Monday, February 11, 2008

Restaurant Review: U Lípy

Ever wonder what upscale restaurants in Prague were like, say, fifteen or twenty years ago, before there was competition from foreign chefs and sushi bars and shopping mall food courts?

You don't have to bother. Just pay a visit to U Lípy.

U Lípy (At the Linden Tree) was the first privately-owned restaurant in Communist Czechoslovakia, owing to a unique permit obtained from the government by proprietor Miroslav Růžička. When its doors first opened in early 1989, a hundred people queued outside, hoping to be allowed in.

Little has changed since, other than the number of patrons (lower) and the numbers on the menu (higher). The eclectic, pseudo-Art Nouveau decor remains untouched: dark wood antiques, family portraits, dusty fake plants, and an unconvincing mock fireplace have all found permanent homes here. "It feels like a museum," whispered one of my companions when we first sat down.

It did feel like a museum, or like an abandoned house -- cold, devoid of people, almost musty. Only the tinny sound of elevator music (at this particular moment, the Muzak version of "New York, New York") broke the eerie silence.

Until, that is, our servers came around, carrying silver appetizer platters loaded with hors d'oeuvres: half avocados stuffed with lobster mayonnaise salad (140 CZK, but made with imitation crab, not lobster), hard-boiled eggs topped with whipped butter and salmon roe and wrapped in ham (100 CZK), and thick slices of venison (110 CZK). We didn't learn the prices of the starters until after we'd polished them off -- only then did we get to look at the menu.

Back in the day, there must have been more than a few people willing to pay large sums of money for the grand experience of eating dinner at U Lípy. But times have changed, and Mr. Růžička (pictured below) hasn't changed with them. By today's standards, the restaurant is overpriced, stu
ffy, and not very good.

Like its decor, U Lípy's table service was straight out of post-revolution Czechoslovakia. One waiter made it his mission to keep our water and wine glasses full to the brim at all times, even interrupting my friend in the middle of her sentence to ask if she wanted another Mattoni. Two servers spent most of our meal hovering within a few feet of our table, quietly discussing us. When a companion asked, a little sheepishly, if she could please have mashed potatoes with her svíčková na smetaně instead of dumplings (she had admitted to us earlier that she wasn't a dumpling fan), the waiter did his best to convince her that she couldn't possibly like the dish if she ate it with potatoes.

The food, for its part, was almost completely unmemorable. A roast goose breast (440 CZK) was offensively over salted, as was a plate of escargots Provençale (six for 130 CZK). The roast suckling pig meat (250 CZK) was fine, but the accompanying potato dumplings were dry and the steamed cabbage lacked flavor, while the beef broth with liver dumplings (50 CZK) tasted as if it had been thoroughly diluted with hot water. The wild duck breast in rosehip sauce (400 CZK) was better -- the sweet, thick rosehip purée went well with the mildly gamey duck meat and soft bread dumplings.

Really, though, the only dish worth going out to Stodůlky for are the crêpes Suzette (250 CZK), prepared table-side by Mr. Růžička himself. After drowning the thin pancakes in a sticky sauce of fresh orange and lemon juice and caramelized sugar, he lit the pan aflame with a dimming of the lights and a flourish of Cointreau. The end result was sweet, sour, and ever-so-slightly boozy. Delicious.

But was it delicious enough to make U Lípy the best restaurant in the Czech Republic? Not a chance. Yet according to the voting public that decided the rankings for Pavel Maurer's 2008 Grand Restaurant Guide, it's the number one restaurant in the country.

A couple of decades ago, the accolade might have made sense. Today, it can only reflect a certain local nostalgia for a time when dining out was predictable and uncomplicated by foreign influence, a time when a meal at a restaurant was truly special.

No one's going to deny that U Lípy is still, in its own way, very special. But after my last couple of trips to Stodůlky, I've come away feeling very grateful that we now have a few other options, too.

U Lípy
Plzeňská 237
Praha 13 - Stodůlky
Tel: +420 251 620 009



Anonymous said...

Sounds like the perfect place for Gordon to do his stuff a la Kitchen Nightmares!

Thanks for the review, I'd heard about it being voted the best restaurant in CR and was curious to see if the accolade was worthy.

Anonymous said...

LOL :))) Gordon would have love it, that's for sure ;))