Tuesday, March 6, 2007

La Casa Argentina

Don't get on the ship. The book, To Serve Man, it's a cookbook! IT'S A COOKBOOK!" The Twilight Zone (1962)
To make a long story short, sometimes you go into a situation thinking some people are there to serve you but, in the end, you wind up getting burned.

Usually, I'd start off a post about a restaurant with exceptionally good steaks by talking about those steaks. Not this time, friends. First, I am going to start by talking about the service.

That's because, time after time, the service at La Casa Argentina keeps interfering with my enjoyment of the meals. I've been three times. The steaks are that good. I'd say the best in Prague. Friends agree. But the service is that bad. The restaurant is relatively new, but it is not so new that this should be an excuse anymore.

I began a recent solo dinner with the steak tartare (240 CZK). It does not look so good under the glare of flash photography from a pocket digital camera, but the meat was excellent. The chef had already mixed in chopped onions, and perhaps a little salt. There were also the small dishes of egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, and garlic for the fried bread (topinky).
Usually, when I order this dish, I will mix in some of these things, along with salt. But when I tasted the raw beef, it was almost perfect. The meat was coarsely chopped, but so fresh and tender, the pieces melt in your mouth. It reminded me of sashimi. Sometimes, I add onions to steak tartare, but in this case, I was regretting the chef's addition because I wanted to experience the beef in its purest state.

If you look back at my review of Neklid Restaurant, the presentation and size of the steak tartare is very similar. I am still debating whether La Casa Argentina's version is worth nearly twice the price.

For a main course, I had the rib eye steak (445 CZK). This is the real deal, all the way from Argentina. I ordered it medium, and it was cooked perfectly, pink all the way through but never red. It was a big, thick cut. I thought it needed a little salt.

I didn't add any because the pepper dipping sauce was just salty enough. Some people say the meat is better without sauce, but I liked it with the stuff. It was very rich, made with a thick cream studded with peppercorns. I'd slice a slab of meat off the tender steak, and then dab a little of the pudding-like condiment on it. The flavor of the beef would always power its way through. The plate came with grilled eggplant and tomato, which I enjoyed. There was also a very vinegary red pepper salsa that I did not like.

One nice feature of the place is that you can look through glass windows into the kitchen and see the grill team at work on the meat.
I drank beer with my dinner. The Pilsner Urquell comes in .3 liter glasses. Half-liter glasses are not an option, which may be a good thing. The beers are 70 CZK. That's a big price for a small beer.

When the restaurant first opened, they offered a large and a small version of the rib eye. Now, there is just the large version. There is a fillet steak for 465 CZK. V and I debated over which steak was better at one meal. We could not agree. There is also a rump steak, and a strip steak, which dips below the 400 CZK mark. Unfortunately, the menu is not online since the restaurant's website is still under construction.

The service on my third visit was better than I'd seen it before, but still a step behind and not because it was busy. The place was virtually empty on a Sunday night.

But, oh, where to begin with the litany of problems with the service. How about here: on this recent visit, they charged me for my steak's pepper dipping sauce when the menu states that each steak comes with the choice of one sauce. After this was pointed out, the 40 CZK charge was removed.

Here is a list of other service issues from my first two visits:
  1. Both times, the service was just slow and there were those moments when the conversations stops, you look around, and someone at the table asks, "Where's the food?"
  2. Both times, our waiter disappeared after the final course, and we waited endlessly to get the bill. A friend also reported this happening. Laura Baranik, the Expats.cz reviewer said this happened to her, as well.
  3. I ordered a rib eye steak. I ordered grilled vegetables on the side. I did not see the menu stated that all steaks came (at that time) with grilled vegetables. The server did not point this out. I wound up with two orders of grilled vegetables. Thanks.
  4. I asked for the chocolate-filled banana for dessert. Instead, I was brought the cinnamon-coated pineapple dessert. The server thought he heard "ananas" instead of "bananas." There was more waiting until I was brought the correct dessert, which I don't recommend, by the way. The chocolate had no intensity and was over-shadowed by the cooked banana.
  5. The waitress did not know what a kir was, even though it was listed on the drinks menu. We explained the difference between a kir and a kir royale. When it arrived, it was a kir royale, made with champagne, not white wine.
  6. During a call for a reservation and a request for information, a person, who sounded like the restaurant manager, was impatient and rude.
On a previous visit, we tried a spinach, radicchio, arugula salad with grilled shrimp and an apricot dressing (210 CZK). It sounded very appealing. Laura Baranik's review said her tiger shrimp were plump and juicy. Ours were small, dried out, and barely warm.

