When the chef weaves through the dining room, introduces himself to dinner guests, and confirms that everyone is pleased, it speaks volumes not only for the caliber of the restaurant, but for the chef himself. Such an act distinguishes a chef from a chef. The latter is an artist.
Marek Fichtner is the Executive Chef of Le Grill, the Kempinski hotel´s lavish restaurant, which opened October 15 of this year. I can say two things for certain. One: there is no place like Le Grill in all of Prague; it is completely unique, despite its simple name. Two: the pairing of Marek Fichtner and Le Grill (also known as “Marek´s baby,” according to one of the hotel´s leading staff members) impacts the entire dining circuit, if with nothing else so far but its less-than-two-months presence. (See “About Marek Fichtner” below.)
Not yet comfortable in cosmopolitan clothes, the fine dining scene in Prague is still in its infancy, to say the least. The Czech sky isn´t exactly sparkling with Michelin stars. In fact, the first ever Michelin star was given in Prague just this year, so it seems that this market growth has been occurring at the speed of melting glaciers. Alright, so Michelin is but a formality, a shaky indicator, and, some argue (particularly Italians), an outdated French publicity stunt. Either way
It doesn´t require clairvoyance to see that this restaurant will gain substantial recognition. From its menu to its magnificent interior, this place isn´t simply trying to “fit in” but pioneer its own path for what can be expected of fine dining in Prague.
And like its Chef, Le Grill is anything but timid. It´s confident, decisive, innovative, and bold. Take everything you know about dining here, and erase it. Now pour in rich colors, plush materials, and the creative confidence of the world-famous design team of RPW in London. Now take superior ingredients that appear hyper-colored in their freshness, a new generation of combinations that still pay tribute to classic epicurean tastes, and a presentation so gorgeous that messing it up with your silverware is a splendid rush, tinged with a kind of guilt that´s actually enjoyable, like forgoing other people´s Christmas gifts to purchase that watch that you´ve wanted all year. Compact this into one short, confident menu, and voila: Le Grill.
The menu is international—European with special hints of Mediterranean, excluding Asian influence (“It wouldn´t be a ‘grill´ in that case,” Fichtner said)—and nothing about it is cloudy. Fichtner is clear that his menu is about freshness, just as Le Grill was clear in its vision for a “fresh” chef.
As with any chef distinguishable as a culinary artist, Fichtner´s opinions are firm. Hating this, loving that—real chefs are rarely uncertain. To catch such a chef in a moment of uncertainty is as likely as swimming with a mermaid. So I wasn´t surprised when he told me so assuredly when I sat down with him two weeks after my dinner, “You know those long menus that are like books? I hate that!”
He elaborated by saying that he created Le Grill´s menu with these precise points in mind: taking superiority and quality to its utmost while keeping the menu simple and concise, and most of all, conveying freshness.
Everything that emerged from the kitchen was well thought out, sure of itself, and left mediocrity fathoms below.
The beef consumme is delivered by not one, but two servers, so that one places the bowl and the other pours the truffle oil broth over the homemade ravioli, which sits gracefully in the bottom like a sea urchin. The roasted bell pepper soup is a powerful puree, vibrant in color and encapsulating one solid flavor that doesn´t—and needn´t—diversify but for the small bits of fresh mozzarella that dots its surface.
All of the starters had me changing my usual rules of review methodology, and cleaning each plate (which isn´t all that difficult with the dainty portion sizes). The asparagus and pine nuts risotto with mascarpone and truffle oil was as much an innovative harmony of textures as it was in flavor. The Irish beef tartare reminded me that tartare can achieve much more than the par of meat quality, and although the tarragon emulsion was slightly abrasive for my liking, the dish had me reaching for the table´s breadbasket, so that I could continue until it was gone.
The scallop and crab tower (the word used correctly if “tower” means the height of my thumb) was of my favorite items, and particularly memorable because of its accompanying gazpacho shot. Yes, a “shot.” This would be the first dish to come with a “shot,” and it was appropriately timed with the Executive Chef´s stroll through the dining room, so I asked him about it. He explained with certainty the reason for the side of gazpacho, and why it goes “beautifully” with the crab and scallop. I nodded and smiled, and whispered to my companion as Fichtner walked away, “I still don´t know what I´m supposed to do with it—pour it? Sip it? Shoot it?”
That´s the thing about a place like this. It´s easy to become self-conscious of how you handle the fare not necessarily because of other people watching you, but because you´re handling someone´s art, and art needs to be handled appropriately, with appreciation and respect.
