“In Switzerland they always cut all the fat off. In France, they leave all the fat. I prefer it with no fat but to the rest of the world I think it´s normal–the fat I mean.”
My dining companion was remarking on his main course of entrecôte at L´Ardoise, where we spent this past Saturday evening, sampling a refreshingly concise menu that prides itself in quality, not quantity.
I don´t know about “the rest of the world” but I can certainly appreciate a bit of fat from time to time, if it´s in the right places and tastefully dressed. And it was, the French way. Splendidly tender and red-centered, the cut of premium beef was only as thick as two cigarettes, yet portioned widely enough to force its accompanying buttery potatoes onto a separate plate. This popular dish sprawled across several nearby tables in the dining room.
L´Ardoise, according to its website, attempts to echo a Parisian brasserie. It´s about typical French dishes prepared with “AOC” ingredients in a French kitchen, and, perhaps crucially, a red carpet wine list. The interior, in both its lighting and décor, is creamy, and sprinkled with white-framed artwork—what you´d expect from French taste, like Parisian street wear, which leaves you wondering if every tiny detail was extremely well-thought out or if it was casually tossed together to result in style.
But it was something else that drifted me away from Prague for the evening. Those mouths. You know the kind. The verbal streams, the minimal gaps, the lips that purse and curl. Out of the whole dining room, I think it was only I and one Czech woman who were forced to blend that precious mother tongue with the jazzy background music after the initial “Bonsoir.” Sure, I was teleported to Paris, and I absorbed the atmosphere in the same exact fashion I always do below that famed Tower: comforting the non-French-speaking uncomfortable-ness by stuffing my face, drinking, and staring at the same piece of art a hundred times.
L´Ardoise is less about gastronomical innovation and more about adhering to tradition using the highest quality ingredients. Cheese plays a leading role, and unlike the general unfriendliness of this city, my wardrobe, or Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni´s faces, I will never get tired or bored of French cheese. Atop a thin slice of toasted baguette was the ultimate taste bud teaser of soft sheep´s cheese, white as snow, a bite-sized dollop, discreet with its gun powder flavor effect. This was the amuse-bouche, fulfilling its mission to kick off the food play with an exciting hint of what would follow.
What should have followed was one of the cheese platters listed on the menu with the desserts. My hyper-enthusiasm for ordering put me out of sequence, though, so if the cheese high is part of the evening´s goal—and I certainly encourage that—order this with the starters. (Also notable is that the chocolate Earl Grey parfait is “to be ordered at the beginning of the meal.”)
The “AOC” stands for Appellation d´origine contrôlée or “controlled term of origin.” I asked my dining companion to elaborate on the details of this, which he proudly did (
for the next few days, concluding the explanation with the French fable about the shepard leaving some cheese under a rock, something, something, voila, Roquefort cheese). Basically, AOC is a big French deal, and cheese is serious business. There are entire cheese armies to protect the processes, regions and even the names of the French goodies.
Having this kind of background info will help you appreciate the fresh Roquefort cheese and walnut salad that much more. Although it´s fresh, leafy greens were laced with a pleasing vinaigrette, it´s about the heavenly heap that comes on the side and under the command of your method for devouring it.
Our server warned me about the oil-splatting stain risks of the foie gras ravioli, but I´d risk my best dress napkin-free for this starter. One of the most popular delicacies in French cuisine, the foie gras was more slippery than my date´s mouth after he´s had a few, but hypnotizing with its full, buttery flavor and harmonious pairing with velvety pasta pieces, roofed with parmesan slices.
Another example of French fluency at L´Ardoise were the veal cheeks; melt-in-your-mouth soft, subtly dressed, and sided by what the menu calls a potato pancake, but what I would call potatoes au gratin, ultra-thin. I had no need to reach for those little extras that my companion so appreciated for authenticity, like fleur de sel, among other tiny table details that might go unnoticed among us non-French/Francophile guests.
The evening was as smooth as the Norah Jones songs that trickled the air; the service, flawless and so attentive that I swear each time I flicked an ash between courses, the runner appeared to switch out the ashtray. (Alright, I was smoking—but only to pretend I was Parisian, um, two years ago! And FYI, there is a smoking section as well as a non-smoking section). However, although the totality of the experience compensated, there was one very off note that came in the form of the salmon mille-feuille. I can be disappointed and feel that my expectations are not met on various dining fronts, but rarely do I so strongly dislike a dish, and I don´t think I´ve ever blatantly said “don´t order this”. There´s a first time for everything. The presentation was colorfully deceiving. The dry pieces of salmon and even drier layers of pastry put my palette in the middle of a sandy desert with nothing in sight. The dish was so uncharacteristically reckless that my companion became suspicious that the chef responsible could not possibly be French. Ahem, of course not.
What L´Ardoise offers in the way of sweet conclusions made me even more grateful for the just-right portion sizes along the journey. The lava warm chocolate with toffee dip was amazing, prepared as a small tower that slowly oozes its dreamy goodness with the first breaking bite. How can something so light be so heavy at the same time? It´s a mystery of this culinary culture. The tarte tatin, a French favorite and favorite of my Frenchie, was soft enough to feed a baby, and sent us off on a high note.
A few additional notes: First, the coming seasons (if winter ever takes its cue to get the hell out of here) open outdoor seating opportunities, and L´Ardoise is on a quiet, peaceful corner in Prague 2, where a warm breeze will sweep gently over a cool glass of Chardonnay. Second, the salt and pepper shakers on the tables are really weird. In a cool way. Third, there are much larger, more impressive pieces of art set up downstairs on the way to the toilet. And finally, tell me if you think the owner, who was weaving throughout the dining room and kiss-kissing guests´ cheeks throughout the evening, has an air of Sean Connery circa early Bond days. I was admiring the arch of his eyebrows (rather than staring at that same piece of art again) as he chatted it up with my companion, and then it hit me where I had seen eyebrows that great before. Then I enjoyed listening to what I couldn´t understand, because I was imagining this belted black-slacked and V-necked man was saying all kinds of different things. Oo-la-la.
Bruselská 7, Prague 2
+420 222 524 102
Disclaimer: All stars are relative to an establishment´s context.
Jessica Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org