Monday, August 10, 2009

Restaurant Review: SaSaZu

If you don't understand what "fresh pomelo, spring onion, Chinese cabbage, ginger, lychee, Hanoi crab, krupuk chips and shiso leaf sauce" means, you're not welcome at SaSaZu.

That is the description of the Vietnamese summer salad as listed on SaSaZu's menu, which, in both print and online formats, exists only in English. Inevitably, this raises some questions: do the people running SaSaZu not realize that their restaurant is situated in the Czech Republic? Do they not want Czech people to come to their restaurant, or do they welcome only those Czech people who are cool enough to speak fluent English? Or could they just not find anyone to do the translation?

Even if your culinary English isn't up to form, you can rest assured that the menu doesn't make much sense even to native speakers. It's a complete mess, with 30 dishes categorized under five different general categories – Sambal, Otak-Otak, Flame, Roti, and Tai-Tai Grill – each of which has its own description ("Tai-tai is a famous Thai dish combining sticky rice, coconut, and pandan leaves") that only vaguely have anything to do with the dishes listed below them (Tai-tai is not available to be ordered).

To make matters more confusing still, it is impossible to tell either from the descriptions or prices which dishes are appetizers and which are main courses. From this you might infer that all of the dishes are fairly small and about equal in size, but that's not the case. And you'll be better off not asking your servers for advice; ours told us to order three dishes each, but since many of them were quite large, we ended up with more food than we could eat.

The bizarrely (dis-)organized SaSaZu restaurant is part of the recently-opened SaSaZu mega-club in Holešovice's Pražská Tržnice. It's a big, bustling, imposing place, reminiscent of Buddha-Bar and already overtaking that Asian-themed club/bar/restaurant in popularity. SaSaZu is really quite stunning, with delicate geometric lamps dangling from the soaring ceilings of an old industrial warehouse. The food is gorgeously presented and, for what it's worth, it's also full of beautiful people. Clearly, this place has ambitions to be on the grand scale of a large club-restaurant in London or New York. But there are just too many faulty elements here for SaSaZu to achieve that kind of status.

One person who obviously knows what he's doing is the chef, Shahaf Shabtay. His extensive international experience is evident in his eclectic mix of mostly Southeast Asian dishes. The Thai papaya salad (110 CZK), one of Shabtay's signatures, is a snappy combination of shredded green papaya, fresh herbs, roasted cashews, and green beans in a tangy lime dressing. I also loved the addictive Babi Ketjap (190 CZK), traditionally an Indonesian sweet soy pork dish, reinvented here with Japanese udon noodles and Chinese-style pickled vegetables.

The flavor profiles at SaSaZu are much more colorful than anything you'd find at Buddha-Bar, and the prices are a lot more palatable, too. The most expensive dish on the menu is the lobster vanilla mirin (485 CZK) – which, incidentally, was also one of the most disappointing. Although the lobster itself was generously portioned and perfectly cooked, its delicate flavor was overwhelmed by the fragrant vanilla and mirin (a Japanese rice wine) sauce, and it was served atop slices of brown, oily eggplant. And the SaSaZu fries (40 CZK) were limp and soggy. But there are still more than enough great dishes at SaSaZu to make a trip here worth your while.

If you can stand the terrible service, that is. During just one visit, my table witnessed more mix-ups and delays and problems than I've seen in my past few months of restaurant visits. My companion got two of his dishes at once, so by the time he finished one, the other was cold, and the rest of us didn't get our food until he was almost done eating. The waiters had no idea who was getting which dish, so each plate had to be described to us in detail before we could figure out where it was supposed to go. And because nobody cleared our table after the first course, the next dishes came when the dirty plates were still on the table.

We didn't have any luck with the beverages, either: SaSaZu has no drinks or cocktail menu, only a wine list. When a friend asked for some wine by the glass, the waitress offered her just one option, even though they had more available, then forgot to bring her second glass. And it was impossible to flag down a server to order more drinks when we ran out.

They were probably all busy serving the more important guests. Some tables seemed to be getting special treatment; we didn't get hot towels to wipe our hands before the meal, but other patrons did (we were offered the towels on my second visit to SaSaZu, when the service was generally better, but still problematic). Instead, we got treated to one of the managers yelling at a waitress just next to our table, and passive-aggressive behavior from another waitress who was apparently furious that we didn't agree to eat a dish we hadn't ordered.

Like so many pseudo-world class business ventures in this town, SaSaZu only manages to make it halfway. In any civilized city, a big club would offer free entry to the guests who've dropped several thousands of crowns on food and drinks at their restaurant. But at SaSaZu, the restaurant patrons have to pay the club's entry fee if they want to dance after dinner – not the smartest move, perhaps, for a club with a capacity of 2500 people that feels more or less empty even if it manages to lure in a thousand. Instead of sticking around and buying drinks at the club, we left.
Had we stayed, we could have come back to the restaurant up until 3 a.m., its daily closing time. But I wasn't going to risk another obnoxious service disaster, even for another serving of SaSaZu's famous papaya salad.

SaSaZu Kitchen & Bar
Bubenské nábřeží 306/13
Praha 7 – Holešovice
Tel.: 284 097 444

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-3:00

photographs 1, 2, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 01/08/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Restaurant Review: Café de Paris

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 13/06/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There's only one reason to go to Café de Paris: the beef entrecôte.

The menu doesn't leave its patrons with too many other options. The choices are as follows: French onion soup, a foie gras terrine, the beef entrecôte, a vegetarian version of the beef entrecôte, and a goat cheese salad. Two appetizers, two entrees, and a salad. That's it. Pretty ballsy, if you ask me.

Well, there are the daily specials, which seem to be more of a fixed menu than they first appear. Those give you a little more breathing room, although they hardly seem necessary, given the quality of Café de Paris's star entrée.

The entrecôte (279 CZK) comes with a green salad, drenched in a deliciously mustard-y French vinaigrette. The salad is brought out first, and they recommend that you eat half of it immediately and the other half with your meat. Your table is then presented with two miniature grills, lit from below with candles to keep the food warm. On one goes a platter of French fries; the other is reserved for the entrecôte. Some slices of fresh baguette come with all this, too, in case the fries don't fill you up.

The beef is cooked medium rare (unless you specify otherwise) and is sliced into thin strips. You can choose whether you want it with Béarnaise sauce, red wine Parisienne sauce, or the special Café de Paris sauce, which is made according to a "secret family recipe" that has been around for seventy-five years.

My best guess is that the secret sauce contains butter, tarragon, and Dijon mustard – not entirely dissimilar to the Béarnaise, which is usually made with butter, tarragon, egg yolks, and vinegar. It is herb-laden and wonderful, a perfect accompaniment to the juicy grilled meat. On occasion, the beef can be a little chewy, but that is pretty typical of an entrecôte, which is a fattier cut of meat than some others. I would challenge anyone to show me a better example of steak frites in Prague.

Now lest you think that this whole delicious setup is a homegrown invention, I'm going to regale you with a little history (of which I myself was not aware until my faithful friend Wikipedia spelled it out for me while doing my research). The original Café de Paris is located in Geneva, where in the 1930s a certain Mr. Boubier developed a buttery sauce to accompany his restaurant's entrecôte. The sauce came to be known as "Café de Paris sauce" and the dish became the only dish on the restaurant's menu. Today, the name and the secret sauce recipe have been licensed to various restaurants around the world, one of which is the Café de Paris in Prague.

A similar concept – with a similar sauce – has been espoused by the unaffiliated L'Entrecôte chain of restaurants in France, the first of which opened in 1959 and was modeled after the original Café de Paris. Two years ago, a reporter from the magazine Le Monde claimed to have chemically analyzed L'Entrecôte's secret sauce and discovered its ingredients: a combination, he says, of fresh thyme, thyme flowers, full cream, white Dijon mustard, butter, and strained chicken livers. L'Entrecôte insists that this analysis is incorrect.

Prague's Café de Paris is understandably tight-lipped about their sauce's makeup. And even if their other dishes are less mysterious, they are often just as good. The French onion soup (45 CZK) was made from a delicate white wine broth and not broiled in a ramekin, but decorated with a single slice of crispy baguette and a modest amount of melted cheese. This made the soup much lighter and more appropriate for the summer season than the cheese-encrusted versions we are more used to seeing.

The foie gras terrine (159 CZK), too, was small but satisfying – a buttery slice of foie topped with toasted sesame seeds and surrounded by a potent sour cherry and plum coulis. Unfortunately, the special soup they had on offer, a lukewarm chicken broth "strengthened with gin" (65 CZK) and served in a martini glass with a wedge of lime, was as salty as seawater. I was also a little underwhelmed by the vegetarian version of the entrecôte platter (259 CZK), with its slightly overcooked eggplant and zucchini drenched in a goopy Béarnaise sauce. But the smoky tofu fritters that came with it were surprisingly tasty, if not quite as good as the beef my companion was tucking into.

A good part of Café de Paris's charm comes from its atmosphere – its quiet location on Maltézské náměstí, the small tables out front and in the courtyard, and the two tiny rooms decorated with red leather seats and postcards from happy customers. It's also nice to have your food served at the table by the waiters, who come around to fill up your plates with meat and French fries once you've polished off your first helping. The general feeling is of a homey little family-run place, where they don't pretend to be anything they're not.

And because this is a French restaurant, they have a thoughtful selection of wines from the home country – reasonably-priced – as well as some delicious sparkling cranberry, ginger, and elderflower lemonades (a little less reasonably-priced at 69 CZK for a small bottle).

I've written before that crème brulée is a bit of a cheap trick, but the one at Café de Paris (95 CZK) is worth ordering anyway. It was crusty on top, super-creamy below, and served with a scoop of mango ice cream and a dusting of salted cayenne pepper. It's a perfect finish to a meal at this soulful little restaurant.

Café de Paris
Maltézské náměstí 4
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: 603 160 718

Open Mon-Sun 12:00-24:00

photographs: 1, 4, 5, 7 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others