Žižkov restaurant fails to live up to crowd-sourced reviews
Posted: January 9, 2013
Better by day: Natural light floods the dining room, which come evening takes on a spa feel.
When it comes to judging a restaurant, the downside to such crowd-sourced review sites as TripAdvisor is that the smallest thing can throw them askew; a restaurant can shoot up in the rankings from one rave or likewise plummet after someone says they couldn't get in without a reservation.
For the site's Prague listings, the usual suspects like Bellevue and Terasa U Zlaté Studně take turns in the ranking's top slots, but every so often a lesser-known establishment makes an appearance. This was the case with Essence, a bright, stylish Žižkov restaurant that from its reviews and website sounded very promising. And while there were just a few disappointments over several visits, there was little to leave a strong impression. Clearly, there's been heart put into crafting many items on the menu, and Essence may just have the most inexpensive foie gras starter in town, at 195 for a wonderfully silken crème brûlée, served with marinated figs and fresh, warm shortbread dotted with rock salt.
The brightly lit interior of Essence felt more like a spa, with warm recessed lighting reflecting off of the floor-to-ceiling windows - which slide open in warmer weather, joining the cobbled sidewalk - and black chrome tables against pale wood furnishings and tasteful plant accents. Even the restaurant's name, written in a swirly font, was reminiscent of a day spa, and this was by no means hindered by the fact Enya was playing throughout two recent visits - background music more conducive to robes and tea lights than a cheese plate or poached salmon.
Considering its location, however, Essence is in the right place; there are few fine-dining options in this particular part of Žižkov, and its prices are comfortably below what one would expect to pay in the city center for similar fare. The most memorable dishes sampled were the starters: The foie gras crème brûlée cracked open a hard, crisp shell of caramelized sugar, opening up to the creamy depths below. The accompanying shortbread, although nice on its own, seemed mismatched, though, as its dense, buttery flakiness was too loud a back-up to the starring foie gras. Bread was brought on request, and was a sad plate of plain white sandwich toast, halved.
Štítného 35, Prague 3-Žižkov
Tel. 773 106 832 Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Nonsmoking
Atmosphere ** ½
Overall ** ½
Foie gras crème brûlée with dried figs and lemon-thyme shortbread 195 Kč
Slow-baked ham glazed with honey and port wine with a delicate horseradish foam 185 Kč
Chicken ballotine with goat cheese in a herb crust, corn polenta and carrot velouté 235 Kč
Poached salmon in white wine with barley risotto and spinach 285 Kč
Confit of duck thigh with flambéed plums and roasted potato rolls 290 Kč
Tagliatelle with homemade basil pesto, spinach and Parmesan 165 Kč
French and Italian cheese plate 190 Kč
Carrot cake with pomegranate sauce 95 Kč
0.75 L Rulandské šedé 340 Kč
A starter of slow-baked ham was also a standout. Cut into about six or seven tiny rounds, the warm, tender ham was flecked through with the smoothness of honey and jabs of clove. It came with a mound of horseradish foam, the lightness of which perfectly undercut the heavy meat.
The best of the entrées sampled was the chicken ballotine, a well-balanced roll of chicken off the bone wrapped around a center of melted goat cheese. With a herb crust clinging to crisp chicken skin, it made for a pleasant combination, sitting on top of two sheets of baked polenta and nicely wilted, garlic-flecked spinach leaves with a swirl of carrot velouté. The latter added a brightness not only to the plate but also lightened the effect of the goat cheese.
The poached salmon was quite nice, although it could have been poached more briefly and was served somewhat unappetizingly with the skin still on, facing up. There was a sweetness from white wine present in each bite of the flaky flesh, and the barley risotto - colored bright red by what tasted like rosehips - was a good pairing, as was a mound of wilted spinach.
A plate of tagliatelle was decent, if forgettable and on the small side. There was a homemade pesto that held its own among the pasta, tossed with ribbons of wilted spinach and sheets of Parmesan. It would have been bettered suited as a first plate than as a main course.
An entrée of duck confit, however, was disappointing. In a country that so loves its duck, this piece had been overcooked to dryness, the skin having turned into a leathery shield. The gamey meat beneath was also dried out, despite being doused in a pleasant jus flavored by plums, of which several sat on the plate, too large and too sweet to be anything but cumbersome. The roast potato rolls were mealy and dry.
For dessert, we tried the carrot cake, and again were disappointed. The dense, warm square that arrived was more akin to Christmas fruit cake, complete with a hot pomegranate sauce on top that played the part of brandy butter. Overall, it was too dense and too sweet.
Essence has some good things going for it, one of which being its location in this residential, hotel-heavy neighborhood. But its ranking in the top 10 on TripAdvisor is bound to create certain expectations of quality and a memorable experience for which Essence is, essentially, unprepared.
Fiona Gaze can be reached at