Monday, October 27, 2008

Restaurant Review: U Modré Kachničky

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 04/10/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When U Modré Kachničky (At the Blue Duckling) was in its heyday, the restaurant was locally famous for its romantic atmosphere, home-style food and, at least among my family, its wonky Czech-to-English translations.
The only menu gaffe I can remember now is the name of a certain side dish – "lubricated potatoes" – though there must have been many more (on one visit, a friend of my parents' who could understand the German and French translations as well almost peed herself laughing).

Alas, U Modré Kachničky's menu has by now been tidied and polished to a perfectly comprehensible (if not always strictly correct) standard of English. And something else has happened here, too. Over the years, Kachnička's once-elegant interior has become worn and shabby, and the quality of the food has dropped to a pathetic low.

Now before you start composing your letter of complaint to my over-burdened superiors at Lidovky, do me a personal favor and try to picture the following situation in your mind.

After arriving at U Modré Kachničky for a special dinner with your significant other, you peruse the menu and decide to forgo the traditional duck. Instead, you order vepřo knedlo zelo (roast pork with dumplings and cabbage); it's a Czech classic, and one that has disappeared from many pubs and restaurants, so you're delighted to see it on offer.

Unfortunately, by the time the plate reaches your table, the food is almost cold. It includes two very small portions of cabbage, one white and the other red. Both are fairly tasteless and have been thickened by a slimy clear gravy. The špekový knedlík (bacon dumpling) is decent, if a little dry.

But the vepřo itself is the real insult. The meat is of poor quality, stringy and hard to chew. It is also so salty that you can't help but suspect it has been marinated in the stuff, perhaps in an effort to keep the meat fresh. And when you slice into it, you see that the inside is pink: raw, which, of course, cooked pork should never be.

Let's assume you don't have a particular fondness for contracting trichinosis in fancy restaurants. How much would you pay for that vepřo knedlo I just described? 150 CZK? No?

Try 420 CZK.

Those poor American tourists sitting in the other room. If they'd only saved their hard-earned $24 and spent it on an entrée back home, they would be enjoying a meal of an entirely different caliber. But since their dishonest hotel or guidebook must have told them that this was the place to go for authentic Czech fare, they're stuck here. And when they return home, they're bound to tell their friends in America that the food in Prague is expensive and terrible.

No wonder foreign visitors have been keeping their distance from the Czech Republic lately – a bad reputation, after all, spreads quickly.

But for some reason, U Modré Kachničky has managed to keep up a good name, even among locals. Could it be the yellowed newspaper clippings posted outside the door proudly announcing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's visit to the restaurant back in 1995? Or maybe Czech people enjoy drinking their Plzeň from 0.33l-bottles for 80 CZK apiece? I'm Slovak, you see, so it's hard for me to be sure.

Seriously, though: a Czech restaurant specializing in roast duck that doesn't serve tapped beer? Either Kachnička is playing some kind of joke on its customers or it really just doesn't give a damn.

I did try one of the duck dishes, by the way. It was served on a sauce of dried plums and slivovice (480 CZK, pictured above). There wasn't much to it – just some stewed prunes that had been marinated in alcohol – so it tasted very boozy and sour. The duck meat was all right, but its skin was bunched-up and soggy, wet rag style. And the potato pancakes served on the side were nothing more than some mashed potatoes (obviously belonging to another dish) that had been pressed into patties and fried on a greasy pan.

I wasn't bowled over by the famous atmosphere, either. Maybe that was because I was seated in a kind of anteroom to the kitchen and toilets and I was treated to the comings and goings of waitstaff printing out checks at the register beside me and noisily gathering cutlery from the sideboard. Sometimes, as servers went in and out of the kitchen, I would catch a glimpse of a bunch of clutter and a dirty-looking tiled floor and hear the yelling of the cooking staff.

Even the main rooms didn't strike me as especially pleasant. The antique furniture and painted murals do lend the place a sense of old-world authenticity, but there is something unattractive about the cold quality of the lighting and the way the tables are all crammed in very close to one another.

Given all this amateurishness, it was surprising to find a service staff so on point. They were professional and friendly even with customers who were obvious tourists. I did have to wonder about the water, though. Non-sparkling mineral water was served from a glass pitcher (for 180 CZK) and tasted suspiciously like the kind you'd find coming from your kitchen tap.

Or maybe the tap water was just my imagination, now biased from having endured that painful vepřo knedlo. Still, the waiters should be pouring water from the bottle into the pitcher in front of their patrons so they can be sure they're not being cheated.

It doesn't really matter, though. Customers are being cheated at U Modré Kachničky either way. And if you don't believe me, try it for yourself. If you can justify those prices for that food, go ahead and write that letter.

Just don't say I didn't warn you.

U Modré Kachničky
Nebovidská 6
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: 257 320 308



Monday, October 20, 2008

Restaurant Review: Luka Lu

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 27/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Every week, I have the task of figuring out which restaurant I'm going to review next. I take into consideration the kinds of places I did recently, what people might enjoy reading about, and any interesting tips I may have received.

