Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: V Zátiší

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 25/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I didn't expect much of V Zátiší. A tired restaurant that's been around for almost two decades? In this city, longevity is often less an indicator of consistent quality than a sign of stubbornness, of a refusal to either pack it in or move along with the times. Sure, V Zátiší was great back when it was pretty much the only nice restaurant around, but I doubted that it could compete with Prague's younger dining elite.

I should have known better. At the very least, I could have been tipped off by V Zátiší's radically remodeled aesthetic. Its outdated, colorful décor was stripped away last September by interior designer Barbara Hamplová and replaced with fanciful brown-on-slate wallpaper and comfy crushed velved armchairs. Sleek vases by local glasswear designer Rony Plesl are stuffed with feathers, cotton buds, and spotted eggs; framed botanical sketches and the carved birds perched on the drinks tables next to the bar complete the still life theme. The new interior is modern without being minimalist (many people would say anyway that done-to-death minimalism is no longer modern).

Any restaurant that undertakes such a bold shift after so many years must be making an effort. And V Zátiší really does make an effort: the staff was willing and cheerful from the moment my companion and I stepped in the door. The hostess who greeted us waited calmly while I spent a couple of minutes digging my mobile phone from out of my coat pocket before she carried our jackets away from our sight, and an equally patient waiter dispelled my confusion about the menu system.

"It's all very simple," he said, although it wasn't really as simple as he claimed. The menu's prices are listed like a regular à la carte, but if a customer selects two or more courses, he has composed for himself a "Deluxe Menu" with a set price ranging from 840 CZK (two courses) to 1390 CZK (five courses). Each of those can come with an optional wine tasting menu at additional price. But then doesn't everyone end up having a "Deluxe Menu" unless they only want one course? What's the point?

Then there was the matter of the Fish of the Day, which was priced as "Pay as you wish." Could I really pay whatever I wanted for that day's salmon special?

"Yes," the waiter assured me. "If you want, you can pay 20 CZK." Really?

"Yes, really, though most people end up getting one of the multi-course menus anyway." Aha, so I wouldn't really end up paying 20 CZK then, right?

The waiter started to look nervous. "If you like, we can agree on a price."

There was no need; I didn't want the fish special anyway. I had my heart set on the svíčková na smetaně (beef sirloin in cream sauce) (695 CZK), off the 'Bohemian Specialties' section of the menu. That small list is obviously catered to tourists who want to try Czech food, but I found it a bit of a shame that the Czech classics weren't integrated into the menu as a whole.

The svíčková was certainly good enough to stand alongside the other dishes. For the price, of course, one would expect a little more than a hospoda-style hotové jídlo version, and it was. The cuts of beef were thick and juicy, their sweet sauce bright yellow and obviously packed with vegetables. On the side was an herb-laden homemade Karlovarský knedlík (bread dumplings), cranberries over a dollop of crème fraiche, and green beans wrapped in bacon. Here, finally, is some of the local cuisine that a tourist could eat without going home and declaring Czech food to be inedible.

V Zátiší does have many tourist customers, apparently because the restaurant has worked out a deal with some of the city's hotels. But it is by no means a tourist restaurant, and is certainly not a "tourist trap," as I have labeled one or two of Prague's other veteran upscale establishments.

V Zátiší's head chef, Milan Hořejš, has a weakness for sweet, fruity flavors. The appetizer sampler (395 CZK) included a pumpkin and autumn pear soup with cinnamon cream (I couldn't taste the pear at all, but the cappucino-like cinnamon froth was a nice touch) and a green asparagus salad with pine nuts and a black currant dressing that also came with fresh red currants. The third sample was the oddly-named "seared beef carpaccio" – since carpaccio is by definition raw, the meat more closely resembled roast beef.

All of the above dishes were good, if unexceptional. What bothered me about them was their lack of seasonality. When I visited V Zátiší (at the end of March), it was not quite asparagus season, it was definitely not the best time for currants, and we were still a long way away from harvesting pumpkins. A seasonally-oriented menu not only allows a restaurant's dishes to complement the weather outside, but also (hopefully) indicates that their ingredients have been reared closer to home and are therefore fresher.

