Monday, December 22, 2008

Restaurant Review: Auberge de Provence





This review originally appeared in Cz
ech translation in the 29/11/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Like bacon and eggs, or beer and pivní sýr, mussels and fries were meant to be together.

There's something about the combination of that soft, briny mollusk with the hot crispiness of a French fry – dipped in tartar sauce, preferably – that many people find irresistible. No wonder the Belgians consider moules frites (or mosselen-friet, in Dutch) their national dish.

But who'd expect to find mussels and fries in the village of Tuchoměřice, home to a population of just over 1000? Or, for that matter, Belgian waffles and a selection of 50 different Belgian beers?

The local splash of Belgianism comes courtesy of Ludo Van den Bergh, the proprietor of an intimate hillside hotel called Auberge de Provence. Located in a 17th-century former Jesuit monastery overlooking Tuchoměřice and beyond, the inn has garnered acclaim not only for its picturesque setting, but for its unique little restaurant, too.

A good measure of a restaurant's atmosphere is how well the ambiance holds up against an empty or near-empty dining room. When my dining companions and I first entered Auberge on a rainy weekday evening, we were the only patrons there, but it hardly mattered. The low wooden beams and stone walls decorated with dry flowers, mounted antlers, and old family photographs gave the place a rustic, cozy feel, like we'd happened upon somebody's private country retreat.

The homey setting is echoed by Auberge's manageably small menu and its country-style Belgian and French dishes, many of which are made with organic vegetables from the hotel garden. A large portion of velvety Belgian pumpkin soup (80 CZK), garnished with grated cheese and a homemade potato chip, was subtly seasoned but tasty; my companion's escargots à la Bourguignonne (235 CZK for 6 pieces; 425 CZK for 12) were plump and chewy and topped by the same sharp cheese as the soup. The Argentinian beef fillet steak (585 CZK) was grilled to a perfect medium-rare and was served with a sauté of roasted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and leeks.
Then there are those mussels (245 CZK for ½ kg; 480 CZK for 1 kg), unusually large and cooked in a traditional Belgian broth of carrots, celeriac, onions, and garlic. They would have been perfect if only they'd been cleaned of their beards – the long filaments the mussel uses to attach itself to the seabed, which should always be removed before cooking. As it was, I had to pull each of the hairy clumps from my mouth in a rather unladylike way. The uniform cut of the fries suggested that they were not home-made, but the store-bought frozen kind. Too bad. I can't think of anyplace you can get freshly-made Belgian fries in Prague, and this would be just the right setting for that kind of treat.

So I was mildly disappointed by the moules frites, but what with the size and freshness of the mussels, I would order them again. And I'd make sure to revisit dessert, too. The Brussels waffle (130 CZK) was the real thing: light and yeasty, not dense and sweet the way many of us might think of waffles. It arrived dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with a generous amount of forest berries, although it was missing the vanilla ice cream that was promised on the menu. A baked apple with cinnamon (145 CZK) was also memorable, particularly for its garnish of smoky toffee sauce.

It is the rare restaurant these days that doesn't offer panna cotta or crème brulée or warm chocolate cake. And there are no fussy foams, complicated combinations, or precarious architectural creations, either. All of those have their place, of course, but I've started to wonder lately if poorly-executed chichi food has become the compulsory culinary style for our upper-scale restaurants. If it has, then Auberge de Provence hasn't gotten the memo. They're doing something different, making the kind of straightforward, rustic fare that people really crave.
The service at Auberge was welcoming and natural. When the waiter asked if we wanted any aperitifs and, later, digestifs, he did so without being pushy – I am sick to death of servers who, when I decline their offer of an aperitif, start rattling off a list of various alcohols ("Champagne? Campari? Martini?") as if they were quoting a bartending school textbook. The kitchen occasionally seemed a little slow, which makes me concerned about what the service might be like when the dining room is full, but I'm assuming that the restaurant is better-staffed over the weekends.

It ought to be, anyway. Auberge has live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and things get a little more rowdy then, as they do when the hotel hosts one of its many conferences and weddings. And with a children's menu and outdoor playground, it's a popular place for families to visit, as well. In the summertime, there's terrace seating and an outdoor grill, but with its cast-iron furnace and snug interior, the restaurant is just as appealing for the wintertime (and special menus will be on offer for Christmas and New Year's Eve).
It took me a long time to discover Auberge de Provence. Although I'd heard about the restaurant before, I was never in the mood to make the trip. Let me give you some advice: make the trip. It's just past Ruzyně airport, but it feels like a different country altogether.


