La Degustation, Prague - Review
My wife has impeccable manners. It is not her fault, I suppose - the parental influence coupled with years at boarding school will do that to you. Etiquette has been drummed into her from a young age so it is obvious that she would never do something as grotesque as licking a plate clean in a restaurant. Or so I thought until she proved otherwise at La Degustation in Prague. Imagine my surprise when at the end of the very first course she suddenly plunged her finger onto the plate, mopped up the remaining sauce and licked it off. Seing my surprised face, she said innocently, "what? I am just applying the 'pick up and lick' test of restaurant quality control". She ended up applying it to another 8 courses - La Degustation was so good that it managed to override years of upbringing.
The restaurant has been reviewed elsewhere on chowhound so I might not be adding much, but our meal there a week ago was such a stand-out that I feel compelled to write about it.
La Degustation, despite the French name, is a Czech restaurant - in fact the first ever Czech restaurant to obtain a Michelin star (not the first Prague-based restaurant to do so, but the first one that actually serves Czech food, rather than Italian or French). They only have two set menus: "Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise" and "Degustation Du Chef". The former consists of 6 courses interpreting recipes from a 19th century Czech cookery book in a modern style, while the latter boasts eleven courses, consisting of the above 6 courses, plus a further 5 courses created by the chef, which may be Czech or international.
In addition to a good international selection of wine, the restaurant boasts what I consider the best Czech wine list of any restaurant in Prague, featuring gems from all of the top wine regions in the country (yes, there is such a thing as excellent Czech wine). You can also opt for wine pairings, which we did. The sommelier was excellent and generous to a fellow wine enthusiast, serving six additional wines free of charge on top of the 11 wines we were served with our 11 courses.
The full menu is a bit hazy as I did not take any notes and the names of the individual dishes only hint at what they entail, but I will try to give as full an overview as I can.
The evening kicked off with three amuse bouches. We started with a refreshing kohlrabi roll - this was nice but unspectacular and I don't remember the ingredients. Then we were served crispy trout skin with dill cream and crispy pork skin with other pork elements. This was absolutely divine, the dill cream complementing the trout skin beautifully. Some simply stunning beef tartare followed, which I wish had been a full size course because it was so delicious.
The first course was an immediate highlight. Unobtrusively called "Trebon trout with buttemilk" (Trebon is a location in the south of the country), the trout was served raw, trout sashimi basically, and it was divine! As I live in Japan and adore sashimi, I have become allergic to any raw fish that is not 100% fresh, and this was absolutely perfect. Needless to say, I have never seen trout served raw in the Czech Republic, but this was a very fine inetrpretation of a traditional dish, with the buttermilk sauce being served with horseradish snow in liquid nitrogen form. Not the useless gimmick that liquid nitrogen often is though - the cold horseradish was spectacularly well suited to the raw fish, underlying its freshness. A beautiful, refreshing, peppery Gruner Veltliner was an appropriate wine pairing, naturally from the Czech Republic (Korinek).
The next dish of sturgeon caviar, leek and cauliflower was beautiful, with the cauliflower coming in two shapes, pureed and raw, the latter in wafer thin slices, giving the dish some welcome textural contrasts. This dish was created by the chef rather than based on a traditional Czech recipe, and served with the first non-Czech wine of the evening (Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, Franz Strohmeier - excellent).
The Czechs are passionate mushroom hunters so, appropriately, the next dish was forest mushrooms with caraway seeds and marjoram, with the porcini mushrooms collected in Southern Bohemian forests being particularly tasty. A Bohemian (not Moravian, even though 96% of all Czech wine is produced in Moravia rather than the cooler climate Bohemia) Riesling was a smart pairing as its off-dry nature helped the wine stand up to the woodsy mushrooms (Zernosecke vinarstvi).
The next dish was the famous Prague ham with potato skubanky (a kind of Czech gnocchi) and kefir - absolutely outstanding. The sommelier paired it with a Gavi di Gavi, but in addition served a Czech rarity - Cuvee Nejedlik 2004 from Dobra Vinice, probably the best Czech white wine producer. Nejedlik is the name of the wine maker. We were initially not told what it was, and it tasted very Burgundian. The sommelier then asked how much Chardonnay we thought it contained, which seemed a silly question, given the flavour... until he revealed that the answer was none! It was a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. Very small production, and the latest vintage is 2006, I think.
Just as I wondered if things could get any better, they did. "Ratiborice rabbit and bell pepper" was five parts of rabbit from Ratiborice (including leg, kidney and liver) with three kinds of paprika mousse, including smoked. It's hard to describe how spectacular this was. I often find rabbit a little dull - this was beautiful and much more juicy than is often the case even in pretty good restaurants. The wine pairing was a Welschriesling from Southern Moravia (Mikrosvin), another winner.
