Monday, March 30, 2009

Restaurant Review: Aromi

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 21/03/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

It's almost lunchtime, and I'm hungry. So writing about Aromi is about to be a little torturous, especially when I have one particular, magical dish on my mind.

I am an unabashed fan of pasta; most days, I'd take a bowl of good spaghetti over almost anything else. When a restaurant makes its pasta itself, I get pretty jazzed up about it. And right now, I'm very jazzed up about Aromi's ravioli.

For one thing, they are beautiful. My plate, piled up with bright yellow, perfectly round ravioli, looked like it had been covered in little suns. They were firm on the outside and filled with eggplant and burrata, a type of mozzarella that is mixed with cream to produce a luxurious, soft consistency. On top of the ravioli was some butter, fresh basil, and a few slices of peeled raw tomato.

This simple, sophisticated delight cost 345 CZK – a fairly steep price tag for a not-too-large portion of pasta – but I would go back for it anytime. And by anytime, I mean right now, if I didn't have to write this damn article and visit some other restaurant for my next one.

Lots of people come back to Aromi. One friend absolutely swears by it and refuses to take her business contacts anywhere else; other people must feel similarly, since the place is packed nearly every night. When he opened the restaurant nearly four years ago in the buzzing Vinohrady neighborhood, head chef and owner Riccardo Lucque couldn't have hoped for a much warmer reception.

Mr. Lucque hails from the Marche region of Italy, from which he imports many of the ingredients used in his kitchen. Some of these can be found up the street from Aromi in its deli offshoot, Aromi La Bottega. On offer are various prosciuttos and salamis, cheeses, olive oils, wines, and fresh pastas. They will let you sample almost anything you want before you buy it, and even do made-to-order hot sandwiches on Tuscan bread.

The Bottega also sells the same fresh fish available in the restaurant. It is outstanding, and one of the major reasons why Aromi has garnered a lot of attention on the Prague dining circuit. Each day, servers present patrons with a tray full of various piscine delights: sea bass, sea bream, turbot, live lobster, and so on. Most of them are recommended for two or more people, and the staff will suggest methods of preparation for each one – although they are happy to follow your special wishes as well.

On an evening visit, I shared a whole ombrina baked in sea salt (1870 CZK) with two of my companions. A waiter cleaned and portioned the fish at the table, disrobing it of its thick salt crust, removing the skin and bones, and arranging the steaming white meat on three plates. Tableside service is a rarity in this city – perhaps because it demands additional time and skill of the servers and forces the kitchen to be honest about its ingredients. But it's a nice little show for the diners to look at and adds to Aromi's homey atmosphere.

The ombrina itself was moist and stuck slightly to the teeth – the hallmarks of a well-cooked fish (I would suggest eating it without the olive oil offered by the waiter, since its flavor is excellent on its own). Unfortunately, nearly all of the side dishes we'd ordered, including a potato and cauliflower puree (65 CZK), braised artichokes (95 CZK), and lentils with pesto (65 CZK), were only lukewarm.

Other issues crept into the food here and there, too. A blue cheese and beetroot salad (215 CZK) lacked acidity, and a pumpkin risotto with sausage and balsamic vinegar (275 CZK for a starter portion; 335 CZK for a main course) was overly sweet. But the only dish I tried that I thoroughly disliked was the crab salad (365 CZK). It was served in a martini glass (a presentation probably meant to play off the salad's Martini Bianco jelly cubes), which made the salad very difficult to eat without dumping half of it onto the surrounding tabletop. There was fresh crab in mayonnaise, but its pairing with chopped olives, a very oily mesclun salad, and the bits of Martini Jell-O didn't do it any favors. Stick to the simple stuff at Aromi, and you probably won't go wrong.
Unless, of course, you are unlucky and have a bad experience with your server. In general, the service at Aromi is very good, if a little brusque (though I would still much prefer a slightly brusque waiter to one that hovers over the table all evening). But I did recently receive an email from an old friend detailing a very frustrating evening there, and I have been the victim of some inattentiveness at Aromi myself. At the end of a leisurely and expensive meal more recently, our waiter plucked the dessert plates and coffee cups off our table before we were finished in an apparent attempt to rush us out the door.

I did, however, appreciate the fact that Mr. Lucque himself had come over to each table earlier to ask if everything was all right. It's that sort of personal touch that will keep his restaurant full – despite its occasional faults and rather inflated prices.

