Monday, June 30, 2008

Restaurant Review: Omnia Hotel

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 21/06/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Can a restaurant in the mountains compete with those in Prague?

According to chef Martin Haken, the answer is a decided yes. He and the management of the recently-built four-star Omnia Hotel in Jánské Lázně have made a fair amount of hoopla about their self-styled mission to offer guests a culinary experience as grand as any to be found in the capital city.
In theory, it’s a great idea. Many discerning visitors to the Krkonoše have lamented the Czech mountains’ general lack of high-quality dining and accommodation. When Omnia opened in October of last year, it was heralded as a much-needed oasis of luxury in a beautiful landscape blighted by amateurish pensions and mediocre cuisine.

Unfortunately, at least as far as the restaurant goes, the word ‘luxurious’ doesn’t exactly spring to my mind as an appropriate descriptor.

I can’t speak to the quality of the hotel’s lodgings, but I must say that Omnia did strike me as an attractive place to stay. Situated just at the foot of the newly reconstructed Černá Hora cable car, the building comes across as rather simple and box-like; the concept behind the construction, apparently, was for the hotel to blend in with its pristine natural surroundings. Many of the rooms have balconies facing a quiet, tree-covered slope, and the hotel's various amenities include a sports hall, sauna, and indoor swimming pool. Its lobby is all sharp angles and charcoal-grey walls, except for a clever display of birch tree trunks stacked and lit up behind clear glass paneling at the reception counter.

The hotel restaurant also highlights this unusual blend of stark minimalism and raw natural elements: bare light bulb lamps hang from the ceiling while the long bar is studded with tree trunks, this time cut into cross-sections that make for a pretty pattern of wooden circles. The pared-down interior might strike some seasoned city-dwellers as a little too familiar – Praguers have seen similar creations popping up nearly everywhere, from Kampa Group restaurants to shopping mall cafés – but this sort of design is quite the novelty in the Krkonoše, and it contrasts pleasantly with the outdoor scenery visible through the restaurant's expansive windows.
Of course, an eatery with two kinds of foie gras on its menu is pretty unheard of in these parts, too. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to class up the countryside a little – I’m all for it, if it’s done right. But at Omnia, it’s done only halfway, with the hope, perhaps, that since there’s no other fancy-ish restaurant anywhere near Jánské Lázně, a bit of cheating will be forgiven or go unnoticed.

When our main courses arrived, I couldn't help but notice that, although one was veal (480 CZK), another salmon (240 CZK) and the third chicken (205 CZK), they all looked suspiciously similar. Two of them (the veal and the chicken), it turned out, bore the same red wine reduction. The veal and the salmon, on the other hand, were both drenched in the same Hollandaise sauce, although the menu described one as Hollandaise and the other as Bearnaise. The distinction between Hollandaise and Bearnaise sauces is fairly subtle – both are an emulsion of butter in egg yolks, but Hollandaise is flavored with lemon and Bearnaise is made with vinegar and tarragon – but why note the difference on the menu when you're not going to follow through on the plate? It smacks of laziness.
But so does most of the cooking at Omnia. The shallots served with the lamb (described as "roasted") were exactly the same as the "seared" shallots that filled the goat cheese salad's butter tart (105 CZK). A "double consommé of corn-fed chicken with vegetable drums and breast poached in saffron sherry" (50 CZK) was nothing more than a small bowl of chicken broth containing a small piece of chicken and exactly one sliver each of carrot and zucchini. No vegetable "drums," whatever that was supposed to mean. And the soup was so salty that I had to suspect the kitchen of using powdered stock as a flavor enhancer.

Nevermind that my salmon had a fairly strong whiff of fishiness, or that the spinach and mushrooms accompanying it were so salty that they were literally inedible. Or that the home-made truffle cake with pineapple compote, star anise, and mango sorbet (150 CZK) arrived half-frozen and and was really pretty terrible, anyway.

