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


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