Monday, April 27, 2009

Restaurant Review: L'Ardoise

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 11/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

The scallops would have been perfect if they weren't gritty.

They were part of an unusual dish: seared scallops with galettes and poached pears (360 CZK). A galette is a savory buckwheat pancake native to Brittany, and its grainy texture was a nice contrast with the slippery smoothness of the scallop meat.

In theory, anyway. These mollusks hadn't been properly rinsed, so they tasted like they had been battered in sand – not my favorite method of scallop preparation. It was really a shame, because without the grit, the dish would have been memorably tasty (by the way, check out La Crêperie in Holešovice if you want to try inexpensive galettes made in the more traditional way).

L'Ardoise is owned by a Frenchman named Alexandre Déon – son of well-known writer Michel Dé
on – who settled in Prague after meeting his wife on a local film set (Déon's other career is in the movie industry). The small Vinohrady restaurant, first opened in September of 2006, has recently reopened after a brief hiatus.

I never visited L'Ardoise before its closure, so I don't know if there have been any major changes in the interim. But what greeted me when I first came in was a pleasantly-lit corner restaurant, decorated with beige leather banquettes, white tablecloths, and colorful paintings by Italian artist Franco Hüller. There were also a few shelves of antique Czech toys – cars, puppets, and dollhouse furniture.

The welcome was pleasant, too; a friendly waiter took our coats and asked which section we would prefer. Since the restaurant was more or less empty, we had our pick: smoking or non. Since I always prefer non-smoking, that's where we went. On my first visit, there was no problem, but on my second, the non-smoking area was distinctly, well… smoky. Not actively smoky, but it smelled as if it had been smoked in recently. During a late-night party, perhaps? Or maybe the fumes had just wafted over from the other side of the restaurant. Oh well. It wasn't too offensive – it just made the air a little stale.

The menu at L'Ardoise is small, and during my dinner visit, there was only one special: some kind of veal liver dish that the server didn't voluntarily describe and seemed a little hesitant about. We didn't order it.

There is a fair amount of veal on the menu, by the way – two of six entrees, which is a little unusual. I ordered the veal cheeks (380 CZK). Veal is the most tender kind of meat, and the cheeks are one of its most delicate muscles, so even if you've never had veal cheeks before, you can imagine just how wonderful they can be. Each morsel of meat flaked off the fork, and the thin ripples of cheek fat added a luscious creaminess to every bite. The cheeks were served in a thick brown gravy and with a small side (a little too small, perhaps) of gratinated potatoes and some mildly sad-looking vegetables.

The same vegetables accompanied my companion's salmon millefeuille (310 CZK) – a dish that came with some tough-looking, almost cookie-like pastries that she didn't like. A different companion made the wrong choice, too, when he opted for a lunch menu (390 CZK for appetizer and main course) featuring some baked gnocchi that were so overcooked they were more like mashed potatoes than pasta. They came in a heavy cream sauce, baked with parmesan. Not much imagination, and not much flavor, either.

The vegetable soup (90 CZK) was very bland too, although I did appreciate the fact that it had just the right amount of creaminess and was sprinkled with some crispy fried onions (the onions were also used in several other dishes I tried). And although it isn't always perfect, the food at L'Ardoise does have a fresh simplicity that I like. They don't do too much to their food; in some cases, they let you play with it instead.

That's how the beef entrecôte (490 CZK) was served – a massive slab of meat with just a little seasoning on it. The beef came with various sides: boiled new potatoes, herb butter, a small dish of sea salt, and two kinds of French mustard. The steak was medium rare, as I had ordered it, but it was cooked unevenly. Some portions of it were dripping with blood, which should never really happen even if the steak was ordered rare.

Even if the previous courses were a little hit or miss, the desserts were a pleasant surprise. A chocolate fondant (160 CZK), dubbed something like "hot chocolate love" by our waiter, was baked to perfection, and the tarte tatin (a traditional French caramelized apple tart) was accompanied by an aromatic scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. When, on my second visit, my companion and I chose not to order dessert, they brought us something sweet anyway – a spoonful of dark chocolate mousse with a dab of white chocolate mousse and a small homemade cookie. It was just the thing to hit the spot, and to make me want to order a whole portion of mousse on my next visit.

The way I see it, L'Ardoise is a good little neighborhood restaurant with the occasional good dish. It's not really a destination spot, but it's a place you might want to go if you live in the area or happen to be passing by. I can see it being especially attractive in the spring and summertime, when people can sip vintages on their large outdoor terrace. By then, maybe they'll have fixed a few of the kinks in their kitchen.

Bruselská 7
Praha 2 - Vinohrady
Tel.: 222 524 102

photographs 1, 3, 4 František Vlček for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, April 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: Masala

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 04/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

It would be easy to confuse Masala with a restaurant in New York or London. That is not to say it possesses any qualities particular to either of those cities – other than the fact that the language spoken there is almost exclusively English.

