Our server and I exchanged smirks as he cleared the last of the licked-clean dessert dishes from our table. After the culinary concert, when all that remained was the last of our wine, the white linen that once spread cleanly before me was splashed and splattered with colorful evidence of the last pleasurable hours. It was a map that marked my dining path: Swirled dots of a butter and shallot sauce from the fillet of sea bass, soft blue-edged pebbles that had fallen from Roquefort, spattered traces of Marsala sauce from the veal escalope, light smudges of chocolate mousse, and tiny yet vibrant clues of a fresh garden.
By stark contrast, my companion´s half of the table was flawless enough that the linen´s light embroidery, the name “Passepartout” stitched monochromatically in the corner, remained its only detail.
Bracing myself for the criticism of my criticism, yes, I went French, yet again. Perhaps it was just the buzz that lead me there, or otherwise a deep subconscious attraction to the style and quintessential scrutiny. Either way, the last experience proved that diversity does in fact exist in the culture known to show the least deviation from its popular stereotypes.
Exhibited in both its menu and its atmosphere, Passepartout is genuine, true by blood, impressive, yet comfortable and unpretentious. It is (refreshingly, for this type of cuisine) truly about serving and pleasing its guests rather than being showy. It is not a commodification of culture with a groundwork that entertains through the exploitation of French stereotypes. What the hell does that mean, you ask? It means that the restaurant is already secure in its cultural roots and authenticity, and therefore confidently combines innovation and originality with the traditional.
With a pistachio soufflé, for example—one of Passepartout´s heavenly signature dessert dishes (and a recipe, it was whispered to me, admittedly borrowed and tweaked from a small eatery in Italy)— tarte tatin seems a thing of the past. Yet, still, there was the traditional crčme brulee, which arrived in a shallow, wider-than-usual dish that lent more crispy golden topping through which to crack, and offered itself less as a piece of the French flag, and more as just an honest crowd-pleaser.
A fresh, lightly-oiled cheese and garden medley atop toasted bread slices, the amuse-bouche served as my first real taste of spring, which I enjoyed while observing the intensity and seriousness ´round the table across the way. Five men—two in sleek black turtlenecks, two buttoned and embroidered chefs, and one pair of squinting eyes behind a laptop—discussed the menu from the time we arrived, during an early evening before the dinner crowd, until mid-way through our main courses. A fancy pants suit entered, kiss-kissed a few cheeks, typed a bit on his laptop, and exited before a swarm of “Bonsoir´s” arrived for their ten-top reservation. The Passepartout menu, concise and thorough, changing every three or four months to fit the season, is some serious chin-stroking business, I saw.
The portion of cheese, quite plentiful for just 80CZK, and therefore relieving me of regret that I hadn´t ordered the “assortment” platter, heaped powerful Roquefort (by request) sprinkled with pine nuts and sided beautifully in presentation and taste with apple slices, all readily engaged to the basket of warm baguette. It was a prelude to how Passepartout aims to leave no stoned unturned on the path of dining comfort, relaxing the wallet as well as the time spent. The bread was always warm, the wine stayed chilled in ice beside us (our attentive server ever-ensuring our glasses were never empty), and the spaces between used and new plates were seamless.
The appetizers proved there could be peaks without valleys. Visually gorgeous, the foie gras was my favorite, balancing its rich monotone with the higher pitched calvados, and its typical oily attribute with slices of toast. My companion favored the Reblochen cheese salad, its generous triangles of warm, creamy cheese weighing down the dewy, vivacious greens, drizzled with honey and almonds. The sweet marinated salmon also testified to the freshness and quality of ingredients, with bright, unfettered chunks of salmon and warm potatoes on a bed of fresh salad veggies.
The moment of truth (or perhaps, more specifically, consistency in effort) usually arrives with the main courses, as it so often happens that exceptional appetizers turn into a cliff from which the rest of the dining experience can fall.
“ But then again,” my companion humorously remarked, “Maybe we always enjoy the appetizers so much more because we show up so damn hungry.”
I called a brief time-out, and checked to be sure that my mind, belly, and taste buds were working as a team. We re-hydrated, took a few deep breaths, and got back in the game.
The steaklet of duck à l´orange is a knockout dish. My companion first appreciated that we ordered the duck medium-rare and it actually was delivered to us that way, with just the right amount of bleeding pink color to advertise its tenderness—a rarity, according to her, in her dining experiences. (I first appreciated just being asked how I´d like it cooked, a rarity in my own dining experiences here.) It was mildly dressed, allowing its quality and flavor to speak for itself, and its accompanying Sarlat-style potatoes, sliced into thin rounds and sautéed in goose fat, were as pleasing as they were filling. We agreed this was the winner of the main courses, although the sea bass was a close runner-up, with its intricate zucchini under layer, perfectly subtle seasoning, and soft texture that broke off juicy bites at the slightest touch of the fork. Even the veal, though basic in its composition of meat and buttery mashed potatoes, revealed greatness in simplicity.
I appreciate the kitchen´s thoughtfulness and precision, its proper exercise of creativity, knowing when and where to innovate, when and where to add the right twists and light touches, and identifying the dishes that needn´t any frills. Chocolate mousse came as chocolate mousse, pure and simple and delicious, with three fresh orange pieces atop, which quietly spoke, “We´re here if you want us.” And I scooped them up, glad that I did.
With its vaulted ceilings, furniture blend of mahogany wood and burgundy leather, original brassy bar that exhibits the merriment of its history, and slightly curved bone structure that angles a pleasant corner on Americka, the restaurant´s interior is not a steer toward the latest trendy minimalism of French restaurants, but simply a recognition of natural beauty requiring minimal, if any, make-up. I was a bit saddened to hear that Passepartout will endure new design, because, to me, this place evokes an essence of old Paris. But I trust it will be discussed and decided around a table of people with crossed eyebrows who know what they´re talking about.
As our night went on and more wine flowed, the lights dimmed and “Fever” melted into “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Speaking of someone to watch over me As for the mess exposed before me after all the sweet stuff was gone, I´ll try to be more careful and sophisticated next time, take things more slowly, and not become so overly excited. Nevertheless, I´m sure, as it wasn´t the first; it won´t be the last time traces of my presence are left on French linens.
Americká 20, Prague 2
+420 222 513 340
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Disclaimer: All stars are relative to an establishment´s context.
Jessica Rose can be reached at email@example.com