Auberge de Provence

U Špejcharu 355
Tuchoměřice, Praha-západ
map
Tel.: 220 951 083

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

photographs 1, 4, 5, 6 Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others tuchomerice.cz

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Restaurant Review: L'Angolo by Kogo





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 22/11/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There are more difficult jobs than writing restaurant reviews: coal mining, for example, or pediatric neurosurgery. I'm not one to complain.

But when I have to write about a restaurant like L'Angolo, my work suddenly starts to feel kind of hard.

It's always more interesting to write either about a fantastic dining experience (food so good it brings tears to my eyes) or a horrific one (greasy sauce being poured into my shoe by an idiotic waiter). Some people might think I look for things to criticize about a restaurant, or that I invent quirky details to make my articles more readable. I don’t. I try to give as honest an opinion – and yes, for those who are still in doubt, my articles are opinion pieces, not factual reports – as I possibly can.

What am I going to say about a restaurant that's not great and not terrible, that doesn't seem to have a distinct identity or particular specialty? Well, I'm going to say exactly that, I guess.

L'Angolo is a sister to the Yugoslavian-owned Kogo restaurants, which are known for their high-quality Italian food, consistent service, and sleek yet unintimidating settings. Unfortunately, this new venture (or semi-new, since L'Angolo recently reopened following a kitchen fire last spring) doesn't quite match the standards of the original.

I've been a fan of Kogo since the first location opened on Havelská in 1994. Back then, there were very few restaurants in Prague that wouldn't leave a sane person annoyed, if not completely enraged, by the end of the evening, either because of obnoxiously rude service or terrible meals or some nasty combination of both. Kogo's owners understood that to keep customers coming back, their food needed to be reliably good and their staff had to be properly trained. It helps that they have an apparent policy of hiring only waiters from the former Yugoslavia, who seem to be more naturally inclined to friendliness than their Czech counterparts (the Yugo dudes also tend to be very nice to look at, which might earn Kogo a few bonus points for atmosphere).

But it was only after the Slovanský dům location opened in 2000 that Kogo became a local institution. Suddenly, the huge, airy restaurant with the spacious garden at the back of Prague's newest shopping mall became a must-visit destination for politicians, czelebrities, and businessmen. In 2002, one would-be customer even told MF Dnes that he avoids Kogo out of principle because every time he visits, he runs into so many people he knows.

No matter that menu prices have spiked considerably since the restaurant first opened, or that patrons have to walk through the unappetizing stench of Palace Cinema's bacon-flavored popcorn to get to the restaurant. There's just something about Kogo that people love.

Still, not every Kogo enterprise has been as successful as the Havelská and Slovanský dům spots; the owners have been forced to close branches of Kogo in Karlín and on Karlovo náměstí (they also plan to open a Kogo in the new Albatross golf resort outside of Prague). And although L'Angolo has a much better location than those failed ventures, I'm afraid it may end up having to struggle a bit before it finds its customer base.

The major problem, as I see it, is that the food at L'Angolo just isn't quite as good as at the other Kogo restaurants. It's certainly not bad, and there are definitely some high points, like the homemade tiramisu (90 CZK), for example, or a wonderful dorado fillet with thinly sliced, almost chip-like potatoes (495 CZK) that was on special one evening. And the tomato soup (90 CZK), sweetened by red bell pepper and decorated with a swirl of pesto, was thick and satisfying.

But there were mistakes, too. Another special, the maltagliati with homemade sausage (245 CZK, pictured above), would have been excellent if the pasta had been salted more in the pot. The spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, and chili peppers (245 CZK) suffered the same problem. A salad of arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and parmesan (280 CZK), on the other hand, was so salty it was close to inedible – the parmesan had been grated into very fine pieces, making them impossible to separate from the rest of the salad.

Then there were the grilled lamb cutlets, served with cipollini onions and a Barolo wine reduction sauce (680 CZK), that didn't have any sauce at all other than a thin gravy. The lamb was cooked well, but it was full of fat – not the best cut of meat. For such an expensive dish (made more expensive by the 80-CZK side dishes that must be ordered separately), it was very unremarkable.

