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.


skip said...

Interesting, because one of the things I liked on our visit at Sasazu was the service. The guy who served us was nice, gave us a few good advices about the menu and in the end, he offered a visit of the kitchen.. which never happened to me in any other restaurant before. And the food is a really good value for the money, if you know what to choose.

Steve said...

We also had very good service -- i would say the food even came out too quickly. Really liked the menu choices and the flavor. I agree that the atmosphere is too imposing and maybe Prague does not have a big enough club-set to support the place just yet

Anonymous said...

well i have heard some rumors of the mangamement treating their staff quite bad(and belive me it is not an exeption in prague) there, so that may reflect the the unstable quality of service. Usually, if the manager is not the first to greet you and take you to the table and then you see him telling waiters off, it is better not to visit the place for good service.

Anonymous said...

I ate there one night about a month ago. Our waitress was totally dismissive. When another server came to help put the plates on the table (because the tray was huge and our waitress was M.I.A.) she didn't know who had ordered what and the manager came over and started screaming at her. I felt so bad for her! Really uncool.

And I'm sorry, but the fact that you have to leave the club and come in again from another entrance to get into the club after dropping 3000+ CZK is a joke.

Anonymous said...

This review is pretty crap - sorry for the author. Yup, the menu is in English, but every normal, educated person in the Czech Rep with a bit of understanding of what to expect in SaSaZu can go through it. On top of this, all waiters can speak Czech. We had a very nice service and food was delicious and well-priced.
Maybe next time the author could try a hospoda. There will be plenty of Czech - food, language and behavior for everyone.

Steve said...

I had been there a few weeks ago with my girlfriend and we found the service of the waitress to be excellent. Unfortunately :-) I don't think the dishes are very big, so we ordered 4-5 each. The waitress explained us the content of the different dishes and what might go well together as well. Overall we were more than happy with the food adn the overall experience and willfor sure return sooner or later, although our budget will prevent us from becoming regulars unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

We can only disagree with the author. Food is yes different then what you can find in Prague. There are 500 hospoda in Prague with classics. 400 Out of those 500 compete on price and in general that mostly ends up in the well know , mostly enjoyable foods, but nothing more.

Sasazu is different for the better. Take account its rather salty, but some of the dishes are really amazing when all tastes come together in your mouth.

We have been here 4 times and each time we have taken the "chefs table". Meaning that you dont have to order anything. Dishes are brought to you and you just eat. Chef decides what you get and how starter , first main, second main, and desert are built up.

And this is just amazing. Right the price ends up around 80-100 euro per person including drinks like apperetif, wine and a coffee. But it is a fantatsic evening, just do it once twice per year. Make sure you are hungry go spend you evening there and go home. No need to go out. The clubs entries and drinks in prague you would otherwise spend 50 euro on in Prague you can skip and just enjoy the food and go home after a couple of food eatgasms..

Club atmosphere is fantastics, live dj some evenings with really nice clubby groovy music in the back ground.

This restaurant is one of those that jump in the eye in Prague. We can only hope more would have the ambition and quality in Prague.

Anonymous said...

totally amazing tastes and service. loved IT!!!

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