Monday, August 25, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Slavia

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 16/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When I was sent to review Café Slavia, I thought I knew exactly what to expect: a stunning relic of Czech grand café history with a great view tainted by bad food, slow service, and lots of tourists.

I was only partly right. The view and the history are still there, as is the stunning reconstructed Art Deco interior. And, of course, Slavia still has its fair share of tourists, such as the trio of young Japanese women I saw there one afternoon, picking at their spaghetti and wearing looks of either absolute boredom or complete disgust (I couldn't tell which).

But the locals haven't given up on Slavia yet. Plenty of old regulars still visit, including a few well-known Czech faces from the café's heyday. And then there's the occasional expat holed up in a corner, puffing away on cheap cigarettes and sucking down one espresso after the other as he writes bad Prague-inspired poetry in his leather-bound journal.

So the clientele is a decidedly mixed bag, which always makes for an interesting café experience. The excellent people-watching is aided by Slavia's unique seating arrangement, which puts many tables close together and at various angles to one another. And with a piano player providing live easy-listening background music in the evenings, you can't really fault the atmosphere.

As for the food and service… well, I'm not exactly sure, since both are frustratingly inconsistent. It depends, I guess, on what you get – and who you get. The waitress on my first visit had a perpetually sour look on her face, and wasn't very attentive besides. But on my second trip, I landed a waiter who was friendly and eager and who even made the occasional unobtrusive joke.

One aspect of the service, at least, seems to be pretty consistent: nobody says hello to customers when they enter. Maybe they thought I was a tourist, but even when I clearly said, "Dobrý den" to various waiters as I walked in, they all looked straight at me and scowled. A coincidence? A specific instruction from the restaurant manager? Or just a general lack of manners? Who knows.

When it comes to critiquing the menus of Czech restaurants, I often feel as if I'm repeating myself. But I have to add Slavia to the long list of restaurants here whose menus try to be everything to everybody and end up being nothing more than a great big mess. There's really no need to have spaghetti and sandwiches and svíčková and eleven types of pancakes on the same menu.
Speaking of sandwiches, what happened to the chlebičky? I'd been looking forward to ordering a nice little trio of variously-topped open-faced sandwiches, but I was instead informed that the chlebičky now came in the form of a big baguette. The sandwich with Prague ham, onion, pickle, and horseradish mayonnaise (129 CZK) was tasty, but I would have liked to have tried some other toppings, too. What a shame.
More than anything else – even more than the tourists themselves – it is the problematic menu that marks Slavia as a tourist destination. It would seem appropriate for a place that was this integral to Czech history to stick with local classics instead of trying to appropriate random international dishes in the hopes of pleasing picky foreigners.

And that's doubly true when the foreign-inspired parts aren't very well made. The gazpacho (a dish on Slavia's summer menu, 169 CZK), for example, is all wrong. Gazpacho is a cold, blended Spanish soup made with fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other veggies. The one at Slavia tasted very much like it had come from a can of tomato puree, and for some reason was served with smoked trout, a yoghurt-dill sauce, and a ton of shredded raw zucchini.

The pork schnitzels with summer potato salad (189 CZK) were better – mostly because of the salad, which was made with sour pickles and onions and had just the right level of acidity. Unfortunately, the řízky hadn't been tenderized, so cutting and chewing through the meat was a bit of a mission, but at least the batter was good.

One dish that you really shouldn't miss is Slavia's trhanec (109 CZK). It's been on the menu ever since its reopening in 1997 and was even better now than I remembered. Light, fluffy strips of torn pancake made with fat raisins surround a luxurious wild berry compote. A side of real whipped cream rounds off this classic dessert perfectly.

The problem with Slavia is that it doesn't really know its own identity. Some parts of the menu indicate that it would like to be a sort of gourmandized grand café along the lines of Café Savoy or Café Imperial. But if that were the case, they could at least wipe down the tables between each visit – mine was sticky with glass rings – and fix up the toilets. More importantly, they should designate a proper non-smoking section. At the moment, the only non-smoking area in the whole restaurant is a tiny alcove hidden in the back room (pictured below) with no view whatsoever, and I'm sure they could do better than that.

At least Slavia's prices are still relatively low. That's the only fact that somewhat excuses its unreliable food and service, though its management seems to think the great décor and atmosphere are enough to make up for any other weaknesses.

Well, they aren't. A lot of people fought very hard in the early 1990s to revive Café Slavia from near-extinction. The least the current owners could do now is to make it a place worth visiting – not just once, but again and again.

