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)


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