The main dining room itself is on the kitschy side. The walls on one side of the room are made to look like an Argentine street scene, with little balconies coming out of the walls. I had the feeling that little animatronic people would pop out and start singing, "It's a Small World After All."
Sometimes, a computer-controlled spotlight searched the room, in case you are thinking of making a break for it.

Another room has water running down the walls and a caged lizard living in a tree trunk in the middle of it. Another Disney ride. This time, it's the Jungle Cruise. The running water gives the room a damp feeling and a slightly musty, jungle smell. Or maybe that’s the lizard.
In the back of the place, there is an interesting bar with a nautical theme. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean. I actually like this room. There is a lot of wood. I like wood. But even more interesting are the seats at the bar. Some of them are heavy wooden chairs suspended by thick ropes from the ceiling. It's fun to go for a ride. I took some friends to check them out and thought they'd mind the relatively high drink prices. They ended up insisting that we stay.
One way you can tell that the same people who run the Cuban restaurant, La Bodeguita del Medio, own La Casa Argentina is that the mojitos are good. Another sign is that they have a couple of professional dancers moving around to entertain the guests.

On my last visit, they also had a crooner at the piano accompanied by a stand-up bass on numbers like "Blue Moon" and "Georgia On My Mind." They had talent and style. I liked it. It was a shame there weren't more people on a Sunday night.
There is even another bar and dining area in the basement, though I’ve never seen it in use. I'd guess it can be reserved for VIP and private parties. This restaurant is huge by Prague standards. There is also a cigar bar next door to the restaurant.
On busier nights, I've seen the restaurant attract a mix of upwardly mobile Czech couples, a fair number of tourists, and foreign businessmen with their, (ahem), girlfriends.

If you want to get some other perspectives on La Casa Argentina, you can read the recent Prague Post review and the Expats.cz review.

As for me, I’d like to tell you I am never going back La Casa Argentina. I want to tell you that. I want to live by certain high standards and unyielding principles. But I can't. Those steaks are so much better than anything else in Prague, they make up for a lot of sins. And so I will probably sin again, myself.

La Casa Argentina
Dlouhá 35
Tel. 222 311 512
Open every day 10:00-02:00

22 comments:

Escoffier said...

Thanks. Holy cow! that meat looks good!

The Kir vs Kir Royal issue is not unusual sadly. Did you notice the certificate that is displayed outside?

The tatar with that glorious fried bread looks a treat! Usual Praha problem - no discipline at service level. They'll get the tourist crowd before long & then it won't be an issue. This is the problem in that part of town.

The best service in Prague can be found where? I have some ideas but I wonder what others think?

Anonymous said...

Good review .. I'm ready to give the latest Latin American import a chance. Good service be damned!

Actually Escoffier raises an interesting issue about service -- and it got me thinking "what is good service?" Maybe the fact that we all perceive service in Prague restaurants as so bad is that we (as expats) have differing ideas of what the notion of good service here locally means ... Maybe. I am just tossing it out as a debate point.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean --

1. Waiter routinely stops by the table to ask if everything is okay and whether anyone needs anything.
a. what an American thinks: "wow! finally some attentive service around here"
b. what a Czech thinks: "I wish that guy would just give us a break and leave us alone."

