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.


Anonymous said...

Why do I keep reading this woman? She plasters her pictures all over the web, then complains half-heartedly about being recognized before she proceeds with her review of yet another place that everyone already knew about. It's a vanity exercise in more ways than one, I guess.

Anonymous said...

It's a public service she's offering. She's not your freaking employee. She doesn't get paid for this site.

If you're such an "old school" local then why bother reading?

You're comment really makes you come off like a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but that is not a public service.
It is just a wanna-be-food-critic, in fact, realy, REALLY bad one.
I always read her articles to learn how to fuck up restaurant reviews. It is funny, it is amateur and it is nothing about food culture in Czech republic.
My dear Laura is just a funy piece of shit. Well done there..:)

Anonymous said...

Being envious, jealous and unpopular thats all you can do you i-wanna-be-well-knowing-food..creature? :))

Laura i love it here!