Monday, October 19, 2009

Restaurant Review: U Emy Destinnové

It seldom seems to happen – in this country, anyway – that a restaurant's best asset is its kitchen. Lots of places are long on atmosphere, and nowadays you can even count on reasonably good service at most higher-end restaurants. But good chefs are still few and far between.

One of the exceptions is U Emy Destinno, whose owner and head chef Steven Trumpfheller outclasses both his restaurant's location and its waitstaff. His menu is eclectic but not unfocused, a mix of mostly American and Italian-style classics.

I just can't get over the pumpkin risotto (180 CZK) I had there the other night. Creamy without being too heavy, the dish was a perfect balance of flavors. That was also because of one other crucial addition: bacon, fried to near crispiness (this is an American chef, after all, who knows how to cook his bacon) and folded into the risotto in small pieces. The fact is that bacon will make more or less any dish taste better – I recently sampled some bacon-flavored chocolate, and I loved it – but in the risotto, combined with the pumpkin's distinctive sweetness and the sharp tang of Parmesan, it was a truly inspired combo.

I couldn't say as much for U Emy Destinnové's interior design. Before the restaurant's recent renovation, it had a quirky, old-fashioned living room feel to it, with lots of strange knickknacks and some ratty gray couches left over from its previous incarnation as Czech restaurant JB Club. The getup felt a bit inappropriate for the food, to be sure, so a refurb was definitely in order. Now, the place has been tidied up and the couches have been reupholstered, but it's lost some of its charm. The beige walls are a little drab, and the maroon-colored runners over the tables feel out of date, like something you'd find in an old hotel restaurant in Communist-era Czechoslovakia.

On my second visit, there was a massive group dinner taking up the whole of the large front room (U Emy Destinnové offers several banquet menus), so my friends and I were seated in the little room in the back. That would have been perfectly cozy if we hadn't been within spitting distance of the bathrooms – they were separated from us by a partition wall, but every time someone left the toilet door open we were washed over by a familiar, unpleasant aroma. Because there was no self-closing mechanism on the bathroom doors, one of us would have to get up and shut them ourselves – and I don't especially like playing toilet porter on an evening out to dinner.

Then there was the problem of the lights being too dim, making it hard to read the menu and see the food properly. And although live piano music is a nice idea, this particular piano player didn't really do it for me. His style was aggressive and unpleasant, not fading gently into the background as it should have, but overriding our conversation. Moreover, he had a creepy habit of staring directly at me and my female friend for long periods of time as he played.

During earlier, pre-renovation visits to U Emy Destinnové, I remember being bowled over by the service. This time, it wasn't bad by any means – particularly on my first visit, when the waiter was impressively on point – but it did occasionally seem slightly amateurish. During the first evening, the server eagerly told us what dishes they had available as specials, but on the second, I had to ask if they had any specials before he thought to tell us. And I found their rattling off of all the aperitifs they had on offer (even when we had already declined) a little annoying.

Still, I was impressed with how timely the service was, even with that massive group in the front room. I had been dismayed when we first walked in that night – usually, kitchens get overwhelmed by the demands of the banquet and the timing of the smaller tables' meals suffers. But everything came out at just the right moment, and they even found the opportunity to show us the lamb and swordfish they had on special that night.

I had the swordfish in the form of a carpaccio (215 CZK), and it was great – fresh, beautifully sliced, and arranged around a small salad with capers and cherry tomatoes. They have a thing for raw meat here, with three kinds of carpaccio (including bison carpaccio with dried figs and pecorino cheese, 215 CZK), a lamb tartare, and often a couple of additional types of carpaccio on the specials list. But there are other tasty appetizers, too, such as the deep-fried calamari, zucchini, and lemon (155 CZK) or the wild French duck breast with blackberry port wine demi-glaze (175 CZK).

There are a lot of originals here, and having seen the same dishes over and over again on local menus, I can appreciate the ingenuity – especially when it comes out right. The golden capon chicken served over sweet corn relish (230 CZK) was tender and juicy, with browned, crispy skin, and its mildly creamy sweet corn sauce was a nice little bit of Americana to go with it. Paired with some fluffy garlic mashed potatoes (65 CZK), this was real soul food.

So, the American in the basement of famous Czech opera singer Ema Destinnová's birth house can really cook. I'm not totally convinced by his baking (the Philadelphia cheesecake, 105 CZK, had a very soggy crust), but I only managed to sample one dessert. The portions are big, and the prices are remarkably decent. I would urge you to give U Emy Destinnové a chance. Even if a few of the other elements are a little out of place, the food is definitely worth it.

U Emy Destinnové
Kateřinská 7
Praha 2 - Nové Město
Tel.: 224 918 425
Open Mon-Fri 11:30-23:30, Sat 18:00-23:30. Closed Sunday.

images 1, 2, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 03/10/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Restaurant Review: La Finestra

What happens when I get recognized in a restaurant? Well, the service usually gets better: suddenly, a waiter who's been ignoring me all night is perfectly on point, asking if we need a dash of fresh pepper or a foot massage. That's why I try to avoid getting noticed – otherwise, I would never know how the restaurant is experienced by the average visitor. The review just wouldn't be fair.

