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
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

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


Pivní Filosof said...

I hope you won't take this wrong, but what is the point of posting a review of a restaurant that is out of business?

Laura said...

I'd already finished preparing the post when I went to the website and saw that they were closed, so I decided to put it up anyway.

EB said...

Do NOT go to their website, incidentally. I just got a Trojan warning.

Anonymous said...

I wish you'd take more pictures of the food like Brewsta - that's way more interesting than the interiors...

Pivní Filosof said...

I thought so.

I don't think you knew that the restaurant was about to close when you visited it, but knowing what you know now, could it be the food wasn't so good because they had stopped caring?

Though I never went there myself, I remember reading good reviews about it in the past.

CS said...

Anonymous, no offense to you, but I'd take Laura's reviews over Brewsta's any day of the week - she can actually form sentences and write with some sort of Eloquence (a skill that I am sadly lacking!) and knowledge. Brewsta's blog is pretty amateur in that sense, although still enjoyable and to be fair the pics he takes of the food never really make me want to eat it!

Keep up the good work Laura.


Brewsta said...

I can't form sentences? Really? I had no idea. Thanks for the feedback, CS.

But just to put a fine point on it, the purpose of the photos is not to make you or anyone else want to eat the food. It is not to make it look prettier than it is. The idea is to illustrate what the food looks like, as delivered.

We're not promoters, we're critics.

CS said...

Sorry Brewsta, maybe that was a little harsh. The point I was trying to make is that Laura is published in a national newspaper and the style of writing reflects that, you write very basic reviews on your blog and on a local website and your style of writing reflects that.

Brewsta said...

CS, Laura started writing reviews on her blog, and on a local website. The same one I work for now. I've always had an avid interest in food writing, and I've followed her since she started.

The pieces that appeared in the national newspaper were the same (in translation) that appeared here on her blog).

If you look back at her old pieces and blog posts, I believe you will see that her style of writing really hasn't changed, except for the addition of more photos. It has nothing to do with where it is or was published.

Or perhaps you can show me how her pieces differed substantively from her more recent work? I'd find that illuminating.

Until then, I'll resist the temptation to dismiss you as an unobjective partisan who doesn't really know what he or she is talking about.

CS said...

Brewsta, I'm fully aware of the history and don't want to get into a petty discussion here. You do a good job and a I read you blog / expats entries too and appreciate the tips on new places to visit.

Apologies for the criticism. It was not intended to be taken quite the way it was - I was merely responding to an earlier post comparing yours and Laura's reviews.

Brewsta said...

I always appreciate specific constructive comments and criticism. We can leave it there.

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That's business you really need to take risk and it includes sometimes Closed the property due to some loses they are trying to save some assets.