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 divinis.cz


Anonymous said...

Definitely one of the best restaurants in Praha at the moment. Let's hope they keep it up unlike many others who start going downhill after some time...

Ludek said...

Laura, I usually like your reviews as they generally makes sense and have opinion. But I wish I never read your Divinis review. For some reason I totally fell for the restaurant and went to try. I took two weeks, finally got the reservation ... and had worst experience in "+/-3k for 2 with wine" category restaurant in Prague.
Listen, I dont mind pasta - mine was too salty (thanx to quality of sausage) and my friend had something like "al dente ultra", mean had to spill some parts, because they were literally uneatable. But, OK, you can call it bad day in the kitchen (but Mr. P. was present, so you really don't expect that).
But, if you think its best restaurant in Prague at the moment, I have idea for you: try and book yourself not some of the tables upstairs, but one of three tables near the kitchen door on really busy evening as Fri night usually is. There are three of them - 2x4 and 1x2, later I had to sit for very painful 2 hours. I never, I repeat never had a nausea in the restaurant from that typical "kitchen stink", you get in low end basement pizzas in Zizkov. But I had in Divinis. We paid right after main course no coffee, no digestive, and first thing we had to do after we came home was to wash all our clothes. It was not just bad experience. I was just plain horror, especially when you expect really good restaurant.
I always thought Imperial is pretty average. But I really believe Divinis is much worse. Definitely most overrated restaurant in Prague at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I wish I had read Ludek's posting....

Laura - my partner and I went to celebrate our birthdays (same day) last night at Divinis. Horrible.

After waiting almost 20 minutes to have someone ask if we would like a drink, we should have walked out. They are severely under-staffed, and we waited a good half hour for everything - from the arrival of the drink to the arrival of the Czech. I had ordered the linguine with mussels - which were not mussels but clams. I sent it back because in addition to the fact that this was not what was advertised, the pasta was stone cold. I replaced it with what was supposed to be beef flank cooked medium, but which was so raw that I think that they thought I wanted a capaccio. The couple next to us - actually almost on our lap since the tables are so closely packed, also gave the waiter a tongue lashing after waiting endlessly for their dessert. The only consolation to this terrible birthday dinner was the fact that the wait-staff was so incompetent, they forgot to charge us for our gins and tonic. Not a reason to go back, for sure.

As you have said before, it is difficult reviewing restaurants in a city where service does not take its proper place... John

Ludek said...

They are not understaffed at all. During my visit, they had 3 people in the restaurant, And I believe, they have like 15-20 tables. There was another problem - one of them was completely incompetent and just been running around the restaurant like headless chicken, really doing nothing and doing it late. Rest of them were OK, but it really makes you angry, when you hear one of them chatting for 7 minutes with people on next table, explaining them menus for today and next week and next century while you are waiting 10 minutes for bottle of water. That was an element of "experience" that I forgot to mention before...and really...just writing it down it still makes me angry after a month or so.

Laura Baranik said...

Oh no... I'm really sorry to hear that, John and Ludek. When I was there in December and January, everything was perfect. I don't know what happened.

Mikele said...

I completly agree with Ludek, I was there around 3 weeks ago, with high hopes after reading the review, for starters I had the antipasti plate ( parma ham/ mortadella etc) , vongole gratinated (terrible) and octopus salad (tasteless beside the lemongrass), well the best of all was the antipasti, I think that says a lot being the only plate that does not require any preparation. Then spaghetti with tartufo nero, this, I have to say was a great dish, expensive, but very good.Then bistec a la fiorentina, the meat was chewy and tasteless, complete waste, terrible, and the tiramisu, nothing compared to the aromi one ( even if is their version and not the original), very expensive and disappointing dinner experience.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura. I like your reviews. I am not from Prague so I dont have much chance to try the restaurants but your reviews are very challenging. My taste is strange - I like what other people dont like (but it is not a rule) so I plan to visit the restaurants with (your) slightly negative evaluation to find out if there is something I can eat:-). However, what happened to Ludek and John is really nasty...unfortunately happens here in Brno quite often! (e.g. Rodeo Drive totally sux)

R. said...

I have to say that the service at Divinis seems to hinge on whether or not you get the fantastic waiter (I forget his name). To be fair, I think it helps if you are in a party with young women.

We visited the restaurant on a recent night when said fantastic waiter was not working and the service was abysmal. Pohlreich should spend some time recruiting some decent serving staff from rival restaurants. We had a table in the back which was a bit blah but it didn't stink. Not sure what that's about since the kitchen is adjacent to the front room, not the back.

Still, the food was excellent (I like sausage on the salty side) and everyone else in the group left feeling great (not having experienced the front room and better waiter).

So please, don't be worried about visiting Divinis since the food is still some of the best your likely to eat in Prague.