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


Anonymous said...

You are right that the food is not fabulous... mediocre, I would say. And you are dead right about the hodge podge menu. But what attracts for this restaurant is the room and lighting. It is not as ornately spectacular as, say, Cafe Savoy (which is also highly over-rated), but it is just a damn nice room to sit in.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree. Lemon Leaf was great when it opened years ago. Back then it was also one of the only places where you could get seriously spicy food. I've visited only a couple of times in the last three years and every time I was disappointed. The prices are going up and the quality of the food is going down. However, that seems to happen with a lot of restaurants in Prague these days.

I also couldn't agree more regarding the strange mix of international food on the menus. If only they would specialise in one thing...who are they cheating with the apologetic rizek on the menu? The customer who goes to a Thai restaurant and is teed off if they only find Thai food on the menu or the customer who goes to a Thai restaurant because they want to have proper Thai food? Needless to say that most of the time they use the same deepfryers anyway so that everything either comes in shrimp or rizek flavour.

Anonymous said...

Their food sucks, their lunch menus are uninspiring, the waitresses all act like they are doing you a favor to bring your food within 30 minutes of it being ordered and the wifi NEVER works. Noi has better food but the waitresses there are jealous they aren't gay, it's the only reason I can see why they are total bitches 100% of the time. And Orange Moon has descended to the level of tastelessness. So to sum, you can't get Thai food worth a damn in this town any more.

Pivní Filosof said...

I used to like Lemon Leaf years ago, but I haven't been there for quite a long time.
Anyway, I agree with the author's mistrust of restaurants that a lot of cuisines together, it can't turn out well, at least not for the prices Lemon Leaf, or others charge.
Where I don't agree with her, though, is in the smoking issue. I am not a smoker and I'm less and less tolerant to ending up smelling like an ashtray after a few minutes at a pub, restaurant or café, so I tend to favour those places that either are non-smoking or at least have a properly separated non-smoking area. But I think that decision should be up to the owners, just like Pivovarský Klub has done recently with business not suffering because of it. In fact, there are many non-smoking places that seem to be successful partly thanks to that.
But I don't want a smoking ban law. The only involvement I would like from the government is a law that will motivate restaurant owners to adopt a non-smoking policy, and then, let the market decide.
If the author has such a problem with smoking being allowed, perhaps she should litmit herself to reviewing only non-smoking restaurants in order to better promote them, it will be more constructive than complaining about those who are excercising their right.

Petr said...

It seems, Laura had very bad day...
Lemon never been presented as Asian restaurant. It's called Thai & Continental.
Food is excellent there and service is OK as well.
Not many other places as good as Lemon Leaf in Prague..

Tim said...

I do enjoy the Pivni Filosof's blog, but I completely disagree with his position on smoking. There is no right to smoking, any more than there is a right to do fire tricks in a restaurant. They both should be banned on the grounds of public safety. As to the market working: where has it ever worked on its own to reduce smoking? (Hint: Never.)

There are other reasons governments should discourage smoking: namely, that it costs non-smokers a ton of money in paying the medical costs of the victims of the smoke.

But back to the review: the "woefully undercooked shrimp" are referred to later as "crunchy". Now, seriously undercooked shrimp are not crunchy, but rather mushy (and dangerous), while, overcooked shrimp are rubbery. Properly cooked shrimp (2-3 minutes depending on size) are firm, juicy, and make you hungry when writing about them. So, I don't get it - what did they do to the shrimp?

Pivní Filosof said...

Nobody forces you to go to a restaurant. You choose restaurants based on a number of factors, price, location, kind of food, reviews, etc. You can easily add smoking or non-smoking to that. If smoking is allowed at a restaurant, you simply don't go, just as I don't go to restaurants that stock Stella Artois.
As for the market. Well Pivovarský Dum has been nonsmoking for almost a year and a half and business hasn't suffered, and I've seen more and more places advertising the fact that they are non-smoking, both things mean that a: there is a market, b: many smokers really don't care if they can't smoke at a restaurant, they accept it.
PS: I've been to a couple of restaurants, not here in Prague, where fire tricks were performed and it was an awful lot of fun.

bludr said...

Sure, but price, location, reviews and kind of food (well, usually) do not try to kill you. BTW, are you a smoker?

As for the review, thanks for another sharply written opinion, shame there is not so many critics (and not only food critics!) like Laura. Loved the date story at the end ;-).

Pivní Filosof said...

bludr, I am not a smoker and in fact, I don't like places where I end up smelling like an ashtray after stopping only for a quick pint or a cup of coffee, but once again, going to a restaurant is your choice and, fortunately, there are plenty of nonsmoking places, and I sincerely hope there will be more.

Tim said...

Dear Pivní Filosof,
I really like your blog, and you seem like a great guy. But I disagree...

Fire-breathing is not allow in most places because it would be rather dangerous. Sure, there may be restaurants that are set up for it, but how many?

