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


R. said...

I hadn't been to Aromi in several years but was there last week for lunch. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I don't eat fish so I opted for the cream of artichoke soup with burrata (tasty almost-mozzarella) and then asked them to prepare a simple spaghetti alio olio with no meat. The noodles were al dente perfection.

I would definitely go back. On the company dime again that is.

amh said...

After two tries, I definitely would not go back. Food was expensive and really nothing special. It is apparent that the owner caters to foreign businessmen. In fact, he did not come to our table at all, but visited the adjoining table several times. Our waiter was fine at first, but then inattentive at best. The last time, we were seated next to a table of three English businessmen who received lavish attention and many courses. Our two main courses arrived at different times, the food lacked flavor, and mine was lukewarm at best. I had white fish which had absolutely no seasoning. My husband's ravioli arrived 10 minutes later(!), which tasted fine, but was a very small portion for a main course.

Not going back. Not if we are paying for it.

Anonymous said...

Actually i had some good food experiences, especially on fish, in the Aromi.

But since i have friends of mine living in that house and i saw several times the staircase of the Manesova 78 - which is the back entrance for Aromi´s kitchen stuff - i stopped eating there. It is dirty by kitchen garbage, it smells often quite unhealthy and You even can see rotted food from that kitchen which calls itself Aromi.

Most likely in some other posh places of Prague a look behind the scene would disillusionate, too. In this case i saw it myself too often.

R. said...

Comments about garbage are totally unfair. Although they should manage the disposal better, we have a restaurant in our building that also serves fish. Let's face it: fish and chicken smells rank after less than a day in the trash (as experienced by our own kitchen garbage can).

I've never had anything but the freshest food there. I'm not a big fish fan but each time I've been there everyone else at my table has eaten fish and loved it.

To the other comment here, if the food is "nothing special" to you, then maybe you're not a fan of simple Italian cuisine. The trend recently is to cook simple meals with fresh ingredients. I like that style but if it's not for you then there are plenty of french restaurants you can spend your crowns at. You probably wouldn't like another restaurant which is excellent by my account, Divini's, because it's the same concept.

Since when does food have to be complicated to be worth the money?

riccardo said...

Mr R,
Thanks god, after all this years of hard work, I have many customers and friends that understand the concept of Italian Cooking.
Quality ingredients, little manipolation and good tecnique,in order to keep the reaĺ flavours intact and at their best.
Aperitivos on me next time you show up.
Thank you