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


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow; harsh comments about BrassM. I am a "regular" there and have always received very good service and very good food for generally very good prices (hence the "regular" bit).

For me the best thing about this place is the 3-course "formule" menu which is served until 22.00 (if I'm not mistaken) on weekdays. Choice of very tasty soup / potage, main course, as well as (optional) dessert for under 200 crowns? I am frantically browsing previous reviews of yours to see whether I'm missing anywhere else in town that offers [real French] stuff this tasty for this price.

Oddly enough, one of the highlights for the many guests I've brought to Brasserie M, has been the creme brulee. Yes, the large portion is very expensive at 195 kcs. But I've always ordered the [considerably smaller] formule version (i.e. included in the 3-course menu). I think it's great (and I've lived in France for quite some time).

Teah there are some outrageously priced things on the menu. So don't order them (I don't); though obviously if you do and it's not up to snuff, you have every right to take them to task for it. Their regular menu prices are high for Prague; it's true.

If you want a nice French cafe meal at a decent price and you're in downtown Prague, you can do much -- much -- worse.

Just my two cents' worth before I enjoy my authentic steak-frites au poivre there again...

PS -- I enjoy your [other ;-p] reviews, please keep them coming.