Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Restaurant Review: Pálffy Palác

When Pálffy Palác was in its heyday, in the mid-90s, they used to serve whole roasted heads of garlic at the beginning of each meal. You'd pop a hot clove out of its shell and smear it on a crusty piece of bread, over a thick layer of butter. The garlic would dissolve into a soft puree at the gentlest touch of a knife.

I was only a kid when my family started going to Pálffy for dinner, but for some reason, the memory of the roasted garlic has stuck with me ever since. So upon returning to Pálffy Palác after what was perhaps a ten-year-long interlude, I was excited to see the waiter carrying the familiar plate of roasted garlic heads and slabs of butter over to our table.

But when I tried to spread the clove across the bread with my butter knife, it didn't melt the way I'd remembered. And it didn't taste very good, either. What had gone wrong?

Pálffy Palác used to be a very sought-after place to go. Housed on the second floor of a 17th-century baroque palace in Malá Strana, it felt almost like a secret restaurant set up in somebody's grand, slightly run-down living room. For a long time, it was the only restaurant in town to serve fresh spinach. It was good and inexpensive, frequented mostly by expats and the likes of Karel Gott (a distinction that apparently elevates any old dive to must-visit status).

Then Prague became flooded with similarly-oriented restaurants, and although few of them had the natural charm of Pálffy, many served fresh spinach and were a lot easier to stumble across. Pálffy bumped up its prices significantly, too, making itself more of a high-end, special-occasion restaurant than an everyday stopover. And perhaps its owner, Roman Řezníček, was momentarily distracted by the opening up of his Holešovice dance club Mecca (since sold to new owners; Řezníček has now also owns longstanding local restaurant U Malířů). Pálffy Palác pretty much fell off the map.

That at least partially explains the stale garlic: a low turnover makes it hard to get the stuff piping hot from the oven for every customer. Nonetheless, Pálffy has a new chef, French-born Kevin Donneger, and it seems to be aiming for a comeback.

The restaurant is still stunning – even, in some aspects, better-looking than it used to be. Pálffy Palác's terrace is one of the most beautiful in the city, overlooking the castle gardens and now, having had some time to grow, lush with plant life. The tops of a set of vanilla trees have risen to eye level, their brown pods swinging in the breeze, while the terrace itself is covered in mismatched ivies and flowers, lending it the atmosphere of a wild garden.

Indoors, the small dining room is all antique furniture, elaborate candelabras, and pretty floral and fruit arrangements. It feels like just the right kind of place to warm up on a wintry evening with a glass of red wine and a newfound lover.

But that may be as far as you should take it. Pálffy is, for what it is, overpriced; main courses cost between 490 and 690 CZK, and I never quite felt I was getting my money's worth. The ravioli filled with goat's cheese and served with bacon cream (290 CZK) were not great: they reminded me of my grandmother's pirogies, only a lot worse, because the ravioli was undercooked and beyond al dente, leading me to suspect that the pasta wasn't especially fresh. I had been intrigued by the notion of "bacon cream," but it ended up being nothing more than regular cream sprinkled with bits of fatty bacon.

And although Mr. Donneger has professed his passion for using organic ingredients, he doesn't seem to put much stock into the seasonality of his menu. One of the two entrée options for lunch on a sweltering summer day was a venison steak in an oily brown gravy. The meat came with two little piles of green and yellow zucchini, but they tasted as if they had been doused in butter. My appetizer wasn't very summery, either: a clichéd combination of baked goat cheese on white toast over a pear compote, drizzled with balsamic reduction. I'm getting sweaty just thinking about it.

The glowing exception to all this nonsense was the perfect green bean soup (135 CZK), a snappy-tasting light cream that brought out all the flavor of its simple main ingredient. I also liked the rosemary crème brulee (250 CZK) that I had for dessert, although the vanilla millefeuille with red fruit coulis (290 CZK) was so frugal on the berries you almost had to squint to make out the little dots of sauce on the plate. For good measure, I guess, they also tossed in half a strawberry.

I was a little turned off when, on my way to the bathroom inside, I overheard the trio of waiters laughing loudly about the American family sitting on the terrace. Instead of exchanging ty voles, maybe they could have studied the menu. My companion ordered the seasonal sorbet selection (190 CZK), and the waiter wasn't able to tell him what flavors they had, even though the only ones available were strawberry and lemon.

It would be unfair to say that the service at Pálffy is bad; it was always friendly, to our faces, anyway. But we went through a whole meal without being given a napkin, and the weekday set lunch took almost two hours.

That probably doesn't sound too attractive to those of you who are in the market for a quick business lunch. If your inclinations are a little more romantic, however, Pálffy is a pretty good place for that kind of thing. Just don't set your expectations too high.

Pálffy Palác
Valdštejnská 14
Praha 1 - Malá Strana
Tel.: 257 530 522

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

photographs 1, 5, 6 Pavel Wellner for Lidové Noviny; all others palffypalac.cz

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


Brewsta said...

Six or seven years ago, I made a reservation to eat at Palffy Palac for my birthday. When we arrived, the manager told us there was a private party going on. I could see that, but we had a reservation. He said sorry, but it was a mistake to take it, and he told us to come another time. That's all. I vowed never to return, and I never have.

John Crane said...

This used to be one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The terrace is indeed lovely. Roman used to come around to the tables and make you feel good about being there.

But the quality of the food eventually declined, and the prices seemed to double. At one point it seemed that they had stuffed so many chairs into the main room that going to the bathroom was like walking through a mosh pit.

Ten years ago I said good-bye to this restaurant, and I haven't gone back. I keep waiting for someone to say, "Hey, I tried this great restaurant in Malostrana...."