To be fair, I did visit Omnia in the off-season. But Martin Haken only stepped away from his previous post at Prague's Rybí Trh in January, and one would hope that a decent level of quality could be maintained even in the spring and summer months. An Omnia Hotel press release quotes the executive chef as saying, "Janské Lázně isn't Prague, but it's a great challenge for me to prove to our guests that high-quality gastronomy isn't impossible to find outside the borders of the capital city."

Mr. Haken and his team have a long way to go before they prove that particular point. Until then, the next time I happen to find myself in Jánské Lázně, I'll be lunching on a cold Budvar and a 15-CZK párek v rohlíku at the Kolonáda downtown. The atmosphere there is pretty great, and the parek is exactly what you want it to be: simple and delicious, and not pretending to be anything it isn't. It's one Krkonoše meal, at least, that I can highly recommend.

Omnia Hotel Restaurant
Černohorská 327
Janské Lázně
Tel.: +420 499 859 780



Thursday, June 26, 2008

Restaurant Review: Brasserie M (CLOSED)

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 14/06/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There’s nothing like a little snobbery to greet you when you first walk into a French restaurant. It adds a certain authenticity, n’est-ce pas?

I guess that’s what owner Jean-Paul Manzac and his team of waiters were going for when I entered a graveyard-empty Brasserie M one lunch hour and approached the table of my choice.

“Are you expecting some other people?” they asked.

“Just one.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

I glanced around the restaurant. There were at least a hundred empty seats. “No.”

They asked me to sit at a table for two instead of the table for four I’d picked. Reluctantly, I did. My friend arrived. Soon after, a woman strolled into the restaurant, glanced around, sat at the very same table I’d just been booted from, and ordered a glass of wine. She clearly didn’t have a reservation, and she was eating alone.

When I pointed this out to the waiter, he gave me a look normally reserved for gum-chewing American tourists entering four-star Parisian restaurants in cargo shorts and flip-flops.

“That woman,” he sneered, “is a regular customer.” Cue my hasty exit – preceded, of course, by some pretty harsh words from yours truly.

I mean, come on now. Who cares if the woman was a regular? Shouldn’t they want to encourage me to be a regular, too? Service this careless would be embarrassing in any restaurant, but for an establishment in such obvious need of a boost in clientele, it’s downright moronic.

When Jean-Paul Manzac left his post as head chef at the Marriott hotel to open Brasserie M in 2005, his aim was to create a bustling restaurant that served French food more authentic than any to be found in Prague. He found a large, versatile space on Vladislavova street and handed over design duties to architect Václav Červenka, creator of the Potrefená Husa chain’s interiors, among others. The result is airy and pleasantly decorated, with a central open kitchen that allows patrons to observe the kitchen staff as they slice, dice, and deep-fry.

It should have been a winning concept. But there’s something about Brasserie M that’s keeping customers at a distance – and it’s not just the intermittently obnoxious service.

The price level definitely seems to be part of the problem. It’s hard to justify a French onion soup that costs 195 CZK, no matter how spectacular it is. And the one at Brasserie M wasn’t spectacular, just all right. The beef broth was very nice: rich, sweet, and a little boozy. But if the soup is served in a ramekin, the cheese on top should be broiled until it is slightly browned and crispy, not splotchy and white as this one was.

The story is similar with Brasserie M’s crème brûlée. 175 CZK is fairly steep for a dessert made of little more than cream, eggs, and sugar, although many restaurants are guilty of raising this simple dish to gourmet price points. Most of them do it badly, and for all its Frenchiness, Brasserie M is no exception. A good crème brûlée should have a lightly burnt, crispy crust of caramelized sugar on top – the kind of layer that Amélie Poulain famously liked to crack into with the tip of her spoon. Here, the top layer was crumbly, the grains of sugar still intact, and my spoon sunk into the cream below without a sound.

The coq au vin (545 CZK), another classic French dish, was more successful. Its meat was a little chewy, but roosters (if this was indeed a rooster) are notoriously tough birds and demand hours of cooking time to achieve any level of tenderness. It was a pleasure to eat the creamy mashed potatoes along with the thick, dark wine sauce. This is a fine dish, and a rare find in Prague restaurants.

