Alright, we have a confession to make: we have been working on a small Prague foodie guide in the past few months. The progress has been slow, especially given the fact we’re working on the project during our high season. And let us tell you: it will be awesome. Just you wait. We’ll keep you posted.
We are nearly finishing with the texts, and that is why we have decided to revisit some of the places we have been considering for inclusion in the guide. We’re talking fine dining restaurants. While it is easy to revisit casual dining places on a regular basis, it gets harder with fine dining: who has the time and the money? We know we don’t. But we also know that when we travel, we like to include one or two really nice places to have a dinner at, so fine dining is a very important category and should be included in our, or just about any, guide. Here’s our small report on the state of fine dining in Prague. These are not all the fine dining venues in Prague; just our shortlist.
La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise
Arguably the best restaurant in town, La Degustation is one of the two Michelin stars in Prague, and the only restaurant that seriously pushes for the second and that tries to get it while cooking only Czech food. This is the place to go for true foodies: an open kitchen lets you peek into what’s happening behind the scene, with seven chefs putting the finishing touches and plating on plain sight. Chef Sahajdak puts a strong emphasis on local produce and seasonality: with the exception of foie gras and caviar, all the produce is Czech and mostly brought on a daily basis from cooperating farms. Then the produce is turned into deconstructed versions of classic Czech dishes, using an old Czech cookbook from 1894 as the starting point. You get two set menus, a short and a long one, and a wine pairing with mostly Czech wines.
The food is delicious, and we think it adds to the experience if you’re Czech: all these flavors are very familiar but made brighter and reduced to their essence. It’s like taking a trip back to your childhood. Also, they are beautifully plated and presented in a room that strips down all decorations just to put more focus on the food. The place is tiny and sits some 35 diners for dinner service only, and this is one of the few places where they are not afraid to turn down the lights. If there is any music played, it is at whisper levels. The only downside is that while the kitchen caters to vegetarians and celiacs, you may suffer if you’re not an adventurous eater: not everybody wants to taste rabbit ears and beef tongue within the same meal. (You can ask for substitutions, though.) Still, if you love food and will taste everything for what it’s worth, this is the place to go. Book early.
The ying to La Degustation’s yang, Alcron, the other Michelin star in Prague, has been around forever and has become, in the minds of many Czechs, synonymous with great food and service. The restaurant is even smaller than La Degustation with some 22 seats. This is clearly an old-school place: the members of staff wear a tux and white gloves, and women get a menu without the prices, while men get the complete menu. The wines are mostly French, as are the butters and cheeses. The Art Deco-inspired wall painting really nicely compliment the dimly lit room. And the food is hard to fault: we liked everything we got, and the execution of the dishes and plating are top notch.
That said, we like it slightly less than La Degu for various reasons, but it’s our personal preference only. First, the restaurant is part of the Radisson hotel and divided from the lobby by a matte glass wall only, so you get to hear the lift arriving, the families gathering and the groups talking about their adventures. No, you’re not in the lobby, but you can hear it at times. Also, the menu has no sense of location, just your usual suspects: US prime beef, prawns, scallops, foie gras. What’s the season, and where are we again? That said, it is hard to deny that Alcron is a great restaurant that will more than satisfy the more conservative diners who know what they like.
We visited Field about a month after they opened, and they opened last November to a pretty big hype: chef Kasparek had a stint as a TV chef and worked previously at Ola Kala, which we liked a lot. The room is clean and airy and has a cool, colorful ceiling, with some agricultural touches referring back to the name. The locations is perfect, in the middle of the often neglected Stinadla district (and many hope it will stay so) right next to the Public Interest bar for after-dinner drinks. The staff can help you order food and wine, and ask if you liked the food. They'll split some meals into two plates if they see you’re sharing.
The cooking is strong. The plates and flavors are clean and the style is modern: just two or three ingredients executed really well. We really like the sauces: they are reduced to intensify the taste but are still clean, with lots of umami. Gone are the imported ingredients that really contradicted the “Free Range Dining” concept of the restaurant, and the food now more focuses on local and seasonal food, with the exception of the Asian flavors in their lunch special, which we still don’t get. Field is a nice alternative to La Degustation if you like to choose your dishes or don’t want to spend hours over a tasting menu. And that’s where we have one very small criticism: the kitchen is really fast and the pacing can be a tiny bit too fast, unless you say something. Still, Field is one of the most modern, clean cooking restaurants on par with many good restaurants we visited on our recent travels.
Grand Cru made waves last year when they hired Chef Puncochar of former Le Terroir restaurant. They also expanded on the wine bar and you really can’t argue with the environment, which is full of air and natural light (great for Instagram shots) and opens to a small, private patio. The whole restaurant has a truly relaxing feel with some sophisticated touches. A great place for a date, we think. The wines are great, too, although their selection by glass is quite limited. You have to love the Zalto glasses for both wine and water. All in all, they do have all the makings of a great restaurant with an ambition to push for a Michelin star that is very hard to conceal, and the food is really very good: we loved everything with the exception of one dish, which we disliked with a passion, but let’s hope that was just a small misstep.
