Monday, November 3, 2008

Restaurant Review: Potrefená Husa





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 11/10/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

As I'm tucking in to my řízek dinner at the newest branch of Potrefená Husa, I receive a text message from a friend. "At Husa," he writes. "Want to come by?"

I look around the restaurant. My friend is nowhere to be seen. "Which Husa?" I reply.

If that anecdote doesn't sound familiar to you yet, it will soon enough. I can't be the only one who's been getting the sense that it's impossible to walk five blocks in any direction in the center of Prague without coming across a Staropramen -branded restaurant.

The brewery's concept – a chain of modern franchised pubs that are pricier than your average hospoda but offer quality beer, good food, and friendly service – has proven to be an enormous success. The first Potrefená Husa (which opened in Vinohrady in 1999) was quickly followed by sister restaurants in Plzeň and Liberec. And over the past couple of years, new Husas have been appearing in cities across the Czech Republic with terrifying speed.

A well-run franchise operation guarantees its customers a certain level of consistency from location to location. A Big Mac is going to taste the same whether you're in Brno or San Francisco – in theory, anyway. Fast food lovers like to debate which parts of the world have the best-tasting McDonald's food (Asia, I've heard) and the worst (definitely America, at least in my limited experience).

It's a similar story with Potrefená Husa. Some Husas are better than others. And not all of the individual restaurants manage to keep up the level of quality their corporate overlords expect.

The recently-opened Husa on Platnéřská, for example, seems to have a higher standard of food service than most of its counterparts. Unfortunately, it lacks the atmosphere of the nearby branch on Bílkova – which, after an apparent change in management, has lately become home to some incompetent and surly staff. And unlike at McDonald's, the burger present on most (if not all) Husa menus is completely different from location to location.

So where does the latest incarnation of this Czech pub chain stand among its counterparts? For now, at least, I'd say it's somewhere near the top of the pack.

The Husa I'm referring to is on the corner of Hybernská and Dlážděná, just adjacent to the Masarykovo train station at a spot formerly occupied by a very sketchy Chinese bufet. It's the twenty-fifth Husa to date, and also the largest, seating around 200 people on three floors. Huge windows shine plenty of light on the by now familiar style of décor: a long bar at the front, raised wooden tables, and yellow linoleum floors. Upstairs is a kind of mezzanine with comfortable lounge chairs, and the basement houses a cozy beer cellar with room for 100 customers.

As far as I'm concerned, though, this Husa's claim to fame isn't its size, but its service. All of the servers (and there were lots of them – Husas tend to be well-staffed) I encountered during my visits were not only cordial, but downright enthusiastic. They went out of their way to greet us when we entered the restaurant, they moved with a sense of urgency, and they systematically stopped by our table to ask if everything was all right after we had gotten our food. That last gesture is standard practice in American restaurants and one that should be adopted here more often – a quick check-in allows the customer to ask for that missing fork or a second Mattoni or to have their steak thrown back on the grill.

And, crucially, they weren't annoying. We didn't have waiters hovering around our table or filling up my water glass every time I took a sip; they simply went about their business politely and efficiently. Even the waitress who had an "In training" badge pinned to her shirt was better than most servers I've come across lately. I wouldn't mind sending a few managers of high-end Prague restaurants to Potrefená Husa to see how proper staff training is done.

The news isn't all good in the food department: a chicken broth featured overcooked noodles and peas so hard you could break your teeth on them, the svíčková na smetaně's meat was pretty tough to swallow, and the hamburgers come with cucumbers instead of pickles. But as I've found with every Husa I've visited, there are always a couple of gems on the menu. You just need to figure out what they are.

So far, I've managed to unearth a few goodies at the Hybernská location. One of them is the chicken schnitzel with mashed potatoes and cucumber salad (129 CZK) – a simple dish cooked well, with the chicken freshly fried in clean oil and the mash fluffy and rich -- a great comfort food. The koprová omáčka (beef with dill sauce) I tried as a lunch special falls into that category, too. I'd also recommend the beef carpaccio with arugula, capers, olives, and parmesan (179 CZK), and the fresh strawberries marinated in Grand Marnier served with a scoop of creamy chocolate ice cream (89 CZK).

Old-school pub-goers have been known to grumble about the Husification of Czech pubs, and there is something to their complaints. It can be disheartening to see a classic neighborhood watering hole displaced by a corporate franchise outlet that will look and feel just about the same as twenty-four others (and counting).

