26th December 2019 . Prague, Czech Republic.
Urban, chic, minimalistic modernism. That’s the vibe we get as we step into La Degustation, a 1-star Michelin restaurant. It has held on to its Michelin star since 2012 so needless to say, we are beyond excited.
We are warmly greeted and ushered to our table within seconds upon arrival. At a little past 7pm, the restaurant is at its busiest, buzzling with chitter-chatters from guests at every table. The place is dramatically lit with just the right amount of spotlight from the ceiling, with each table having its own spotlight. Here, every table is a wooden stage, awaiting the debut of each artistry from the eight-course menu. From our table, we have a good view into the open kitchen area where the chefs are busy ensuring each plate is a work of art.
Barely a minute after being seated, we are each handed a sleek black square envelope, with a white non-symmetrical hexagon sticker seal on the back. We open it to find our menu for the night, printed on a casual paper place mat like material, folded into two halves. As we place down the menu, we are served the starting act – a quartet of appetizers served in pairs on four white circular dishes.
“And to start, we have pickled radish, potato rosti with cheese and majoram, raspberry dustings on crispy fish skin, and chips of beetroot with golden beetroot puree. Enjoy.”
I think to myself, “Pickled radish, really?” It’s not something I expect at a Michelin restaurant, more of something at a Japanese joint, but okay, there must be a reason why this is being served, perhaps meant to be a palate cleanser.
We are told there’s no order to enjoy these starters, so we began with the pickled radish. There’s nothing much to it; tastes like how any pickled radish does to be honest. The potato rosti was a little on the salty side but balanced out by the sourness of the raspberry dustings on the crispy fish skin, on which there are five dots of an interesting sour-salty mayo or fish emulsion perhaps. I find this to be quite interesting. We end with the beetroot chips – the golden beetroot puree is nicely balance, somewhat like the profile and texture of applesauce.
Although the restaurant is at full swing, I must say that the servers at La Degustation are very attentive. Our empty plates are efficiently cleared from our table and the second starter arrives within minutes.
“Beef tartare on crispy bread.”
My heart leaps with joy. I absolutely love beef tartare. I take a moment to admire the serving style of this – the thin layers of crispy bread sandwiching a middle layer of salmon pink beef tartare filling. As I bite into it, I savour the different profiles: the crunch of the onion and/or pickles within the tartare, the good contrast of textures from the crispiness of the thin bread and the somewhat mushy tartare. I like the balance of flavours, even though I can understand how this could be a tad on the salty side to some others.
At this point, our server asks us if we would like to have the wine or juice pairing with our course. We opt for the juice pairing as this is an interesting concept for us and we wanted to experience how these pairings could complement each of our dishes. The sommeliers at La Degustation create these non-alcoholic drinks from fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts. Although, I have heard great reviews of the wine pairings here so if you do happen to try this place, maybe you and your partner could each opt for the wine and juice pairing so you’d have the best of both worlds.
They pour us our first drink pairing of plum juice with thyme. The first hit of thyme with the tartness of the pure plum juice is refreshing and nothing like what we have tasted before. You usually experience thyme with roasted chicken or in tomato sauce but never with plum juice before. It’s surprisingly a combo that works well.
We are then presented with the last of our starters – yes, after close to the end of the first half hour, we are only just about to be done with starters. I like that the chef is tantalizing our taste buds with the onslaught of starters.
“And here we go, the last of our starters – flatbread made with fermented potato. Feel free to use your hands.” Our server smiles as he walks away.
Looking like cheese naan, we each take a quartered slice with the tips of our thumb and index finger. The modern dining movement has allowed for us to do this without getting weird looks from those around us. The fermented potato is sourish and salty. The texture of this dish rekindles my memory of Chinese New Year where we usually have a sweet and sticky dessert called “nian gao” which is a cake made from glutinous rice flour and sugar. Although not sweet, the texture is very similar – warm, tacky and soft, with the surface of the flatbread crisp from the char of the pan.
Shortly after devouring the warm flatbreads, the first real act begins.
“We have for you here purple carrot with yoghurt and plum jam.”
A dish of pure artistry, a tenderly cooked purple carrot sits beneath careful swirls of thick yoghurt. A sprinkle of poppy seeds cover the top of the yoghurt, and a combination of yellow plum jam and the sauce of the purple carrot are spooned over the creation.
The texture of this dish is interesting. The yoghurt adds a yummy creaminess to the soft purple carrot. The poppy seeds bring on a nice crunch to each bite and the plum jam has a tartness which complements the sweetness of the purple carrot sauce. When all elements are taken in one bite, it’s an explosion of flavours and textures. I also realise how the first juice pairing of plum and thyme works in complementing the elements of the dish – the thyme in the drink which pairs well with the purple carrot.
