Monday, February 23, 2009

Restaurant Review: The French Restaurant at Obecní Dům

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 07/02/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There's a funny thing I've been noticing about Czech restaurants lately: the service isn't nearly as bad as it used to be.

Sure, you do come across the occasional pissed-off waitress who behaves as if your ordering an omelet with Gruyère cheese is a personal affront (which is what happened to me recently during brunch at Café Savoy), and things aren't always as professional and efficient as we'd like them to be. But when I started writing this column, I expected to be using up a lot more space writing about outlandishly rude waiters. Just a few years ago, that would have been the norm. Things have gotten better, I suppose -- or maybe I've just been lucky lately.

Table service tends to be the worst at tourist traps, since the staff doesn't expect to ever see their customers again (and many visitors tip poorly for the same reason). But even in those restaurants, there seems to have been a marked improvement.

I don't seek out touristy restaurants very often. Sometimes, however, the tourist traps come to me. I find out that a place comes highly recommended by local food experts and restaurant-goers, and I decide to check it out. Only after eating there do I realize that it is not a place that anyone who knows anything about the Prague dining scene should be frequenting.

Case in point: the Francouzská Restaurace at Obecní Dům. The location itself, although it is a sightseeing favorite, is not what makes this restaurant a tourist trap. Neither is the service, which is polite and quite professional. What marks it as a place no self-respecting local would go – even a local with a lot of money to throw around – are the prices.

How can these people possibly think they can get away with charging 165 CZK for a small shot of espresso? And this is not the coffee bean excreted by wild Indonesian civet cats or some other such fashionable brew, but regular old Lavazza. They do serve it with an unannounced drop of Rémy-Martin, but I still shudder to think what a double (or, God forbid, a cappuccino) might cost. Some restaurants that are not exactly tourist traps charge outrageous prices for their coffee, too, such as Allegro at the Four Seasons – but at least in that case, the bill is somewhat justified by the fanciness of the coffee and quality of the food.

You can't really say the same for Francouzská Restaurace. Although the food generally isn't especially bad, it is especially pricey: appetizers range from 490 to 690 CZK; entrées are between 590 and 950 CZK (ordering three courses gets you a set menu price that's a better deal). Looking at the menu posted outside and the restaurant's gorgeous Art Nouveau interior, an unassuming couple of tourists might conclude that this is one of Prague's most upscale restaurants and treat themselves to a special night out. But they would be making a mistake.

Shriveled, dry, and tasting unmistakeably of burnt oil, the grilled octopus appetizer (690 CZK) was a genuine rip-off, even if the saffron risotto it came with was decently executed. The pumpkin soup (490 CZK) was so creamy that I could hardly discern the flavor of the vegetable at all, and was garnished by a few soggy strands of zucchini that had most likely been cooked in the same offending oil. Value for money this was not.

I do have some good things to say about my main course, the Czech duck roast. At Francouzská Restaurace, appropriately enough, they make duck in the French style, meaning that the breast and legs are prepared to different degrees of doneness: the breast arrived medium rare, while the drumstick was thoroughly cooked through. Otherwise, the dish was all Czech, with sides of both bread and potato dumplings, red cabbage, and stuffing, along with a pear marinated in alcohol that I thought was a nice touch. This was not an inexpensive dish, but it was well-made and the portion was large; I would recommend this one to any vistor who wants to try Czech food done in a more refined way.

Despite Francouzská Restaurace's magnificent architecture, and even with the accompaniment of an exceptional piano player, the gigantic room still felt uninviting. It may have been the white covers over the wooden chairs, or the bright lighting, or the handing over of our coats to a bored-looking coat-check lady when we first walked in, but the warm, luxurious atmosphere I'd hoped for just wasn't quite there – and the tourist puffing away at a cigar throughout our meal didn't help much, either.

Even in the best of times, the restaurant business is incredibly difficult, and in a city oversaturated with expensive dining options (and now about to lose more and more tourist dollars to the financial crisis), the challenge must be even harder. I can see why resorting to old restaurant tricks like overpricing the drinks sometimes feels like a necessity to survive.