Café Slavia
Smetanovo nábřeží 2
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 224 218 493
Open Mon-Sun 08:00 – 23:00

images: praguespoon,


Monday, August 18, 2008

Restaurant Review: Zahrada v Opeře

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 09/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I wasn't expecting much of Zahrada v Opeře.

It might have had something to do with the restaurant's location in the monolithic Radio Free Europe building, wedged in between the State Opera and the National Museum and right in the middle of two of Prague's busiest thoroughfares. To reach it, you have to walk up a dusty sectioned-off part of the street, just alongside the RFE barricades and past a couple of checkpoints and machine-gun-brandishing security men.
The unconventional approach almost makes the moment you finally enter Zahrada v Opeře that much better. The restaurant itself is bright and airy, flanked by enormous windows and decorated in a clean, modern style. Colorful plants hang from partitions between the tables, a pretty stone mosaic covers the bar and part of the floor, and gentle jazz music emanates subtly from the speakers. There couldn't be much more of a contrast.

Zahrada recently acquired a new chef, the well-traveled French native Martial Clement, who has worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens in France and Germany as well as a few restaurants in Prague (most recently the Ada restaurant in Hotel Hoffmeister). Mr. Clement's resume also notes his experience as personal chef to an admiral living on Tahiti – a position that might at least partially explain the Frenchman's evident passion for exotic dishes and unusual flavor pairings.

On one visit, the daily specials included bobotie (135 CZK), a spicy-sweet ground beef dish that hails from South Africa. One of the meals listed as "Your Favorites" is nasi goreng (320 CZK), a typical Indonesian fried rice dish. And even fairly standard menu items are livened up by unusual accompaniments: the carpaccio of tuna (230 CZK), for example, is served with wedges of fresh pink grapefruit and lamb's lettuce in a tasty citrus dressing.

I was a little skeptical when I found out that Zahrada had begun serving sushi along with its other international fare; a lot of restaurants seem to be jumping on the Japanese bandwagon without bothering to make the food properly. Here, though, the sushi is crafted exclusively by Tadayoshi Ebina, a native of Japan with long-term experience as the owner and chef of various sushi restaurants. I ordered the small sushi set (350 CZK) and was presented with a beautiful platter of four elegantly crafted nigiri and three uramaki rolls, as well as two small rolls made with pickled radish and raw vegetables. The fish was expertly sliced and as fresh as could be (there was a little too much wasabi smeared on each piece for my taste, but that's really a matter of personal preference).

Seafood seems to be where Zahrada excels. They offer four different versions of tiger shrimp on their menu, and at least one of them is worth crossing the RFE barriers for: the Colombo-style tiger prawn curry, a big bowl of red curry, coconut milk, bananas, apples, raisins, and almonds (380 CZK). It's a complex and hearty dish, with a sauce so yummy I only wished I'd been given a spoon so I could lap it all up.

Also memorable was the chilled porcini mushroom soup with wild mushroom bruschetta and foie gras crème brûlée (220 CZK). I love a good cold soup, and this was one of the better ones I've tried – icy, smooth, and dense with pureed mushrooms. And in case you were wondering, the foie gras crème brulee was good, too. It arrived in a tiny glass bowl encrusted with burnt sugar and tasted just like a regular crème brulee, but the cream underneath was tinged with the unmistakable buttery flavor of real foie.
The obvious care put into the preparation of each dish makes it easier to forgive the occasional (rare) mistake: an undertoasted, bland piece of bread and melted cheese in the goat cheese salad, for instance, or a chocolate mousse that was too creamy for its own good, or the restaurant's clumsy website. Even the servers seem proud of the food, and why shouldn't they be? No plate leaves the kitchen, it seems, without looking gorgeously appetizing. And then there are the little extras that make a restaurant that much more special, like the raw vegetable crudités and dipping sauce they put out along with the bread at the start of the meal (pictured below) and the pitchers of freshly-squeezed juices lined up at the bar.

Zahrada v Opeře has earned itself a steady customer base of lunchtime businessmen and opera buffs (the restaurant is open until 1 a.m. to accommodate the hungry post-show crowd from next door), but its list of fans is bound to accumulate. They can count me, at least, as one of them.

