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bricked arches and no windows, another concept that was appealing at a certain point in history but now feels heavily outdated.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
Tel.: 222 220 260
Open Tues-Sat 11:00-23:00

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

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


Anonymous said...

It's all a question to train your people every day again and again. And of course very important to sit with them at least once a week together to learn about the good and the bad what happened the week before.That not all waiters speak perfect englsh is one thing but at least a view standard sentences can make up lots of things. Owners and managers should be aware that waiters and cooks need constant training in order to get the quality and service better. A good name can change quickly in bad fame !

Anthony Lauder said...

Despite the overly attentive service, the food looks good. The wine list does look extensive, but also terribly overprices (just like the water it seems!). Still, I will give the place a try. One thing I would like to request - could you possibly mention in reviews whether the restaurant is no-smoking (or at least has a large (and functional) no-smoking section?

Laura said...

Hi Anthony, I am almost sure the whole restaurant is non-smoking, since it's underground and would be difficult to ventilate. I'm very sensitive to smoke, too, so I definitely would have noticed it.

Anonymous said...

I know the place since several years already and it's without any doubt the best restaurant in Prague! The service/the staff is extremely professional, not invasive, able to give very good pieces of advice n the menu or on the wine list, the sommelier is outstanding and the food tremendous. I surely recommend this place to all of my friends and nobody was disappointed so far...!!!
I am sorry your experience was so bad, but I really do not recognize anything of what you are describing in the review.

Anonymous said...

I loved my evening at Le Terroir. Even though I recognise a couple of the things you mention, I think you have missed the major point, and I am sure you must have hit one of their probably very rare 'off days'. This is a restaurant that has dedicated staff who are passionate about what they are doing. And the food was without any doubt one of the most perfectly balanced menus, with the kind of personal touch that you rarely encounter in top-notch places.

Marc Lafleur said...

I must say that as a fairly regular customer for the last few years I never - and I mean that in a very literal sense - had any complaints about the quality and freshness of the food, especially of the fish - so this experience strikes me as highly unusual.

Also the intrusion level is highly acceptable to me, at least. Cellars often do not have windows - and as it is very much a wine based restaurant its location in a cellar might be have been a conscious choice.

It is my favorite restaurant in Prague, and I think very obvious candidates for the next Michelin star. The food is utterly brilliant - as is the wine. And I write this down even when I have to to pay for it - as the wine is not very cheap (as nowhere in Czech Republic), the price for the food is very reasonable - contrary to some other restaurants I could think of in Prague.

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