2. Customer says 'bill please' and waiter shows up in 30 seconds with the tab.
a. what an American thinks: "great, I can actually get out of here quickly"
b. what a Czech thinks: "geez .. we just finished the meal and this guy wants us out already .."

You get the idea. The reason I post this is that for years and years, the same gripes about service in Prague have been surfacing .. maybe the answer is deeper. Maybe what we are seeing IS the local version of good service??

Thoughts?

Brewsta said...

I think your points about different points of view on the same service are excellent.

My standards of service are Western-oriented. They are not everyone's standards. I speak for myself and, more generally, people I know.

But some issues do transcend national boundaries and culture.

My biggest overall complaint at La Casa was the endless waiting. The consistency of the inattentiveness. The menu does point out that it takes a long time to cook the meat. But I think the problems went far beyond that one issue.

I like the service at Kogo at Slovansky Dum. I know people who hate it and gave me reasons why. Scream and yell and disagree if you want.

I've found they are usually eagle-eyed, fast, and efficient. Has a waiter there ever forgotten about us or disappeared? Sure. I've been there a lot.

But at the end of the day, that resaurant serves a lot of business people, likes a lot of turn over, and retains waiters for years.

I understand if it is not everyone's cup of tea -- but I'd venture that it is probably one of the most successful restaurants in the city.

Escoffier said...

Very interesting perspective, Anonymous.

I have noted that some Czechs that I dine with can be abrupt with staff & therefore are asking for it. Also, overly effusive service is an embarassing nightmare - I want professional, self confident and relaxed. False smiles and silly table brushing antics are annoying.


Kogo: Kogo staff are not Czech of course. Excellent & professional. Having said that I get even better service from a great Czech girl at one of my favourites. I used to rate Kogo, but the cooking is slipping a bit to my mind.

Anonymous said...

Brewsta, you make the typical, self-centered mistake of many Americans - confusing "American" and "Western". That´s not the same at all and especially when it comes to restaurant service, the American way is very specific, very different from most other Western countries, which includes also the Czech Republic.

"American service" (i.e. idiotic plastic smiles and waitresses harrassing the guests every five minutes with exalted yelling "Everything OK?") does not equal "Western service". Instead, it is very US-specific and more-or-less unseen in continental Europe (which is also "Western", isn´t it?)

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the fact the staff in most American restaurants (including those allegedly upscale) are usually horribly dressed, complete with baseball caps and sneakers. Unlike here.

And that they expect a 20% tip for their "care".

Now this is the real cultural difference you should be aware of: Be sure that continental Europeans would be much more upset by a waitress wearing a baseball cap than by the absence of smile! Moreover, a waitress wearing t-shirt and baseball cap AND smiling is probably an epitome of "bad service" for continental Europeans.

Brewsta said...

Ah, my resident troll is back. Greetings.

I have lived in Europe for a long time. I have seen all kinds of service. There are many restaurants here in Prague with good service. Does that mean their service is American style?

Why make a laundry list of assumptions of what you think I think good service is? Did I say any of that stuff you projected on me? You just make yourself look like a complete fool.

I'm not the only one who has noticed.

I said the service was slow. Others I talked to agreed: The wait for the bill was endless. They charged me for something they shouldn't have. They didn't know their own drinks menu. They brought me the wrong dessert. etc etc.

Didn't you read the whole post? Or did you just skip to the comments section? It seems the word "Western" set you off and had to expel your self-righteous freakout through the keyboard?

Americans hate issues I mentioned about La Casa, but oh, I forgot, Europeans love those kinds of things. Is that what you're saying?

I really do invite serious criticism here -- it's fair enough, I dish it out. But that's not what you're doing. You're comments are knee-jerk and not clearly thought through.

Perhaps you didn't get enough attention as a child. Or perhaps you got too much.

I only wish you had the intelligence and maturity to give me something to seriously think about.

Anonymous said...

