Monday, June 15, 2009

Restaurant Review: Céleste

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 30/05/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

The freshly-posted instructions on the outside of the Dancing House are very clear: if you want to get to the top of this icon of modern architecture, you'll have to pay a visit to Céleste first.

The Dancing House is a tricky sort of building. Its towers, nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" for their abstract resemblance to a pair of dancers, are oddly shaped – Ginger, the one made out of glass, is tapered to mimic a woman's form – and its windows are staggered in a wavelike pattern. But Frank O. Gehry's and Vlado Milunić's deconstructivist masterpiece is a risky restaurant location for a different reason: it doesn't get much foot traffic, and there's plenty of the other kind.

To get to the restaurant, you pass through Céleste's small ground-floor bar, where the bartender hits the elevator button and calls upstairs to announce your imminent arrival. And once you're up on the seventh floor, the view is wonderful: the river, the castle, the far-off greenery of Petřín. You'd even forget about the traffic jam downstairs, if you couldn't see a half-kilometer-long line of cars stretching up to Karlovo náměstí.

Céleste is sister to one of Prague's best restaurants, Angel. But here the cuisine is French, not Asian, and the mood is more upscale – white tablecloths, fussier waiters, and slightly higher prices. By all appearances, Céleste is not dissimilar to the previous tenant, La Perle de Prague, which closed recently after having operated since the Dancing House's completion in 1996.

Yet anyone who has visited both restaurants would surely agree that Céleste is a major step up from the overpriced, uninspired La Perle. The new head chef is Gwendal Le Ruyet, a Frenchman from Brittany who spent five years working under Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, among other prestigious international posts. His cooking – much like that of Sofia Smith, who helms Angel's kitchen – is bold and self-assured, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients.

One of the waiters recommended that I try the lettuce soup as an appetizer, but there was no need; I had been planning on ordering it anyway. I really like cold soups, and this one sounded especially intriguing: a velouté of spring lettuce with pan-seared escargots and tarragon foam (275 CZK). The soup itself turned out to be a rich spinach-green color, full of the snappy flavor of fresh lettuce but slightly under-salted – which didn't really matter because the escargots were very savory (they also, for some reason, seemed to taste mildly of bacon). Some fresh shredded lettuce leaves and a few crunchy miniature croutons added texture to this well-balanced dish.

This is modern French cooking at its best. Le Ruyet has preserved the classic culinary techniques and rich sauces of his predecessors, but the dishes are lighter, more pared-down. He often does away with carbohydrates completely: the preparation of a pan-seared cod fillet (450 CZK as part of a two-course lunch menu; 550 CZK for three courses) cleverly evoked a classic beef Bourguignon, with its thick red wine sauce, pearl onions, and button mushrooms, but there were no potatoes to weigh the meal down.

Another fish dish, the sturgeon fillet (625 CZK) was similarly fresh-tasting and very appropriate for the spring season. It was served with pink grapefruit and fresh radishes, along with a green pea puree that was a nice homage to mushy peas (typically found next to fish and chips in English pubs). The sturgeon was perfectly cooked, but the citrus sauce it came with had an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste, as if some lemon rind had gotten in there by accident.
If you are a die-hard carbohydrate lover, don't worry: Céleste makes their own bread, and it is excellent. We were offered a choice of rosemary, white sesame with onion, black sesame, and rye flavors. Finally, an upscale restaurant that doesn't get its bread from the Mansson bakery like everybody else.

Céleste seems determined to do things differently, and better. Their dessert menu is full of unusual surprises, like the heavenly purple pears with red wine granita, mascarpone, and salted Brittany biscuit (195 CZK). My dinner companion said his roasted lamb with daikon radish and artichokes (595 CZK) was the best he'd ever had in this country, and the server proudly explained that it was organic Moravian lamb, not meat that had been shipped in from New Zealand or elsewhere. And they even offer Mattoni and Bonaqua along with the pricier imported waters.

On both my visits, the service was very good, if a little over-eager. Because I was recognized by a waiter who knew me from my frequent visits to Angel, I can't say for sure that it would be the same for other customers. But I have no doubt that the servers at Céleste will be professional and friendly to everyone who walks into their refined purple and gray-themed dining room.

When you do visit, ask to sit in the "Ginger" section of the restaurant, which is surrounded by glass and has a clearer view. Or, better yet, arrange an evening in their private dining room upstairs, which is absolutely stunning and can seat anywhere from two to twenty people. From there, you can walk out onto the circular terrace that crowns the Fred tower and look out across the city in the fresh air.

When you leave, of course, you'll be walking back into that big intersection. Not the most inspiring setting for a post-dinner walk – but by then, you'll be so drunk on lovely food and magical views that you won't even care.

Céleste Restaurant & Bar
Tančící dům
Rašínovo nábřeží 80
Praha 2 – Nove Mesto
Tel: 221 98 41 60

Open Mon-Sat 12:00-14:30, 18:30-22:30. Closed Sunday.

photographs: 1, 3, 4 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

Another thing they are doing different is the beer. Instead of having the same old and every day more one dimensional Pilsner Urquell or worse, some rubbish like Stella or Heineken, they stock the superlative Kout na Šumavě. If only more upscale restaurants followed that example.

Funny is that they are selling three times more beer than they had expected. That is what good quality can do to your bottom line.

Laura Baranik said...

Really? That's great! Good for them -- and good for the rest of us, too.