Maze by Gordon Ramsay
The British chef's first Czech venture, at the Hilton Prague Old Town hotel, doesn't quite live up to the hype
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,Like Caesar, Gordon Ramsay is known for his stormy relations with his underlings. He also rules over an empire that spans the known world.
But in ourselves, that we are underlings"
Cassius in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
He has conquered television, starring in his own television cooking shows. But stars of a different sort are what I'm interested in.
Ramsay has earned a total of 12 Michelin stars, so far, over the course of his career. He is the current holder of 10. One of his restaurants, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road in London, has three of them.
Michelin stars, however arguable, are among the most widely discussed measures of a restaurant's perceived greatness. It is not uncommon for jet-setters to plan their extensive travels around visits to these stellar establishments.
When I read that Maze by Gordon Ramsay had opened at the new Hilton Prague Old Town, I had to see for myself what the buzz was about.
I had to know if there was some new standard of culinary comparison.
In essence, I had to find out if one of the most famous chefs in the world would produce one of the best dinners I've ever had.
Lofty expectations, yes.
But considering Ramsay's constellation of Michelin stars and prices floating above the clouds, I expected nothing less than an out-of-this-world meal.
I wanted a dinner fit for a king. Or a queen. Which is why I decided to take V there for her birthday.
The Prague Hilton Old Town used to be the Renaissance Hotel. The maze dining room retains the white-and-black marble columns with gold Art Deco accents.
There is a blond-and-brown-stained hardwood floor. Some might call its geometric design maze-like.
Lighting is kept low -- so low where we sat that I found it hard to read the menu without holding it close to a light. I think a good lighting designer could illuminate the room in a more pleasing fashion.
The light coming through the ceiling panels had a cold, somewhat harsh glow that dominated the darkened room (it is much whiter than it appears in the photo). I don't know the provenance of the gold metal around the columns, but it had a tired, faded patina.
As for music, I couldn't hear any. What I did hear throughout the meal was the growing rumble and chatter of the diners as the evening progressed. It was not a very soothing sound for me.
Our meal began, simply enough, with bread and water.
The round, thin, pointed bread, perhaps a tribute to the humble Czech rohlík, was disappointing. The rolls were cold. They were gummy and chewy. They came with basic softened butter.
I've had much better bread baskets in Prague, and I expected something more enjoyable here.
We also had a 0.75-liter bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water (180 CZK).
For a starter, V ordered the Jerusalem artichoke velouté with duck ragout, cep brioche and cep butter (250 CZK). This was excellent.
The bowl was brought out with a dark mound of duck in the center. Then, the light, frothy velouté was poured over the top by the waiter. In the picture, you can only see a little of it peeking through.
The velouté itself was pleasantly light and creamy, but we both thought it was difficult to discern the flavor of artichoke.
The real star of this dish, though, was the duck. Each morsel burst with the rich and salty flavor of the fowl. The smallest piece, scooped up in each spoonful, brought this "soup" to life and smiles to our faces.
A nice addition was the two small brioches. The hint of ceps, otherwise known as porcini mushrooms, was more recognizable in the butter.
I had the poached lobster salad with apple and fennel (420 CZK). Unlike most restaurants in Prague, this kitchen knows how to prepare lobster. It was perfectly cooked. All the meat was amazingly delicate and tender.
I received the lesser half of a claw, as well as a portion of chopped lobster meat that appeared to be mixed with a touch of mayo. It had the flavor of onion.
On the side was a small, lightly dressed leaf salad dominated by the taste of dill. There was also a small pool of what we were told was lime mayo, but it did not really speak of citrus to me.
Now, when I say small, let me give some perspective since photos don't offer so much.
The lump of lobster meat on the plate was the size of a 50-pence coin. I tried to savor it, but it disappeared in four little bites. The leaves left the plate in just a few flashes of the fork.
This lobster salad -- simple and natural and well-prepared as it was -- did not offer me any revelations. I'd even say it left me unsatisfied.
We both agreed that a lobster salad we had at The Alcron was unquestionably superior. And significantly larger.
We shared a bottle of wine during the meal. I selected one of the lower-priced offerings on the menu, the 2003 Christian Moueix, Saint-Émilion Bordeaux (1,250 CZK).
We both liked this wine very much. It was light on tannins and went well with our dinner. We did not regret staying away from the many bottles above the 2,000 CZK mark.
The Wine Society website describes it as "a merlot-based Claret with attractively round fruit" and a "light-to-medium body." I won't try to better that description.
One interesting note on the wine: The price, for what appears to be the same bottle, is listed on that Wine Society web page at just £5.95 per bottle (though it was out of stock).
I understand a big-name restaurant will have big mark-ups. There is an empire to run, after all. But if it is indeed 580 percent, that would seem a tad on the imperious side.