So what's next for Aromi? Starting in February, they have begun holding monthly four-hour cooking classes, each focusing on a different type of food (sea bass, asparagus, and pasta are some of the selections). And people are already talking about La Finestra, the new restaurant Mr. Lucque plans to open in April on Platneřská in Old Town. That one, he says, will be more meat-oriented, and he will be importing special cuts from Italy.

If Aromi is anything to go by, La Finestra will be a great success, and Mr. Lucque won't need any well-wishers. But I am crossing my fingers for him anyway.

Mánesova 78
Praha 2 – Vinohrady
Tel: 222 713 222
Open Mon-Sat 12:00-23:00, Sun 12:00-22:00

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


Monday, March 23, 2009

Restaurant Review: Lemon Leaf

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 14/03/09 edition o
f Lidové Noviny.

As of the first of this year, the Mexican-themed dive bar and restaurant La Casa Blů – formerly an unbearably smoky hole – is entirely cigarette-free. The decision came after the restaurant's owners held an online poll of its customers, who voted overwhelmingly for a smokeless atmosphere. Meanwhile, an internet petition protesting smoking in public places has collected over 100,000 signatures. And for the second time in a few days, when I called up a restaurant to make a reservation, I was informed that they only had room in the smoking section.

Fewer and fewer people, it seems, want to eat cigarette smoke along with their biftek. Our government has been frustratingly stubborn in passing the inevitable anti-smoking laws now enjoyed by most of Europe, but the Czech Republic is moving with the times despite them.

Of course, most restaurants in our country still welcome smokers, with some handling them better than others. The ones that care least about their food and how their customers experience it – low-level pubs, for example – generally have the most pervasive smoking areas. But even many that do purport to focus on their cuisine serve it in a haze of cigarette smoke.

Lemon Leaf was one of the restaurants that informed me there were seats available in the smoking section only. When I got there, I understood why: the smoking area was enormous, taking up the most attractive part of the restaurant, while the non-smoking section occupies a small, less appealing area tucked away from the main action. Worse still, the non-smokers are subject to the swinging doors of the kitchen and the cold blue glow emanating from, of all things, a big cigarette vending machine (I found out later that the smoking and non-smoking sections change places during lunchtime).

If it were up to me, I would model the smoking rules in restaurants according to those of the modern airport. The vast majority would not allow smoking anywhere on the premises, and the few that insisted on doing so would confine smokers (as I witnessed recently at the Vienna Airport) to a tiny, glass-enclosed space where they might inhale as much second-hand smoke as they could ever possibly want while the rest of the world walks past, shaking their heads in disgust at the few whiffs of toxic fumes that manage to escape.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as if the food at Lemon Leaf is so good that it deserves to be eaten in a pristine atmosphere; I'm just using it as an example of the wider smoking problem. In spite of the restaurant's ongoing popularity, the food is actually quite bad.

The first tip-off is right there in the menu. Whenever I see risotto, couscous, and steak with pepper sauce thrown in with the other dishes in an otherwise all-Asian restaurant, I can't help but get suspicious. There's just something unappetizing about a kitchen of all trades. Are they not confident in their Thai cooking? Are they trying to please everybody? It's never a good sign.

Neither was the fact that the curry dishes came with hardly any vegetables, only some Thai eggplant, a few sad-looking pieces of chicken and, in the case of the panang curry (219 CZK), some woefully undercooked shrimp. The yellow curry with chicken (179 CZK) had cashew nuts in it, but they were soft and mushy. And both dishes were too heavy on the salt.

The fried potato balls (79 CZK) were very salty too, and filled with some chopped-up shrimp mixed with… I'm not sure what, to be honest; the menu said something about lemongrass, ginger, and cilantro, but I couldn't taste any of it. A prawn and octopus salad (163 CZK) was served on a nice bed of fresh greens and mixed veggies but featured limp overcooked octopus and the same crunchy shrimp that came with the curry.

Still, all that was nothing compared to the abomination that was the chicken breast in pistachios with oranges (189 CZK). This came in a creamy white sauce that did taste orange-y but somehow – either in its flavor or consistency, or both – reminded me of liquefied cheese. A few slices of strawberry were on the plate, too, in a possible attempt at being interesting. (For the record, the person who ordered this concoction actually seemed to enjoy it; in the interest of protecting his reputation, he will go unnamed).

