Monday, November 16, 2009

Restaurant Review: Lancia Café

Here's a riddle for you. It's lunchtime and you're hungry. Because you have a pretty distinguished palate, you don't want to eat just anything. It has to be decent. Up to international standards, even.

But there's a catch: you're in Bratislava. Besides hopping in the car and driving the 60 kilometers to Vienna, what can you possibly do?

You see, there isn't much going on in Slovakia's capital in terms of restaurants. They exist, but most of them are pretty pathetic, and not even very cheap. The situation is bad enough to make wishy-washy Prague look like a culinary Mecca. As a Czech businessman I once overheard on the Pendolino to Bratislava said (with admirable succinctness), "It's a hole. There's nothing there."

My parents would argue otherwise. They are Slovak and spend a lot of time in their homeland, testing out various second-rate eateries in the hope that they will find someplace worth revisiting. And after a while, they did find a place – three places, in fact.

It just so happens that all three of those restaurants are in the same building (the Erdödy Palác), owned by the same company, and presided over by a single chef. And it also happens that that chef is Czech. His name is Jaroslav Židek, and the restaurants are called Camouflage, Flowers, and Lancia Café.

I've been to all three establishments multiple times. Camouflage is the most expensive, with fancy French-inspired cuisine; I liked the food, but found it to be a little complicated for my taste – I vaguely recall a chocolate fondant that came with about ten different accessories. Flowers has upscale Italian food that is very tasty (try the saffron, shrimp, and asparagus risotto), but its best asset is its atmosphere: situated in an airy, glassed-over courtyard, its walls are plastered all the way up to the ceiling with original prints of Andy Warhol's "Flowers" series.

So why did I choose to write about Lancia Café, which is the least fancy of the three and a bit more of a bar and café than a real restaurant? I'm going to blame this one on my mom and dad, who are regulars there, and who swore up and down that I was going to absolutely love it. "Best restaurant in Bratislava," they insisted. "And there's nothing like it in Prague." Well, that was true at least. I can't think of a Prague restaurant that serves both crêpes and yaki soba noodles – a combination that I didn't necessarily find appealing, but I was going to try the place anyway.

When I visited, it was still warm enough to sit outside on Lancia Café's wood-plank terrace. The setup is great for checking out the hordes of people as they stroll up and down Bratislava's main pedestrian thoroughfare. The café is less appealing on the inside, where stark lighting, flat-screen TVs and black plastic chairs make the place feel vaguely futuristic and very cold.

The menu consists of a few Asian-inspired bar snacks and entrees, some soups and sandwiches, and the aforementioned crêpes and their savory buckwheat flour counterpart, the galette. My galette came with shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, leek, and crème fraiche (€8.80). It was also cold.

Maybe it was because I was sitting outside, but by the time it got to me, my galette was no longer fresh off the pan. It was the same story on a subsequent visit, when my companion ordered the spinach and mushroom galette (€8.13). It probably would have helped if the plates had been heated. Otherwise, the galettes were all right, but the dough was a little bland, as if it needed to be salted more. These were far inferior – and a lot more expensive – to the galettes at La Crêperie in Holešovice. So far, I was unimpressed.

I was happier with the tom yum gai soup (€3.82), which was both warm enough and had a sweet-spicy kick. Still, my mother claimed she'd had better versions of the soup there before, and after some thought, she admitted that the food was often inconsistent. Depending on who was cooking that night, it seemed, the dishes were always a little different.

If that is indeed the case, I hope the chicken with green curry (€12.12) is usually better. When I had it, it was incredibly greasy, with oil gathered in pools at the top, and tasted only of chili and nothing more. The chicken was tough and stringy, a surprise after the tender chicken sate appetizer (€7.47) I'd just had. Plus, we had to wait an absurdly long time for our main courses to arrive.

It's not all bad at Lancia Café. They have a fantastic salad comprised of papaya, celery root, green beans, and grilled shrimp in a spicy lime dressing (€10.79), and a simple but tasty chicken stir-fry (€13.11). And their desserts can be pretty great, too: the Thai classic sticky rice with mango, honey, and coconut milk (€5.48) and a range of homemade ice creams and sorbets (the chocolate sorbet is particularly wonderful). They also are the only restaurant in Slovakia to brew the top-quality "sustainable" coffee Tierra Lavazza, a blend harvested exclusively from three small communities in Colombia, Peru, and Honduras.

Was all this good enough to make me a believer? I will probably visit Lancia Café again the next time I'm in Bratislava. But I’m still not sure it could live up to the standards of a more cosmopolitan city and a more demanding clientele. Looks like all that time in the home country has made my parents soft. Nice try, guys, but next time you'll have to come up with something better.

Lancia Café
Ventúrska 1 - Erdödyho Palác
Bratislava, Slovakia
Tel.: +421 2 209 227 22

Open Mon-Sun 08:00-01:00

photographs 1, 3, 5, 6 Tomáš Hájek for Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 31/10/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Antiquated Tory said...

I have to say, the pictures of the interior prejudice me against the place. "Hey, we're the kind of place for people who drive Lancias, or at least for people who identify with people who drive Lancias, not for the riff-raff." But that may just be me.
More concretely, stringy, dry, and flavorless chicken in the curry makes me suspect they use the meat from the stock pot carcasses. I do this at home for economical reasons but I would not charge people money to eat it. (I had the same experience with a [not] grilled chicken sandwich at Fraktal, and it was SOP when I worked in Red, Hot and Blues' kitchen.) And a green curry that only tastes of chili makes me think they use one of the lower quality curry pastes. I don't expect a place to pound their own paste unless they specialize in Thai curry, but they could at least read the ingredients list and get one of the more interesting commercial pastes.

Sim said...

To start off I am from Bratislava, now living in Prague. I think the same as you and the guy from Pendolino. Not much interesting food there.
When this article was originally published there was some rage on I think and I said there I agreed it was poorly written. Why are you republishing, are you proud of this one? You went somewhere to prove the food was bad and you made pictures of bad food. Can be done everywhere.
I had some average experience in Leberfinger, Au Cafe, excellent experience at Chez David and there are surely other places better than this one.
I am not fighting for Bratislava but I am fan of good food and news of thereof not making someone/someplace look stupid.

ramona said...

I might be assassinated when I come to my hometown now, but I agree with you and I cannot wait for things to change a bit in Bratislava. it takes some time tho, there's simply lack of food culture and of good restaurant owners who traveled the world and ate something good. I had no idea how horrible the food scene is before I traveled myself. there are a few good places in Bratislava, but sadly, only for the rich.

R. said...

I brought up this article with a famous Slovak woman last week. She said, "Of course there's no good food in Bratislava. We go to Vienna if we want a great meal."