I also felt at times that there was too much happening on my plate. My dessert, the warm caramel gingerbread (245 CZK), came with three sauces: caramel, raspberry, and chocolate, plus a scoop of walnut-flavored ice cream. Apparently, V Zátiší is on some kind of sauce kick; each of their daily specials and many of their regular dishes come with the choice of two different sauces (the waiter recommended trying them both at once). There was wasabi beurre blanc sauce, squid ink sauce, mint aioli sauce, and more. There was an endless stream of little serving pitchers and dipping bowls and rectangular plates.

Why not just pick one great sauce for each dish and stick to it? The problem was similar to the menu's – there were too many variations. Limiting your customer's options doesn't have to be a bad thing. But I still came away from V Zátiší feeling that I'd had a nice meal served by kind people in a beautiful setting. And sometimes, the last impression is what ends up counting the most.

V Zátiší
Liliová 1
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 221 155

Open Mon – Sun 12:00 - 15:00, 17:30 - 23:00

photographs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

I don't know what sort of tourist the author meets, but I am in contact with many visitors from different countries and most of them by far agree that pub grup here is pretty good and very good value for money

R. said...

Dear Pivni, you must not be talking about the chewy, inedible meat that one finds in most plates of goulash across the country. If so, please tell us where these fantastic pubs with excellent fare are located.

U Rudolfina serves pretty decent Czech grub but it's in the minority as I can remember after more than 5 years in Prague and around the Czech Republic.

Play nice. Sometimes we want Czech food that's thought through, not slopped on.

Pivní Filosof said...

Well, I can think of U Medvídku. U Rokity near Palmovka, U Veverky in Dejvice or many of the places I talk about in my blog. I'm not saying that the food is brilliant, but it is certainly good value for money. Of course, at most of those places English isn't spoken, which is something that scares away many an expat.

Anonymous said...

I'll second U Medvidku for nice-price svickova. I gave up ordering "goulash" at Prague restaurants 15 years ago, many too many mouths full of pure fat.

The very best restaurant svickova I have had is consistently from Cafe Savoy (thanks to Laura for that heads up; pay the extra for the "gourmet" version on the separate menu!). Potravena Husa also deserves a mention, though of course Staropramen is hardly my first choice of accompaniment.

It also should be agreed that Czech pub grub is actually becoming pretty good, though the prices are now closer to Western levels (due to exchange rates) than they merit. The old incredulous excuse, "how can you complain, it's only 50 cents???" is a thing of the past, thank goodness.

Pivní Filosof said...

I didn't have too much time to write in my previous comment. Now I would like to expand.

I think that off the top of my head I could name 40 or 50 places all over Prague where you can get very good value for money pub grub. Actually, some of it will put to shame what you can get at fancier restaurants.

To that I could add pretty much every brewpub or brewery restaurant I have visited all over the country and many a village restaurant as well.

But then, I am easily satisfied, more so when I am paying less than 200CZK for a meal, beers included.

Anonymous said...

Okay, okay, Mr Pivni Filosof. I LOVE goulash. Spicy goulash (so spicy it'll melt my fillings, as it's supposed to do).

Give me your Top-Five Czech places for real goulash; I'll be happy to try them all.

Many thanks in advance; I seriously love goulash.

Anonymous said...

Just visited Zatisi yesterday and must fully agree. The times of old good Zatisi are gone. I do not understand why they put so many sauces to each course - 2 starter, 2 2nd course, 2 main... You end up fed up with sauces. The only real food was jehneci kolinko - nice and soft, but again with its natural sauce + red wine sauce + mint sauce. The overall experience good, but nothing in special. Just too complicated...

Mme Verdurin said...

"Of course, at most of those places English isn't spoken, which is something that scares away many an expat."

Um, yeah, that might not work so well for the tourists either, right...

Nadine Cruce said...

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