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



Anonymous said...

Actually I would have trouble eating under the supervision of Kaiser Franz Josef and Archduke Ferdinand.


Mr.galle said...

Hi, I like this blog is so cool!
I already link to this page.
If you don't mind, Please link to my blog this URL