Masala may be located in the Czech capital, but over the year and a half of its operation, it has cultivated a mostly expatriate clientele. It isn't unusual to hear no Czech spoken at all during a meal there, and while foreigners all seem to be in on the Masala secret, few Czechs appear to know the restaurant even exists at all.

Part of the reason must be that the restaurant's owners – siblings Bobby and Bhavna Jain – speak limited Czech themselves, and so have made a concerted effort to reach out to the many foreigners that live in Masala's immediate area, Vinohrady. Jain is a constant presence on the internet portal, responding to his customers' complaints and questions and announcing new developments.

So far, the hands-on approach seems to have worked; Masala is reliably busy even on weeknights. With a restaurant of only ten or so tables, a full house isn't all that hard to pull off, but the place has a definite buzz. On one of my visits, several groups of hungry customers had to be turned away or told to wait for a table to free up.

I don't know all that much about Indian cuisine, but it doesn't take a ton of expertise to recognize that Masala is one of the best Indian restaurants in the city. There's a lot of love and hard work that's been put into this place, and it shows.

The menu is laid out clearly and beautifully, with each dish explained in mouthwatering detail – helpful for those who are not too familiar with the offerings. Indian-food newbies will also appreciate Masala's flexible approach to their spices; the cooks are happy to adjust the hotness levels according to your taste, from very mild to sweat-inducing.

I asked for a chicken madras (162 CZK) done medium spicy, and it turned out just right (I am still trying to work my tastebuds up to the extreme heat of a real chicken Vindaloo, which is also on the menu). Indian dishes can be hard to pin down – there are no precise recipes, as ingredients vary from one chef to the next – but the hallmarks of a Madras are its red color and a generous amount of chili powder. This one had a sweet, tangy flavor, and the cubes of chicken nestled inside the sauce were amazingly tender.

But the chicken is nothing compared to Masala's consistently soft and juicy lamb meat. I tried it with saagwala (233 CZK), a thick curry made with spinach and fenugreek that was perfect for scooping up with a slice of naan bread (39 CZK). The naan, by the way, is homemade in a special tandoor oven and comes in three varieties: plain, butter, and garlic. The Masala version is a little crispier than other naans I've eaten, but it's still wonderful.

Another highlight was the tandoori chicken appetizer (185 CZK) – a Punjabi dish of chicken marinated in yoghurt, seasoned with a tandoori curry paste, and roasted in the aforementioned clay oven at a very high temperature (when the next table over is presented with a caste-iron dish that sizzles so loudly it interrupts your conversation, the tandoori chicken is probably what they're getting). I also loved the onion bhaji (69 CZK) -- chopped onions deep-fried in chickpea batter and served with a cool mint and yoghurt dipping sauce.

Even when Masala veers a bit from the more classic Indian dishes, they still manage to do very well. A tandoori chicken salad (185 CZK) was a refreshing mix of fresh veggies, chicken, and mint leaves, and a tomato and basil soup (45 CZK) had a mildly Indian accent thanks to the addition of fresh ginger (shredded coconut gave a yellow lentil soup, also 45 CZK, an ingenious boost, too).

Occasionally, the amount of meat tucked away in those pretty copper curry bowls can seem a little skimpy, but when I last visited, I was so full from the appetizers that I had to ask to have most of my main course wrapped up to take home. They are happy to do take-out meals, in case you want to eat your curry at home in front of the TV.

And with Masala's growing popularity, taking the stuff with you could be your only option. You might prefer it anyway, not because the atmosphere is bad – the restaurant is pleasantly decorated, with Indian pillows and tapestries and bright yellow walls – but because the service can be on the slow side. This is not for lack of trying by the friendly and slightly frazzled waitress, but because there is only one of her. Despite its small size, there's a lot to take care of when Masala is full, not least because Indian food demands many dishes and, inevitably, many drinks.

So I waited for a Coke that never came, and had to ask twice for another bottle of water. We also sat for a long time with empty plates in front of us, the remnants of curry sauces crustifying before our eyes. This has happened to me at Masala before on a few occasions. Basically, they could really use another server.

I would also be thrilled if they started tapping their beer – after all, the combination of spicy Indian food and a cold, freshly-tapped Czech beer is almost unbeatable. But as consolation, Masala has a selection of yoghurt lassis that they will make with a double shot of vodka (90 CZK) for those who are inclined to drink the hard stuff.

For now, I'll stick to my favorite beverage, the deliciously spicy Masala tea. I plan on coming back for it soon – and maybe next time, I'll even run into a few Czech speakers there.

Mánesova 13
Praha 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: 222 251 601

photographs 1, 3, 4, 5 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, April 6, 2009

Restaurant Review: Buddha-Bar / Siddharta-Café

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 28/03/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

On a chilly evening in late January, a Chinese dragon, held aloft by a team of puppeteers, pranced up and down a single block of Jakubská street. The adjacent building was lined with torch candles and shiny cars, and a small herd of heavily-perfumed people hovered by its double-door entranceway.

