Monday, May 4, 2009

Restaurant Review: Tlustá Kachna

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 18/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I had never been to Marco Polo IV., the international restaurant that was Tlustá Kachna's predecessor. Neither, it seemed, had many other people; the place was more or less consistently empty whenever I walked by it on my way to the Staroměstská metro stop. I had always assumed it was nothing more than a spot for the occasional hungry tourist to eat after having visited the Jewish cemetery across the street.

But when Marco Polo IV. was transformed by its new owners into Tlustá Kachna (The Fat Duck), people did start coming – and they were mostly locals. What had changed to suddenly make this formerly doomed location an attractive place to eat?

A few things happened with the décor: Marco Polo had had a Venetian theme, and was decorated with gondola poles and a lion's head fountain, along with a few random Asian knickknacks. Now, the pebble mosaic decorating the walls and the bright red ceiling have been painted white, and a sculpture of a duck sits in a glass display (the lion's head fountain remains intact). The furniture is darker, and the restaurant feels more subdued.

And, as suggested by its name, Tlustá Kachna doesn't serve the Italian – Asian mélange favored by its former owners. Instead, it has plain and simple Czech food, like svíčková (beef in cream sauce), Moravský brabec (Moravian 'sparrow'), and tatarák (steak tartare); according to its website, the chefs make food using their grandmothers' recipes. The menu change might help explain why this place has quickly gained a local following.

Well, that, and the fact that the price is right, too. Most Czech restaurants in Prague 1 are geared towards tourists, serving expensive and often subpar meals. The other option is traditional hospodas, which have cheap Czech food that is also subpar.

The paradox of Tlustá Kachna is that while it looks nothing like a hospoda, its food bears a lot of resemblance to what might be cooked at the U Parlamentu pub down the street. In general, the food I had was heavy on grease and low on quality ingredients.

The pork schnitzel (159 CZK), for example, had an unpleasantly thick crust that tasted vaguely of burnt oil, while the meat itself was challenging to cut through, let alone chew. It was a large portion (two good-sized řízky and a lot of small new potatoes) but I would have taken a half-sized version if it had meant the meat would be better. Ditto the svíčková na smetaně (179 CZK), with its leathery-textured beef and sickly-sweet sauce. Everyone likes their svíčková a little different, of course, but if you tried the one at the cheap, smoky pub by my house, I'm sure you'd agree that it is a much better version.

I did like the beef broth (49 CZK) – it was refreshingly Maggi-free and came with some good liver dumplings – and the smoked tongue (79 CZK), with its side of horseradish and spicy kozí roh red peppers, was tender and tasty. It was nice, too, that the dishes were served on homey-style, flower-patterned plates. The roasting pan that came with the Czech duck (195 CZK for ¼ duck; 295 CZK for ½ duck) was less successful, as its small size and high sides made the dish difficult to eat properly.

Even without the unfortunate choice of tableware, Tlustá Kachna's titular dish was something of a disappointment. The duck was overly greasy ("Tlustá" indeed!), its skin was floppy instead of crispy, and the potato dumpling was rubbery. To make another comparison with a different restaurant, a few nights later I had the ½ roasted duck at U Sádlů, and it was far superior – thick, crispy skin, juicy meat, and plenty of flavor. And it only cost 225 CZK. Remembering my meal at Tlustá Kachna, I found myself thinking that if those were Babička's recipes, then Babička wasn't a very good cook.

But then again, what do I know? Maybe real Czech food is supposed to be full of fatty, tendon-laced cuts of meat. Lots of people do seem to like it that way. But if that's how you want it, why not go to a nice hospoda where the atmosphere – and maybe even the food – will be better?

You see, the ambience at Tlustá Kachna is pretty weak. There's something about the lighting in the non-smoking area that makes it seem more like a science laboratory than a restaurant. The light is a little better in the smokers' section, but all the tea candles waiting in their holders have never been lit. Why have them at all if you’re not going to use them? And the décor feels haphazard – rattan chairs, kitschy fake flowerpots on the tables, a massive iron lantern-like thing by the staircase.

Still, there's one thing about Tlustá Kachna that works: the service. A vegetarian dining companion ordered the spaghetti aglio e oglio (to much eye-rolling from yours truly – who orders pasta in a Czech restaurant? They have fried cheese, after all). When it arrived, he discovered that it was full of bacon and cream instead of aglio e oglio (garlic and olive oil).

Although the waitress insisted that these were indeed the spaghetti aglio e oglio my friend had requested, she and her colleague were very accommodating in changing the order. They immediately took away the meaty spaghetti and asked what my companion would like with his pasta instead. Some cheese perhaps? A cream sauce? Vegetables? He went for the vegetables, and the replacement arrived quickly, with zero grumbling and no additional cost.

It's probably safe to say that this particular scene would never happen in a Czech pub, at least not any that I've ever come across. You'd be lucky if they even listened to your request to change dishes.

So I guess I was wrong. Maybe there's a reason to skip the pub and check out Tlustá Kachna after all. You definitely wouldn't be the first.

Tlustá Kachna
Široká 4
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 224 819 668

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-24:00

photographs Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others


komankova said...

just one small thing - it is not that unusual for czech restaurants to bring you new dish when they mess up.
i have been doing this for 15+ years - being a vegetarian brings plenty of opportunity to practice returning "vegetarian" things with ham in them - and it works both in prague and smaller towns.
never ever were they trying to charge me any extra (not that i would pay any extra for them correctiong their mistake). it would be great to have a good, desired food on the first try, but wt least there is second chance.

Laura Baranik said...

Really? That's not something I would have expected, but good to know. I don't return meals very often.