Unfortunately, the fish entrée I tried at Brasserie M was downright terrible. The filet of John Dory arrived on a messy-looking plate covered in beet sauce, saffron, and balsamic vinegar, with four ugly little towers of celeriac puree and shamefully overcooked slices of zucchini. The fish itself was dry around the edges and had a distinct air of fishiness half-masked by a generous helping of salt. The John Dory may be an expensive little fish, but for 795 CZK, the kitchen might have come up with something a tiny bit more palatable. With higher-echelon restaurants like maze now serving stellar fish dishes in the 600-700 CZK range, places like Brasserie M should adjust either their prices or their product – or both at once, preferably.

For some reason, Brasserie M has been bestowed the Michelin Guide’s “Bib Michelin” ranking for two years in a row. The Bib is no Michelin star (it simply means “good food at good prices”), but why should this restaurant, with its decidedly not-all-that-good food and not-so-good prices, be one of only three Czech locales to receive the honor? The recognition speaks less to Brasserie M’s achievements than it does to the Michelin Guide’s well-publicized preference for all things French.

When it comes to Brasserie M, Michelin – and Mr. Manzac – may want to do some re-examining. Authentic or not, this place certainly needs a lot of work. What’s less clear is whether patrons will stick around long enough for Brasserie M to pull its act together.

I’m guessing they might not.

Brasserie M
Vladislavova 17
Praha 1 - New Town

Open Mon-Fri 11:00-23:00, Sat 12:00-24:00. Closed Sundays.
Tel.: +420 224 054 070



Monday, June 9, 2008

Restaurant Review: John & George

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 24/05/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

This week, I intended to write about a different restaurant, a small French bistro in Prague 2, but an incident happened there that forced me to reconsider. The sauce that came with my main course – a roast chicken with couscous and oriental spices – was bitter and foul-tasting; it had obviously gone bad.
When I informed the waiter of this fact, he took my plate away without a word and brought it to the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, he brought back the very same plate with the same chicken (now cold) that I’d already taken a bite from. The sauce was the same, too (I could tell because it now had bits of couscous in it from when they’d scraped it off the plate), only it had been covered in a sickening amount of black pepper and random spices.

“I’m sorry you didn’t like your sauce,” the waiter smirked. I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t simply that I didn’t like the sauce. It was rotten. It shouldn’t have been served. He didn’t care.

So I decided not to give that restaurant any advertisement at all. Few people have heard of it, and I’d like it to stay that way. Instead, I decided to recommend a little-known place that deserves the attention.

John & George has a gorgeous garden for outdoor seating. They also have a nice interior space. But not, apparently, at the same time.

On a recent sunny day, I arrived at the Malá Strana café hoping to sit outside, but the garden was closed. A couple of weeks later, when I wanted to dine inside, the waitress informed me that “we’re sitting outside today.”

Still, she allowed me to remain indoors, albeit with a warning that she wouldn’t have much time for me. The service ended up being perfect anyway, without even a single moment spent wondering where the hell the waitress was.

If the service at John & George is occasionally a little slow, it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the staff. They move quickly, behave politely, and – steady yourselves, now – even smile at their patrons. But after a lackluster start, this little-known café has found itself a firm following, and the people working there are racing to catch up.

John & George is at its most attractive in the spring and summer, when the outdoor seating allows guests to gaze upon the Velkopřevorský palác’s garden, tucked away behind the gaggles of picture-snapping visitors making peace signs in front of the John Lennon wall.

A few tourists do occasionally make their way into the secret garden, but the crowd is generally an interesting mix of Czechs and local foreigners, including some from the French embassy located across the square. Despite its location just steps away from some of the most heavily-touristed streets in Prague, you won’t find any rowdy tour groups here – the blossoming flowers, well-manicured lawn, and ancient plane tree make the outdoor area so peaceful that few visitors dare raise their voices.