But whether we are locals or tourists, most of us have worked hard for our money, too, and would rather not spend 110 CZK of it on a 0.2 L bottle of Coca-Cola. The problem is we won't realize we're being charged so much until after we've received our bill and it's too late. Who, after all, checks the non-alcoholic drinks list before ordering a bottle of water or a cup of coffee?

I certainly don't – but it looks like it may be time for me to start.

Francouzská restaurace v Obecním domě v Praze
Náměstí Republiky 5
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 222 002 770

photographs 1, 4, 5, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Friday, February 13, 2009

Food news: Goodbye Gordon, hello Hooters

After less than a year and a half of operation, Maze Prague by Gordon Ramsay will be changing hands. The news was confirmed by Ramsay's Czech PR rep, Michaela Dvořáková, who says that although the restaurant will keep its name (for now), Maze will be run by the Hilton Prague Old Town management and Gordon Ramsay Holdings will just "participate in the creation of the menu." Head chef Philip Carmichael is rumored to have already left Prague for his native U.K.

Maze Prague is only one of several restaurants in the Gordon Ramsay empire said to be struggling. Still, Ramsay's departure from the Czech market may discourage foreign restaurateurs, few of whom will realize that local patrons weren't Maze's problem -- its location was. Put your restaurant in a windowless box in the lobby of a hotel on the fringes of Old Town (in one of the world's most view-worthy cities, no less) and you are bound to fail, no matter how good your food is.

I sure will miss their chocolate fondant.

Meanwhile, Angus Burger and Angus Grill in Palladium and Cremeria Milano on Pařížská have closed, and Sapori Italiani, the Italian-goods specialty shop formerly located on Perlova, is moving to Bělohorská in Prague 6.

And in food-unrelated restaurant news, the sports bar/breast-ogling American chain Hooters will debut in Prague late in 2009. Franchise holder Na Zdravi Ventures is planning to open several Hooters restaurants in the Czech and Slovak Republics over the next few years. Na Zdravi CEO J. Steven Parker says, "The time is right for the introduction of the Hooters brand."

I hate to admit it, but he might be onto something.



Monday, February 9, 2009

Restaurant Review: Dahab (CLOSED)

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 17/01/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

How much does it cost to make a bowl of hummus?

The much-loved Middle Eastern spread's main ingredients are chickpeas and tahini, along with some garlic, olive oil, and lemon. So if I told you that someone was charging 225 CZK for a serving, you might think that was a bit much -- even if it was a reasonably large portion and came with a few pickled vegetables and (stale) pita chips.

But there is at least one restaurant in Prague that can get away with charging large sums of money for chickpea paste. Its name is Dahab, and it has a unique calling card: its colorful Arabic-style atmosphere. Although the main room is large, it still feels cozy; stained-glass lanterns hang from the vaulted ceiling, Persian rugs cover the floors, and the air is thick with the sweet scent of shisha tobacco. In the back of the restaurant are private salons where patrons can sit on the ground and sip tea from low tables or have a full dinner for up to 35 people. On the weekends, there is live music accompanied by belly dancers (more on them later), and it is a favorite hangout spot for Prague's Arab community.

So coming to Dahab is something of an experience, which might explain not only the high prices, but also the fact that the restaurant's reservation book is often completely full.

In its original incarnation, Dahab was a couscous house inside Roxy, where club kids could chill out and sip tea in between bouts of frenetic dance-floor activity. Then the restaurant moved around the corner, expanded its menu to include Middle Eastern as well as North African cuisines, and later – during a post-flood renovation – opened a fast food eatery facing Dlouhá. The fast food place, called Yalla, is in my experience not fantastic (although to be fair, I've only ever tried it in the wee hours of the morning).

The food at Dahab proper is definitely a step up, but it still leaves something to be desired. For a sampling of the restaurant's specialties, guests can order one of the mezze platters, such as the Grand Royal Mezze (800 CZK per person) – a feast that includes couscous, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, chicken drumsticks, grilled lamb cutlets, merguezi sausage, fried eggplant, pickled cheese with olives, vine leaves, tabbouleh salad, harissa, and pita bread. That sounds like a lot, and it is, although the portions of each dish are actually fairly small.