If that example doesn't work for you, how about the hygiene regulations concerning the toilets? I'm guessing you're not opposed to them. I'm sure that you're not opposed to laws that don't allow restaurants to refuse service on the basis of skin colour. But, someone could always respond: if you don't like racism, don't go!

But it doesn't work that way: these practices don't go away on their own. And some practices are so noxious that they shouldn't be allowed in public places. In fact since they cost the rest of us they should be actively discouraged. Smoking is of course not as bad as racism, but it's not an insignificant hazard.

A restaurant is a public place. If people want to give each other cancers, they can form a private cancer club, instead of excluding others from public spaces with the threat of disease. Non-smoking should be the norm, with smokers being forced to choose between going out or staying home.

The market does not, and will not solve the problem (and a problem it is). It hasn't solved it anywhere, and it isn't solving it now. Non-smoking restaurants are a tiny minority, and there are only non-smoking areas because there is a law requiring them. This experience has been repeated in country after country. In other words: the empirical evidence (yes, that bane of free marketeers everywhere) is clear.

I still want to know what they did to the shrimp!

Pivní Filosof said...

Thanks for the compliment and I'm glad you like my blog.
I'm also glad that Laura has let us hijack her blog for your debate.
There is one thing I have to say, and I hope you will not take offence. You can't possibly compare racism with smoking, it's just not right. You are an intelligent person, so I think I don't need to explain you why.

That said. You make a good point with the hygene issue. Still, I don't think they are the same thing. When you walk into a restuarant you can see pretty much immediately if smoking is or isn't allowed, and then you can make up your mind whether you will stay or not. That's not the case with hygene (at least not usually) because you will not be allowed into the kitchen and you will not go check the loos before it's too late.

The risks aren't comparable either. Salmonella, food poisoning and other nasties are very dangerous, they can send you to hospital, you can end up with life lasting effects or even die. I am not going to deny the fact that long term exposure to second hand smoke is unhealthy, but I don't believe that you will develop lung cancer after spending a few hours a week at a smoky pub, if that was the case most of us would be either seriously ill or dead by now.

The "I pay the same taxes as nonsmokers" argument is rather weak as well.

Firstly, because you don't pay the same taxes, tobacco products are heavily taxed (perhaps not enough) and the money (at least officially) goes to health care. And even if that wasn't the case the argument would still be rather weak. There are a number of very unhealthy things that some people do, and some others don't that aren't taxed.

For example:

- I don't have a stressful job, I don't need to work too many hours to make a decent living. So why should I pay the same taxes as someone who has to work 12 hours a day under constant pressure? After all, they are more likely to get a whole number of stress related illness (addictions included) than me.
- I am slim. Why should I pay the same taxes as an obese person?
- I don't have a car, I don't even know how to drive. So why should I have to pay the same taxes as someone who spends much of their day driving. After all, they are more likely to be involved in a serious accident than me. (and that is without mentioning the emissions that cars produce)
- I live in the country, where there is clean air, etc. Why should I pay the same taxes as people living in the filth of a big city.

And I can get even sillier than that: I am a man. Why should I pay the same taxes as a woman? Most women I know go to the doctor a lot more than most men I know. Besides, they can get pregnant, and during pregancy they must go to the doctor every few weeks.

I don't want to give the impression I am defending smokers. I am not, most of them are unconsiderate pigs. Nor I am a big fan of smoky restaurants. But once again, going to restaurants is your choice.

And yes, non-smoking restaurants are a tiny minority, but there are now a lot more than there were a few years back and their numbers are sure to grow. So, instead of complaining about those where smoking is allowed we should try promoting those few non-smoking ones and even try to change the minds of the owners of smoking restaurants.

PS: The shrimps. Can it be that they were cooked at too high temperature? That's is the only way I can explain why they were crunchy outside and raw inside, similar to what happens to a rare steak

Laura Baranik said...

About the shrimp: they were translucent, which means they were undercooked. "Crunchy" might be the wrong word, but they had more of a bite to them than shrimp done properly. To me, perfectly-cooked shrimp has a firm, bouncy bite on the outside, but on the inside is opaque and spongy. Overcooked can be either rubbery and tough or kind of mushy. I hope that clears up the confusion :-)

R. said...

"Thai & Continental?"

What the hell is that supposed to mean? That justifies their schizophrenic menu? lol...

Cantina should just write "Czexican" on their door then. hahaha...

Davey Jones said...

I had the misfortune to eat at Lemon Leaf last week. I agree on Laura's stand on smoking - so many of the restaurants I have been to in Prague have been spoiled by a heavy stench of cigarette smoke wafting past you, it's really backwards in a city that is supposed to be part of a modern Europe. In Lemon Lead I wasn't even asked, just put in the smoking section, right next to the bar where someone who seemed like the owner chain-smoked stinky cigars.

The Thai dish I ordered was terrible, flavourless and also lukewarm, arriving more than 30 minutes after I ordered. Had to wait another half hour to get the bill, despite the restaurant being quiet - the sole waitress was spending most of her time chatting to the owner guy.

Overpriced, unauthentic and unappealing. 3/10