Once I've made a decision, I schedule my visits. I like to go at least twice to each restaurant, preferably for both lunch and dinner. Eating at the same spot two or three days in a row can be kind of boring, so I try to leave some time in between.

And then I need to work out who's coming with me.

Believe it or not, it can be hard to recruit people. Friends and family who once saw eating out with a restaurant critic as an exciting novelty have started angling for a little more choice in the matter, realizing that they'd prefer to eat at the restaurants they already know and love. "Can't we just go to Café Savoy again?" they say. "We know it's good." One friend has even become convinced that her presence is a curse and the food turns out to be bad every time she comes along (it has, but I'm pretty sure it's not her fault).

Although trying out restaurants that I otherwise might never set foot into is part of my job, eating alone isn't all that fun. That's why I occasionally do my restaurant-going companions – and myself – a favor and pick a place I know they're going to love.

This week, that place was Luka Lu. When I wrote about it for a different publication some time ago, I brought my brother along to dinner and he fell in love with a certain octopus dish he tried there. So he was very happy to have an excuse to visit again.

As his luck would have it, of course, the restaurant didn't have any octopus left. After the waitress informed him of this, my brother promptly shot me an accusatory look, as if I was the one who'd done Luka Lu's grocery shopping that day. He reluctantly picked another dish.

Fortunately, it's hard to make a bad choice at Luka Lu. The menu features a nice selection of Balkan- and Italian-inspired meals, including čevapčiči, pastas, and various fish entrées. It's not the most sophisticated food in the city, but that's partly why I like it. This is straightforward, family-style fare, the kind you might find in a tucked-away little restaurant in Sarajevo, or, better yet, on the dining table of a Balkan home.

Luka Lu describes itself as the child of an adventurous Italian father and a calm, simple Bosnian mother. This assessment makes perfect sense: the unpretentious food is, naturally, the work of the mama. And you only need to take one look at the interior design to see where the boisterous Italian side comes in.

Owner Veso Djorem's long culinary career has seen him open ten different restaurants in Prague and Sarajevo, including the now-defunct Dolly Bell in Vyšehrad and another Malá Strana spot called Gitanes. His ventures are known for their signature decorative style: colorful and cluttered, with the occasional upside-down table hanging from the ceiling.

Glance upwards in Luka Lu's front room and you'll see a fully-laid-out sewing table, complete with machine, half-finished garment, and a pair of fluffy slippers. Bright murals depict a cartoon-ish harbor, and wooden windows and a little balcony are superimposed on the walls. It's playful kitsch, warm and welcoming and entirely different from the morose minimalism espoused by so many Prague restaurants.

But the best part of the interior isn't even visible until you turn a corner and walk down a narrow hallway. That's where you'll find Luka Lu's winter garden, a beautiful, airy room with a glass ceiling, pretty tiles, and plenty of plants. There were a couple of new additions here on my last visit, neither of which I'm too sure about: a big soda fridge and a birdcage full of squawking parakeets. The fridge detracts from the atmosphere for obvious reasons; the birdcage does add some liveliness, but assorted avian debris had ended up on the table and chairs we were led to by the waitress. We ended up changing seats.

In the very back of Luka Lu is a beautiful outdoor courtyard with wooden plank floors and glowing lanterns. I discovered this gem of a garden a little too late for the summer season, but I'll be sure to remember it for next year. The service can be a bit slow – especially if you're sitting in the rear areas – and there's been the occasional mix-up on my visits there, but at least everyone's friendly and relaxed.

Luka Lu (which translates as Harbor Lu) has been designed to evoke a konoba, or traditional Croatian-style seaside restaurant equivalent to a Greek taverna. Fittingly, seafood is the specialty here. Besides the aforementioned traditionally prepared octopus (350 CZK), there are also fried anchovies and fried sardines (175 and 180 CZK, respectively), and various fresh fish prepared on the restaurant's lava grill.

Red meat lovers will appreciate some of the Balkan specialties, such as the tasty kebab-like čevapčiči (160 CZK for 10 pieces; they're not as good as some I've had in Sarajevo, but are still worth a try) and the rich pljeskavice (something like a hamburger patty) stuffed with cheese (195 CZK). I was especially impressed by a traditional lamb dish (285 CZK) made in a special pan called a sač – the meat was so juicy and tender it was falling off the bone.

The broken English on Luka Lu's website says that "Wicked tongues say that most people cross the Vltava river and stay in the Lesser Quarter because of [Luka Lu]'s untameable beauty and not because of good food and wine." They're selling themselves a little short. The atmosphere might be the big initial draw, but there's more to like than the pretty décor.

Just ask my brother. Octopus or no octopus, he's already itching to go again.

Luka Lu
Újezd 33
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: 257 212 388



Monday, October 13, 2008

Restaurant Review: Villa Richter

This review originally appeared in Czech translation
in the 20/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Three restaurants, multiple terraces, an extensive wine cellar, and a newly-planted vineyard: no one could accuse Villa Richter of lacking ambition.