I just wish the cooking itself was a little bit better. The stuffed vine leaves were flavorless, poorly-wrapped, and filled with undercooked rice. The falafel tasted as if it had been fried in oil that had been used a few too many times, and I've had better tabbouleh at far cheaper restaurants. For the money, one would hope to find some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city.

Not the case here, unfortunately. My lamb chops baked with herbs and served with spinach couscous (520 CZK) were overcooked, fatty, and didn't taste especially herb-y. The couscous was all right, but the dish could have used some kind of sauce, as it was fairly dry. I'd also hoped for more from the chicken tajine (295 CZK), a Moroccan stew of meat, vegetables, and dried fruit slow-cooked in a special clay pot – the chicken was nice and tender, but the tajine lacked the complex blend of spices that is characteristic of North African cuisine.

I did very much like the chickpea shoraba (80 CZK), a hearty soup served with some unfortunately chewy croutons, and the homemade merguezi (lamb sausage, 380 CZK). The selection of teas is good too, though I'd venture to say that charging 100 CZK for a 0.25L pot of Yogi tea (black tea with spices, milk, and honey) might be overdoing it a little.

The wait staff is decent (if sometimes a little forgetful when it comes to refilling drink orders) and seem to do quite well even when the restaurant is very busy. Apparently, however, tips are included – which I didn't realize until we had received our bill and noticed a 3x 100 CZK service charge added to the 3500 CZK total sum. Including service is the restaurant's choice, but since it's not the norm here, it only seems fair to make that fact very clear on the menu so that customers don't over-tip unnecessarily.

So you might end up paying more than you wanted to for food that was pretty good, but not perfect. Will you come back? You just might, especially if you happened to visit Dahab on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening. Those are the days when dinner is accompanied by a keyboardist wailing Arabic songs – and a live belly dancer.

I'll admit that when I heard "live belly dancing," I expected the performer in question to be of the curvaceous Middle Eastern variety. Instead, the dancer was a tall, slim blonde named Šárka, dressed in sheer pants and a jewel-encrusted bra. As she gyrated her hips and smiled seductively at the seated men, including my own male dining companion, I realized that the fascinating story I was in the middle of telling would have to wait. All eyes were on the dancer; she was completely mesmerizing.
At one point, several of the Arabic guests stood up and began dancing, too, and singing and clapping along to the music. Next to my table, a grinning middle-aged couple was recording the performance on a video camera. It turned out that those were Šárka's parents, and they were very proud.

And we, like everybody else – and in spite of Dahab's imperfections – were having a lot of fun.

Dlouhá 33
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: (+420) 224 827 375

Open Mon-Sun 14:00-01:00

photographs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Food news: Buddha Bar opens, Prague discovers fusion food, and a Czech team debuts at the Bocuse

Last Thursday, the long-awaited Buddha Bar Hotel held a massive grand opening party -- an affair notable for its many czelebrity attendees, a live electric violin interpretation of Metallica, and some very uninspired hors d'oeuvres (tomato and mozzarella balls on toothpicks, for one). The Buddha Bar Restaurant and its upstairs lunch spot, Siddharta Café, are ready for business, too, offering fancily-priced Asian food along with Caesar salads, club sandwiches, and other room service standards.

Around the corner from Buddha Bar, another newly-opened upscale hotel, the Barcelo, has introduced a fusion restaurant of its own: Zlatý Anděl Fusion Restaurant & Café. The kitchen is headed up by the respected French chef Martial Clement, who recently bailed on his short-lived post at Zahrada v Opeře. No word yet on who will replace Mr. Clement in the RFE building restaurant.

Pish-posh members' club LS Club will officially launch this month in the Old Town space formerly occupied by La Scene and (later) La Scena. Its amenities are to include a Library, Crystal Bar, and a signature eatery, Restaurant Shiso. The restaurant will be run by freshly-imported English chef Paul Day -- who specializes, naturally, in Asian cuisine.

Kampa Park sous chef Jan Všetečka traveled to Lyon last week to represent the Czech Republic in the final round of the prestigious international cooking competition Bocuse d'Or. Všetečka and his team placed fourteenth out of twenty-four countries, a very respectable ranking for the first Czech team ever to participate in the Bocuse. 2009's top honors went to Norway (gold), Sweden (silver), and France (bronze).