Which is all the better, I suppose, for enjoying John & George’s clean, straightforward brand of (mostly) lunch fare. The food is consistent and reasonably priced – the most expensive dish, a salmon steak served with basmati rice and creamed spinach, costs just 165 CZK.
The portion of fish wasn’t especially large, but the salmon was perfectly flaky, lightly seared, and well-seasoned. Its accompanying sauce, a lemony cream vaguely reminiscent of svíčková na smetaně, was so good that I couldn’t help but lap it all up with the help of the spinach and rice.
I loved John & George’s carrot soup (60 CZK), too, which comes laced with coconut milk and fresh cilantro, as well as their fluffy quiche lorraine (98 CZK), made with leeks and real smoked ham. Basically (and unlike almost every other casual lunch place in Prague), this kitchen knows how to cook.

So I’m willing to forgive them a few mistakes: the stale bread, for example, or a plate of crêpes Suzette (90 CZK) that didn’t seem to have been flambéed as is required by the traditional recipe. They do have an excellent homemade carrot cake (65 CZK), its moist dough dense with raisins and filled with a thick layer of tangy cream cheese, and a tasty raspberry meringue dessert (90 CZK).

If you do choose (or are instructed) to sit indoors, you’ll be able to admire the original Romanesque walls – the foundational structures in the café are actually the only part of the Velkopřevorský palác to preserve its original 12th-century architecture. It wasn’t built to be a restaurant, obviously; the indoor area is divided into three smallish rooms, and the toilets are rather awkwardly situated in a courtyard outdoors, but the eccentricities of the layout are kind of charming.

Unfortunately, the lack of natural light and grayish walls can make the space feel a little gloomy at times, though they do their best to brighten it up with mosaic table lamps and colorful pillows decorating the simple wooden furniture. The tasteful décor is a little marred by some ugly contraptions made of straw and fake grass, though I’m hoping that these are just Easter decorations somebody forgot to put away and not a permanent addition to the ambience.

There’s a similar blemish in the garden area, too, in the form of large parasols bearing the Coca-cola logo. The parasols are a good idea, but the huge corporate logos look glaringly out-of-place next to the beautiful palace and its serene lawn.

But that, of course, is a small criticism. The fact is that there really aren’t too many complaints to make about John & George. I’m pretty sure they’d never serve me a rotten sauce twice – or even once, for that matter. It’s just not that kind of place.

John and George Café / Restaurant
Velkopřevorské nám. 4
Praha 1 - Malá Strana

Tel.: 257 217 736
Open: Mon-Sun 11.00 - 22.00

images:, Prague Spoon


Monday, June 2, 2008

Restaurant Review: Flambée

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

I could have guessed how bad it was going to be from its website. “Some experiences are more memorable than others,” Flambée’s home page declares atop an endless loop of piano mood music.

My night at Flambée was definitely one to remember – but not, I suspect, for the reasons the restaurant would hope.

I can’t remember the last time I ate an expensive meal that was this terrible. When Flambée first opened fifteen years ago and competing restaurants were few and far between, a dinner like the one I had recently might have passed as a high-class meal – in the post-Communist Eastern bloc, anyway. Today, the pseudo-gourmet cuisine, tired interior, and astronomical prices amount to nothing more than a tourist trap unworthy of even the lowliest tourists. How could anybody still be convinced to visit this overblown rip-off of a culinary dungeon, especially when Prague now boasts so many restaurants that are far better and less expensive?

The “dungeon” part might actually have something to do with it. Flambée’s big claim to fame (besides its vast wine collection) is its location in an 11th-century cellar, complete with big stone archways and gloomy candlelight. Atmospherically-inclined tourists and men wooing impressionable dates probably see this as an attractive setup. And it could be, if almost everything inside it wasn’t so horrifically unattractive.

At a restaurant where the average entrée price is 900 CZK and the wine list offers several bottles in the 100,000 CZK-plus range, one would expect the interior to be put together with a fair amount of consideration. But from the string of Christmas lights adorning a mirror to the sad little potted plants propped up against a wall and the stained white tablecloths, the details at Flambée seem haphazard and shoddy. Instead of piano music on the night I was there, we were treated to a Sting Greatest Hits CD. The other major aural stimulus was the loud peeing sound made by water trickling into a hideous cast-iron fountain in the middle of the dining room.

