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.

4 comments:

bakinginstilettos said...

Wow, just wow. That sounds dreadful. Glad to see you are back posting again however!

John Crane said...

I am glad that someone else feels this way about Stoleti. I went because of all the rave reviews. Ick. I should have known when I saw beefsteak marinated in coffee. (BTW - I see that this is mercifully off their menu.) I think that simple good Czech food would make this a better place. But it is hard to convince them that this isn't cuisine when the masses are paying their bills...

ACMik said...

Stoleti used to be a pretty decent restaurant with perfect cousine... Just 6-7 years ago unfortunately :(

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