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



Anonymous said...

Lauro vrat se do skoly. Neumis psat a jeste si budes vylevat zluc? asi sama na sebe.nechapu ze tohle vubec otiskli v LN.styd se.hlavne ze recenze je nezavisla. ty se asi taky pokousis byt, ale nejdriv se na to kvalifikuj bulvarni nulo...

Pivní Filosof said...

About the service at this place, and other spots in general. In a town with virtually no unemployement it is really difficult for restaurants to find qualified staff, more so in summer. Waiters, no matter what sort of restaurant we are talking about, are underpayed for the pretty hard job. In fact, I have found better service at neighbourhood pubs than at more upmarket places.
A friend of mine, part owner of two restaurants himself (one of which has been open for 10 years) once told me that at the beginning they looked for experienced, hard working people to work at their restaurant, now, they look just for people.
I heard another one say "I know the service is terrible, but at least they don't steal from me".
I believe those things should be considered when critisising service at restaurants.
Needless to say, places like Sahara, that aim at a more affluent clientele should know better and spend a few more thousand crowns a month on their payroll.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Sahara's service is ridiculous for such an upscale place.

I was there with a large group a few weeks ago (about 10 ppl) and we had one waiter for the whole table. He spilled wine glasses, reached over people to place/collect plates and was pretty sloppy all around.

The food was forgettable. My tuna was NOT rare (when will restaurants in Prague learn?!?) even though I specifically made a point of telling the waiter. That said, any restaurant that deems itself to be such culinary class and dares to charge such prices should know better.

Everything I tried was too oily. They ran out of martini glasses and starting serving fancy drinks in inappropriate glasses.

Why do they have 2 different menus based on where you sit (upstairs or downstairs)? And rumor is that they have 1 chef running between both kitchens at lunch.

Sahara needs to clean up their act!

Anonymous said...

well whoever said that in prague there is such word as customer service? these restaurants such as sahara has only the place and location as something to offer to the customer. it is true indeed that it is very hard to find well-mannered and well-trained waiters but, sure they can find managers of good HRM background or at least with good orientation of the business.

sahara indeed is lost in space. having to combine all sorts of cuisine, they are even confused how to package their own restaurant, calling it sahara in the heart of asian furnitures and architectures.

it has something to do with the attitude of some people here. they dont think of how to improve on what they do, especially those who belong to the later generation. they just continue on what they are doing. they dont know how to think out of the box, they just get orders from their superiors, which apparently has no concern on the things that they are doing, not even the owners. they are just mere investors.

in addition to sahara and bad customer service, read this: