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
map
Tel: 603 160 718

Open Mon-Sun 12:00-24:00

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

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good review as always Laura, and describes the restaurant perfectly. This is my favorite restaurant in this part of Prague. I would add that the service is excellent and at times one of the owners is a waiter too. He is friendly and a happy person (very rare in restaurants in Prague) and always remembers you when you come back. I totally agree with you that they do not pretend to be something that they are not. Their menu is simple but this means the quality is consistent. I also like it as it hasn't been found yet by the 'new rich' Czech clan who can slowly ruin the atmosphere of a restaurant. Keep it quiet.... this is a little gem of a restaurant!

Anonymous said...

Your review reflects my experience too, however on the last occasion the waiter for some reason asked if I wouldn't mind paying cash. I did mind. They speciiy that cards are accepted above 1200CZK and I'd spent 1500CZK. I couldn't get out of him why it made any big difference to him as a waiter

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