After this, our server serves out our second pairing drink of jostaberry juice. It’s bright orange colour reminds me of an orange pop soda. I have never tasted a jostaberry before. Online articles claim it tastes like a mix of grape, blueberry and kiwi. I take a sip of the drink and what hits me is just sourness. It jolts your senses in a good way, preparing your palate for the second course.
The second course is a dish of fresh and pink pieces of smoked trout in a bath of bright green dill oil, covered beneath a thick layer of foam made of trout infused cream sauce. The saltiness from the smoked trout is contrasted by the herby and grassy flavour of the dill oil, and together with the cream foam, the creaminess and smokiness of the trout are accentuated. It’s a nice dish, but if I have to pick on the finer details – and in a Michelin starred restaurant, I believe I should – I find that the saltiness of the trout and cream sauce to be a little overpowering, thereby making the dish not quite balanced. Perhaps this is where the sour jostaberry comes in to help balance out the palette?
The third drink pairing is peach juice that is infused with lavender. Taking my first taste, I’m immediately transported to a lavender farm in the south of France on a warm summer day. The smooth undertones of peach and lavender go very well together.
“And now for your third course, we have for you Jerusalem artichoke wrapped in potato skin, apple and rhubarb jam, celery oil and a dusting of sunflower and pumpkin seeds.”
Looking like a piece of croquette, we cut into it and find that our spoon goes through easily. It’s as soft as a piece of boiled potato. Together with a little apple and rhubarb jam, I take my first bite and am blown away by the combination of taste profiles in that one bite. The warm and soft artichoke dissolves into a nice creamy texture and the layer of finely crushed pumpkin and sunflower seeds gives it a nice crunch. There is also a small sprinkling of coarse sea salt on the top, and this saltiness complements so well the sweetness of the apple and rhubarb jam underneath. And the celery oil adds another layer of umami that rounds up the dish, and it pairs well with the lavender in the peach drink. This is a very good dish, I must say!
Next up is pear, truffle and parsley paired with elderflower juice. The elderflower is left to infuse overnight in apple juice. The elderflower tastes floral and fragrant, somewhat resemblance of chrysanthemum.
A pear halve is baked until its top layer is caramelized in an oven – it has sweet and salty undertones playing on your palette in wonderful layers. Imagine a pear baked to a point where it is soft but not yet mushy, and coated with salted caramel sauce. Sweet, buttery, salty goodness. The pear alone is good enough, but it’s paired with truffle foam and shaved truffles with some parsley oil on the bottom. I never understood people’s obsession with truffles…until now. ABSOLUTELY. DEVINE. The nutty, earthy flavours of the truffles go so well with the sweet and salty soft pear. I always knew pears and nuts have an affinity, so using the nuttiness from truffles instead of nuts itself is truly genius as truffles will give an extra earthiness and umami that nuts may not possess. My favourite dish by far!
As for the drink pairing, I honestly do not see how this pairs with elderflower. Perhaps the pear is meant to be accentuated by the floral undertones of the drink, but this is not quite apparent to me.
“How’s your evening tonight?” Our server asks as she removes our clean plates.
We nod our heads in great delight and inform him of our amazement with the pear and truffle dish.
“And next we have tomato with basil as your drink.” She pours out a clear yellow juice into our glasses. It’s not the normal thick and red tomato juice one would imagine. It tastes of plain tomatoes but tart in a way, like a cold tomato consume. It’s smooth and thin with a hint of basil.
“To accompany that, as your fifth course, we have catfish, basil and tomatoes. It’s catfish that has been boiled in a water bath, served with fermented tomato sauce with butter. We have some fish emulsion to the side, and basil oil.”
The catfish is perfectly cooked, its flesh melts in my mouth in sweet, buttery goodness. I could eat the fish alone with no sauce or seasoning. But, together with the fermented tomato sauce and fish emulsion, the catfish is elevated to another dimension of flavours. The fermented tomato sauce is interesting – one would expect it to taste extremely sour but surprisingly it has a subtle natural sweetness to it. The addition of the butter makes this sauce rich and smooth. The fish emulsion has the texture of mayonnaise but it tastes salty and slightly acidic, with a distinctive yet subtle fish profile. The basil oil is there to ground all these different flavours together. I applaud the way they involve a form of herb oil in most of their dishes. In all such dishes, the herb oil plays a pivotal role in cutting across the different profiles and bringing them together harmoniously.
