Subtle, surprising – Prague’s Le Terroir
There’s nothing subtle about Prague, especially in the heart of tourist-ville, the Stare Mesto (old town). It’s impossible to walk 50 metres without encountering a restaurant, a money changer, a garnet/crystal/souvenir shop and a tout. Turning one’s gaze heavenwards offers rich rewards, however, with an architectural feast for the senses. Towers, steeples, statues, mouldings, frescoes – Prague’s rich heritage from the 12th century is achingly beautiful.
The contrast of sheer beauty and the myriad of ways the locals try to part tourists from their cash has made Prague a difficult place for Greedy Girl. Having wanted to visit her whole life, Prague’s hard edges have rubbed off a bit of the gloss but, nevertheless, the quest to find excellent food experiences has continued.
In Budapest, a little earlier on this trip, the sommelier at Tigris (see the blog Tigris – a must do in Budapest) had recommended Le Terroir in Prague. Greedy Girl immediately got online and booked a table – the email was answered by the chef himself, Jan Puncochar. In yet another cobblestoned side street, not far from the main square, it would be easy to walk past the restaurant – testament to the touristy gaudiness that abounds and competes for attention and its low key entrance. A small shingle hangs out the front and an unadorned archway leads to a simple reception area. It’s a refreshing change.
The restaurant is housed in an unusual building. The part abutting the laneway was built in the 1800s, on top of a cellar that harks back to the days when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Descending the stairs, diners are first shown through the extremely extensive wine cellar where the Maitre D shows off his favourite bottles. Even further down is the dining room with impressively lit vaulted brick ceilings. It’s cool but not uncomfortably so – a good temperature for eating and drinking.
Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband have started to show a few signs of food fatigue. There are only so many times one can stretch the limits of one’s capacity and come back for more. The determination heading into Le Terroir was to make the minimum number of choices. All going well, that would normally result in consumption of less food. Hah. The smallest number of choices involved either a cheese plate or a dessert for the tasting menu. Our waiter told us there were five ‘small’ courses. We acquiesced, all too readily. Greedy Girl had only one further request – an alternative to the rabbit course. She settled for pigeon. And so, to the wine list.
Our dinner experience having started with a visit to the wine cave, the wine list was seriously impressive – distinctions in the list for a bewildering array of major European wine regions. There was a smattering of inexpensive bottles but the cost quickly rose. Not finding anything that looked vaguely familiar under around the A$250 mark (many bottles were A$1000 and up), gluttonous husband opted for the matching wines at around A$85 and Greedy Girl consigned herself to the thought of having perhaps a couple of glasses of champagne. Our friendly sommelier, however, said he would be happy to offer Greedy Girl ‘a taste’ of each of the matching wines.
And so, to the food. First up was a goose foie gras. Served cold, this was served with a sea-buckthorn compote and reduction of grape juice. Tiny seeds, nuts and grapes were included on the plate. It was smooth with the odd pop of crunch and sweetness from the fruit and served with a Hungarian white from Tokaji which had all the hallmarks of a sauvignon blanc. One of the things Greedy Girl has learned on this trip is that Tokaji is not a style of wine (most usually presumed to be a sweet wine) but a region encompassing many styles.
The second course was John Dory with roasted chanterelle mushrooms, leek and a lemon butter. It was plate-licking good. The fish had a blackened skin and combined with the texture and flavour of the mushrooms and leek and a most divine, creamy sauce. It was served with an oaked Chardonnay from Burgundy. While both Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband generally dislike whites, particularly Chardonnay and even more so, oaked Chardonnay, this went very well with the dish.
Next up for Greedy Girl, given she wasn’t prepared to eat rabbit, was braised beef neck with celery puree, peas and carrots and a caper sauce. An added bonus was a few slices of a very quickly seared piece of beef on top, sliced carpaccio thin. The flavours were excellent but the braised texture is not Greedy Girl’s favourite. She managed to consume about half of the neck. It was accompanied by a Nebbiolo from Piedmont, which was surprisingly light.
Gluttonous husband got stuck into his rabbit dish which was served in three ways – a pink loin, a thigh and some rabbit kidneys with a warm green asparagus salad and some proscuitto. The pink meat was a revelation. Gluttonous husband’s long experience of rabbit is usually a ‘long and slow’ cooking process otherwise it can be tough and stringy. The loin, being pink, was obviously not done that way and yet was soft as can be.
Greedy Girl was quickly hitting her limit – and there were still two courses to go. Instead of the rabbit, her final savoury dish was roasted pigeon breast served with a pate and thick, sludgy, pate-inspired sauce. On the plate were a sprinkling of roasted chick peas and pieces of white asparagus. It was, arguably, the richest dish Greedy Girl has ever attempted and she failed to meet the challenge – abysmally. Three bites of the pigeon with accompaniments and she was done. Passing the plate over to gluttonous husband, who polished off his beef neck, proved also a step too far. He manfully dived in but quickly gave up the fight. Half of this dish went back to the kitchen. There was obviously a good reason why it was not included on the tasting menu – far too rich, far too strong.
Finally, there was a choice between a cheese plate or a lemon ‘pudding’. Greedy Girl went for the latter, while gluttonous husband asked the waiter to recommend a selection from his comprehensive cheese board. Five tastes, an incredibly strong cheddar which worked well with an apricot jelly, two styles of goat’s cheese (one plain, one coated in ash), a beer-washed brie and a blue brie all disappeared. Clearly he’d got a second wind after failing the pigeon challenge.
Greedy Girl’s ‘pudding’ was a fresh combination of strawberries and rhubarb with a light lemon custard and white rum sorbet. She managed a few mouthfuls and left the remainder for the human hoover on the other side of the table.
Le Terroir changes its menu every four weeks, depending on what basic ingredients can be sourced. Don’t head to this restaurant for a range of selections, except for the encyclopaedic wine list – there are very few food choices. The only other dish available on the menu this particular night was eel.
This is as far from heavy Czech cooking with its fondness for pork knuckle and beer as you can get. While many ingredients are sourced locally, the style here is classic French.
It’s certainly interesting food with emphasis on bringing the best out of the ingredients. A surprising and rewarding experience.
Vejvodova 1, Prague