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 The beige walls are a little drab, and the maroon-colored runners over the tables feel out of date, like something you'd find in an old hotel restaurant in Communist-era Czechoslovakia.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.


Anonymous said...

This is meant as constructive criticism. I wish you would focus more on the food.

You visited this place twice, but you really only describe four dishes: The risotto, the capon, swordfish carpaccio, and cheese cake. And I wished for more a little more detail about the swordfish than what was on the plate and it that was great.

Fairly consistently, you spend a lot of time talking about service and decor. Certainly, those are worth discussing.

But please be aware, there is a reason we're called "foodies." I'd love more about food and less about foibles.

Laura Baranik said...

Thanks for your comment. I think of myself as a restaurant critic and not a food critic, so I like to take into account service, decor, atmosphere, etc. as much as I do the cooking. In some of my articles, one element will be overshadowed by the others -- and this review might be one of those.

I know some people prefer to read only about the food, but others find detailed descriptions of dishes boring. I try to keep things balanced as much as I can.

Vladimir said...

Dear Laura, thank you for your reviews - they are a great source of inspiration for me. In majority of cases - we like the same restaurants :) Unfortunately, this one is one of the few exceptions. I visited U Emy Destinove this week and was disappointed. Not because of food (it was nothing special but fine) but because of poor service. It took the waiter 15 minutes to get us menus. Everything took him too long and he was far from pleasant/attentive. When my colleague asked how much is the daily special - he said CZK 360. The bill however stated CZK 450. Explanation? He said he stated price without side dish and the peace of meat was a bit havier than normal. The entire lunch took us almost 2 hours (we did not have any dessert). To sum up - average food, poor service and (in my opinion) poor decor - low value for money. I know I will not go there again. If I compare it with La Finestra (I followed your recommendation and went there on Wednesday) - great service, excellent food, simply great experience that must be repeated.

David said...

Just to offer a different take on Vladimir's viewpoint (I was there with him on that fateful day), as long as you keep to "budget" items on the menu - in other words soups and pasta, which is exactly what I did - you will get a surprisingly good value for your money. Of course you may still have to cope with dismal service, waiters who truly take their sweet time to deliver anything in the world despite the fact that the place is half empty but who somehow still manage to pile one faux pas on another (case in your point - if you go there with a woman, be prepared that she will get here menu / dish the last, but who knows, maybe this is the waiters' take on women emancipation). So if fancy Italian food, are not in a hurry and are resigned to accept the quality of service that you are likely to get from Czech waiters, the place is mildly recommendable.