In describing and discussing the peculiarities of the "American service" I was responding primarily to the second comment here (with which you seemed to agree).

The second comment is extremely culturaly biased in that it considers a very specific American service style to be "normal", whereas what it describes as "Czech style" (which is not specifically Czech at all but rather European) as weird.

So again:

"I wish that guy would just give us a break and leave us alone." - this is indeed what a Czech thinks. But not only a Czech - this is how Europeans in general prefer the restaurant service to be. Quiet, low-profile, discreet, almost invisible.

To repeat - I was responding the the comments here, NOT to your article.

Brewsta said...

It's pretty confusing for everyone when everyone posts under the name "Anononymous."

Isn't it possible to select "Other" when posting? It gives you the option to make up a name. It would help us all to understand who is saying what.

I was responding to the person who specifically commented on me by name about the word "Western."

So why are you responding to that?

Anway, other commenters have spanked you before for speaking for the likes and wants of all Czechs.

This discussion is all heat and no light.

Max said...

Quite interesting all this dicussion about what good service is. I go to restaurants a lot, and to me it means the following:

I am given the menu and asked what I am going to drink as soon as, or soon after, I sit at the table.

My drink is brought promply, and if I have already decided, my order is taken. If not, the waiter will keep that in mind and notice when I am ready to order

The service staff is informed on what is on the menu (and what is not anymore) and can answer any questions regarding ingredients etc; and if not, they will ask at the kitchen and come back with an answer.

My order is brought promptly. If I want something that will take long to prepare, I will be informed. (Needless to say, I am brought exactly what I have ordered)

I will be asked if I want another drink when I am finishing, or as soon as, I have finished mine.

When I have finished my meal, the plates will be retired quickly.

I will be able to get the bill as soon as I want it (I really like the paper strip system in many Czech pubs for this), and I will not have to wait for the change. Not to mention, that there will not be any overcharges or "mistakes".

I really don't like at all the fake McSmile or forced friendliness it is annoying. A good waiter, for me, is that who is there when I need him or her, and goes unnoticed when I don't.

And that is pretty much the service I get in most neighbouhood or small town hospodas. And in some cases, you can find truly friendly service. I can even give two examples. Ferdinanda, in Opletalova, and Pivovarsky Klub in Krizikova. Great service who are able to recommend or inform, and with a very friendly attitude.

Now if we are speaking about restaurants in the price range of La Casa, I would certainly expect service bordering the flawless.

Brewsta said...

Thanks, Max

Anonymous said...

Yes, Max summed it up pretty well. This was exactly my point, reacting to the second post. Though I admit my posts were not as elegant as Max'...

But no need to call me a troll, really...

Brewsta said...

I was only reacting to the person who wrote this:

"Brewsta, you make the typical, self-centered mistake.."

That's the person I was calling a troll. But there was a confusion because, I think, your post came between that one and my answer. Both were posted as "Anonymous."

So, I think this was just a misunderstanding.

Kava said...

Hey ... I am one of the anonymous's that posted earlier, but not a troll (or one of the trolls). I only wanted to write that I had just been to Kogo at SD and it was good. Excellent service that matched all of the good points as enumerated by Max above. I was treated in a way that Americans, Westerners, and Czechs (whatever differences -- true or imagined -- that there may be among these three categories) would all interpret as good service!

Brewsta said...

Kogo in Slovansky Dum is one of my favorites.

I listed a few others in this post, but Kogo is at the top:

http://czechoutchannel.blogspot.com/2007/02/best-restaurants-in-prague_14.html

The reviewer at Expats.cz just reposted her review of the place from last summer and listed it as her favorite.

There are a few non-Kogo fans out there -- let's hope we didn't provoke them.

A fan said...

Just tried La Casa Argentina last night and Brewsta's review is spot-on. Great food. Fabulous steak, but terrible service. Nay, malevolent service.

