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.



Mark said...

Hi Laura,

Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth. I chose Oliva a couple of months ago to treat a friend visiting from out of town. I had heard so many good things about it, including that it was the natural successor to Atelier, that I was expecting something great. Everything was slightly off -- from the awkward greeting at the door, to the hybrid East-West service (the waiter wasn't sure if he wanted to bow and click his heels or come over and say "hi, I'm Mitch, and I'll be your server tonight"), and finally the food -- which just didn't taste all that good. I love the idea of Oliva, but I probably won't be back to eat there.

Belcarnen said...

Hi Laura
Thanks for this review. I've never been to Oliva, bud tasted five samples from their menu on wine tasting, paired perfectly with wines. And was more than tempted to visit this place directly. Well, probably better to go somewhere else.