L'Angolo's décor is not especially memorable, either, even if it is quite tasteful. White wooden panels line the walls, starched white table cloths cover the tables, and black chairs are upholstered in cream-colored leather. Oversized black lampshades hang from the ceiling, and a special lighting system allows the restaurant to change the colors of the lights overhead (orange, on both of my visits). Most interesting, perhaps, is the enormous mirror against the back wall that gives visitors a view of the freshly-renovated Lexus Lounge in the basement below.

The restaurant has been decorated expensively, and it shows. But for me, there's something missing, something that even the large windows and spotless bathrooms can't make up for. Maybe I'm bothered by the kitchen's lack of sophistication, or the slightly cold feeling I get from the atmosphere.

Or maybe the restaurant just needs some time to settle. Perhaps in a couple of months or so, L'Angolo will have figured out how to live up to the second half of its name. At the moment, though, Kogo's little sister has some growing up to do.

L'Angolo by Kogo
Dlouhá 7
Praha 1 - Old Town
map
Tel.: +420 224 829 355

Open Mon-Sun 8:00–24:00

photographs 1, 2, 6: Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; 3, 4, 7: mgmont.cz; all others: praguespoon

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Food news: The new Grand Restaurant Guide is released, La Casa Blů airs out, and Marks 'n' Sparks considers expansion


Last week saw the release of the 2009 Grand Restaurant Guide, with listings of 455 restaurants across the Czech Republic. The top-rated establishment according to the voting public was Alcron at the SAS Radisson, followed by La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, Francouzská Restaurace at Obecní dům, Rialto Ristorante in Brno, and V Zátiší. 2008's bizarre overall winner (and #1 and #3 in service and food, respectively), U Lípy, was conspicuously absent from the rankings.

Congratulations to La Casa Blů, whose owners decided to make their restaurant and bar completely non-smoking after holding an online poll of their regular customers. The change won't go into effect until January 1st, but they will be holding their first smoke-free test run party this Friday the 12th at 6 pm. I, for one, am looking forward to enjoying a breathable Casa Blů.

"House of Personal Development" Maitrea on Týnská ulička plans to open a vegetarian restaurant in early 2009. The center is run by the same people who brought us the well-loved veg eatery Lehká Hlava. And the Dejvice branch of Country Life has finally reopened -- although there is no sign of the vegetarian bistro they promised when they shut for renovations nearly a year ago.

Starbucks-esque Polish chain Coffee Heaven has announced that it will be consolidating its operations and closing six of its nineteen Czech stores as well as its Bratislava and Bucharest locations. The real thing, meanwhile, continues to expand, with a new Starbucks replacing Pravda Group-run Yessi Café on Václavské náměstí.

And some good news for home chefs frustrated by Albert's perenially moldy produce: Marks and Spencer is reportedly considering opening a series of grocery-only stores (known as Marks and Spencer Simply Food in the UK) in the Czech Republic. They've already experienced success here with their in-store food sections, which feature M&S-brand canned goods, frozen foods, wines, and more.

photographs kanzelsberger.cz, lacasablu.cz, maitrea.cz, marksandspencer.cz

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Restaurant Review: Lehká Hlava





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 15/11/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.


When Lehká Hlava first opened, I thought it would never last. Its location on a tiny side street – the shortest in Prague, in fact – seemed too secluded to get much foot traffic, and its vegetarian menu seemed a little too wholesome for a nation of dedicated meat eaters.

I was wrong.

In the past few years, Lehká Hlava has become one of only a handful of Prague restaurants that turn away hungry customers on a regular basis. Even on a Monday or Tuesday night – days when some waiters barely lift a plate during dinner service – reservations are a must.

Before the floods of 2002, the same space was occupied by Dobrá Čajovna, a company that has opened a series of cozy teahouses across the Czech Republic and now even has a couple of branches in Wisconsin and Vermont. But none of them appear to match the charm and secrecy of the original Boršov location: the candlelit room strewn with pillows and Persian rugs where tea drinkers sometimes took naps; the brighter front room, more suitable for reading or long chats with friends; the old-fashioned bell that guests had to pull on in order to be let inside.

I get a little nostalgic visiting Lehká Hlava sometimes, even if the restaurant does have some of that same comfy feeling to it that the čajovna once did. The back room, whose cave-like dark blue walls are dotted with tiny lights for stars, is especially popular – I wasn't able to reserve a seat there on either of my most recent visits. The other large room is nicely designed too, although it is so packed with tables that it can sometimes feel uncomfortably cramped (there is also a separate salonek that can be reserved for small groups who want a little more space and privacy).