I did have a fairly good chicken pad Thai (166 CZK), and the neua daet diao (dried marinated beef sirloin, 129 CZK) was all right, too. But you can get better for similar prices elsewhere – Noi on Újezd comes immediately to mind, along with a few others.

Is it that people don't know there's better Thai food in this city or is there something special about Lemon Leaf that I'm missing out on? I'm thinking it's probably not the latter, because I made three visits before this writing and was seriously unimpressed. Maybe people like the space, with its high ceilings and large windows, or maybe there just aren't too many other half-decent restaurants in that particular neighborhood. But the service is nothing more than okay, and the food is okay at best.

Yet for all my complaints about smoking and non-smoking sections and dubious cream sauces, nobody could have been having a worse time than the woman sitting at the table next to mine during my last dinner. She was on what seemed like a first date, with a French guy who, for an entire two hours straight, did not stop talking. About life, his family history, his own fabulousness. It was the monologue of monologues, and somehow continued even as he was chewing his food. I would be surprised if she said ten words the entire time.

Having to sit through that and eat a Lemon Leaf dinner? Talk about the date from hell.

Lemon Leaf
Myslíkova 14
Praha 2 - Nové Město
Tel: 224 919 056
Open Mon-Thurs 11:00-23:00, Fri 11:00-00:30, Sat 12:30-00:30, Sun 12:30-23:00

photographs 2,5,6 František Vlček for Lidové Noviny; all others


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Food news: Maze gets a Michelin star, Veyrat eyes Beroun, and Angel and Aromi branch out

A month after the formal announcement that Gordon Ramsay was leaving town, his Prague restaurant, Maze, has been awarded a Michelin star. The Hilton hotel will continue running Maze until the end of this month, when they will announce "a new concept and a new chef," according to Hilton Prague Old Town PR manager Marketa Šebková. Maze Prague's former head chef, Philip Carmichael, has already settled in to his new post at Maze Cape Town (pictured), set to open in early April.

In other Michelin news, Allegro at the Four Seasons held on to its star from last year, but this year's hot favorite, La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise, didn't gain a spot among Prague's top restaurants. Bib Michelins were again handed out to Aromi and Le Terroir, as well as to newcomer Le Cornichon. Brasserie M was (rightfully) denied a repeat Bib.

Three Michelin-starred chef Marc Veyrat reportedly wants to open a gastronomic complex near Beroun that will "bring meals in harmony with nature." Famous for his organic molecular cuisine, Veyrat plans to serve locally-produced food in wooden houses set two meters above the ground. "Hobbit holes" in a nearby hillside will be available for overnight guests, and a cooking school will also be part of the complex. Whether the estimated 150 million-CZK project will be able to secure funding is still unclear.

Céleste, the new restaurant by the owners of Angel, is on the verge of its official opening on the seventh floor of Frank Gehry's Tančicí dům (also known as the Fred and Ginger building), in the space formerly occupied by La Perle de Prague. April should also see the opening of a sister restaurant to Aromi, La Finestra on Platneřská in Old Town. According to owner Riccardo Lucque, his new spot will feature freshly-imported Italian meats to complement Aromi, which is more seafood-oriented.



Monday, March 16, 2009

Restaurant Review: Klášterní Šenk

This review originally appeared
in Czech translation in the 28/02/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

As all restaurant-goers know, sometimes the quality of your experience at a particular restaurant depends not only on what you get, but whom you get. You can order everything right, but if you're stuck in the wrong seating section on the wrong day of the week, your food will end up tasting just that little bit more bitter.

That's what happened on my second trip to Klášterní Šenk, a cozy pub-restaurant located within the walls of the 10th-century Břevnov monastery.

My mother and I were having lunch. She ordered the soup of the day and I chose a main course off the regular menu; for seconds, we both ordered dessert. Her soup arrived promptly. I watched her eat it, hoping my halušky would come in time for us to dine together. Some time after the soup bowl had been cleared, my mother asked the waiter if the halušky were on their way, seeing as we had been waiting half an hour for them to come.

He promptly replied thus: "No, you have NOT been waiting thirty minutes." He then went to the register, hit a few buttons and returned with a very self-satisfied look on his face. "The order was put in at 12:40, and it is now 1:00. So you've been waiting twenty minutes."

