Friday, August 20, 2010

Na Kopci

"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing." Camille Pissarro
I almost didn't write about Na Kopci (On the Hill).The reason I came around to doing it is an interesting one. But I will save that for a little later.

It started with The Czanadian raving about it to me. He passes me tips about what Czech business people and foodies are buzzing about. Every time I'd see him, he'd insist I had to try it, and that it is one of his personal favorites.

I was intrigued to see what he was all hot and bothered about. I refused to be daunted by the long trek to the hilltop restaurant overlooking Prague 5's Smichov neighborhood.I was, however daunted by the 300 CZK cab fare it cost me to get there from Prague 10. It's also possible to take bus 231 from Na Knížecí stop.

My Good Friend drove to meet me and got a little lost on the winding, one-way residential streets.

There were no tables available outside on the terrace, so I was waiting inside.The dining areas had a nice, warm feeling. The walls are covered with montages of family photographs.It's not a big place, and all the tables are often reserved. Booking is recommended.

They serve 12-degree Staropramen beer, which is not my favorite, but I ordered a half-liter (32 CZK).My Good friend had a .2 liter glass of merlot.It should have cost 80 CZK, but I just noticed it was left off the bill.

The waitress brought us an amuse bouche of chopped beets sandwiched between two pieces of hard salami.I hadn't seen this combination before, but it was a good mix of sweet, salty, and sour.

My Good Friend ordered the beef consommé with a Tyrolian dumpling (50 CZK).She really loved the broth and the bready, meaty dumpling. Even though it's not my favorite kind of soup, I thought it was very well-prepared.

I decided to try the chef's selection of starters (145 CZK). It was a mixed bag.My favorite was the beef tartare with shaved Parmesan sandwiched between two tiny pieces of toast. Then, there was the cured ham rolled around sun-dried tomato. The mini Caprese on a toothpick was a simple tasting, ordinary bite. The baked mussel was tasty, but overcooked.

I was less enthralled with the salmon and dill on a small blini. The fish was slightly dried out and tasted like the smoked stuff that comes from a plastic supermarket package.

More disappointing was the cheddar-stuffed and fried jalapeno. It doesn't taste bad. It's fine. It's just that I've seen the same Makro-sourced freezer bag product all over town. I was hoping for something more creative. It was served with the ubiquitous Thai chili sauce that almost every restaurant considers the universal condiment.

I was hungry so, as a second course, I ordered the goat cheese salad (125 CZK).Little cirles of the gooey, baked chevre were serve on top sweet gingerbread. Mixed in with the lightly dressed frisee and other green and red leaves were strawberry and pomegranate. The sweet-tart fruits contrasted well with the cheese.

My Good Friend decided to try the Caesar salad with grilled chicken (125 CZK). This was a dismal affair.The romaine lettuce was limp, the dressing almost flavorless, and the chicken overcooked and dry. I think the generous portion of shaved Parmesan was meant to cover up the crime. Neither of us wanted to finish it.

Finally, I had the beef "striploin" steak with almond croquettes, fava beans, and cognac sauce (285 CZK).It wasn't bad, but I wasn't terribly happy with it, either.

The meat was not tender and of very average flavor. The sauce was nice, but there wasn't enough of it to make the meat more appealing.

That's because I used a lot of the sauce to made the almond croquettes more edible. They tasted like potato, but they were dried out and stale. The best thing on the plate were the fresh, crunchy snow peas mixed in with the fava beans.

At the end of this meal, I didn't feel like writing about Na Kopci. I liked the atmosphere and the prices, but I had too many disappointing dishes. And I couldn't see recommending the complicated journey.

Instead, I decided to summarize my findings on the Czech Please Facebook page. I said it "was highly recommended by a friend, but I found it unimpressive."

And then all hell broke loose. Well, not really.

But there was a rather unprecedented response by readers in defense of the restaurant.

Five people, all Czech I believe, used superlatives to describe Na Kopci. They said it was "outstanding" and "the best restaurant in the price/value category." A well-known Czech restaurant critic, Martin Kuciel, also known as Pan Cuketka posted a link to a rave review in the new Czech website, Scuk.cz.

Given the reaction, which didn't match up well with my experience, I felt I had to go back.I got some tips from readers on what to order. For the second trip, I went alone and drove myself there. I only took one wrong turn.

Since I had my car, I got something called a "Bazén" or swimming pool (50 CZK).This was just a .2 liter bottle of orange juice mixed with a .33 liter bottle of Mattoni and nothing else. It wasn't cold, so I asked the waitress for a cup of ice.

