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


Brewsta said...

Thanks for this. We ate a nice Czech meal in this beautiful landmark room 10 years ago for a special occasion, before it went super-upscale.

I'd always wanted to go back, but the high prices, and the fact that I'd rarely heard or read recommendations put me off.

I don't mind paying a lot for quality. That grilled octopus certainly ain't it.

Thanks for saving me the time and money.

Robin said...

I'm a better piano player.... Don't bother even going there for that :-)

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I recently visited the Plzenska restaurant (same building, but downstairs). Considerably cheaper, but still not cheap. Decent Czech food, though I wouldn't rush back for it. Our bill arrived with a "couvert" for 25 kcs for each person (including two children who ate with us). I really -- really -- can't stand it when restaurants reach into my pocket like that. Very poor form.

Those 20 cl drinks bottles are ridiculous to start with (who drinks only 20 cl???), but at those prices, it's highway robbery.

Laura Baranik said...

Thanks, Brewsta -- the reason it came to my attention was that it was ranked #3 in the Grand Restaurant Guide this year. I'd forgotten about it, too. Glad to be of service :-)

Anonymous said...

hi i was just going to let you know that ur food is horrible...

Larita paban said...

Paul Wasserman–son of French food dictionary wine importer Becky–has just launched EatDrink, a company that sells gorgeous reprints of old wine books like 1927's Bouquet (above) by G.B. Stern, which follows a couple's journey through the vineyards of France.