PRAGUE, Czech Republic – There are certain restaurants and chefs that aspire to create an environment and an experience that meet exactly and precisely each one of our expectations.
Others will rather offer something more surprising, out of the ordinary, even if it means taking more risks.
In this series of articles, Cédric Lizotte visit some of the best restaurants in Europe. From France to Switzerland via the Czech Republic, here are the best places to sample the delights of some of the best chefs on the planet. Follow it with the hashtag #CedricInEurope.
La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise – that’s the complete name of the restaurant, whatever it might mean – is the restaurant widely recognized as being the best in the Czech Republic. And it’s working within the parameters of the second category.
With a rather classic dining room – it’s relatively normal since the restaurant is a couple of steps away from the very historical Dlouha street – and an open, tiled, black-and-white kitchen, the restaurant itself is tidy and neat. It’s in-line with chef Oldřich Sahajdák’s culinary art : luxurious and precise.
However, there, I’ve enjoyed a dinner that was quite exploratory.
The restaurant offers, as an alternative to the traditional wine pairing, a juice pairing.
These juices, served with the dishes and in wine glasses, are made with local ingredients by the restaurant and are supposed, just like wines, to or enhance, or walk side-by-side each dish.
It also has the potential to completely ruin the experience.
La Dégustation, Prague : The meal
It’s normal, isn’t it? When one leaves its comfort zone and has no idea what’s about to hit, one’s apprehensive. I’m not letting my guards down just yet. Not because of the meal. Because of the juice pairing. I don’t like the idea, and it worries me a bit.
Maybe to help me relax, I’m offered a glass of Czech bubbles. Matthias, a « sekt » that combines chardonnay and pinot blanc.
The amuse-bouche are definitely amusing. A “rabbit ear” tastes a bit like the classic Quebecois snack, « oreilles de crisse »; a « chip » that tastes and looks like a Pringle; a roasted apple that tastes of marshmallow; a green onion that tastes of coriander. Then, a beef tartare, sandwiched between two crispy dough buns. This last bite is somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Keller’s famous salmon tartare cornet. Cool!
Alright, bring it on. Time for the juices.
The first combines Le premier combine currants and cucumber. And the first dish combines trout and caviar.
I don’t know if that was the intention, but I take the juice glass in my hand right away, smell it, because I’m so intrigued. This one is very fresh, its taste has more intensity than I first expected, it even has a touch of salt…
On the other side, the dish is generously seasoned; a creamy sauce is added to the dish by the waiter; there’s a bit of grated egg yolk adding to the onctuosity of the dish; the fish’s texture is faultless. Super dish.
With the juice? There is, indeed, an interaction. That’s a solid icebreaker.
Second dish, second juice.
A juice that combines cabbage, mint, carrot.
A dish of steamed catfish with celery root and consommé.
The fish is a success. Extremely delicate, fragrant.
The juice? Well… it’s cabbage juice. It smells of sauerkraut.
It’s playing with fire, these juices.
Third try. This time, I’m forcing myself to be completely objective about my analysis. Let’s do this. I’m not even scared!
I’m served a Jerusalem artichoke juice. It’s a simple one, this time around.
To go with this juice – am I doing this the wrong away around? – there’s a dish of lard, grilled leek, onions and a pear purée. It’s very light despite the lard; more better than sweet but very elegantly balanced; the leek melts in the mouth. Once again, the dish is blameless. And this one is ultra-elegant. What a wonderful presentation!
This time, however, the juice-dish pairing is out of this world – it’s actually my favourite of the whole meal. The sweet and roasted dimensions of the Jerusalem artichoke add the sweet side that was first expected to be found in the dish.
It’s between this service and the next that I find myself really looking forward to the next juice-dish pairing. It’s a brand new world filled with surprises and infinite possibilities!
This time around, the juice combines sweet potato and parsley. What! This one is spicy : cardamom, cumin, lemon.
To go with the juice – or vice versa! – a classic Czech dish: Bramborové knedlíky. It’s a potato dumpling. When people say that communism has a tendancy to have a negative effect on the culinary arts… Obviously, chef Sahajdák honours his country’s tradition, but he wouldn’t serve a pure, tasteless belly stretcher. In this very case, the potatoes are extremely sliky and even a bit elastic, and the whole dish has a strong taste of smoked bacon! Awesome.
And with the juice? Yeah, ok, nothing too exciting.
It’s fun to dine at La Dégustation. And the juices are just another excuse to be playful. For the next pairing, the waiter – who seems a bit intrigued by my presence, I must admit – offers a blind tasting. He wants to know if I can pick out what’s in the next juice. « Apples and leek », I say, relatively certain of my opinion. I’m playing it cool, but I need to admit that I’m kinda proud to have guessed so quickly…
This juice goes with a dish of duck and chicken offal, popcorn and frozen horseradish. The dish is a balancing act and it’s a real success. I taste gizzards and liver. But these tastes are very mild. A warm and sweet popcorn sauce and a horseradish cream, frozen and grated, gives a serious pop to the dish thanks to its various textures. And the juice takes the whole thing to another level!
To transition towards the world of sweets, the kitchen sends a little cube of honeycomb, filled with honey. The honeycomb is so pretty… « Don’t swallow the wax », suggests the waiter. If he takes the time to say it, it’s probably because someone swallowed it at one point in the past… This piece of honey has a strong oregano taste. So natural!
La Dégustation, Prague : Conclusion
For it to be worthy, the difficult game of juice pairings need to come with juices that are as good, or better, than the dishes themselves.
But the dishes at La Dégustation are so wonderful, built with so much attention to detail, have a certain finesse, are so close to perfection that it might seem a bit reckless to pair them with juices.
My opinion? Simply put, la Dégustation is a must for any foodie.
And the choice is yours : wine pairings, juice pairings, or a good old glass of water.
La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise
Haštalská 753/18, 110 00 Prague 1, Czech Republic
Thanks to JayWay Travel for hosting C&C in Prague! If you need help to plan your trip anywhere in Central Europe, they’re the ones you need!