Sunday, July 6, 2008

Restaurant Review: Le Cornichon

This review originally appeared in
Czech translation in the 28/06/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Sophisticated. Honest. Reasonably priced.

How many restaurants do you know of in Prague befitting that description? Not too many, huh? Me neither. That’s why I’m finding myself pretty tickled about Le Cornichon’s arrival on the local scene.
When I heard that yet another restaurant was about to open in the long-doomed corner space on Betlémská, I had to cringe a little. At least two locales have tried and failed there; I was sure that this one, however well-intentioned, would meet the same fate.

But despite its questionable location on a little-trafficked Old Town side street, Le Cornichon just might prove me wrong. It’s so necessary to our tired dining scene, so straightforward, so downright good that if everything goes well, this could become a destination restaurant – a spot that people don’t happen upon, but hear about and go out of their way to visit again and again.

Proprietor Vladimír Strnad cut his food industry teeth at the well-loved but ultimately unsuccessful Vršovice restaurant Atelier (along with Lubomír Mikuš, who currently runs another recently-opened Old Town hotspot, Angel). Now he’s brought his passion for French food and wine to a new venture, and in a city overpopulated with cluttered plates and too-busy interiors, Strnad’s sleek, unfussy aesthetic is a pleasure to behold.

Le Cornichon’s layout is close to ideal – a large, long room with huge windows and high ceilings, semi-divided into three sections. The interior is clean and modern, but warm, with chocolate-brown walls, bright red chairs, and white tablecloths. Above each table hang some ethereal-looking lamps that, upon closer inspection, are made with ordinary metal kitchen scrub pads. The overall effect is welcoming and a little whimsical; classy, but unpretentious.

The same could be said of both the service and the cooking style. Our waiter demonstrated a remarkable instinct for timing – he was there when we wanted him to be, and when we didn’t, he was gone. He moved quickly, with confidence and a slight air of urgency, and he was unfailingly polite without seeming servile.

Plus, he knew the basics. It should go without saying that the server should never take any plates away from the table until everybody is finished eating, but few restaurants in our country adhere to this rule. An extra trip from the waiter disturbs the guests unnecessarily; he should approach the table the minimum number of times required to keep his patrons happy.

I was impressed, too, by the way the restaurant dealt with a particular issue that crops up fairly often when dining out: what should be done when the main component of one of the dishes on the menu isn’t the freshest that day and the customer orders that very dish? Is it better to serve the less-fresh version or to tell the customer you’ve run out?

It’s better, of course, to tell the customer you don’t have the dish. He or she is much less likely to be upset by a dish’s absence than if they are served food that is sub-par. When my dining companion ordered the cod, the waiter hesitated and said he wasn’t sure if they had any left. He ran to the back to ask, and returned to say that the chef had one piece left, but that he “wouldn’t let it out of the kitchen.” So my friend ordered the sea bass instead. After we’d started on our main courses, the waiter swung by to ask if the substitute fish was all right. Perfect. I felt like giving the guy a medal.

My companion’s fish was more than all right; in fact, it was very good. Like all the food I sampled at Le Cornichon, the sea bass (375 CZK) was prepared simply and honestly. It was served whole, stuffed with a couple of orange slices and a sprig of thyme, and accompanied by a very flavorful ratatouille.

The ratatouille, a lively mixture of zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, and, in this case, fennel, also made an appearance in the snail casserole (150 CZK). It’s a nice little appetizer, with the vegetables a good match for the twelve chewy little slugs. Unfortunately, when I ordered them, the snails were quite grainy – I suppose they hadn’t been washed properly, and some dirt from the garden had made it onto my plate.

The escargots’ grittiness was quickly forgotten when I tasted my main course, a tender, slow-cooked hare à la royale in a luscious red wine sauce (325 CZK). Its only accompaniment was a handful of tagliatelle pasta, but the meat was rich and tasty enough to stand on its own.

Le Cornichon has a few things to work on – the unattractive brown-tiled bathrooms, for example, or an amuse-bouche that was rather large and sloppy and didn’t come with any plates.

But small, home-style places like this one serve to remind us of how good our restaurants can be with a little effort, a lot of heart, and a lack of laziness. Case in point: Le Cornichon’s dessert menu, which miraculously avoids all three French restaurant after-dinner clichés (crème brulee, chocolate mousse, and fondant au chocolat) and offers us something different.

Finally, somebody in this town is willing to take some risks and give their customers the honest treatment they deserve. Now let’s hope a few other restaurants decide to follow Le Cornichon’s lead.

Le Cornichon
Betlémská 9
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel.: 222 211 766

Open Mon – Sat 16:00 – 23:00

Note to readers: Le Cornichon will be closed for renovation during the months of July and August.



R. said...

I only hope that the prolonged closure doesn't mean they'll lose that excellent waiter!

Can't wait to try this place.

Anonymous said...

Good review as I have been here and agree with you. My understanding is that will re-open in the next week or so as I want to make a return visit. Just one thing, you said "Proprietor Vladimír Strnad cut his food industry teeth at the well-loved but ultimately unsuccessful Vršovice restaurant Atelier (along with Lubomír Mikuš, who currently runs another recently-opened Old Town hotspot, Angel)." Atelier was not unsuccessful back then in fact quite the opposite. I believe that it was sold to new owners whilst it was at the peak of its popularity. This was once a well known place and most people have great memories of it. Maybe they wanted to focus on Angel instead. Just thought I would point that out. Keep up the good reviews, I enjoy them.

Jakub said...

Staff from our company tried this restarant yesterday. I like the meal, but finally 4 from 8 had an intestinal desease.