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
Tel.: 220 951 083

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

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


Anonymous said...

Dear Laura,

Thank for your comments who put our attention that we still can do better. Sure we will work on that. Indeed we developed our own style, what i should call old fashion French-Belgium country dishes. The menu is created according old recipes from my grandmother and flavoured or marinated by herbes from our own garden. Extensive reasearch is monthly done to give forgotten even some times historical recipes a new live at our menu card. Often in the new cuisine to many flavours are combined, shadowing the original beautifull fresh flavours of the main ingridients and as thus confusing the customers by this complex scala of aroma's.
So as my grandmother said a tomatoe should taste like a tomatoe, keep cooking simple and tasty.

R. said...

What a pleasant surprise it is to see a kind comment from the owners. We will have to visit them when the weather gets better and the sun comes out!