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

1 comment:

Brett said...

Hi Laura - I've emailed you with this message but I thought I would also leave it as a comment here - my phone number is 731 933 830

Hi Laura

I'm in Prague for this week (Apr 13-17) updating the Lonely Planet Prague
Encounter guidebook. Encounter is our city guide sub-brand targeted at
short stay visitors - eg. long weekends, city breaks etc.

A key aspect of the book is "Local Voices" - brief one page interviews
(with a photo of the interviewee) of around 150 words. I met with Evan
Rail at the weekend for this and would love to include you as a Local
Voice as well. What we could cover would be how Prague's restaurant
scene is developing, recommended restaurants and neighbourhoods - all
in a fairly chatty style but reinforcing your authority as the city's
most opinionated restaurant reviewer.

I'm leaving to go around the CR on Saturday morning but could meet
anytime at all for the rest of this week - whatever suits you. I'll
also be back in town for May 28/29/30 if that suits better. I envisage
it would only take around 30 minutes maximum.

Unfortunately since I've arrived at Easter I've been unable to get a
local number from T-Mobile but I'll be sorting this out tomorrow and
could phone you then.

Thanks and regards - I hope we can catch up


LONELY PLANET AUTHOR - Czech Republic, Thailand, Niue, New Zealand,
Turkey & Sri Lanka