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

No comments: