Monday, January 25, 2010

Restaurant Review: Le Terroir





I'm being watched. Somebody is creeping up behind me, and although I can't see or hear him, my whole body has stiffened in anticipation. I try to relax – maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe the feeling will pass.

It doesn't. From over my left shoulder, a hand appears, brandishing a bottle of wine. My glass is filled. The hand leaves. No more than thirty seconds later, I get that same feeling again. Another hand comes into view, wearing a white glove this time, and sets down a fresh set of cutlery. A minute later, a third person is adding a splash of Vittel to our water glasses.

The next time I sense someone approaching, I turn around. It is another waiter, but he has apparently decided there isn't much left for him to do. He turns our water bottles so the labels are facing outwards, gives us a long look, and exits.

By this point, I've given up on trying to have any sort of meaningful conversation with my date; the parade of unnecessary intrusions has been going on since we first sat down. Because we would prefer not to be overheard by the wait staff, we've stopped talking whenever they've come by.

There was a time when hovering service was expected of a fancy restaurant – if you didn't have the waiter's armpit in your face for most of the evening, you weren't getting your money's worth. But times have changed, and Le Terroir doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. Have they been living in a cave for the past ten years?

Well, sort of, yes. Le Terroir is one of those below-ground restaurants with lots of bricked arches and no windows, another concept that was appealing at a certain point in history but now feels heavily outdated.

But an underground restaurant still has its cozy charms, and its advantages, too; at Le Terroir, a portion of the cellar is dedicated to its vast wine selection, and patrons can, through a glass door, glimpse the stacks of crates and bottles as they are shown to their seats. Wine is important here, as is implied by the name (there are even soil samples of various terroirs – the environment in which a wine is produced – laid into a section of the restaurant's floor). The list itself is a pretty hefty tome, with a wide spectrum of bottles ranging from the under-1000 CZK mark to a justifiably pricey 1949 Latour. For those intimidated by the amount of choice, the sommelier's selection at the front of the menu is a helpful place to start.

Considering the obvious care that has been put into the wines, it was a bit strange to be asked which bottle we wanted before we'd even had a chance to look at the dinner menu. Surely it was understood that we wanted to choose our wine according to our meal? The sommelier didn't seem to get it, though; when we said we'd like to see our food options first, he looked mildly bewildered.

As it turned out, we wouldn't just see our food options: we would hear them, too. Someone at Le Terroir has decided that it would be classy for the servers to spout off, from memory, the evening's offerings – exactly as they are written in the menu that they have just handed their guests.
This kind of thing works in a place where the waiters know the menu so well that they can rattle it off without a second's thought, and add some informative details along the way, but this was nothing short of torture. I felt like I was back in school, watching a completely unprepared student stumble her way through an oral exam. It didn't help, of course, that our poor waitress had to deliver the speech in English, blushing and stammering and awkwardly-pausing her way through a ten-course degustation menu. It was all I could do not to mouth her the answers: "scallops with… SAFFRON CONSOMME."

For all the cluelessness of the wait staff, the food mostly isn't bad. Chef Jan Punčochář prides himself on using high-quality ingredients. His concise menu changes often; the restaurant is even closed on Sundays and Mondays, when it's hard to find fresh produce. The style is French, and even if you don't order a degustation menu (ranging from 1190 CZK for three courses to 1690 CZK for six courses), you will still be pampered with various amuses-bouche between dishes.

My favorite amuse was a piece of crayfish served alongside a fennel salad and slices of orange – perfectly seasoned, simple, and light. I was less keen on the guinea fowl wrapped in bacon and topped with mashed potatoes; although it was good, it was very large, almost enough to be its own course.

My wild duck appetizer (450 CZK), too, was a hefty portion, one I could easily have handled as an entrée. But the seared pieces of duck breast were pleasantly gamey, and were well-complemented by the cubes of fresh pumpkin and spinach leaves served on the side. I quite liked my main course, too, a baked shoulder of wild pig served with chestnuts and Brussels sprouts (640 CZK).

Unfortunately, dessert – a chocolate and quark terrine with strawberry granité – was on the bland side, and my companion's fish of the day (890 CZK) was completely off. The turbot was fairly dry, and served (inexplicably) with pasta and some calamari that were well past their prime. The whole dish was so fishy, in fact, that we could smell it long before it reached our table.

We'd had about 8,000 close encounters with our waiters that evening, but at the end of the meal, there was no one to bring us our check. By the time we left, I was so exhausted that I couldn't even make a snide remark to my friend about the 265 CZK water bottle that appeared on the bill, or the fact that our coats hadn't been hung up on hangers even though there were plenty of empty ones to use. "Let's just get out of here," I said.

So we did.

Le Terroir
Vejvodova 1
Praha 1
map
Tel.: 222 220 260
Open Tues-Sat 11:00-23:00

photographs 2, 3, 5, 6 Ondřej Němec for Lidové Noviny; all others leterroir.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/19/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Restaurant Review: Století





Století is apparently a very popular restaurant. I discovered this as I was doing my research before writing this article: rave reviews were all over the internet, both from local critics and on tourist-oriented websites. On one of the most well-known travel sites, tripadvisor.com, Století ranks among the top restaurants in Prague, and reservations are a must on more or less any day of the week.

So, once again, I'm probably going to upset a few people. What is so great about Století? I just don't get it.

The restaurant is very reasonably priced, especially considering its location in Old Town, and its owner, Antonin Kinský (also the proprietor of Bar Bar, a pancake house across the river), has created a cozy little space. The brightly-lit front room has a small bar and a fireplace, atop which are various knickknacks. The more spacious back seating area is dominated by a black iron serpent hanging from the arched ceiling. Sketches of old building are framed on the walls, and (fake) potted plants sit on the window ledges. In the summer, there's outdoor seating with a view of the 11th-century Rotunda sv. Kříže (Rotunda of the Holy Rood) across the street. The overall effect is sort of rustic and homey.

You wouldn't be able to guess Století's theme from the interior design, but one look at the menu should clear that up instantly. Each of the dishes is named after a different notable person (usually some sort of artist) of the last century. There are dishes ascribed to Louis Armstrong and Fernand Léger. Ema Destinnová has a salad, and Agatha Christie her very own dessert.

It's actually a pretty charming concept. The only problem is that the famous people have little or nothing to do with their respective dishes. What does Lilli Palmer, the German actress, have in common with curried pork medallions and porcini mushrooms? Would her colleague, the American silent film star Gloria Swanson, really have tucked in to a hearty dinner of cheese nuggets in African tomato sauce?

It's not that the anachronisms matter so much, really. The idea just would have been more effective if the each celebrity were paired up with a classic dish from his or her era and geographical location. Gustav Klimt could have had something nice from Austro-Hungary, like a Tafelspitz or whatever. I don't know.

But that wouldn't correspond too well with Století's cooking style. Its website professes its cuisine to be "authentic Czech food in an international style." As far as I could tell, however, there's nothing "authentic Czech" or particularly "international" about it. The food is pretty much just a whole bunch of made-up nonsense.

I have nothing against a little culinary innovation, of course. But there are times when, no matter how good the intention behind the idea, certain pairings are just fundamentally wrong. Vegetable salad with frankfurters, for example. Or turkey breast stuffed with bryndza (sheep cheese) and sour cream. Even without having tasted these creations, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that they're probably pretty gross.

I can also make that judgment based on the dishes I did eat at Století, which were also based on some bizarre combinations. The "Lola Montez," or stuffed avocado with tomato escabache (98 CZK), sounded decent in theory. But the tomatoes had been folded into a cheese-based sauce – a drippier version of the bryndzová pomazánka (sheep cheese spread) you'd get at the deli – that didn't go well with the avocado at all. And the avocado was too unripe to be very flavorful. (As an aside, I'm not sure why the tomato mixture was called an "escabache"; that term usually refers to a Spanish-style marinated fish).

The dish's one redeeming quality was the accompanying green salad, a mesclun mix that was obviously very fresh. The same lettuce came with the Ema Destinnová salad (139 CZK), a completely random combo that included duck liver, pieces of toast, roasted apples, tomatoes, black and green olives, corn, peas, and whatever else they could find lurking in the back of the vegetable cooler. If I have to tell you why all those ingredients together (particularly the apples and tomatoes and olives) are a bad idea, then maybe you should earmark Století for your next evening on the town. You might actually like the place.

What I found most frustrating about Století were the occasional glimpses of good cooking – ruined, inevitably, by another strange concoction. The William Somerset Maugham (218 CZK) was a tender, well-seasoned piece of rump steak, covered in a creamy black peppercorn sauce. Sounds pretty good, right? It would have been if it wasn't for the bananas. Yup, that's right: bananas. On a steak. With pepper sauce. That's all I need to say about that dish, I think.

But W. Somerset Maugham was downright classic compared to Století's pièce de résistance, the Erich von Stroheim (139 CZK). I'm sure you're familiar with the sweet chili sauce that every Thai restaurant serves with spring rolls and shrimp chips. It comes from a bottle, which is why it always tastes the same. That's also how I knew that the sauce atop poor Mr. Stroheim's chicken breast, served with a couple slices of cooked pear, was from the bottle, too. Besides the fact that the flavor profile is heinous, it is also an incredibly lazy piece of cooking: grill chicken, dump pre-packaged Asian condiment on top, and serve. They didn't even bother to heat the sauce, even though it was so cold it had probably come from the fridge. Yuck.

The food is really a shame, because the ambiance at Století is very pleasant, and the service is good. Still, I would never consider it to be one of the top restaurants in town, even in its price range. But what do I know? The masses, after all, seem to think otherwise.

Století
Karolíny Světlé 21
Praha 1 - Staré Město
map
Tel: 222 220 008

Open Mon-Sun 12:00 - 24:00

photographs 1, 2, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others stoleti.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/12/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Restaurant Review: U Petrské Věže (CLOSED)





Note to readers: As of 30/11/09, U Petrské Věže is no longer in operation.


There's something old-fashioned about U Petrské Věže. You'd think I was talking about the 14th-century building in which it resides, with its vaulted ceilings and Gothic cellar, or the restaurant's crystal chandeliers and antique-style furniture. But the kind of history I have in mind is a little more recent: waiters suited up in ties, black vests, and tangerine-colored dress shirts; menus laminated and bound in padded faux leather. It's 1995 all over again.

That, after all, is the year U Petrské Věže opened, and there don't seem to have been too many updates since. The dishes are still mostly scaled-up, if not exactly modernized, Czech classics, in a style that used to be popular among a certain segment of locals. Nowadays, when people want a fancy meal, they go for Italian or French or Asian; the Petrské Věžes and Modrá Kachničkas have been left for the tourists, or the very occasional Czech who wants to take foreign visitors to a nice local restaurant that isn't a pub.

The fallout from this shift in tastes was obvious on my visit to U Petrské Věže. The only other guests all evening were four older British tourists, who seemed happy enough with their restaurant choice. The wild boar in rosehip sauce sounded "fabulous," and they puzzled good-naturedly over the fresh rye bread and bowlful of sádlo that the waiter placed on their table at the start of their meal. They might have been even more confused if they'd known that they were about to be charged 40 CZK each for that bread and lard, even if they didn't touch any of it.

I wasn't confused, though. This was Flashback 1995, and couverts were very trendy in 1995. Was it also trendy to heinously overcharge for beverages? It must have been, otherwise U Petrské Věže wouldn't be selling 0.5l bottles of Vittel for 140 CZK and beers for 70 CZK.

The beer, it must be said, is actually one of U Petrské Věže's strong points; it is from a small brewery, Rohozec, and is tapped into frosty mugs. It's nice to see a restaurant that has managed to resist Pilsner Urquell's strong-armed tactics, even if it has to charge a lot of money to make up for it (the restaurant also has a cellar full of Czech and Moravian wines, but I didn't get to try any of those).

So the beer at U Petrské Věže might be worth its price, but the food – at least for the most part – definitely isn't. As my starter, I had the beef broth with sherry and Celestine noodles (120 CZK), and it was so salty that I couldn't eat more than a few spoonfuls. The sherry flavor was pretty overpowering, too, although I did like the dill-flavored, pancake-like homemade noodles.

Then there was my main course, the wild duck breast with "old Bohemian black sauce" and potato pancakes (440 CZK). I actually liked the sauce, a thick and sticky (and indeed nearly black) stew, fragrant with prunes. The problem was the meat itself: it was brutally overcooked, to the point where there was no pink hue left in the center of the breast at all. It was just a fat, gray, incredibly tough lump of meat. I realize that cooking duck breast all the way through is sort of the local way of doing it (as opposed to the French, who like theirs pink and tender), but judging by this example, the local way is just not very good. This was a waste of a perfectly decent piece of meat.

Another part of the dish seemed a little bit off, too: the potato pancakes. They were very small and thick, which is fine, but they were also quite sweet, which was not fine. They tasted not as if they should be served next to a roast duck breast, but covered with jam and powdered sugar. Later, I would find out why.

Chefs often repeat elements from dish to dish – the same little salad here, the same celery puree there. It makes their lives easier, and most of the time, it doesn't really matter too much. But it's only happened to me once before that I ate the same thing for my main course and my dessert (at the Mexican restaurant Cantina, where I was given the same chocolate syrup over both chicken breast and chocolate cake).

You can see where this is going. I ordered the old-style Czech pancake (180 CZK) for dessert. When it arrived, it was not one pancake, but a few small ones – the exact same kind that had been served with my duck dish. They came drenched in a similar sauce to the duck's, also made of prunes, although this one tasted strongly of alcohol. Some crumbled gingerbread was sprinkled on top. The pancakes definitely made more sense in the sweet version, but by that point, I'd already had my fill.

Not everything was bad at U Petrské Věže. My companion ordered an unusual appetizer, a fruit salad with crayfish tails (280 CZK) in a light mayonnaise dressing, that was actually very fresh and tasty. The service was attentive, and I liked that all the food was served on pretty porcelain plates.

But meat is definitely not this restaurant's strong point – even if it makes up most of the menu. When I tried a bite of my friend's roasted pheasant breast (430 CZK), it was so dry and stringy that part of it instantly became lodged between two of my back teeth. Upon further mastication, I realized that the piece was full of tendon, or cartilage, or something. So I did the old unchewable meat trick: I retrieved a tissue from my purse and discreetly spat out the offending bite.

Not the most elegant thing to do in a nice restaurant, I know. But as it turned out, this restaurant wasn't all that nice, anyway.

U Petrské Věže
Petrská 12
Praha 1 - Nové Město
map
Tel.: 222 329 856

Open Mon-Fri 12:00-24:00, Sat-Sun 18:00-01:00

photographs Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others upetrskeveze.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 28/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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