The two floors inside were packed with celebrities clutching champagne-raspberry cocktails; every few seconds, they would pause mid-conversation to pose for a photographer's flash or answer a question on-camera. Most of them ignored the waiters carrying silver platters of hors d'oeuvres and talked over the speeches of the evening's emcee, Marek Vašut, and his special guest, Prince Andreas von Lichtenstein.

Czech glamorpusses – susceptible as they are to the charms of trendy international brands – had long anticipated the arrival of the world's first Buddha-Bar Hotel and the lavish grand opening party that was to go along with it. This was just the right kind of project to get the LV contingent all hot and bothered: after the phenomenal success Buddha-Bar experienced upon its 1996 debut in Paris, a slew of sister bar-restaurants popped up around the world, all following the pan-Asian theme and large-scale dimensions of the famed original. Dubai, London, and Sao Paolo all have their own Buddha-Bars; now Prague has not only a Buddha-Bar, but a Buddha-Bar Hotel, too.

Yet when all the well-constructed hype wears off, will anybody still care? And, more importantly, should they?

They might, but they probably shouldn't. It's true that the new Buddha-Bar is something to behold, for its unapologetic gaudiness if nothing else. The downstairs space (referred to as 'Buddha-Bar' proper; the upstairs area is occupied by the Siddharta-Café), though smaller than some of the other Buddha-Bar incarnations, is huge by Prague standards. A balcony-style bar, itself with a capacity of up to 100 patrons, overlooks a 150-seat dining area, where dark bamboo furniture and gold and crimson-colored walls flank a 2.6-meter-high Buddha. Behind the statue is a curved wall covered in orchids; to one side, under an alcove, is a more intimate banquette section. A DJ spins the techno-fied world music that has become a signature Buddha-Bar feature (CDs are for sale in the upstairs boutique). The overall effect is part bordello, part opium den, part generic Asia cliché, although the sheer grandness of the space makes it all very striking.

But Buddha-Bar has at least one major flaw: the boldness of its décor doesn't extend to its menu. The selection is mostly a hodgepodge of well-worn Asian favorites – you've got your sesame-encrusted tuna, your pad thai, your Madras curry. None of them was particularly terrible, or especially great, but they all lacked any sort of ingenuity. The food was, in a word, boring.

And when you're being charged this much money, boring is a deal breaker. 365 CZK for a couple of fried vegetarian spring rolls? Those better be the best damn spring rolls I've ever eaten in my life.

They weren't; at best, they were dull. So was the spicy tuna tartare with avocado and pink grapefruit (330 CZK), a nice idea made with fresh ingredients that somehow ended up missing the flavor. Ditto the tiger shrimp fried in coconut (460 CZK) – the coconut was almost indistinguishable and the accompanying basil dipping sauce was very bland.

I yearned for better sauces, but I didn't find any. The Peking duck, priced at an astronomical 875 CZK, was nothing but a row of seared duck breast on a bed of pear compote. Nicely seared duck breast, yes, but only a nondescript sweet compote? Where was the complexity of flavor, the sauce that you want to lick off the plate when you're done? Where, for God's sakes, were the carbohydrates? (Peking duck is traditionally served with Chinese pancakes; at Buddha-Bar, all side dishes must be ordered separately at additional cost).

The only plate that even hinted at the possibility of excellence was the fillet mignon cooked teppan yaki style (875 CZK) – the meat was rare and as soft as warm butter. But it came with yet another uninteresting sauce, some shiitake mushrooms, and a mixture of cabbage and bean sprouts.

The unmistakable soullessness of Buddha-Bar's kitchen started to make sense when I investigated the chain's other locations. At the Kiev restaurant, the menu is almost exactly the same as Prague's, and the London one isn't far off, either. The chefs here aren't working seasonally; they aren't creating anything of their own or using their imaginations. They're slaves to the Buddha-Bar brand, and because the Buddha-Bar brand requires a broad appeal, their restaurants have to play it safe. It's like T.G.I. Friday's, but with maki rolls instead of Buffalo wings.

Even the cocktails were disappointing – they do them better and cheaper around the corner at Bar and Books – and the service was unpolished, if friendly. Upstairs at Siddhartha-Café, a klutzy waitress stuck her whole finger in my companion's bowl of rice as she was setting it down on the table and pretended as if nothing had happened, and there were visible fingerprints all over our spoons.

I would write more about Siddhartha-Café if I had room, but I'll just say that it's pretty much the same thing that's going on downstairs (overpriced food and Buddhas), only lunch-oriented and more generously lit – Buddha-Bar is so dark that I saw a waitress giving a guy a flashlight so he could read the menu.

He shouldn't have bothered. For all the fire-breathers and dragons and paparazzi, Buddha-Bar is a big yawn. Not the reaction they must have hoped for after a 350-million crown renovation, but I'm sure they'll do fine without me: this town has enough trend-loving glamorpusses to fill even a space this large right up to its brim.

Buddha-Bar / Siddharta Café
Jakubská 8
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 221 776 300

Buddha-Bar open Mon-Sun 18:00-late
Siddharta-Café open Mon-Sun 11:30-late

photographs 3, 4, 5, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others