely over. In the past few years, Prague has become home to a bevvy of foreign chefs, a lot of well-hyped restaurants, and a hard-won Michelin star. But the Brno high-end standby still boasts a strong regular clientele, including a few die-hard fans who are willing to go well out of their way to make a visit.

When U Kastelána was opened by proprietors Mr. and Mrs. Lembart in 1991, it was nothing more than a snack bar near Brno’s main train station. But word of their unusual delicacies and accomodating service spread fast, and by 2000, they had decided to transfer their booming business to a larger space.

The restaurant no longer has to worry about where to squeeze in tables; the newer incarnation of U Kastelána almost seems to have more room than it knows what to do with. Its home is now the cavernous fermenting cellar of a former brewery, where stone columns, brick archways, and a long dining room create an imposing first impression. Leather-upholstered chairs carved out of dark wood add to the mildly stiff atmosphere, and the tables are covered with kitschy flower-patterned runners, but the overall effect is still quite grand.

I wish the same could be said for building’s exterior. On first glance, it’s hard to believe that one of the most lauded Czech restaurants is located off such a nondescript city street, down a dark alleyway, and just below a seedy-looking casino. The approach is distinctly unglamorous, but U Kastelána isn’t really about glamour – for the most part, anyway.

The menu is fairly extensive, made up mostly of French- and Czech-inspired cuisine like seared foie gras, grilled pigeon breast, and svíčková na smetaně. Yet some pretty clichéd Asian dishes are listed here, too – tuna sashimi, coconut-milk-and-coriander tiger prawns, sesame-encrusted tuna steak. There’s nothing wrong with fusion cuisine, but at U Kastelána, the Japanese and Thai additions come across as a poorly-integrated afterthought, an attempt by the kitchen, perhaps, to show off their worldliness (the restaurant has also been known to hold occasional Yoshoku nights featuring Euro-Asian degustation menus). Introducing patrons to unusual flavors might be an admirable ambition, but in this case, the pursuit of trendiness is just a little too obvious.

The most satisfying food was usually the simplest. A loin of lamb entrée (470 CZK, pictured above), cooked to still-pink perfection, was incredibly tender and moist, the meat so aromatic that it would have been foolish to overwhelm it with pungent side dishes. Instead, the lamb came with an appropriately understated potato terrine and some mildly brittle large white beans. The poultry consomme (60 CZK), too, was rich in flavor and low on frills, served with just a couple of delicate homemade chicken ravioli. And a berry and vanilla cream dessert (180 CZK), made with plenty of fresh (not frozen) berries, was refreshingly light and elegant.

It’s clear that some careful attention is being paid to the quality of U Kastelána’s ingredients, but there is still the occasional oversight. The rice croquettes that accompanied an Asian-inspired sea bass (380 CZK) dish were made with cheap short-grain rice. And executive chef Michal Göth appears to have a great fondness for truffle oil – an inexpensive condiment sometimes used to add a false air of luxury to a dish (truffle oil is actually made with olive oil and a laboratory-created chemical compound, not with actual truffles; many respected chefs have sworn it off altogether).

Fans of U Kastelána like to praise the restaurant’s service. Apparently, the waiters are familiar with the regulars and treat them all like family, which is very nice indeed. On my visit, though, I found myself wishing my server was as well-acquainted with his shower as he was with his customers. Receiving a waft of armpit stench along with your honey-glazed pork belly (pictured below) is never the most appetizing way to start a meal. I’ve definitely smelled worse in other restaurants (exclusively in the Czech Republic, I might add), and maybe the guy was just having an off day, but… he really should never have an off day. None of us should – and especially not when our job is to reach over the heads of people who are in the midst of savoring an expensive dinner. Oh, well. Even with all that fancy fusion food, I guess some traditions are hard to break.
Of course, no one could review U Kastelána without saying a few words about its most famous tradition: the fried pigs’ ears appetizer (195 CZK). Pigs’ ears are indigenous to a number of cuisines around the world, including in Chinese cooking and in black American soul food. Here, they’re sliced up into long curly question marks, deep-fried and served with garlic, mushrooms, and a large green salad. What do they taste like? Kind of crunchy, kind of chewy, and really greasy.

Pretty good, in other words. But maybe not quite as good as you might have hoped.

U Kastelána
Kotlářská 51a
Tel: 541 213 497
Open Mon-Sat 12:00 – 24:00. Closed Sunday.



Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Restaurant Review: Oliva

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 26/04/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

What happened to Oliva?

A year ago, I gave this cozy Prague 2 Mediterranean restaurant a great review. The food was honest, the service intimate and friendly, and the prices more than fair. When friends asked me for restaurant recommendations, I’d name Oliva as one of the few dependable mid-scale restaurants in the city.

Recently, after a long hiatus, I ate two meals there. The first was passable; the second was miserable. I wish I’d sent my friends someplace else.

