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.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More of Brno's restaurants, please... I wonder, how you'd rate the all new Noem Arch restaurant... I'm quite confused about it...