Zahrada v Opeře
Legerova 75
Praha 1 - Vinohrady
Tel: 224 239 685

Open Mon-Sun 11:30 – 01:00 (Kitchen until 00:00)



Monday, August 11, 2008

Restaurant Review: Sahara

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 02/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Imagine you're a would-be restaurateur in a booming European metropolis. Through luck or cleverness, you've been blessed with an incredible spot for your restaurant, a sprawling corner space with a huge storefront and impressive outdoor seating; it's even on a busy square and in one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods. You invest in expensive furnishings, in creating a theme and an instantly appealing atmosphere, and soon enough, your restaurant becomes a regular hangout for the beautiful and the well-to-do.

What do you do then? Do you make every effort to keep your fancy (and surely fickle) clientele happy? Or do you serve second-rate food and hire a staff that couldn't make it through a day working the register at McDonald's?

All of Prague should be buzzing about Sahara Café. It truly does have one of the city's most striking set-ups – two spacious, breezy floors of cozy couches, Moroccan details, and a wraparound balcony overlooking a large and well-manicured courtyard garden. But whenever I mention Sahara to people I know, they all have more or less the same opinion of the place: it's got an awesome atmosphere, but the service is absolutely brutal, and the food is at best 'okay.'

I'd have to agree with them. At times, the level of service is embarrassingly low. On one visit, instead of walking around the table to stand beside me to serve my entrée as any half-sensible person would have done, our server leaned over my companion and stretched his arm two meters across the table to put my plate down in front of me. In performing this balancing act, he was forced to tip the dish, sending the piping-hot sauce dribbling off the plate, through the slats of the wooden table, down my leg, and into my shoe.

The waiter seemed to find this hilarious. I didn't.

During another dinner, our waitress disappeared for a full forty-five minutes after clearing our plates, only to reappear in the background, giggling and playing tug-of-war with a male server and the menus he was holding. We never did manage to flag her down. Instead, we scouted out another waiter to ask him for our check. He looked a bit confused, but to his credit, he did get us the bill. Eventually.

So some of the staff working the tables at Sahara is mildly dense. Still, it would be unfair to say that all of the problems are their fault. I suspect the restaurant is understaffed, and since they don't seem to know even the most elementary basics, what waiters they do hire must receive little to no training on the job. They could really use a good manager.

And it looks like they might need some help in the kitchen, too. Waits between courses can be far too long, and when they finally do arrive, the portions tend to be small and the food is on the greasy side. A plate of ravioli (220 CZK) arrived swimming in a soup of butter, and the hummus (120 CZK) had been drowned in olive oil. An octopus salad (190 CZK) that came with crushed olives, bell peppers, carrots, and arugula was one of the highlights, but olive oil was used too heavily in that dish, as well.

Then there was the mysteriously crunchy filling in the meat lasagna (220 CZK) and a grilled tuna steak in a rosemary and garlic marinade (480 CZK) that was overcooked to the point of leatheriness. But all that was downright gourmet compared to the awful "oriental style" tiger prawn stir fry (480 CZK) I had one night as an entrée.

If the stir fry's sauce had tasted better, I might have been more upset at losing part of it to the inside of my ballerina flat. As it stood, though, the gravy was little more than diluted soy sauce and had completely drenched the rice at the bottom of the dish. Worse still, the rice was of the cheapest variety and the prawns had been cooked until they were mushy and dry. The only vegetables accompanying the shrimp were some large, lazily-chopped pieces of fresh ginger, red chili peppers, and green onions, plus the fresh parsley that was dusted over just about every dish that left the kitchen. I wouldn't have paid 100 CZK for this plate, let alone close to 500 CZK.

Sahara cheapens itself further with a scattered international menu, apparently designed to please as many palates as possible. Italian pastas are listed next to Argentinian meats and Middle Eastern mezzes, along with French-style foie gras and Asian-esque prawns. Perhaps this randomness is meant to reflect the strange inconsistencies in the décor. What, for example, are Indian antiques and a Thai Buddha doing in a restaurant called Sahara? I guess if it isn't European, it's all pretty much the same thing.

Whether Sahara's major problem is cluelessness, carelessness, or a combination of both, it doesn't really matter in the end. The setup is enticing enough that even with the bad service and mediocre food, it still gets plenty of customers.

But Sahara could easily be a knockout, a restaurant so popular that despite its massive size, it would be impossible to snag a table there without booking in advance. I would love to see it transformed into a classy, honest restaurant with professional staff and well-made food. The space is just too good for the amateur circus that’s running there now.