Now, in America (and whatever you might think of the country, they do customer service very well) they have a saying: the customer is always right. It is an adage followed by just about everybody working in any service industry. Why? Because if the customer feels as if she has been waiting for thirty minutes, it has been thirty minutes. And because even if the customer is wrong, she should be treated with a level of courtesy and deference that will keep her happy.

I, instead, was treated like a booger. And that's fine; I'm pretty much used to it. Czech waiters often look at me as if I was something small, dry, and shriveled that they had just scooped from the inside wall of their nasal cavity. That especially happens when I do things like gently trying to explain that we had hoped to eat at the same time, and no we should not have had to tell the waitress that we wanted the food to come together because it should be obvious and in any case she should have asked us, etc., etc. The booger talks! It's always an interesting moment.

The argument went on for a full five minutes, as if the head waiter didn't have anything better to do in a packed restaurant during lunch hour than educate a couple of ladies about the correct way to order a meal.

Now contrast that experience with the one I'd had during dinner the week before: a friendly, charming server, who offered to make a cucumber salad although it wasn't on the menu (he ended up forgetting the salad, but apologized sincerely when he realized his mistake). I was pleasantly surprised by how patient he was with a friend who is a Czech beginner – he didn't pretend not to understand her, or start speaking in English, as so many servers often do. He even complimented her on her language skills.

So the service at Klášterní Šenk seems to be a little hit-or-miss. The food, on the other hand, is a lot more consistent. The dishes are mostly classic local fare and slightly more expensive than you'd find in your average pub, but all that much better in terms of quality and presentation. They are listed on the menu in funny, old-school Czech style: prsa z kačice, co na rybníku pod klášterem plula, s obé zelím i knedlíků (259 CZK) ("breast from a duck that swam on the pond under the monastery, with both cabbage and dumplings").

I tried one of the pricier entrées, the beef sirloin with chanterelle mushrooms (490 CZK). The meat was expertly cooked and seasoned, its inside pink but not dripping with blood, and the chanterelle gravy was a nice accompaniment. Even the corn on the cob (40 CZK) I'd ordered on the side was very good: instead of being shriveled or muddy like many pub cobs, this one was sweet and juicy. It was dressed in olive oil and a sprinkling of basil – an unusual choice, but tasty nonetheless.

A roast pork knee with sour cherries and horseradish (249 CZK) was excellent, too, as was the mushroom-packed kulajda in a bread bowl (59 CZK). And nothing makes me happier than opening up a menu to find hearty Czech sweet dishes, long replaced in most restaurants by tiramisus and cheesecakes. At Klášterní Šenk, you'll find fluffy lívance (Czech pancakes) with whipped cream and blueberries (69 CZK), or delectable potato dumplings filled with plum preserve and served with a vanilla-tinged sweet cheese sauce (69 CZK). The beer on tap is, appropriately enough, the rarely-seen eleven-degree Klášter (0.5l for 32 CZK).

To find all these delights, you'll have to make your way out to Břevnov, but even if you're coming from across town, it really is worth it. The setting – just adjacent to the St. Margaret church and its surrounding gardens – is positively serene, and makes an ideal spot for a pre- or post-meal stroll. And with its birchwood-burning fireplace (not always lit, unfortunately), stone walls, and wooden beams, the rustic-style restaurant is uniquely charming.

But lots of people already seem to have figured that out for themselves. Klášterní Šenk is a popular destination for weddings and other large-scale events, and if warned a few days in advance, they can prepare a full-on feast with roast duck, goose, and other specialties. On regular days, they are consistently packed for both lunch (they have a 99 CZK menu on weekdays) and dinner, so reservations are recommended.

And the restaurant is recommended, too. Just be careful who you order from.

Klášterní Šenk
Markétská 1/28
Praha 6 - Břevnov
Tel: 220 406 294
Open Mon – Sun 11:30–23:00

photographs 1, 2, 4, 5 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové Noviny; all others


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Restaurant Review: Divinis

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 14/02/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I like a restaurant that does specials.

A chef who creates new dishes on a regular basis shows he isn't a slave to his menu, that he has a willingness to take the best ingredients available on any particular day and experiment with them. But to do that properly, he really has to be able to cook well.

