Monday, January 12, 2009

Restaurant Review: La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise

This review originally appeared in Cz
ech translation in the 20/12/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

The La Dégustation experience begins with a phone call.

An unfailingly polite staff member takes your reservation and asks if you've been to the restaurant before. If you haven’t, he'll explain La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise's concept to you: traditional Czech and Mediterranean dishes made with modern culinary techniques served as seven-course tasting menus with seven different amuse-bouches. He then inquires whether you or any of your dining companions have any food allergies or restrictions – the kitchen is more than willing to accommodate them. Finally, he'll tell you that he and his colleagues are looking forward to seeing you at their restaurant. And you will actually believe him.

Once your date is set, it's time for you to mentally prepare yourself. Here's what you need to know prior to dining at La Dégustation:

1. You will eat a lot. A degustation (tasting) dinner may consist of small plates, but fourteen small plates add up pretty quickly. So it's probably a good idea to skip the svíčková for lunch that day.

2. You will spend a lot of money. Memorably wonderful gourmet experiences at La Dégustation's level don't – and shouldn't – come cheap. Still, considering the quality of the food and service, this is one of the better-value upscale restaurants in town.

3. You will enjoy yourself immensely (but only if you are eating with somebody you like). Dinner here usually takes at least three hours, so this is not the place to bring your cranky mother-in-law or the guy who loves to narrate, word for word, scenes from films you don't care about or have never even heard of.

If, on the other hand, you're looking to impress somebody, La Dégustation is the place to go, even if it might not seem that way on first glance. The atmosphere is elegant but understated – dark woods and soft brown leathers dominate the décor; the tablecloths aren’t spread over the tops of the tables but hang from their sides. Nina Simone croons quietly from the speakers, and the manager wears jeans and a blazer. They don't need to use any old-fashioned fancy gimmicks here to justify their prices.

A taste of your first amuse-bouche or two and you'll understand why. The opening treat was a creamy little bonbon of foie gras in dark chocolate sprinkled with sea salt. Then came a phenomenal beef tartare – the best I've ever tried – neatly sandwiched by two round pieces of toasted bread.

The big decision is between three tasting menus, each of which varies slightly from week to week. The Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise (1850 CZK) consists of modernized traditional Czech dishes; the Dégustation Terre et Eau (1950 CZK) is a lighter, fish- and vegetable-heavy, mostly Mediterranean menu; and the Sélection du Chef (2650 CZK) is a combination of both with some additional pricey goodies, such as foie gras and lobster (half menus are also available, as is a newly-instated lunch menu). Each can be supplemented by a wine pairing, ranging in price from 1000 to 1500 CZK, selected by La Dégustation's knowledgeable sommeliers.

The kitchen emphasizes fresh, seasonal ingredients, many of them sourced from local organic farms. In pairing these high-quality goods with a sense of playfulness and sound technical skill, head chef Oldřich Sahajdák achieves a feat that has eluded so many local chefs: he has elevated classic Czech food to meet international standards.

Take, for example, the oyster blade organic beef – so tender that its strands flake away from one another at the touch of a fork – served alongside a perfectly poached egg, mashed potatoes rolled in breadcrumbs, and a lemony dill cream sauce. It's a refined version of koprová omáčka (beef in dill sauce), the flavors both Czech and worldly, familiar yet novel.

Other dishes touch on the scientifically-based techniques of molecular gastronomy. A luscious seared foie gras was paired with a gelée of sweet Monbazillac wine and fluffy almond purée; another amuse bouche, a "ravioli" made entirely from a paper-thin slice of carrot, popped under the teeth to release a surprising gush of homemade apple juice.

Oversights are made here too, on occasion. My poached lobster claw, presented in a beet sauce with creamy leek and cashew nuts, was so overcooked it was hard to swallow, and a Jerusalem artichoke soup with orange "caviar" and bell pepper preserve was disappointingly bland.

But it is easy to forgive the occasional misstep of a team so dedicated to their craft. During the course of our meal, the restaurant's friendly manager, Filip Trčka, showed us a tattered book filled with sticky notes, written by 19th-century "culinary personality" Marie B. Svobodová. Discovered in an antique bookstore, this archaic manual for soon-to-be brides was the inspiration for creating La Dégustation and now serves as the chefs' primary reference, a vintage culinary Bible for an innovative kitchen that has a real sense of purpose.

Which is not to say that every great restaurant needs an old book or a romantic story. But La Dégustation's origins, and the palpable pride of every staff member working in the open kitchen and on the restaurant floor, help explain why this is such a remarkable place.

I could enthuse much more if I had the space. Instead, I'll say only this: all of the passion, originality, and joy long missing from Czech restaurants are alive and well in La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise. If you can at all afford it, go. And when you do, tip generously – knowing La Dégustation, they'll probably deserve it.

La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise
Haštalská 18
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 311 234

Open Mon-Sat 18.00-24.00, Tues-Thurs 12:00-14:30

photographs 1, 5, 7 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others