Monday, June 22, 2009

Restaurant Review: Shiso

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the
06/06/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When I visited Shiso, I didn't smell bad. I was well-dressed, and it was around two in the afternoon, well within the restaurant's published lunch hours. Still, I felt as if I had brought a rain cloud to a beach party – although this particular party consisted only of one waiter, the head chef, and the general manager.

"Can we have a table for two for lunch?" my friend asked.

The waiter looked hesitantly towards the manager and chef, who were seated at one end of the bar. From behind his laptop, the manager extended an open palm and gave a slow nod. Yes, we could enter. How very benevolent of him.

Then again, Shiso is a part of LS Club – billed as Prague's very first private members' club – which carries the tagline "Exclusive. Sophisticated. LS." Those deigned worthy enough of membership (by invitation only and "limited strictly to Europe's business and social elite") pay an annual fee, currently in the ballpark of 18,000 CZK. In return, they are entitled to various perks, including concierge services; the use of LS's lounge, library, and conference rooms; and a smug sense of superiority over the general population.

Members also receive discounts at the restaurant, which is open to regular folk, too. But not many people, members or otherwise, seem to be going to Shiso at the moment. On both of my visits, one of which was on a Saturday night (albeit on a holiday weekend), there was only one other couple in the fairly vast dining room. And almost nobody I've talked to has heard of the place. When I tell them it is on U Milosrdných, at the former location of the Italian restaurant La Scena and, before that, the French restaurant La Scène, some bells start to ring. But even then, no one really seems to care.

Too bad, because the food at Shiso is definitely worth a visit. Their executive chef is Paul Day, an Englishman who has lots of experience in upper-crust Asian restaurants, including branches of the celebrated Japanese chain NOBU in London and Milan. For Shiso, he has created a menu of small dishes from across Asia that are meant to be shared.

Many of these are familiar, but have been amped up with a few unusual touches. The two small chicken satay skewers (210 CZK) were covered in a classic spicy-sweet peanut sauce, along with some fried spring onions that added a nice crispy texture to the dish. And the beef massaman curry (490 CZK) that I had as a main course was better than any massaman I've ever tried: tender clumps of shredded beef in a sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce, served in a rustic clay bowl. Both in flavor and presentation, Mr. Day's dishes are meticulously rendered.

But it's unfortunate that so many of them are so similar. During my dinner visit, my companion and I ordered eight different dishes, most of them the "small plates," in order to sample as many as we could. We had the crispy squid (220 CZK), the black pepper baby back ribs (210 CZK), the duck watermelon salad (440 CZK), the beef fillet with umeshu sauce (650 CZK), and more. Each of these was very good on its own – the ribs, with their sticky crust of crushed black pepper, were particularly outstanding – but in combination, they were far too sweet.

I'd been hoping that the duck salad would provide a refreshing reprieve from all the sugariness, but it, too, was coated in a sweet brown sauce. Nonetheless, the combination of Thai basil and fresh watermelon with the crispy bits of duck and buttery cashew nuts was electric. It certainly didn't need the fried spring onion topping, which was a pleasant surprise on the chicken satay but grew old very quickly after it appeared on dish after dish. A little more creativity with the garnishes would definitely have helped.

The same goes for the desserts, which are nonexistent except for a tempura of deep-fried lychees, bananas, and pieces of chocolate (280 CZK). It was tasty, but on the boring side. If only from a strictly business standpoint: what is Shiso thinking? Everyone knows that desserts give the best profit margins; flour, sugar, and eggs cost practically nothing.

Instead, it seems, Shiso plays the game of hidden costs. The minuscule bowl of rice that came with my curry wasn't listed on the menu and wasn't offered by the waitress, but it came automatically and ended up costing 90 CZK. Then there is the fact that a ten-percent service charge is included in the bill – again, without being listed on the menu, as is customary if you're including tip in a country where that practice is almost nonexistent.

I don't care how exclusive you are, or if your doorman is dressed "in a designer suit," as LS Club's online pamphlet advertises. Because I didn't scrutinize the receipt on my fist visit, I ended up leaving a 22% tip – far more than the wait staff at Shiso deserved. They were friendly and timely, but didn't seem to know much about the menu and had a hard time describing the dishes. I would expect more from a place that has hyped itself up as much as this one has.

If you like nice Asian food, though, you should definitely try Shiso. I would especially recommend the weekday Bento Business Box lunch special (450 CZK including a glass of wine); the expensively-decorated space is truly beautiful, especially when the light streams in through the skylights during the day. Just stroll in like you belong there, ignore any snootiness, and remember to check your receipt, and you'll be just fine.

Shiso Restaurant
LS Club
U Milosrdných 6
Praha 1 – Old Town
Tel: 222 312 677

Open Tues-Sun 12:00-16:00 (lunch), 19:00-23:00 (dinner)

photographs: 1, 3, 4, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it illegal to charge service? And if it isn't, it certainly should be. The cost of the service is calculated when setting the prices for food, etc. Why should we pay it again?

I've heard of many restaurants of all kinds doing it, but only to foreigners.

I was once at a well known pub in the centre having a beer and a snack. The tourists that were at the table next to mine got charged service, I, who speak pretty good Czech, wasn't.

I wonder if this pretentious, snobbish Shiso does the same. Or do they charge service only to non-members?

Pivní Filosof said...

A follow up on my previous comment:

I asked today a friend who runs two restaurants. He couldn't tell me for sure if charging for service at all is illegal, but he was very sure that if that charge isn't listed on the menu, then it is illegal to add it on the bill.

Legally speaking, prices on a restaurant are like a contract. Therefore, the total of the bill must not exceed the sum of the prices of the items you have ordered/consumed.

This means that Shiso is ripping people off.