Monday, July 21, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Imperial

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/07/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

If you're looking for a fight, don't come to Café Imperial. Not if it's a doughnut fight you want, anyway.

This once-dingy local hangout – famous as much for its impromptu doughnut-throwing as for its awe-inspiring Art Nouveau mosaics – has dusted off the powdered sugar and reintroduced itself as a semi-swanky grand café in the style of the First Republic, sharply-dressed wait staff and all.

The unusual tradition is rooted in Zdeněk Jirotka's 1943 comic novel Saturnin, the first chapter of which describes all people as belonging in one of three categories: those who simply stare at a plate of doughnuts in a café, those who imagine throwing the doughnuts at another customer, and "people for whom the idea of a doughnut whistling through the air is such an enticement that they get up and actually make it happen."

So, in honor of Jirotka's mischievous butler, any sober customer over 21 years of age could (for the symbolically appropriate price of 1943 CZK) purchase the plate of stale doughnuts called "Saturnin's platter" set atop Café Imperial's bar and hurl the pastries at any customer or member of the staff he or she wished to target. The café would apparently cover the cost of any necessary dry cleaning. A gimmick, certainly, but a charming one at that.

But newly-installed executive chef and co-investor Zdeněk Pohlreich didn't find the prospect of greasy doughnuts flying across his shiny new interior very charming at all. When it reopened in September of last year, Imperial's well-known food-fighting tradition had faded quietly into history, the complimentary doughnuts served alongside orders of coffee the only reminder of this well-heeled café's more raucous past.

You can't really blame them for the change, I suppose. Airborne pastries don't really fit in with the new Imperial's pristine leather- and velvet-upholstered antique-style furniture and lush golden curtains. The updated look is designed to complement the majestically kitschy, Moor-inspired tile reliefs that blanket the walls and ceiling and make the café a popular destination for tourists.

With all the surrounding opulence, it's a suitable spot for some high-quality cuisine. No wonder, then, that local culinary darling Pohlreich – whose straightforward cooking style emphasizes fresh ingredients and simple combinations – was brought over to inject a certain level of class into Café Imperial's menu.

The end result is definitely a cut above the hemenex (ham and eggs) that used to be served here in the old days (though they do offer a fairly extensive all-day breakfast), but it's still mildly disappointing. Like so many restaurateurs who've invested heavily into a renovation, Imperial's owners have decided to play it safe, opting for a sprawling menu packed with tired favorites over any kind of consistency or originality.

Beef carpaccio, tuna tartare, and goat cheese salad all make an appearance, along with svíčková na smetaně (pictured above), crème brulée, and a cheeseburger. It's the usual Czech/French/a touch of American combination of dishes that we see in most mid-scale restaurants here.

That's not to say that some of them aren't very good. I loved the asparagus salad (195 CZK), a healthy pile of fresh mixed lettuce leaves and sun-dried tomatoes over a few stalks of crispy, lightly-buttered asparagus, dotted with sesame seeds for a little added flavor. One of the chef's specialties, a braised lamb shank with marjoram and creamed spinach (295 CZK), was excellent, too.

But the tuna steak with Mediterranean vinaigrette and Niçoise salad (350 CZK) is really a mystery. In fact, I'm confused by most of the tuna steaks in this country. Why do so many chefs – including Mr. Pohlreich, who has had some international experience and surely knows better – insist on overcooking their tuna? A tuna steak should only be cooked lightly on each side, leaving the inside of the fish pink, tender, and as raw as sushi; the grey cooked part should only be a thin strip around its edges. The tuna I was given at Imperial was dry and chewy and looked like it had come from a can, even though it obviously hadn't. What a waste of a perfectly good piece of fish.

Of course, chefs here tend to cook to the tastes of their customers, and I know that those who make their tuna correctly often find their plates sent back to the kitchen with a demand for a little more grill time. But shouldn't the default setting be to cook the fish properly? If the chefs aren't going to try to influence diners' tastes in the right direction, then who is?

And then there are those who push their influence a little too far. One of my waiters was obnoxiously pushy, insisting we order the lamb shank although we didn't want to (I tried it on a separate visit), pushing us to order beer instead of water, and suggesting a side of mashed potatoes to go with my companion's roast chicken (220 CZK, pictured above) – unnecessarily, it turned out, because the dish ended up coming with potatoes already on the plate.

The atmosphere is very nice at Imperial, but I can't help but think it was better back when things were a little crustier, when the chairs and tables were wooden and rickety, jazz bands used to hold impromptu jam sessions in the evenings, and the Art Nouveau details seemed almost incidental. Like so many things in Prague, Café Imperial has been stripped and sanitized, its character varnished for the benefit of older tourists with fat wallets who fear the seedier elements that used to make this city so unique and interesting.

As I sipped my espresso in the café's majestic dining room, I did find myself wondering what it would be like to throw my doughnut at an unsuspecting customer. But I would never have done it. I guess I'm not that type of person. And, for better or worse, Café Imperial is no longer that type of place.

Café Imperial
Na poříčí 15
Prague 1 - New Town
Tel.: 246 011 600



Pivní Filosof said...

I totally agree with you. Though all the renovations have brought up all the beauty of the décor, with enough material to fill a sizeable coffee table book, something is missing. A more human side, perhaps.

Ben Hodson said...

Anther strange thing there was the arrangement of smoking and non smoking sections on our last visit. We asked for non-Smoking and were lead to a table. Around it were others smoking... We asked about it and he said no you a eat a non smoking table. then he pointed to nearby tables.. Like right next to us and went that and that are smoking tables and then continued randomly around the room smoking non smoking etc etc... they don't seem to quite understand the point of a non smoking section or table...

Cat said...

Why would anyone whine about a non-smoking table in Europe? I guess we are used to being too politically correct here in the states. We don't need to preach to foreign countries. We have a bad enough reputation.

Kabu said...

I visited Café Imperial last week and I found everything wonderful. Professional and nice stuff, great food. I also tried the lamb with spinach and it was really very tasty. The chocolate fondant was also excellent, it was the most delicious dessert I have ever eaten. I would definitely recommend.