Meals at Nostress Café can be very good or very disappointing
Nostress’ French and Asian dishes are hit-or-miss.
Stress has been dubbed the enemy; it even kills, scientists tell us. There are pharmaceutical, herbal, physical and cognitive antidotes, as fighting stress has become a billion-dollar industry.
On the flip side, a relaxed state can lead to too many mistakes, or simply settling for mediocrity. The solution lies in balance and moderation, both for individuals and restaurants. For the latter, the ideal is a relaxed atmosphere for diners, with servers that are attentive yet unobtrusive, while behind the kitchen doors chefs and cooks are sweating, swearing and hustling to plate perfect dishes.
Nostress Café gets the front end of the equation right. The restaurant offers a lovely choice of settings – a casual bar, a café room with deep couches and a formal, white-tablecloth dining room with expensive artwork on the walls. The lighting is soft, ambient without erring on the side of dusky. Nostress’ French and Asian themes extend out from the menu into French colonial décor: Moroccan lanterns, dark, heavy woods and sepia-toned wall hangings.
The service is as pleasant as the lounge music piped in at just the right volume, an especially welcome surprise for diners weary of Prague’s notoriously cold restaurants. On both of the visits for this review, the wait staff was consummately professional, keeping bread baskets full and appearing at the right moment to clear plates and offer refills.
Unfortunately, the near-perfect facade is undercut by the cuisine, which is the absolute definition of hit-or-miss. To eat at Nostress is to experience the highs and lows of alternately perfect and uninspired dishes. The restaurant could be a regular favorite – provided you know what to order and what to avoid.
A salmon mille-feuille with white radish confit and seaweed caviar was a gorgeous, layered affair that, despite its many promising components, turned out to be overcooked salmon with soggy slices of daikon and woefully tasteless seaweed and tomato relish. Balancing out the course, however, was a chicken dumpling wonton soup in a broth redolent of fresh ginger, richer and darker than a typical wonton soup broth and with a gentle layer of heat. The dumplings were large and fresh, enough to sate a moderate appetite.
Steak tartare, like the salmon starter, was a sight to look at. Ruby-red ground meat with no trace of white fat held a bright raw yolk and was ringed by the traditional accompaniments to tartare: salt, pepper, minced shallots, capers and Dijon mustard. The dish came with a choice of toast or rosti potatoes. The order first arrived with the rosti instead of the toast, but the server realized his mistake before I even had a chance to correct him and whisked it away. I wish he had left it, as the toast that arrived was made from bland supermarket bread, toasted without any seasoning or garlic. The rosti, on the other hand, had looked crispy and hot, and might have made all the difference for the entree. Instead, the bread offered a pathetic base for meat that was mushy and tasteless, even after adding most of the side accoutrements.
Once again, the course was saved from being a total disappointment by the other dish, pan-fried rice with chicken and shrimp, done “Indonesian-style.” The descriptor didn’t match the dish, which resembled a risotto, slow-cooked to creaminess and tasting of Thai green curry and coconut. The shrimp were plump and sweet and the chicken tender, neither suffering the fate of being overcooked.
On a second visit, the dishes sat on even more extreme ends of the scale. The base of a poached octopus salad with warm citron dressing was tangy, sweet and substantial, but the great elements were strangely covered by a too-large pile of arugula and what seemed like an entire bulb of shaved raw fennel.
The most puzzling dish of both visits was a beef peanut curry with “Chinese noodle.” In reality, a decent peanut-based curry with tender beef was relegated to the outer rim of a plate dominated by a large pile of absolutely bare, spaghetti-like noodles. It resembled an Indonesian take on Cincinnati chili, an outright failure in both conception and delivery.
Conversely, the veal medallions on a layer of polenta pancake and wild mushrooms were dreamy, ensconced in a buttery sauce that seemed almost too good to be true on the delicate, tender meat. The serving of veal was generous – a good thing, because the quality was such that a miserly portion would have been torture.
Dessert presented an interesting choice. The restaurant carries several varieties of jewel-like circular opera cakes imported from Belgium, as the menu and server took pains to point out. But an equally long list of choices are made onsite and provide a better gauge of what the kitchen is capable of. A creme brulee was topped with the right amount of burnt caramel and had flecks of real vanilla dotting its rich custard – simple, but perfectly executed.
It was a welcome ending to a meal that careened between fantastic and befuddling. Don’t stress, but be advised that dining at Nostress has the potential to go either way.
From the menu
Octopus salad 320 Kč
Salmon mille-feuille with radish confit 290 Kč
Wonton soup 165 Kč
Indonesian fried rice with chicken and shrimp 280 Kč
Steak tartare 260 Kč
Beef peanut curry 330 Kč
Veal medallions 490 Kč
Creme brulee 150 Kč