Good thing Lehká Hlava has such a unique atmosphere, because the food is a bit lacking, even if it is pleasantly inexpensive. Like many vegetarian restaurants, this one will serve dishes from just about any kind of cuisine (Mexican, Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern) as long as they don't contain meat. The menu is fairly large, and with the restaurant so busy, the solo chef in the tiny open kitchen must be under quite a bit of pressure every night.

Sometimes, the stress seems to show in the food. The grains in the bulgur wheat risotto (135 CZK) were tough, while the tempeh that came with it was dry and shriveled, as if it had been heated more than once. Besides that, I didn't much like the concept of the dish, which paired an oily mixture of stir-fried vegetables and bulgur with a dollop of peanut and sun dried tomato pesto. The idea may have been to give the dish some more flavor – which it definitely could have used – but the pairing seemed more careless than creative.

There are a few other bizarre combinations, too: hummus served with tortilla chips (80 CZK), for example, or a carrot cake doused in melted milk chocolate (70 CZK). The hummus with chips was a little off-base (classic toasted pita bread would really work better), but those with a very sweet tooth should find the carrot cake to their liking. Made from millet instead of regular wheat flour, and spiced up by coconut and fresh ginger, the very dense and moist cake took well to the high-quality chocolate sauce. The same kind of chocolate is used in Lehká Hlava's popular hot chocolate (50 or 70 CZK; try the delicious Aztec version with chili and walnuts) and fruit fondue (80 CZK).

I also enjoyed a main course of grilled goat cheese with gratinated potatoes and sautéed fresh spinach (165 CZK), layered with a top crust of crispy cheese and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts. It's a well-thought-out, satisfying vegetarian entrée. The eggplant quesadillas (135 CZK), meanwhile, were mediocre at best but at least partially redeemed themselves with the very good homemade guacamole and tomato salsa that were served as accompaniments.

Credit should be given to Lehká Hlava's imaginative drinks menu, which features a variety of fresh juices, including the Heart Core (50 or 65 CZK), a combination of freshly-pressed apples, carrots, and ginger. They also do guarana cocktails, fresh lemonade with mint, and something called the Greenhorn, made from young barley shoots, in addition to serving a small selection of wines and leaf teas. Finally, we have a restaurant whose non-alcoholic menu offers more than just Coke and mineral water.

I wouldn't recommend the mineral water, by the way – apparently they pour it into glasses from a large bottle, so it is often completely flat once it reaches the table. And don't try asking the waitresses for ice with your fresh juice, because they'll probably forget to bring it; the service may be friendly, but it's unreliable (you may find it easier to dine here during their monthly brunch, when the food is self-service only).

Lehká Hlava does have its faults, but at least it's doing something different from the countless copycat restaurants that have saturated our dining scene – which may be part of the reason why people keep coming back. There's really nothing else like it, and the love and care the owners have put into the space are palpable. I'm hoping a few more risk-taking entrepreneurs will step forward in the near future. Prague, and all its hopelessly bored restaurant-goers, would almost certainly welcome the change.

Lehká Hlava

Boršov 2
Praha 1
Tel: 222 220 665
map

Open Mon–Fri 11:30–23:30, Sat-Sun 12:00—23:30

photographs 1, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others lehkahlava.cz

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Restaurant Review: Maze by Gordon Ramsay (CLOSED)





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

A previously published Prague Spoon review of Maze by Gordon Ramsay can be found here.

Today, I'm starting with dessert.

I want to discuss a certain gooey little mountain of goodness: the chocolate fondant. A cross between a chocolate flourless cake and a soufflé, it is deliberately undercooked so that its center stays runny. Although the fondant's persistent popularity has turned it into something of an after-dinner menu cliché, it is rarely done exceptionally well. The insides don't ooze from the center because it has been baked for too long, or the cake is underdone and chewy, or it is made with low quality chocolate.

But the fondant at Maze is different.

As my spoon sinks into the cake's spongy crust, a warm gush of melted Belgian chocolate seeps onto my plate. Technically, this fondant is perfect, and it is a creative accomplishment, too. Instead of choosing an obvious accompaniment such as raspberry coulis or crème anglaise, they've paired it with a tangy orange toffee sauce that lends the dark chocolate a citrusy edge and a subtle smokiness. Roasted hazelnuts and a scoop of homemade beurre blanc ice cream add crunch and coolness to an otherwise smooth, hot dish.

For a man as notoriously foul-mouthed as Gordon Ramsay, he is certainly making poetry here.