"Foie gras, peach and pistaccio", our next course, was foie gras with a little twist - the foie gras terrine was grated and just melted in your mouth. It had merely been slightly frozen which meant that it was perfect in the mouth (unlike at Creations de Narisawa in Tokyo where they apply liquid nitrogen which in the case of foie gras does not work at all and destroys top quality terrine). Originally matched with a 5 puttonys Tokaji, the sommelier also served a 1993 Riesling (Thanisch) as I had earlier professed my love of the grape variety. A much better pairing for foie gras terrine - the Tokaji is too sweet at 5 puttonyos, 3 would have been better.
The next dish did not sound like much - "carrot, tomato sauce, mustard". But the mustard turned out to be dijon mustard and thyme ice cream, which was phenomenal. 'Tomato" was a beautiful mix of tomato, tomato dust and tomato foam. Divine! (BTW, "carrot" was just carrot, in case anyone was wondering.) This was served with another wine from Dobra Vinice, a Blanc de Pinot Noir - white as the PN skins had been removed when the wine was produced. Also excellent. In addition, the sommelier served "Rouci" 2007 from Stapleton & Springer. Springer is a very talented wine maker and this is an unusual and divine blend of Pinot Noir and the Austrian grape variety St Laurent. The winery is called "Stapleton & Springer" because Springer went into business with Craig Stapleton, randomly a first cousin of George Bush who served as US ambassador to the Czech Republic (and subsequently France).
Course 8 was pigeon and beetroot. What a way to serve pigeon - this dish featured pigeon breast, liver, kidney and a deep fried croquette filled with pigeon leg confit. Originally paired with an Italian Merlot, Gropello di Revo, the sommelier also gave us a Gevrey Chambertin by Bernard Dugat-Py. A sublime pairing.
Next up was what at least to my mind is La Degustation's signature dish: beef tongue, yellow pea puree and apple. I am not normally a massive fan of beef tongue, but this one was simply divine, beautifully soft and full-flavoured. It was paired with a St Laurent from Stapleton & Springer of Boretice, South Moravia (the same winery that produces Rouci, described above). In addition, the sommelier also served Skale, which is the Czech Republic's best Bordeaux blend (by some margin). It is produced by Springer, which is a winery run by the brother of the winemaker at Stapleton & Springer (they are two totally separate wineries, albeit in the same village, and produce totally different wines; one of the Springers teamed up with Craig Stapleton to form a new winery after a falling-out with his brother, allegedly over an affair he had with that brother's wife).
We were not done with beef. Next up was a wagyu entrecote with aubergine, juniper, ginger and egg. This was, unusually and spectacularly, served with a Jura white (1999 Cuvee Blanc Tradition, Chateau d'Arlay), which went particularly well with the ginger aspect of the dish. The sommelier added a wonderful Czech natural white, the name of which escapes me now.
The final dish was a choice between cheese or dessert: Czech super-gooey "blatacke zlato" paired with a Czech wheat beer, or a dessert of milk, honey and pollen, served with grape juice made from Malverina, a Czech grape variety which produces some lovely wines. I found it very hard to choose between them so, true to form, La Degustation served me full portions of both. Sorry to be repetitive, but both were wonderful.
The meal was expensive - 3,150 crowns (US$ 160) for the menu, plus another 2,100 crowns (US$ 110) for the wine pairing. I can understand that many people will find this too excessive to give the restaurant a go. I was however happy to pay this for a unique and beautiful experience, and will do so again at the earliest opportunity I get.
Great thorough and descriptive review. I usually agree with your opinions when it comes to Japan so this is a good baseline for me to start with. Do you have a couple of other recommendations along this line that might be easier to get reservations with short notice?
re: shake N baik
Here are a few recommendations for upmarket restaurants in Prague:
V Zatisi and Bellevue are both very good and can usually be booked at relatively short notice. Bellevue is by the Vltava River and has a nice view of Prague castle, V Zatisi doesn't really have a view but is a more cosy and intimate place. I am grouping the two restaurants together as they are under the same ownership. V Zatisi serves Czech dishes and dishes with some Asian influences (oddly - but it works), whilst Bellevue is modern Czech / international.
Le Terroir is a fantastic restaurant with wonderfully innovative, modern European cuisine and a great wine list (with shameless mark-ups on retail prices though).
Aromi, La Finestra and Divinis are great Italian restaurants. La Finestra has a great all-Italian wine list. I know their wine buyer very well, and he is a top Italian wine expert.
Cafe Savoy is great fun - Old European atmosphere, it is a grand cafe by day and a proper restaurant by night (and over lunch) - small but good food menu, great wine list and fantastic atmosphere. Doesn't compare food-wise with the above restaurants (it serves much simpler food), but still worth a visit.