At Divinis, the tiny Italian wine bar/restaurant recently taken over by prominent Czech chef Zdeněk Pohlreich, they do special dishes – and nearly everything else – to perfection. I visited during the truffle season, and a few of the muddy-looking nuggets were displayed in a glass case on Divinis's bar. On offer was a beef carpaccio and taglioni pasta served with white truffle shavings (both 200 CZK, plus 200 CZK per gram of truffle) that our waiter grated onto the food tableside.

I often harp on about the lack of simple cooking in these parts. Now I've found at least one restaurant to use as a counterexample. Besides the truffles, the carpaccio was nothing more than a plate of bright pink, translucent slices of raw beef, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. The tagliolini were cooked al dente and tossed in butter with finely diced porcini mushrooms. Both dishes, despite the sparseness of their components, were phenomenally flavorful. When ingredients are top-notch and cooked properly, extra flavorings and garnishes can become not only unnecessary, but offensive.

That's something Mr. Pohlreich understands well. Another special that day was the cinta senese, an heirloom breed of Siennese pig (and the only native Tuscan strain to have survived extinction) recognizable by the white band around its shoulders and prized for its well-marbled, fragrant meat. It was cooked both as a pork chop and a plump, juicy sausage – the two variations were served together on the same plate along with some roasted potatoes. It was as if we were eating at someone's home, a feeling heightened by Divinis's cozy rustic décor of pale woods, dim yet ample lighting, and glass-topped tables filled with curiosities like dried pastas, fruits, and flowers.

Standouts from the regular menu included the deliciously salty linguine with clams (280 CZK) and a warm octopus salad (250 CZK) made with green celery, potatoes, and a drizzle of pesto sauce. For dessert, I had a very well-executed chocolate fondant (180 CZK) that came with a thick raspberry coulis and a scoop of vanilla crème fraiche.

Divinis's menu is small, but I was nonetheless impressed by our waiter's ability to remember the orders of five people each having four different courses. This guy was a pro in other ways, too. He was able to explain the dishes with both passion and succinctness, he was flexible and personable, and he was comfortable making recommendations (it was obvious, too, that he was suggesting dishes he actually liked, not ones the kitchen had told him to get rid of – or if that was the case, I certainly couldn't tell). And when he made a tiny mistake in forgetting to bring me a plate for my clam shells, he immediately corrected it without my prompting along with a brief apology.

For the quality of the food and service, the prices at Divinis are very reasonable. The Italian wine list is excellent and fairly priced, and a shot of espresso is just 50 CZK compared to the 100 or so they like to charge at some of Prague's other restaurants. You don't get the feeling here that they're trying to trick you out of your money.

There really isn't too much to complain about. I couldn't figure out how to work the faucet in the ladies' toilet, for example, but I'm sure that is only a symptom of my idiocy when it comes to technical gadgetry. I also wasn't thrilled that the smoking section seemed to be in the main part of the restaurant, which could have been a real annoyance if there had been more than one person puffing away. The back seating area, with its proximity to the toilets and rack for the guest's coats, didn't seem like a very enticing place to eat, anyway.

I am often asked to name which restaurants are the best in Prague. If there is no question of price, I usually mention two: Angel and La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise. There are other places I like too, of course, but most of them lack consistency – only some foods, or some waiters, or some lucky evenings are good. Or they are only great until they receive a few positive reviews, and then they become too relaxed or too confident. That's when I start getting emails and comments about somebody's bad experience at a particular restaurant.

It can be frustrating. But I am ready to make another whole-hearted recommendation. Although I haven't spent too much time at Divinis, I still think it's really something special.

There's just one thing I'm confused about. If Mr. Pohlreich is capable of this kind of restaurant, why can't he do the same with the hit or miss Café Imperial?

Of course, that restaurant is obviously geared more towards tourists, while Divinis seems like the kind of place a chef would invite his friends to sample his food at its best. And invite them he should: this is truly a restaurant to be proud of, a rare example of fresh, minimalist cuisine made with top-notch ingredients. It is subtle, elegant, and unpretentious. It is good value and a pleasant place to spend one's time.

And yes, it is one of Prague's very best restaurants.

Týnská 21
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 222 325 440

Open Mon-Sat 17:00–01:00. Closed Sunday.

photographs 1, 2, 3, 6 Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others