Try as I might, recognition sometimes happens. In the case of La Finestra, I was introduced to the manager by my dining companion against my will. I had planned on reviewing it. But as I watched the waiters prance around our table, checking in every three minutes to see if everything was all right, I figured I could never write about the place in an objective way.

The thing was, I really, really liked the meal. I'd been to La Finestra before, and hadn't been recognized, and the food and service were equally as good (if not better, because it hadn't felt oppressively attentive). So I decided to go again.

I have a theory about my appearance: when I don't wear makeup, I look like a slug. I am convinced that for people who are used to only seeing me in my enhanced mollusk-free state, I am impossible to recognize. The first review visit I made to La Finestra, I'd been in a nice dress, had my hair down and powder and lipstick on, and it was nighttime.

So, in the unforgiving glare of daylight, wearing Converse and a sweatshirt and my slug face, my unwashed hair pulled up into a childlike ponytail, no one would know it was me.

No such luck. "Aha! Dobrý den!" shrieked one of the servers as soon as I walked in the door. Damn. This was not only bad for my review, but bad for my reputation – at one point during the meal, the executive chef, Tomáš Černý, came over to say hello, and I was in his restaurant looking like an only slightly rehabilitated hobo.

I'm sharing all this for the purposes of full disclosure, although I know I will get some backlash from my feistier readers: how dare I give full marks to a restaurant that clearly knew who I was and treated me accordingly?

The simple answer is that I liked the place so much that I just couldn't help myself. On top of that, I have become convinced, both through casual observation and by questioning some of my more discerning restaurant-going friends, that all patrons are treated well at La Finestra.

For starters, it's the kind of restaurant where the waiters recognize returning customers. If you've been there before, they offer a friendly smile; they might even shake your hand (and no, not just mine). There are some establishments in this town that I've been going to regularly for years, and they still look through me when I step inside. Not so at La Finestra.

It goes along with the familial atmosphere that co-owner Riccardo Lucque first cultivated at his original restaurant, Aromi, and has perfected here. Eating at La Finestra is a bit like hanging out in your Italian grandmother's kitchen; their aim is to fill you up and make you happy, whatever it takes.

As a result, the options can seem endless. The dishes on the printed menu are just a rough guide – the specials are really where it's at. Servers come around to each table with massive platters of seafood and raw meat, picking each protein up in turn to describe what it is and how it can be cooked (sometimes I find their molestation of the meats to be a little off-putting, but maybe I'm just being prudish). Many of the portions are for two or more people, so you often see tables eating family-style, with a large platter of meat and side dishes in the center of the table and everybody helping themselves.

The chefs at La Finestra pay attention to seasons; on my very first visit there, the menu was laden with asparagus. Now, there were tons of black truffles: freshly shaven over a perfect, creamy risotto (395 CZK for a starter; 445 CZK for a main course); turned into briny truffle water and ladled around a bed of raw scallops (395 CZK); even infused into a rich chocolate cake (165 CZK).

One evening, the kitchen had fresh chanterelles, so the server offered several ways that they could make them. Would I like them on bread, as a kind of bruschetta? As a sauce over pappardelle? Or alongside a nice piece of beef? I went for the last option, a lightly marbled, tender fillet cut, crusty on the outside and red as a plum in the middle. La Finestra imports its beef from Italy, where it is aged for six weeks before being transported to Prague.

They also order a special variety of San Marzano tomatoes, called "La Motticella," a year in advance, then turn them into specialties like the cold tomato soup with burrata cheese (125 CZK) – something like a liquid caprese, sprinkled with croutons and fresh basil and a few drops of red wine vinegar. I would have preferred it to be sweeter, but Chef Černý explained that Mr. Lucque likes the dishes to be more on the vinegary side, since that's the style of his native region of Italy, Le Marche. Nothing, it seems, happens at La Finestra by accident.

And that's exactly the kind of restaurant where you want to spend your money: a place where everything is thought through in advance, where every detail is accounted for. They're going to treat you well, even if you look like a slug or a hobo – and yes, even if you're not a restaurant critic. I feel very confident about that.

La Finestra
Platnéřská 13
Praha 1 – Stare Mesto
Tel.: 222 325 325

Open Mon-Sat 12:00-23:00, Sun 12:00-22:00

images 1, 2, 6, 7 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 26/09/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Las Adelitas to open restaurant in Vinohrady

Looks like Fosil will no longer be the only authentic Mexican restaurant in town.
The popular Mexican food delivery service Las Adelitas has announced it will open its first restaurant this month. There will be a grand opening party on Friday, October 16th -- but they are also holding a "pre-inauguration" party tonight at 8pm, at the new location on Americká 8 in Vinohrady. Delivery is on hold for now, but will restart as soon as the restaurant officially opens.

Margaritas and flautas... yum.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Restaurant Review: Kampa Park

Kampa Park's best asset is still its location. Positioned atop the Vltava in the shadow of the Charles Bridge, with sweeping views across Old Town and just a short distance from Malá Strana's storybook streets, it is hard to imagine a more attractive locale for a Prague restaurant.

