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


Brewsta said...

C'mon, spill the beans! Save us from wasting money at a bad place. Where was the rotten experience?

I once had a bad meal at Passepartout, which happens to be a French place in Prague 2. Poor seasoning, poor service.

They were only lucky I didn't have my camera with me, or I would have told the world.

Anonymous said...

So it was Passepartout ? ;-) Kat1

Laura Baranik said...

I'll never tell... :-)