Monday, July 27, 2009

Restaurant Review: Vikárka

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the
18/07/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Vikárka is one of those restaurants that's been around since the beginning of time. Not literally, of course – but almost.

The establishment is well-known to local residents for its location within the walls of the Prague Castle, as well as for its rich history. Originally the site of church institutions, Charles IV's ascension to the Bohemian throne in 1347 gave the vicars there the right to brew beer. It ended up being a fairly lucrative business for the pious castle-dwellers, who under the late 16th and early 17th-century rule of Rudolph II served copious amounts of their homegrown brew to the patron king's various resident artists, alchemists, and foreign dignitaries.

Nowadays, the restaurant's chosen beer, Krušovice, is tapped for a less intriguing brand of foreigner and at what is surely a more unpalatable price, 60 CZK per 0.4l glass. On a recent Sunday afternoon visit, a group of older Japanese visitors who had a private dining room persuaded the waitress and then the waiter to pose with them in various configurations in front of their cameras (the staff here wear traditional-style costumes, so that might explain the fascination).

Catering to tourist groups seems to have been Vikárka's major source of income since the restaurant reopened in 2005 after extensive renovations and a seven-year closure. They certainly have more than enough room for them all: in addition to the 100-seat, multi-room restaurant space, the Vikárka complex includes a 60-person cellar (named after a famed literary character who used to drink here, Matěj Brouček, and home to the castle's oldest Romanesque wall), an upstairs series of private dining rooms with a 300-person capacity, a fast food eatery next door, and the 240-seat Rudolph's Foundry, which is designed to replicate an alchemist's workshop as it would have appeared during Rudolph II's time.

There are other souvenirs from past days, too. Ancient maps of the city and the castle grounds hang on Vikárka's arched walls, and an old weight-driven clock ticks and buzzes and whirs against the quiet classical music that emanates from tiny speakers in the ceiling. Although the prices might lead you to believe otherwise, Vikárka is not quite a tourist trap. It has a little more soul, and puts forth a lot more effort, than many of those dreaded establishments.

For one thing, the service is surprisingly great – as if they actually cared whether or not their customers come back. During both of my visits, the staff was cheerful and unobtrusive. They were perfectly willing to make small adjustments to the dishes (a companion wanted his salad without bacon) and even checked in during the meal to see if everything was all right. I really, really liked these people. They were just so… pleasant.

So it's with a heavy heart that I start to write about Vikárka's food. I very much wanted to enjoy it, if only for the sake of those wonderful waiters. But it just wasn't up to the standard set by the service. Some dishes were quite good: the boneless ham appetizer (95 CZK) came with a tangy shallot relish and a spicy horseradish and mustard-seed sauce that perfectly complemented the tender slices of meat. And a simple green salad (120 CZK) had a nice balsamic dressing and was happily iceberg-free.

I even liked the beef and chicken broth (55 CZK), but only on my first visit when, as advertised in the menu, it came with thick homemade noodles. On my second trip, the tasty noodles had been replaced by something that resembled chopped-up spaghetti, and the broth was far too salty.

You'd think that a place like this would be able to manage the classic Czech dishes reasonably well. But the svíčková (195 CZK) had meat as tough as at any low-end pub, and its sauce was no better than one you'd get in powdered form at the supermarket. The meat of the roasted pork knee (245 CZK) didn't fall off the joint quite as easily as it should have. And while the veal schnitzel (245 CZK) came with some nice onion-laced mashed potatoes, the meat itself was thick and hard to chew.

For my second main course at Vikárka, I wanted to try something not Czech. The international dishes on their menu are a little suspect in general (the chicken nuggets with vegetables and spaghetti especially comes to mind), but I decided to go with something that seemed pretty safe: the grilled pork sirloin in a Parmesan crust with vegetable lasagna (285 CZK).

Pork and lasagna are not the most conventional combination, but it sounded like it might not be half bad. Unfortunately, thanks to the super-salty crust on the meat and a dried-out lasagna that required a steak knife to saw through its top layer, it was pretty bad indeed. The meal was somewhat redeemed by the švestkové knedlíky (plum dumplings, 85 CZK), which were sprinkled with poppy seeds and powdered sugar, and the "bomba Malakoff" (85 CZK), a small ladyfinger and chocolate mousse confection covered in a crisp layer of dark chocolate.

Vikárka has recently tried to boost its profile by holding foodie events on its premises, the most recent of which was the Hot Food Festival, a tasting of some of the spiciest dishes from countries around the world. The idea was to introduce the joys of spiciness to more Czech people, whose traditional cuisine, of course, has no relationship with the chili pepper. On hand to assist in case of emergencies were unlimited amounts of milk, sweet syrups, and a registered nurse.

It's a nice idea, and one with some merit. But before Vikárka starts branching off into cuisines – Mexican, Indian, Szechuan, Thai – that have nothing to do with the food they serve every day, shouldn't they try to fix what's wrong on the Czech side of their kitchen? For a restaurant with this much history, it's the least that they could do.

Restaurant Vikárka
Vikářská 39
Praha 1 - Hradčany
Tel.: 233 311 962

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-21:00

photographs: 3, 4 Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others

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