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


Muffelina said...

The whole 20 min/30 min story made me really miss Prague!
-Erica Bernhardt

Anonymous said...

Been there a few times. The food is outstanding for pub grub and well worth the trip. Make sure to order their kettle chips; almost worth the trip on their own!

Oh yeah, the monastery's nice too...

About the service? I've never had a problem there; guess you were unlucky.

Anonymous said...

i've been to the senk a dozen times and have never had bad service. but i know the feeling you're talking about - does the argumentative waiter think he/she is going to get a tip for proving the customer wrong? note to anyone dining at klasterni senk who bends over to attend to a child or tie one's shoe: don't straighten up and hit your head on the iron menu boards hanging on the pillars, as i did. it hurt. but a waiter saw what happened, and, within seconds, brought me ice wrapped in a towel. despite the hit my pride and IQ took, it was still a great dining experience.

Kacenka said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this place! I was fortunate enough to have a good server (was with a big group) so that wasn't a big issue. I love love love their beer and also their skvarky! Mmmm. Too bad it's such a schlep from Prague 1. :-(

Pivní Filosof said...

Love the place. Love their beer, it's nice to see a good restaurant that doesn't do the usual Pilsner Urquell or, worse, Stella Artois. And love that loaf of fresh bread and spread they give you when you order.
As the above, I've never had a problem with the service, quite the opposite.
Actually, I don't usually have any problems with service at pubs, either....

CS said...

I finally got to try this place last night and was really impressed. The service was great - friendly and prompt. The food was excellent (awesome pork knee!!), the beer was good and the decor is great too. I went with my parents who were visiting for the weekend and i would thoroughly recommend this as a place to try with visitors to the Czech Republic for all of the reasons above - it is an all to rare example of czech food done well in a pleasant environment at decent prices.