For the sixth course, we are served duck with grapes. Now, I’m not a huge fan of duck namely because it’s such a fatty protein and I never could appreciate its taste very well.
“Duck breast, fermented vegetable, apple purée, baked confit of duck leg, and grape sauce. And to pair, we have 100% currant juice. Enjoy!”
Wow, I never expected duck breast to be this tender and taste this good! As I take my next few bites of the perfectly pink duck breast and its crispy skin, I’m gushing enthusiastically to my partner. I think I’m beginning to understand why people have an affinity for duck. The apple puree is sweet and tart and complements the savoury duck meat, especially the confit duck leg piece. I love how the grape sauce is infused with the juice from the duck breast, making it sweet yet savoury. The small piece of confit duck leg tastes good, but although enjoyable, I feel that it’s an addition that doesn’t quite make sense for the dish. The duck breast alone would have sufficed.
The currant juice is extremely tart. It’s meant to immediately cut through any unpleasant lingering taste from a dish or meat that might be too fatty, which would be the case for most duck dishes, but not this one. For me, the currant drink is a little too tart but it is refreshing.
Next up, we are served a dish of beef cheeks, lovage and gooseberry. Coming from Asia, we do not use lovage at all so this is a new ingredient for me. The beef cheeks are braised and served in a pulled beef like texture. Lovage mayo squirts dot the top, along with a dusting of fine beetroot powder, some gooseberry jam, pickles in the middle and puffed rice. Overall, a well balanced and nice dish, but nothing too outstanding. Our juice pairing is rose hip iced tea which has a nice pear fragrance and sweetness. My partner claims it reminds him of the taste of dates, which is oddly true.
So far, our favourites are the artichoke, pear and truffles, and the duck. The carrots and catfish dishes are great contenders too. Now, I’m excited for the grand finale of the night – the dessert.
Before dessert is served, we are given a palate cleanser of sour cherry sorbet. Its tartness is a nice way of letting our tastebuds know that it’s come to the end of the savoury meals and to prepare for dessert.
The final juice pairing is grape soda. Our server brings over two glasses and fills it up with grape soda from a portable soda aerator. It looks like bubbly champagne. It tastes like healthy grape soda, without the tonnes of processed sugars.
For the final course, it’s dark beer, caramel and nuts. The dessert placed in front of us looks like a meringue pie with dark caramel oozing from the top.
Our server informs us that the “meringue” looking element is actually frozen dark beer foam, with a little caramel on top. We are told to smash through the dark beer foam with the back of our spoons, and enjoy scooping all the goodness up. On the bottom lies a salty praline like texture with hazelnut crumbs. The frozen dark beer foam is a genius invention! It tastes like marshmallow foam – it melts in your mouth like clouds on your tongue. It is just the right amount of sweetness with some slight bitterness from the dark beer, and it goes so extremely well with the salted caramel, praline and nuts underneath. Yum, yum, yum! I absolutely love salty sweet desserts. This is now my favourite dish of the entire course. It’s a dessert that I can eat without feeling sick of (or guilty)! The grape soda also goes well with the dessert, its bubbly-ness giving a sense of decadence to the dish. An amazing grand finale, I must say!
As we prepare to leave, sad that our end is coming to an end, we are pleasantly surprised with a plate of three mini complementary desserts – poached pear in mulled wine, trdelnik (sweet brioche) with cinnamon, lemon and honey, and homemade strawberry marshmallows. The poached pear has quite a strong wine aftertaste which I personally do not enjoy, but my partner likes it. I love the trdelnik – it is nice and not overly sweet. The homemade strawberry marshmallow is not overly sweet like how store bough marshmallows are, and it has a fragrant strawberry scent. Tasting this marshmallow texture, I wish they would give me another round of the dark beer foam. I already miss that dish.
Overall, the dark beer dish is my absolutely favourite whereas for my partner, it is the artichoke dish. I give a rating of 8.5 out of 10 for this restaurant. I enjoyed the attention of the service crew, the creativity in their juice pairings, and the ingenuity of certain combinations of elements in some dishes like the artichoke, pear and dark beer. Some other dishes did not give us the wow factor we expected from a Michelin starred restaurant – like the trout and beef cheeks dishes. Don’t get me wrong, these dishes were good but nothing spectacular in the range of Michelin (in my opinion).
Thank you to the La Degustation team for a wonderful night, led by executive chef, Oldrich Sahajdak, sommelier chef Zdenek Oudes, and managers Tomas Brosche and Martin Drapal.