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



EM said...

we went there for our wedding anniversary. Our experience was very different! Pricey, yes, but very tasty food, and professional and very customer-oriented staff. We didn't order the "knedlo vepro", so I can't comment on that, but our soup and game-based dishes were great. (I am originally Czech, my husband is American, and we do enjoy gourmet food)

Joel said...

I've been there twice now and have had a great experience on both occasions. Food is delicious, waiting staff is superb, and the pianist playing standards adds to the comfortable atmosphere. My guess is your review is biased as it is easy to bash the establishments (attractive to gain readers).

Anonymous said...

Now, come on, Joel. She tells it how she experienced it and has nothing to gain from bashing places.

Your comment actually reads as more biased than her. Do you by chance work for the Kachna ?