For my main course, I ordered the braised beef short-rib with bacon, mushrooms, and baby onion (700 CZK). The waiter brought out a large white plate with several nearly black pieces of beef in the center. He then poured the braising sauce over the top.
Think of it as a rich, intensely flavored beef stew. The meat was cooked to the point of buttery tenderness, with some fat remaining.
The beefiness was tightly focused within the reduced sauce. The taste is familiar, but just a little better and more complex than I'd experienced before. Yet not dramatically.
What I'm saying is I liked it, but it was not love.
V decided to try the glazed pork belly with spiced lentils and baby onion (700 CZK). I'd read that Gordon Ramsay has various versions of pork belly on the menus of his other restaurants.
We agreed that the best element was the lentils. The sauce reduction was a close second. But what about the headliner here, the pork?
The meat itself was not tender. I did not appreciate its chewy, somewhat stringy consistency. There was a thick layer of fat on the pork. But for me, that was good. I like fat.
On the top, there was a fried onion that really was a work of art. At least I think it was a fried onion. I couldn't be sure because it did not add much beyond a super stylish look.
On the whole, the dish did not impress either of us very much.
Both main courses came with a side of mashed potatoes, served in a cast iron pot with a lid. I'd already heard some people wax poetic about this.
They were pretty good, and I'm pretty sure that goodness was achieved with vast quantities of butter and cream.
The service was mostly OK, but it had its flaws and was not of the standard I'd expect. For example, after we finished our first glasses of wine, they sat empty. For a while.
Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Tragedy of tragedies, I filled our glasses myself. I once worked as a waiter in London, so I felt qualified to do so.
Information was conveyed in a professional, if perfunctory, manner. It did not feel particularly warm.
The kitchen was moving in fits and starts. Our starters came out surprisingly fast. Then, there was a noticeable pause between the time we finished our starters and the main courses arrived.
To be fair, Maze had only been open a few weeks, and I'd heard they were still advertising for staff of all kinds. Restaurants do take time to get their human machinery functioning at the highest levels. But since they take our money just the same, we shouldn't be too forgiving.
For dessert, V ordered the hot chocolate fondant with honey and milk ice cream (250 CZK). It seems like this dessert is served almost everywhere now. The reason is that people everywhere love it.
We love it too. And we loved this one very, very much. It's one of the best I've had, which is impressive considering how many I've had.
The dark power of the liquid chocolate center was considerable. The fondant is not huge, but definitely larger than I expected it to be. The honey was a fine addition to the ice cream.
I had the crème brûlée, which was a competent version, but there was little that was exceptional about it. Except for one thing. It came with a green apple sorbet.
It was a small serving, but a big success, with the sweet and sour apples distilled down to perfectly balanced, palate-cleansing bursts. A very sour, thin slice of dried apple sits on top. I liked that as well.
After you ask for the bill, you will receive your complimentary petits fours. These little cakes were warm, very sweet, buttery, and a nice way to end a meal.
Now, a little perspective on price. Our bill for dinner was an even 4,000 CZK, including wine, but not including tip. In certain circles, that might be considered a bargain.
One could consider the fact that although Prague currently has no restaurant with even one Michelin star, a restaurant with three Michelin stars in Paris can cost $300 to $400 per person, according to The New York Times.
That's without wine. And that article was written before the dollar tanked again this year against the euro.
All the tables in Maze were full by the time we left at the end of a workday evening. Even in these early days, it appears the market will more than bear the prices being charged.
These culinary customers came, even though, as far as I know, Mr. Ramsay was not on the premises. With so many other locations to reign over, you can't expect him to be personally frothing up your velouté every night. The kitchen is actually being overseen by head chef Philip Carmichael.
So, is Maze worth the money?
I don't know about other patrons, but I spent my own money. It was earned sitting at a desk all week. I'm not on an expense account. Nobody is buying me dinner, hoping to get lucky. Not so often, anyway.
Yes, I can afford restaurants like Maze by Gordon Ramsay on special occasions, but I am not a member of the rarefied crowd for whom price is not a factor.
The cost and attendant high expectations can and do affect my level of enjoyment. And I will say that we enjoyed a number of things.
This meal ranked among the more expensive I've had, but it was not really close to the best or most enjoyable. Many a time, I've paid less for more soul-stirring pleasures.
If I say I didn't love paying these prices for every aspect of this precious repast, some may find fault, not in the kitchen's star, but in myself.
I've been critical of a few things, but I certainly didn't come to Gordon Ramsay's to bury him. I would even praise him. But our praise only extended to about half of what we experienced at Maze. I had hoped for better.
Perhaps I'm just an underling, but when people lavishly gush about the greatness of Gordon Ramsay and the transcendent experience of dining in one his restaurants, it leaves me feeling a little like the emperor is not fully clothed.
Maze by Gordon Ramsay
Hilton Prague Old Town
V celnici 7
Tel.: (+420) 221 822 100
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