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.

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