Anyone who'd undertake the necessarily substantial renovation of this castle-side Classicist summerhouse and its accompanying 7000 square meter property would have to prepare themselves for a formidable task. Built in the 1830s by architect Josef Peschka, the building was confiscated from the German Richter family in 1945 and eventually housed private apartments, the Cuban embassy, and the Communist Interior Ministry. After winning a ten-year-long restitution dispute during the 1990s, the Prague Castle decided to rent out the decaying Villa and its overgrown former vineyard to those who proposed the best project for the site's rejuvenation.

Just a couple of months ago, Villa Richter was opened to the public for the first time. Locals and tourists are free to walk its pretty grounds and enjoy either a Czech-style meal at the Piano Terra restaurant or a more upscale dinner upstairs at Piano Nobile. Or they can opt for coffee and a snack at Pergola, a vineyard-side outdoor café.

But will they want to?

At the very least, they'll come for the view. All of Villa Richter's restaurants boast stunning outdoor seating with vistas over Malá Strana, the castle, and beyond. Unfortunately, the Villa is also home to some pretty steep prices and a whole lot of uneven cooking.

Looking at Piano Terra's menu, it's hard not to immediately categorize it as a tourist trap. Although this is the less expensive restaurant option at Villa Richter, a 0.4l glass of Plzen will set you back 59 CZK. A bowl of kulajda (a traditional Czech soup made with potatoes, mushrooms and dill), meanwhile, is priced at 110 CZK. The prices are sure to scare off a few curious locals, but I wasn't put off right away. I've always wished there were more restaurants serving Czech food that isn't the usual hospoda grizzle – even if it would mean paying a little extra to get it (Café Savoy is one exception; another, apparently, is the Krogen Soldaten Svejk restaurant in Stockholm, where a friend of mine claims to have eaten better Czech food than she's ever had in a restaurant at home).
While the food at Piano Terra is of higher quality than you'd usually find at a Czech place, it doesn’t live up to the promise of its prices. The house specialty is a plate of Prague ham served with apple horseradish, gherkins, and pickled vegetables. The ham was juicy and the horseradish sweet and powerfully spicy, but for 290 CZK I'd hope for a čalamáda (pickled vegetable mix) that wasn't completely bland and bread that wasn't stale and crumbly. Although the Wienerschnitzel came with a great potato salad, the meat itself was chewy and dry and hadn't been pounded out thin enough. With a price tag of 390 CZK, one would expect the schnitzel to be damn near perfect.

Because of Piano Terra's sprawling terraces and lovely view, the food may not have to be perfect – at least for now. But when guests will have to retreat into the small, stuffy-looking indoor dining rooms in the wintertime, they may be less willing to overlook the flawed food and overblown prices.

The upstairs restaurant, Piano Nobile (not to be confused with Chateau Mcely's restaurant of the same name), seems to have accounted for this problem a little better than its neighbor. In addition to its outdoor terrace, it also features a gorgeous greenhouse dining room that takes full advantage of the city view. But the very nice atmosphere can't make up for the fact that the food here is expensive, pretentious, and not especially good.

Somebody in Piano Nobile's kitchen needs to have his or her palate checked. Dish after dish came out tasting strange – and not in a good or interesting way, either. When my companion ordered the cold cucumber soup with mint (210 CZK), I'd hoped it would be a crisp, refreshing summer starter. Instead, the distinctive taste of cucumber was muddled by some oddly sweet and vinegary flavors, and it was served lukewarm when it should have been ice-cold.

An entrée of smoked duck breast, served with corn, chanterelles, and a cognac sauce (650 CZK), was memorable only for the fact that the corn – which, by the way, was so dull and rubbery I had to wonder if it was of the freezer variety – had been mindlessly doused in that omnipresent crutch of the lazy chef: truffle oil. The fragrant oil completely overpowered the chanterelles, rendering them nothing more than a garnish when they should have been one of the dish's key components.

As in all art forms (and high cuisine is certainly one), the greatest masterpieces are born when the artist has the capacity to self-edit, to pare down his initial creative mess and let the essentials shine. A chef who insists on dumping lots of sugar and salt and vinegar and flavored oils into his food strangles the natural flavor of the main ingredient – and that, of course, is one we most want to savor.

The problem of the chef's heavy hand is one we see in local restaurants again and again, particularly in those that imagine they are serving upscale cuisine. Sometimes, the bells and whistles are designed to mask an inferior product, such as a slightly-stinky piece of fish; on other occasions, a chef lacking in confidence or skill hides behind too many ingredients and a plateful of fancy tricks. My guess is that a little bit of both is going on at Piano Nobile.

It's a shame about Villa Richter. It's a beautiful spot with solid service, good wine, and, naturally, that breathtaking view. But until they make the food worth my while – and my wallet – I don't think I'll be coming back.

Villa Richter
Staré zámecké schody 6
Praha 1 – Pražský hrad
Tel: 257 219 079

Open Mon-Sun 10:00 – 23:00