Oliva is owned and run by a Slovak couple, Peter and Svetlana Červenka. After racking up some gastronomical experience in Vienna and Berlin, they realized their dream of opening a restaurant in Prague by taking over the space vacated by Le Bistrot de Marlène two years ago. Mr. Červenka used to work as a waiter for restaurants Pravda and Kampa Park, and he and his wife now serve most of their customers themselves. The personal attention is in accordance with their vision of Oliva as a casual neighborhood restaurant with good-quality food at decent prices. Unfortunately, the Červenkas seem to have forgotten some of their original intentions.

To those familiar with the typical life cycle of Prague restaurants, Oliva’s decline isn’t much of a mystery. We’ve seen it happen again and again: a new restaurant opens up and the owners try their very best. They take pride in their cuisine, and they smile a lot at their customers.

But after gaining a few good reviews and a regular flow of patrons, they become complacent. Maintaining a consistent level of quality hardly seems necessary now that the restaurant has made a name for itself. If we cut a few corners, they think, no one will notice.

Well, I certainly did -- and I can’t be the only one. It’s not hard to figure out that an entrée advertised as stewed chicken with fresh fig sauce (270 CZK) should probably include fresh figs in one form or another. It didn’t. The sauce might have had some traces of dried fig in it, but it was so watery and flavorless that it was impossible to tell. The chicken was pretty tasteless too, and on the dry side.

I would have expected the accompanying gnocchi to be homemade. But no, these potato dumplings were the same ones you’d find in Billa’s cold foods section, packaged in plastic and sporting a two- to three-month expiration window.

The source of the pan-seared foie gras (235 CZK) was similarly questionable. Where could they have possibly found this lumpy, vein-y, unevenly-textured mess of a duck liver? And if good-quality foie is a little too expensive for Oliva’s menu, then why serve whole foie gras at all? They would do better to offer only their foie gras terrine (225 CZK), a preparation more suitable for lower-grade liver.

Even some basic dishes seemed to confuse the chef. Lavender honey duck breast (375 CZK) ordered medium rare arrived medium well done (an almost standard Prague restaurant mistake, but frustrating nonetheless), and was tough and chewy as a result. And the molten chocolate cake with pistachio sauce (145 CZK) that I’d almost peed my pants over when I wrote the last review was now half-collapsed and mushy, like a big mushroom that had been stepped on. There wasn’t even any hot melted chocolate flowing from the inside -- obviously a criminal mistake as far as molten chocolate cakes are concerned.

I was further annoyed by Oliva’s backward way of dealing with the smoking issue. Instead of putting smokers in a room of their own, the non-smokers are punished by being forced to sit in a small corner space of only three or four tables isolated from the main part of the restaurant.

Any establishment that truly puts stock in the quality of their cuisine should be as non-smoking as possible – completely so, if they are progressive enough. To allow the main serving room to be inundated with tobacco smoke (potentially, anyway; on both my visits, there didn’t appear to be any smokers at all) is to send out a signal to patrons that the food at this particular restaurant doesn’t deserve to be savored to the fullest degree.
In a way, of course, it doesn’t. Of the six dishes I recently ate at Oliva, only one was worthy of being served: the tiger prawns with beetroot tartare and tarragon vinaigrette (195 CZK). The lightly-grilled shrimp were spongy and perfectly cooked, served over a spicy salad of beet chunks, raw onion, and fresh parsley. I was pleased to see prawns paired with something a little more robust than the more typical sweet mango chutney or plum sauce; they can take bigger flavors than they are sometimes given credit for.

The other dishes had a few good elements – the baked grapes still on their stems served with the duck, or the luscious pistachio sauce that came with the failed chocolate cake – but the food was overwhelmingly disappointing. Even so, I’m sure that most customers will keep returning to Oliva, at least for a while. The service there continues to be friendly and the interior (inspired by olives, naturally), is warm and unassuming.

Not very long ago, when the three most fashionable eateries in town were all owned by Kampa Group, Prague was a city where restaurants could afford to let their quality slip. There wasn’t really anyplace else to go, and most of the patrons were unsophisticated enough to swallow pretty much anything if it looked like nouvelle cuisine. But today, Prague is on its way to becoming a major European capital. And just as is in other major European capitals, restaurants here should be called out when they decide to lower their standards and raise their prices. There’s too much competition now – and restaurant-goers are becoming too discerning – for it to be any other way.

I still really want to like Oliva. But if I told you it was a good restaurant, I’d be lying. At this point, Oliva is just okay.

And, if only because I’ve seen them do better, ‘okay’ simply isn’t good enough.

Plavecká 4
Praha 2
Tel: +420 222 520 288
Open Mon – Sat 11:30-15:00, 18:00 – 00:00. Closed Sunday.