The service alternated between inattentive (waiter disappearing for 10 minutes after saying "give us a minute" to take our order) to overattentive (rearranging our plates and glasses as we were eating our appetizer).

But that's not why the service was terrible. It was terrible because we were nickel-and-dimed - at a 2000 Kc meal!

It started with a wine waiter who came to our table in lieu of a wine list. We asked for a list and this guy, who was basically a salesman, came out. He pushes the most expensive wines on us. We choose a mid-priced wine and ask for two glasses. He comes back with a 1400 crown bottle and explains that they don't serve that wine by the glass. (This wasn't a language issue - my date who is a native-speaker insisted on the glasses.)

So we choose a cheaper wine. The waiter then brings it out and tells us that it's actually 100 Kc more than what the menu says. OK, fine, but why do I feel like I'm fighting the house here?

We get our meal - it's very, very good. Then the check comes. Lo and behold, we're charged for the sauces, 50 crowns each for two dinners. Exactly as it happened to Brewsta. What do you think the chances are that this isn't a mistake?

So I tell the waiter this. He has to find the manager. This takes 10 minutes. Then the manager comes out. She says she'll "try to...solve it." What's there to solve? She's wrong!

We've now been waiting 15 minutes and have to catch our train. She tells us to wait longer. We can't. She won't just fix the check, she's got to "solve it." I pay the bogus 100 crown charge and resolve never to eat there again, which is a shame...it's great food, but you can't enjoy it when you're on guard against a waitstaff trying to pad the bill crown-by-crown.

Brewsta said...

They were really playing games with you. My problem with the mistaken sauce charge was "solved" very quickly. The waitress came back in two minutes after writing "-40 Kc" on my receipt with a hand-written corrected total. No manager. No computer involved.

Here's a similar complaint thread on this website:

http://www.expats.cz/prague/t-138264.html

Good_Will said...

Nice blog, Brewsta!

Some interesting places to check out.

I'm pretty sure it was you who put me on to Neklid over on expats, so thanks for that.

Other places you should review, recommended by me:

http://www.staradoba.cz/?lang=en

http://www.olivarestaurant.cz/index.php

http://www.noodle.cz/index.php?lang=en

All within staggering distance of my flat if you fancied meeting up for a meal.

Cheers, Will

Brewsta said...

Thanks Will -- I think that was me on Expats -- it was a while back.

Oliva and the Noodle Bar are high on my list. Oliva because I used to love the old Atelier and (I think) the Atelier cook is there (didn't like the new Atelier so much). And the Noodle Bar because I love Thai.

I'm a little hesitant about Noodle Bar because I just did Modry Zub, I have another Thai post in the works, and it was reviewed recently -- hate to feel like I'm following reviewers around.

Good_Will said...

It was a while back, yep. I found your review of Neklid in your February section, so pretty sure it was you because of the steak with wasabi comment, which was the first dish I tried when I visited.

If you go to the noodle bar and order Phad Thai, then as for it spicy, otherwise it can be a tad bland, but their Pomelo salad is truly excellent.

Stara Doba is the nearest equivalent to Neklid around here, but it has the added bonus of a really nice garden, so check it out.

Cheers, Will

p.s. The the former Atelier chef is still at Oliva.

reddoor said...

After reading your review we decided to go to La Casa Argentina. Same srory with the service. The waiter really pushed things on us, wouldn't accept that we didn't wand two apps etc.
The steak was good. Overcharged on the bill with the sauces, which I checked thinking it might happen. So then the fun part: our waiter argues with us for about five minutes. Telling me I ordered it, that he can't take it off. I ate two sauces. It was really silly. Fianlly another waiter came over and changed it, sending the other waiter off. Bottom line is that they were jerks about everything, not listening, challenging us on stuff, it was crazy.
I'm not even picky with my service and this place was an expensive disaster.

Brewsta said...

Wow. I keep hearing this story. Sounds like they don't care about repeat business. Must be enough tourists.