But everybody knows that already – especially the hordes of tourists death-marching across the Bridge who spot Kampa Park's shiny terraces and decide to head on down for a classy meal. In recent years, in fact, the name Kampa Park has become so affiliated with its tourist clientele that few locals even consider it as a dining option. No one, it seems, plans a big dinner out at Kampa.

It wasn't always that way. When it first opened, and for quite a few years afterward, Kampa Park was the fancy restaurant; foreign movie stars who rolled through town always seemed to make pit stops there. A wall of faded celebrity photographs, taken with Kampa's owners, reads like a scrapbook of 1990s action heroes: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Clinton.

Kampa Park was the brainchild of partners Nils Jebens and Tommy Sjöö, who used to be the city's reigning restaurateurs. Their seemingly indomitable rule began in the early '90s, when Sjöö owned a restaurant in Obecní Dům called Brasserie Mozart (now the location of Francouzská Restaurace). Brasserie Mozart was among the first places in Prague to have a salad bar – a revolutionary concept, apparently, and enough to convince Jebens to partner up with Sjöö to open Kampa Park and the now-defunct Italian restaurant Segafredo on Na Příkopě.

Kampa Group, as the company was called, cycled through various ventures, some more successful than others. Eventually, the company split into competing fiefdoms: Pravda Group, lorded over by Sjöö and encompassing the Old Town restaurants Pravda, Barock, and (while they lasted) Aqua and Hot. Jebens, meanwhile, ruled the Malá Strana side of the river, developing Hergetová Cihelna, Cowboys, and Square (now replaced by Starbucks).

Jebens's flagship restaurant, of course, is still Kampa Park, even if it lacks the luster it had ten or fifteen years ago. The cuisine is in the French style, influenced slightly by Scandinavia and Asia, and sometimes by cliché – one of the starters is a beef carpaccio with arugula, Parmesan, and olive oil (395 CZK), the same dish you'd find in a Modrá Zahrada pizzeria, or almost anywhere nowadays.

But Kampa can also be pleasantly surprising, as in the case of their scallop appetizer. For two small scallops, 545 CZK is a bit on the steep side, but this dish was unique: the mollusks perfectly seared, served in a buttery lemon dill sauce with tiny niblets of cauliflower. Norwegian flavors, French technique.

The same description could apply to my king crab salad (645 CZK), a flavorful mayonnaise-based treat of fresh crab, chopped chives, and a mysterious spice I had trouble identifying. It was served atop a slick of tomato jelly (which was good but tasted a little like canned tomato paste) next to a small frisee salad with sprouts; some crispy fried bread sticks; and a little bit of salmon roe. The presence of dill was palpable here, too, which I appreciated – dill is common in Northern and Slavic cuisines, but I wish we could see more of it in French and Mediterranean cooking.

I had been skeptical of the place before I'd revisited it, but by the time the appetizers had been cleared away, I was beginning to think I'd judged Kampa Park all wrong. Maybe this was still one of the top few restaurants in Prague. Maybe, for all these years, miracles had been happening in its kitchen, and we'd all been too blinded by the flashy new establishments to notice.

Even the service, you see, had been exceptional up until that point. Our waitress had this amazing knack for glancing over at our table every time she walked by (something that should be second nature to every waiter, but I've found that most of them actually like to turn their heads away from your table when they approach, so as to avoid accidental eye contact with their customers). She never took away any plates before we were all finished, and she didn't pour water mercilessly into our cups. It seemed to me, as a matter of fact, that she had actually been trained.

So I was disappointed when the wait between our first two courses stretched into uncomfortable-silence territory. You know what I'm talking about – when you get so preoccupied with where your entrée might be that instead of talking to your dining companion, you repeatedly check your watch and look towards the kitchen doors. Our waitress, angel that she was, came to apologize. It was the soufflé, she said, that was taking so long.

I wish it had been worth the wait. Unfortunately, it was cheese overkill – cheesy black truffle soufflé (495 CZK) in a cheesy white sauce with cheesy parmesan chips, and the whole thing was very salty. I was happier with my lamb entrée (895 CZK); the meat was super tender and I liked the baby vegetables and sweet pea puree on the side, but the red wine sauce was one-dimensional and the little bits of sweetbread seemed more like an afterthought than an integrated part of the dish. Dessert, on the other hand, a strawberry cappuccino (295 CZK), served in a glass with meringue, vanilla ice cream, strawberry coulis and an edible forest berries skewer, was summery and divine.

So would I recommend Kampa Park now? Yes, with some hesitation. The outdoor seating is wonderful, the service is wonderful, the food is occasionally wonderful. You could definitely find better value for money; the water – some absurd Norwegian brand – costs 165 CZK for a 0.8l bottle. But keep Kampa in mind next time you’re in the mood to pay for a fancy dinner. You could do a whole lot worse.

Kampa Park
Na Kampě 8b
Praha 1 - Malá Strana
Tel.: 296 826 112

photographs 2, 4, 6 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 19/09/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.