This place is in need of a serious makeover, but don’t expect one anytime soon: Flambée still proudly notes the interior design award it received back in 1994 -- along with various other by now meaningless recognitions -- just about everywhere it can.

In case those restaurant guide logos fail to impress, someone’s put together a ubiquitous summary (outside the restaurant, in the bathrooms, etched in gold on the menus) of all the celebrities who’ve ever had the misfortune of dining at Flambée. Among them are Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. Never mind that most of these stars visited Prague at a time when there was barely anyplace else for them to go. As far as Flambée is concerned, the Czech culinary landscape hasn’t changed one bit since they first opened.

But by underestimating the sophistication of their clientele – and that of the restaurants they compete with – Flambée is making a big mistake. They’re rapidly developing a reputation for overpriced, substandard food, and based on my experience there, the bad rap is well-deserved.

Let’s take the scallops appetizer as an example. The fact that the scallops were very small would have been all right if they weren't also undeniably smelly and fishy-tasting. For 790 CZK, then, my companion was served an inedible plate of miniature mollusks, along with an unexciting celery root salad and an out-of-place oxtail confit.

My first course, a “cappuccino” of lettuce leaves with quail breast and tarragon gnocchi (295 CZK), was edible, but only barely. The frothy soup tasted only of salt, and the quail meat was bland and tough. Although neither of us finished our appetizers, the hollow-eyed, depressive-looking waiter didn’t seem to notice or care.

For my entrée, I’d attempted to order the bison steak (mostly to see if it could possibly be good enough to warrant a 1200 CZK price tag), but was told the dish wasn’t available that night. I instead chose the wild hare baked with nuts and thyme (790 CZK), accompanied by a Bordeaux reduction, chestnut puree, and blood sausage. In both taste and aesthetic, this was a very ill-advised combination of ingredients. The whole plate was made up of varying shades of brown, and it tasted that way, too, without even a hint of freshness to brighten up a very rich, gamey dish. Like the quail, the hare meat was tough, and it was rolled in crushed walnuts, which didn’t go especially well with the (inexplicably sour) chestnut puree served on the side.

Flambée’s Dušan Jakubec is one of those chefs who tends to overburden dishes with too many elements, a problem typified by his sloppy interpretation of a classic course in French cuisine. An amuse-bouche (literally, “amuse the mouth”) is meant to be a tiny, complimentary morsel served at the beginning of a meal that prepares the palate for the larger dishes to come. Crucially, the patron should be able to eat the amuse in one or two bites. At Flambée, we were served a complicated amuse-bouche trio that was almost as large as an appetizer and took just as long to eat. There was so much going on in the amuse and in the other courses of the evening that the poor waiter almost broke into a sweat trying to explain each dish as he set it down.

As bad as Flambée is (and just to be absolutely clear, it’s very, very bad) there were still plenty of customers there on a Tuesday night – mostly foreigners, from what I could tell. I wondered if they had chosen those 390 CZK, 0.75L bottles of Scottish water of their own volition and if the waiter had offered them the less expensive Perrier as he did for us. Something told me he hadn’t.

I’m not sure why people are still visiting Flambée. Maybe the restaurant has a good PR service that does heavy promotion in guidebooks and hotels. Maybe some locals continue to think of Flambée as one of the most refined restaurants in Prague. Or maybe that 11th-century Gothic atmosphere is just too irresistible, no matter how awful the food is.

But the reasons don’t really matter. After fifteen years, Flambée should pack it in and give it up. The Czech Republic has moved on. If any of us is inclined to spend several thousand crowns on dinner, we now have access to restaurants that will really make it worth our while. And for all its flashy service and fancy-sounding foods, Flambée is definitely not one of those.

Husova 5
Praha 1 – Old Town

Tel.: 224 248 512
Open Mon – Sun 11:30 – 01:00