We did have a few niggles, though. We think the music is atrociously bad. (But that is a general problem with Prague restaurants.) Chef Puncochar is a master of plating but some of the dishes are so over-complicated you’d think they are dares, and you want to order a dish just to see how they pulled all the seven ingredients off on the plate. Also, Grand Cru clearly prefers foreign ingredients. Nothing’s Czech on the menu. We listened in disbelief to the waiter saying that they have snow crab, which is now in season. In Alaska. Finally, the service was a bit indifferent on one of our visits, taking the plate with the unfinished dish without asking a single question. Still, the food is very good, beautifully plated and the wines and the service can make for a truly great meal with your loved one.
You will love Pot-au-feu if you like truffles, and especially the 63-degree egg appetizer is a true truffle bomb. And that’s what Pot-au-feu is all about: some French comfort food where they don’t push boundaries of molecular gastronomy but simply present well-flavored French classics. The restaurant is actually quite small, with some six tables in the front room and a few more in the back. The "moving cloud" light fixture in the front room is fun to watch, and the music is much better than in Grand Cru and fits the ambiance well. They have a large selection of wines and - in a move we applaud - they do not hesitate to open them by glass. They do end up being a hair too expensive for our taste though.
As said before, the food is really good and satisfying, with strong tastes and classic French background. The octopus we had on the last visit as delicious, as was the lamb with ratatouille full of… you guessed it, truffle. If there is one criticism we have, it’s that the food was a bit less exciting than in the restaurants mentioned previously. It seems like we all had those dishes already somewhere else. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Pot-au-feu has lots of things going for it: good cooking, really nice wines and a homey atmosphere supported by really nice staff. In our mind, it is very, very similar to Kalina, another French restaurant in the centre, but we like Pot-au-feu a tiny bit more. Secret tip: the sorel sorbet is delicious.
Firstly, let’s start with a confession: we wanted to act like we’re tourists in La Finestra. Just to see if we get better or worse service. So Jan walks in, makes the reservation under the name “John Arden” (made up on the spot)… and then sees the sommelier whom we loved to chat with when he worked over at Pizza Nuova waving at him. A moment of awkwardness ensues. Oh well. Don’t try this at home, kids.
La Finestra clearly scores high in the environment and staff department. The room is really nice, if a bit dark, and the bare walls, bookshelves and framed pictures create a cosy, homey feel, just like its sister, Aromi. You get tap water, but you have to specifically ask for it. The wines are Italian, you get about five whites and five reds by glass, plus a selection of small bottles, which is nice. We also got a selection of breads with olive oil (our staff forgot to bring us butter, although we saw it on other tables) and fried chickpeas - we could eat these all day long.
The cooking at La Finestra is similar to Pot-au-feu, but Italian. If you like good pasta, you'll be happy. The flavors are rich and the pasta is done well. (Although we cannot shake the feeling you can get similar pasta at half the price over at Bottega next door.) They clearly use good ingredients and the waiters walk around with fresh fish and many different types of beef, and then they put it on a grill. This type of cooking is not our personal preference, so we usually opt for the dishes from the menu that show more work on the plate.
La Finestra is worth a recommendation: you can’t beat the location and the restaurants offers good Italian food and nice wines in great interiors and a relaxed atmosphere created partly by the good and welcoming staff. We still like their lunch specials a lot, too. Funnily enough, we saw a Noma cookbook in the bookshelf next to our table. Ironically, it was sitting at the very bottom of the shelf, clearly without much use. And that is symbolic for what La Finestra is: a conservative Italian place with conservative, Italian food executed well.
Story restaurant, a fairly recent opening that has become a favorite among local foodies, ourselves included, is like from another planet. The location is not central at all, but with the expansion of the green subway line, you can just take the train to the Petriny stop and then it's just five minutes by walk. To a residential district. In between detached houses at the end of the tram line. Yup, you would not expect a fine dining place at a place like this, and walking in does not change anything in that impression: if there were any savings made, it was in the interiors. Nope, they are not shabby, and the room is nicely appointed, it's just the materials are a bit cheaper compared to some fancy restaurants in the centre.
But then the food comes, and it's delicious, and beats most of the restaurants in the centre bar a few. The young couple who own the place have experience cooking in really good restaurants in London, and it shows. The dishes are strong and fairly modern: just a few ingredients on the plate but the flavors are great and well-balanced. We also think they work really well with vegetables, which is not that common in Prague.
The meal at Story is full of contradiction but we can't help but love it. The wine selection is pretty laughable. Their fresh juices are priced below the stands in the malls. They have two menus: the "cafe menu" consists of cheaper dishes for lunch and for price-sensitive locals, and the "restaurant menu" is more fine dining. There's a slight lack of focus and we'd have a hard time describing the concept. But the food is great and the owners are lovable. Will we send our guests over the entire town to eat at Story? Not all of them, but for that niche diner, we think Story is perfect.