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



Pavel said...

Disgusting "review" (its not a review, its a paid PR against this restaurant). Maybe you visit other Flambée. I know it as top restaurant with top (and expensive, of course) food. Mr. Jakubec is one of best czech chefs and his national and international awards says everything about his quality. Who is Laura Baraniak, nobody knows. Which experiences and educations have, that try to shows self like a gastronoical specialist, who valuate restaurants ?

Anonymous said...

Pavel is out of touch. If you really enjoy that place you have the wool over your eyes.

Pavel said...

My privat opinion is maybe very subjective feeling (like your). But the fact is, that this "review" is absulutelly unprofesionally. So never write really journalist. Its a paid PR against this restaurant, or very very dillettantish attempt to be a journalist.

PS : Pavel is my really name, why you write as anonymous ?

Eddy said...

It is very poor 'journalism'. You should be more careful Laura. This is sloppy.

Anonymous said...

Who is L.Baranik???---Nobody knows.
Kdo je L.Baranik???---Nikdo neví.
J.Loch Praha

Rasputin said...

is that a poem?:-)

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what all of you are angry about. Flambee is expensive and the food is terrible. Laura Baranik is certainly not the only one who shares that opinion.

I highly doubt that any of you are in the financial position to eat at Flambee every week and I'm sure the people who do have the money to spend on a nice meal would prefer to spend their money elsewhere.

I look forward to reading Laura Baranik's reviews each week and am not alone in that opinion. Find something or someone else to complain about.

Reno said...

I think a second review must be done! I am an restaurant and (good) food lover and I offer my services to The Prague Spoon to make an independant review :) If you invite me, I'll do it for free ;)
You come with me Laura?

George said...

ok, i am going to Prague for Christmas, i have allready made a reservation at Flambee...and now these comments here are pushing me to cancel it...

Ulrik said...

I was at Flambée yesterday. I can complain at one or two things you wont expect in restaurant of this level, but food was delicious and waiters professional.
I have no problem with different opinions but Berenik´s review didnt strike nothing factual.
Sorry, I can take you dont like style, but to complain against food? No, I´ve seen and visited many solid restaurants and this one deserves your attention.

scripting as I go said...

I am a food critic who has only just arrived in Prague and Flambee was my first experience of haute cuisine here. I can honestly say this Michelen Rated restaurant is well deserving of its accolades.

The review on this blog appears to come from a disgruntled culinary imbecile in need of gastronomic and cultural education, not to say manners.

The vicious and undeserved review seems a ploy from a competitor who resents Flambee's success. The old chef has opened an establshment of his own and the new chef hails from Canada via Bermuda. He is a young, passionate, inspired and skilled chef. He cooks with the freshest ingredients of the season. My treat was the wild boar and the desert was nothing short of heavenly. A souffle to rival the best Paris can offer. The service was refined, understated and perfectly attuned to the atmosphere which I found to be utterly charming, initmate, romantic and elegant.

The prices are fair for this level of artistry.

Whoever this vile reprehensible person is who vilifies such a wonderful restaurant is obviously in need of better medications to combat their inherent depression and passive aggresive nature.

When one cannot understand the nature of sublime dining, I would suggest that she return to McDonald's where a classless rube such as she deserves to eat her every meal.

Laura Baranik said...

As is written at the top of the post, this review of Flambee was published nearly two years ago, in May of 2008. Since then, the restaurant has changed its executive chef twice: from longtime Flambee chef Dušan Jakubec (who now heads his own establishment, Ristorant Prosecco, in Prosek) to former sous-chef Lukáš Otáhal, and more recently, to new Canadian import Fabian Gysi.

As Flambee states on its website, "After many years of doing things the same way, we have decided to do a radical change."

I stand by this review as a reflection of the experiences I had at Dušan Jakubec's Flambee in early 2008. I have not visited the restaurant since. As always, sincere updates from attentive readers are more than welcome.