Review by Laura Baranik
Albio is in many ways an atypical Prague restaurant: its food is largely organic, it serves up tempeh and tofu instead of meat, and it is entirely non-smoking. It´s a welcome addition, then, to the usual roster of smoky and often greasy local dining establishments.
It is no less unusual in its choice of décor. The seats near the windows consist of immobile swings suspended from the ceiling by thick ropes, and the place is dotted with odd little bits of artwork that add to the vaguely nature-oriented theme. Two children´s play areas provide space for the youngest diners to entertain themselves.
Despite this creative approach to the restaurant´s interior, however, Albio is distinctly lacking in atmosphere. A design that was evidently meant to evoke a playful and cozy mood instead comes off as rather cold and a little bit disjointed. Perhaps it has something to do with the kitchen-like tiles on the floor and the general over-use of pinewood, or the uninspiring Top 40 hits on the radio, but I found the ambience to be more depressing than comforting.
Not so with the menu, at least upon first glance. I was pleased to see that each of the dishes´ ingredients was listed in detail and that many of them did indeed seem to be organic. Vegan and gluten-free dishes are clearly marked for those on special diets, and the restaurant is almost entirely vegetarian, aside from a small fish selection – and the curious inclusion of organic ham in one of the pasta dishes.
Heartened by the menu´s potential, I started with the creamy carrot soup with tahini. The thick carrot puree sprinkled with black sesame seeds was beautifully presented and, once I added some salt and pepper, quite flavorful. My companion´s small salad with grilled goat cheese, on the other hand, was a sad disappointment. The cheese itself was excellent – crumbly and with a distinctive sharp flavor. But its accompaniment of plain iceberg lettuce sprinkled with dry walnuts and a rather greasy baguette was entirely unimaginative; cranberries or some lively vegetables were needed to do the goat cheese justice. The fried spicy rice tofu balls with mustard dip were more flavorful and pleasantly crisp, if a bit on the oily side.
Iceberg reared its tasteless head again during our main course: my baked sin carne chili beans in spelt bread had been inexplicably set on a gigantic pillow of dry lettuce. The chili itself managed to match the iceberg in terms of dullness. Its beans were unsalted and undercooked, leaving little to dispel the blandness other than the occasional kernel of corn in the chili. My friend´s baked Alaskan codfish with tomato and garlic sauce fared much better, with a stew of red peppers and tomatoes nicely balancing the tender cod.
Our dessert of spelt-buckwheat pancakes with blueberry jam, vanilla sauce and fruit almost made us forget the monotony of some of our previous courses. This time, even the presentation was exciting, with the pancakes arriving dotted with orange slices, pears, and purple flowers. The blueberry jam – which actually turned out to be more of a compote – harmonized perfectly with the pancake´s grainy texture, though the lemony, chemical-like flavor of the vanilla sauce kept the dish from achieving perfection.
Albio may be an uncommon addition to the Prague dining scene, but when it makes culinary choices that are simply ordinary, it falls short of its diners´ expectations. Using the least nutritious lettuce as the standard salad ingredient in a health-oriented restaurant seems clumsy, particularly when in today´s local restaurants one can easily find arugula and radicchio salads for less money. Only when Albio decides to boost its standards will it live up to the promises of its menu.