But there's a plus side to Husa's presence in our restaurant market, too. When the world's first gastropub, The Eagle, was opened in London's Clerkenwell in 1991, its owners expressed a desire to promote good-quality food in places where ordinary people liked to hang out. At that time, English cuisine was widely considered to be inedible. Now, countless gastropubs and a handful of celebrity chefs later, the U.K. is at the forefront of high-end gastronomy.

We won't necessarily see the same kind of phenomenon happening in the Czech Republic, but there are already signs that all those Husas are having an influence. The food at the famed U Zlatého Tygra pub, for example, used to be absolutely inedible. Now, for 85 CZK, they serve some of the best roast beef in town. I can't vouch for the rest of their menu, but still – awesome beer and great beef? I'm not going to argue with that kind of change.

And neither should you.

Potrefená Husa
Dlážděná 1003/7
Praha 1 – Nové Město
map
Open Sun – Thurs 11.00 - 24.00, Fri – Sat 11.00 - 01.00
Tel.: 224 243 631

images: Staropramen.cz, Prague Spoon

11 comments:

Tim said...

Quality beer? They must have somehow stopped serving beers from Staropramen, then.

Danger said...

I'm quite partial to the Husa at Jiraskovo Namesti the most. Small, cozy, and delicious food. Some of the best among the Husas.

Anonymous said...

The one at Andel is my favourite - excellent service, consistently good food, attractive interior.

Just a shame they serve Staropramen, such a sub-standard beer.

Hippy Bogus said...

Hi,

Thanks for your great resataurant reviews in Prague. We spent 5 days last weekend in Prague and tried a few of your suggestions. Luka lu and cafe de paris stood out (Luka Lu especially so because of the wonderfully art meets kitch ambience and the even better food. We've never tasked better grilled peppers or a sea food soup. And the portions are incredibly generous)

The entrecote at Cafe de Paris was excellent (the shrimp ceasar's salad no longer exists on the menu). Also walked by Kabul (it looked a bit empty, and tried Himalaya (the restaurant that advertises a lot) - the ambience was extremely bare and tacky (we sat on the ground floor) but the food was ok. In their defence, we arrived at 11 pm and they still offered to serve us (first only take away, and then they agreed to let us sit).

Cafe Louvre, the most venerable of all Prague gastronomic institutions was a bit disappointing (we ordered a simple Club sandwich and Beef burger and both dishes arrived cold. The service was efficient and quick, but we expected a bit more. They apparently stop the breakfast menu at 1 pm (I'm not sure how that worked - we were in the mood for a lazy brunch but I guess they can't be expected to have the breakfast menu late into the afternoon)
I was surprised at the high quality of food on offer @ Prague (in part, because we skipped the tourist traps all together and used your blog suggestions to make informed choices)

Also tried a restaurant called Clearhead and the experience was absolutely fantastic.

Thanks
Hippy Bogus

Pivní Filosof said...

I think the bigges complain about PF is not the atmosphere or how modern (and in my opinion cold) the place is, but the beers they serve. Staropramen is not a quality beer, and Stella is even less.
The food might be good, but I'm not going to bother with it until they change the beers they forcefeed on the public (which will never happen)

Rory said...

Husa is terrible. Arrogant staff and poorly cooked food. Reheated, microwaved crap. After recent experiences at the Vinohrady branch I would never set foot in one of these chains again.

Anonymous said...

If you still believe that Potrefena husa has qualified staff, try the one in Brno on Moravske namesti. Not only their food is mediocre, waiters are arrogant, impolite and unfriendly... Range of beers they offer does not need any comment. Miky

Anonymous said...

The staff in Brno (Moravske namesti) branch is so arrogant I always come to decision that I will never cross their treshold again. It is a meeting point for foreigners and being Czech is simply a disadvantege.

Karen said...

Useful review - thanks. But why do you say the Eagle was the first gastro-pub in the UK? They were around - many of them - maybe 15 years before the Eagle was designerised (though to be fair, it's a nice place).

UK food began changing significantly in the seventies - not the nineties!

Laura said...

Hi Karen,

I think it may be more a question of semantics - the term 'gastropub' was apparently coined to describe The Eagle, but as you say, there must have been similar places around before that.

And you may be right about British cuisine getting better earlier. It just seems to me that it only started becoming recognized internationally about 10 or 15 years ago.

Thanks for your comment!

Mark said...

I have to say I'm not a big fan of Husa either, but mostly because of the beer (I hate Staropramen too) and the clientele: mostly loud, obnoxious "voles" and Czuppies. On the other hand, I do like kureci rizek and your photo looked pretty good, so I may end up wandering over by Masaryk station at lunch sometime.