Sahara Café
Náměstí Míru 6
Praha 2 – Vinohrady
Tel: 222 514 987



Monday, August 4, 2008

Restaurant Review: Noi

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 26/07/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When I visit a Thai restaurant for the first time, I always make sure to taste their pad Thai. The salty-sweet noodle dish is one of Thailand's signature culinary exports, and sampling it can be a good measure of how serious a restaurant is about making quality ethnic cuisine.
Noi's version (180 CZK with chicken, 220 CZK with shrimp) passes the test. The flat rice noodles had been cooked just right and they were coated in enough oil to keep them moist, but not so much as to make them heavy on the stomach (in fact, "real" pad Thai – the kind served from food carts on the streets of Bangkok – is drier and less rich than the Western version, but it's rarely made that way outside of Asia). Many Asian restaurants, including some in Prague, use monosodium glutamate to enhance their dishes' flavor, but Noi doesn't seem to be one of them – their pad Thai wasn't overpoweringly salty, as it can be in kitchens that do use artificial flavor enhancers.

All the right ingredients were there: scallions, peanuts, fried tofu, scrambled egg, and cilantro, with a hint of fish sauce and tamarind. I would have added some fresh bean sprouts, and my shrimp were a little undercooked, but this was nonetheless one of the better pad Thais I've had in Prague.

The good food was a pleasant surprise. Just a couple of months ago, Noi was Downtown Café, a hip restaurant serving up salads and sandwiches and house music. The thumping beats are still there, courtesy of a DJ booth nestled into the corner (I'm not sure if it gels with the supposedly Zen-like atmosphere, but whatever), and you can still order a club sandwich off their breakfast menu. Now, though, Thai food is the focus, and the switchover doesn't seem to have been a bad idea at all.

On a recent midweek visit, Noi was packed with customers – a testament, perhaps, to the popularity of Thai cuisine among local restaurant-goers. Behind an orange glass wall, Thai chefs could be seen chopping fresh vegetables and frying up noodles in woks as hungry patrons reclined in leather armchairs. If the colonial-style décor seems a little familiar, it might be because it's been brought in from the Le Patio store next door. Le Patio made its name importing furniture and decorative items from Southeast Asia, and since the mid-'90s, the shop's distinctive goods have been spotted in many a restaurant around town. So the interior isn't the most original, but at least it's well-suited to the overall theme.

I prefer the small courtyard out back, where stone statues rest alongside laurel trees and fresh flowers adorn the tables. The relaxed atmosphere is complemented by a laid-back approach to table service on the part of the wait staff – and that's putting it kindly. During both of my meals at Noi, the servers were friendly but seemed disorganized, frazzled, and forgetful; they came off more as first-timers than professionals.

For one thing, they didn't seem to know much about the food. When I asked what distinguishes the red and green curries (the difference tends to be quite subtle, but one is usually spicier than the other; on Noi's menu, though, their description and spiciness level were the same), our waitress simply shrugged and said she had no idea. And when my companion requested chopsticks with his meal, she ran off without asking if the rest of the table might want some, too.

I'm hoping the service will improve as Noi settles in over the next few months. For their part, the kitchen staff seems to have their routines figured out – minus the occasional hiccup, such as when one of my main courses appeared at the table long before I was finished with my starter.

What's more important is that the food they're whipping up back there really is good. The green curry with chicken (160 CZK) was properly spicy and packed with vegetables, including eggplant, bell peppers, pea pods, fresh ginger, and Thai basil. Miraculously, the veggies hadn't been overcooked to death; they retained their crunchiness and natural color, which together with the creamy green curry sauce made for a meal as aesthetically pleasing as it was flavorful.

I also enjoyed Noi's tom kah kai (70 CZK), a rich soup made with coconut cream and lemongrass and served with mushrooms and chicken, but I was less satisfied with the vegetarian spring rolls (80 CZK). They weren't bad – I did like the crispy texture of the roll itself – but the stuffing of glass noodles, shiitake mushrooms, and carrots was a little bland and could have used some more fresh vegetables. Plus, the dipping sauce the rolls came with was the usual sweet-and-sour from a bottle that you find almost anyplace else. A homemade sauce would go a long way towards differentiating Noi from other Thai restaurants.

It does stand out from most of the rest, anyway. For reasonable prices, it offers more or less authentic Thai cuisine prepared with fresh ingredients and careful attention. If they'd tighten up the service and a few of the problems in the kitchen, Noi could very well become the best Thai restaurant in Prague. Which isn't saying much, of course. But we have to start somewhere.

Újezd 19
Praha 1 - Malá Strana
tel.: +420 257 311 411