And I definitely was being watched with at least two pairs of eyes on me at all times—perhaps because our party was only one of two in the whole dining room—and I found myself ventriloquist-talking every time I said something under five-stars.
The service is on it. Three sips of water left in my glass and eagle eyes spot it from the corner, swooping in with some Italian bottled water (170CZK) with a label that refers to the water´s “velvet taste” and how it goes well with any “fine meal.” (Don´t you dare take this water to the gym.)
The staff wasn´t just attentive, but extremely knowledgeable. From wine recommendations (all hail to this wine list!) to explaining the ingredients and preparation methods, Le Grill staff members aren´t just well dressed, but well informed. And they should be, considering Fichtner hand-picked each one of them.
Not only did he create and develop the menu concept, fine-tune each dish, and give his two cents regarding the interior design, but he also carefully chose all of the staff members from the kitchen—where he brought in the Sous Chef who worked with him in Hamburg—to the dining room, where he stresses the importance of delivery, presentation, and attentiveness as a major portion of the overall dining experience.
Of the main courses, my favorites were the herb-crusted rack of lamb atop ratatouille vegetables, and the red tuna fillet, which emerged perfectly medium-rare, per my request, with a flavor and effortlessly sliceable texture that I recall now with exactitude. My companion raved about the Irish beef fillet and the tender, juicy justice it did for his carnivorous appetite. Even the details of each dish made unforgettable impressions, pumpkin puree, celestial polenta and melt-in-your mouth soufflé, and the au gratin potatoes that my companion still talks about with excitement. It was the co-star pumpkin gnocchi that beckoned me from the description when I ordered the grilled corn fed chicken breast. Imagine it. OK, it´s better than that.
By the time I got to the fillet of black cod, I was stuffed and lost enthusiasm, which is a shame because this is a dish the Chef loves for its color and vivacity. The fillet arrives with a Mediterranean potato salad with fennel sauve and a niçoise garnish, a beautiful, enticing presentation. There´s also a pasta option, suitable for vegetarians: a linguini with roasted eggplant, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and portabello mushrooms. But if you´re not a mushroom fan, steer clear. This dish is dominated by mushroom flavor to an extent that even I, as a mushroom lover, was a little turned off.
The desserts were divine in their miniaturization. Both were a hit, though, again, I wasn´t sure how to handle the presentation of the “trio of chocolate.” It was a chocolate mille-feuille, chocolate savarin with tanariva ganache and an earl gray milk shake (another “shot”), and realistically I could have eaten it in three bites, if each distinct chocolate flavor didn´t demand recognition. The Crčme brûlée was innovative with its passion fruit twist, but with the classic crackling, sugary surface that the spoon loves so much. Speaking of spoons, some spoon with almost vulgar curves and twists arrived as a foreign utensil, and I thought that I should perhaps take one of those Celebrity Cruises, and maybe learn a thing or two about exotic silverware and how to take shots that aren´t actually shots.
When I asked Fichtner which menu items he was most proud of, he smiled and said with that epicurean confidence we all admire so much: “I´m proud of the entire menu, of course.”
About Marek Fichtner
Fichtner led multinational teams of chefs and cooks all over Europe, including Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, and, of course, the Czech Republic. He spent years as the executive Chef of four of the nine ships of Celebrity Cruises, based in Miami, USA, recognized for superior culinary standard, and maintaining the top spot in Conde Nast cruise ship rankings for over five consecutive years, with a clean sweep in the food and dining category. From 2005 until January 2008, Fichtner headed the kitchen—including the Arabic specialty kitchen—at a five-star luxury hotel in Riyhadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was responsible for the entire banqueting and catering for two Al Faisaliah hotels, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
After a six-month stint at the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, this multi-lingual gourmet sorcerer was presented an opportunity he couldn´t resist: to father a brand new fine dining restaurant in the heart of Prague (particularly appealing because his ambitions included an ample opportunity to really show his stuff one day in his homeland). It wasn´t just Fichtner´s obvious culinary talent, extensive experience, and impressive track record but his innovation and passion for his craft that led to the Kempinski management´s decision to entrust him with the hotel´s restaurant in a way that basically said, “Take this and run with it.” And he did.
Hybernská 12,, Prague 1
+420 226 226 111
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Disclaimer: All stars are relative to an establishment´s context.
Jessica Rose can be reached at email@example.com