The menu at Na Kopci changes from time to time. It was still the same for my next visit, but there was a new amuse bouche. It was canned tuna with mayo and red pepper.Nothing special.

I wanted to try as much as possible, so I had four courses altogether. The first was the foie gras (205 CZK).The cold liver was silky smooth, with a clean finish. It was quite sweet, owing to the dusting of brown sugar around the outside.

The caramelized, chopped apple, mixed with a little walnut, according to the waitress, was nice. But it added more sweetness and was a little one-dimensional.

It was very awkward to get the foie gras and apple to stay on the thin narrow toast without tumbling off before a bite. Also, there wasn't enough of it, so I also used sliced baguette from the basket.

Next, I ordered the homemade ravioli stuffed with oxtail meat (115 CZK). This was fantastic.The al dente pasta sat under a rich, beefy, slightly sweet and creamy shallot sauce. I tasted a hint of wine. I couldn't get enough of it.

Inside, there was tender, braised oxtail that added to the richness of the dish.Even the sage on top was a perfect addition. I wouldn't have minded two more little leaves.

This dish gave me some understanding of the strong devotion some have for Na Kopci. The ravioli was the highlight of my week and for an absolute bargain, at that. The next time I find myself at Na Kopci, I will get two orders of this dish, maybe even three.

Finally, I had the reader-recommended pork tenderloin with creamed spinach and pommes boulangére (205 CZK).I found the pork rather bland by itself. But the salty, meaty gravy, bursting with the essence of thyme, really came to the rescue.

The potatoes were buttery, but I didn't get a lot of flavor from them, either. The spinach was perfect. The leaves were freshly wilted and had just the right amount cream that didn't overwhelm.

After all this, I still had room for dessert. Or more specifically, I had room for their selection of Valrhona chocolate (125 CZK). And I was very, very glad I did.I first became acquainted with this high-grade French chocolate in 1993, and I've never missed an opportunity to order it when I see it.

There were five different presentations of the chocolate varied in thickness and shape. There was a mousse-like dollop, a thicker slab, a paper-thin but not insubtantial piece, and two cocoa-dusted balls. The small bursts of sour pomegranate contrasted well with all of them.

Each had a different, intense, almost mind-altering chocolate flavor. I loved them all, but I definitely enjoyed the balls the most. They had an incredibly, nutty, tangy flavor that I don't think I'd experienced before. Highly recommended.

The bill for the two visits were 794 CZK and 700 CZK before tip. There is no question: there is value for money at Na Kopci. There is a nice atmosphere. The service wasn't perfect, but not bad. I'd be very happy to have it in my neighborhood.

Is it worth the trip? For me, the ravioli and chocolate might be enough to get me to return. But too many dishes were just average or disappointments. My feeling is that you need manage your ordering and expectations carefully.

The Na Kopci experience was an interesting one, and not just because of the food. Where I initially saw nothing, some saw beauty in a humble building at the top of the hill.

I did like it much more on my second visit, but that only underlined for me the mercurial nature of restaurant perceptions. I still wouldn't rank Na Kopci as highly as some readers or my good friend.

But bless them for taking the time to kindly suggest I missed out on something good. I'm glad I went back.

Na Kopci
K Závěrce 20
Prague 5
Tel: (+420) 251 553 102

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

A difference of opinion regarding a restaurant! Well who'd a thunk it?

I was up there in January and it was not exactly a breeze getting to by public transport from downtown (check the bus times coming and going on dpp.cz before you leave), but not onerous either, especially if you're already near the B line.

Was it fantastic? I didn't think so overall, but there were some tasty dishes there and I was served no bad ones at all.

Without meaning to be snide, I can't wait to see what the next "flavour of the month" restaurant will be amongst Czech foodies. These days such is often a place to check out, rather than one to be avoided at all costs, as it used to be in the not-too-distant past.

I would say that that in itself means Na Kopci is doing a good job, especially at those prices.
Having said that, I haven't made my way back, though that's as much laziness on my part as anything. As you say though, I'd be happy to have it my neighbourhood.

Max said...

Great blog, me and my girlfriend spent 3 weeks in Praha and fell in love with the food. We went to U Jagusky in Praha 8 a lot, very traditional but well made food, you should do a post on it!

Yukirat said...

I read your blog all the time for mouth-watering reviews like this, and I've never even set foot in the Czech Republic! Your food reviews and photos are that sumptuous. But seriously, I find myself wondering if you are a) 500 lbs from all this food and subsequent writing or b) maxing out all your credit cards to pay for such superb nights out.
Most likely, neither is true. Please keep up your fabulous food writings!

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