Mr. Ramsay, of course, is the holder of twelve Michelin stars and the head of a restaurant empire. His reach extends to Tokyo, Dubai, Los Angeles and, most recently, Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport. Maze, his more casual chain of restaurants, now has locations in London, New York, and Prague. He has starred in three television shows, published eighteen cookbooks and memoirs, and contributed a regular column to The Times's Saturday magazine. With so much Ramsay going around, many have questioned whether the ambitious Scotsman might be spreading his talent just a little too thin for his own good.

On each episode of his well-received TV show Kitchen Nightmares, Mr. Ramsay sweeps into a struggling restaurant and figures out how to make it profitable. He trims overcomplicated menus, hollers at incompetent floor managers, and schools chefs in the art of cooking simply and with fresh ingredients. He even throws away hideous furnishings, starts public relations campaigns, and patches up venomous relationships between co-owning family members. Whatever you think of his approach, it's clear that this man knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant.
So, at Prague's branch of Maze, as my table waited half an hour, then forty-five minutes, then a full hour to receive our main course, I imagined what Mr. Ramsay might be saying to the kitchen staff if this were an episode of Nightmares: "Table nine has been waiting ONE FUCKING HOUR for their entrées! The restaurant's half empty! What are you going to do when this place is full? Fucking hell." And so on.

I would also expect him to have somebody apologize for the delay and assure us that our dishes were on their way. There was no such courtesy. And when the food did come, the beef fillet was cold. At least the waiters managed to top up our water and wine glasses – a lot. So often, in fact, that I started taking sips only after I'd checked that no one was looking to ensure that another server wouldn't swoop in to give me a refill.

The over-attentive service has rankled me on previous visits to Maze, too, when the waiters would not only spend all night performing the endless water-pouring dance (could it be a strategy to get us to buy more of those 180 CZK bottles?), but would systematically dump still water into glasses of sparkling water and vice versa. Part of the problem seems to be that many waiters serve each table, so they are unable to keep track of how often each party is being visited and who is drinking which type of water (I noticed a similar problem when I ate at the Maze restaurant in New York recently, where they also use the multiple-server system).

The inconsistencies in service are all the more frustrating because every staff member was otherwise perfectly willing and courteous. And although Maze's organization occasionally falters, the food rarely does.

Under the masterful direction of chef de cuisine Philip Carmichael, French classics are updated with playful touches. A cilantro-tinged king crab salad (440 CZK, pictured above) slathered in a smooth avocado paste comes with a nest of green apple slivers and a scoop of Bloody Mary-flavored sorbet. A fairly unsophisticated vegetable, red cabbage, is spun into a densely flavored violet puree to accompany the roasted Barbary duck breast (750 CZK, pictured below). And in a nod to the current trend for unusual salty-sweet combinations, the same dish is served with a savory duck confit wrapped in flaky pastry and dusted with powdered sugar (a similar line was toed by a wonderful dessert no longer on the menu, the peanut butter sandwich). The risks here are calculated, not random. The difference is obvious.

As far as Prague's more upscale eating establishments go, this is some of the best value for money in the city. There is no cheating, no scrimping, no artful cover-ups of mediocre ingredients by unskilled hands. In the year since Maze's opening, its culinary standards have been consistently high.
It's too bad, then, that Maze is situated close to one of the seedier parts of town, the Masarykovo train station, and in a hotel whose unattractive lobby can be seen from much of the restaurant. The art deco-style décor is tasteful, and the seating, especially the tables for two, are intimate and comfortable. But the room is a little gloomy, the ceilings a little low, the lights around the bar a little garish – and there are no windows to the outside. I've always found it hard to forget that I'm eating in a Hilton.

The fact that you're visiting a Gordon Ramsay establishment is hard to escape, too. The chinaware is from the Ramsay line, and next to the restaurant entrance is a well-lit bookcase displaying Ramsay's various tomes.

But so what if the guy has an ego? At least he can cook. Prague is much better off now that a chef of Mr. Ramsay's caliber has lifted a leg and marked his Old Town territory. I just hope he comes by to do some maintenance soon.

Last time I checked, those memoirs were looking a little dusty.

Maze by Gordon Ramsay

Hilton Prague Old Town
V Celnici 7
Prague 1
map
Tel: +420 221 822 300

Open Mon-Sun
Breakfast 06:30-10:30
Lunch 12:00-15:00
Dinner 18:00-23:00

Photographs by Jakub Hněvkovský, Lidové noviny

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