When Staropramen decided to open a Belgian pub, expectations of authenticity weren’t exactly through the roof.
The restaurant sits behind the church, facing out onto the square at Namesti Miru. Interesting new restaurants have been springing up around this area non-stop in the past six months or so, including Vinohradsky Parlament next door, a casual, modern Czech pub which has the same chef and owners. Bruxx is owned by the people behind the Potrefena Husa concept pubs at Spořilov, Hybernská and Pardubice, as well as the Staropramen visitors’ centre. And it seems they feel much more comfortable serving up goulash and dumplings than moules marinières.
Bruxx has had incredibly mixed reviews since it opened, and I’m not about to break that trend. My two dinners at Bruxx were very different experiences. On the first visit, stuffed away in the furthest, darkest corner behind the staircase, among the prams and pushchairs, the atmosphere might’ve been non-existent but we enjoyed starters which I’d say were nothing short of spectacular.
The tiger prawns, huge and juicy, came in a sweet, tangy tomato and cream sauce. The serving was generous enough at 195kc, with six big prawns in the bowl, and more of that delicious, surprisingly garlicky sauce than could be accommodated by the square of light, slightly toasted bread in the centre. As I said, my expectations hadn’t been too high. I’d been half-expecting the two or three delicious yet tiny morsels sitting in a mere dribble of sauce, found in many restaurants around town for 150kc or so. Though this starter was meant for the table, I have to confess that one person may have had a bit more than her fair share – and was so busy doing so that she forgot to even so much as take a photo.
The Belgian-style beef tartare, or ‘Toast Cannibale’ at Bruxx came already mixed, with capers, pickles, dijon mustard, tabasco and flat leaf parsley. The yolk of a runny poached egg was waiting to be mixed with the beef. It came with fries and plain toast, as opposed to the usual garlic-drenched slices of rye bread accompanying the Czech-style tartare. No garlic was needed to drown the taste of the beef, which was evidently good quality and very fresh. It had also been torn properly with the knife. I was eating with the Polish family, so copious amounts of vodka were deemed a necessary accompaniment, if not an integral part of the dish. Luckily they had Grey Goose vodka, which got a hearty Polish seal of approval. I’d heard reports of the Belgian beers not being poured properly, but mine have so far been faultless. The Kasteel Rouge (a blend of Kasteel Donker and cherry liquor), one of my favourite Belgian beers, was as good as ever, but the Bruxx ‘house beer’ took me by surprise. Brewed at Pivovary Vratislavice, which I’m told is where Konrad beer is brewed, it was quite unusual; nicely bitter with a taste similar to a light IPA. Our second visit, though, was very different. We were treated so inexplicably well that we started to wonder if we’d been mistaken for some not-so-attractive D-list celebrities we’ve never heard of. Whatever it was, this time we got nice window seats at the front of the restaurant, and received service so slavishly attentive that it would’ve embarrassed the Queen. The time before, our service had been a little slow and confused, if still a cut above what we’ve come to accept as standard in this city (read: surly and disinterested.)
Up front, the whole experience was completely different. Stuck in the corner last time, we’d failed to appreciate the decor and lively atmosphere in this somewhat grand space. I find that so many restaurants which serve good food here still feel quite a lot like a cosy pub, or a cellar, or someone’s living room. They very rarely tend to feel particularly special. Even very expensive, upscale restaurants often lack the buzz needed to elevate the act of eating at a restaurant to the status of “going out for a meal”. But despite Bruxx being just another shiny, new concept restaurant, it somehow managed to do just that.
I was genuinely happy and excited to be there. It was something to do with the warm atmosphere, the acoustics, the happy chatter, the Parisian electro-swing, the fact that the waiters had the confidence to strut across the place like actors on a stage, and the professionalism to confidently yet subtly take control of the tables. This time, it definitely wasn’t just the Grey Goose making me feel alright.
But the spell was soon broken. Something was very wrong with my tiger prawns. Of course I’d ordered them again, but this time they were different. The sauce was a different colour, for a start. Instead of the former fiery orange it was now a dull dark red. I really regret not taking photos as the difference was obvious. It had lost its sweet tanginess and now just tasted heavy and creamy, a bit too heavy for the prawns now, which weren’t as juicy anyway. For the price, it was now incredibly average.
The cheese and ham croquettes however were divine. If you’re expecting ‘croquettes’ to mean a few small, round balls of blandness, think again. These were crisp, hockey puck-shaped parcels which oozed creamy Bruggy cheese, flecked with ham, when cracked open. They came with salad and required quite a bit of bread to soak up all the cheese.
One thing was consistent on both visits, and that was the star attraction, or at least, what should’ve been the star attraction: the mussels. Here they’re prepared several different ways; their fragrant broth of red curry paste, ginger, peanut oil, coconut milk, coriander and infusions of lemon grass was divine. and I also quite liked the Hoegaarden white beer, smoked bacon, garlic, onion and parsley, though the beer gave it a slightly bitter aftertaste.
With all of these, we had a couple of bottles of the Riesling Orange from Nierstein, which was delicate and very drinkable with a pleasing peachy note alongside the sharpness.
I tried their mussels all five ways, and my favourite on both visits, hands down, was the moules marinières a la creme – mussels cooked with onion, garlic, thyme, dry white wine, butter and cream. The perfect balance of flavours made this broth the best I’ve had in this city – better than any I’ve had at Les Moules, even, and I love their moules marinières too.
But no matter how they were prepared, every bowl of mussels had the same problem: they hadn’t been cleaned properly, were full of grit and the beards hadn’t been removed on many of them. This would be forgivable on the odd mussel, but they were more often gritty than not and at the bottom of my broth lay a thin but disconcerting layer of sand. Disappointingly on the second visit they were somehow even grittier, making some just inedible. I loved the flavours of these dishes, but it was just too bad. No one wants a side of grit with their seafood.
Other menu items were just ok. The beef entrecote was unusually fatty, the waffles were a little bland, the fries were tasty but too soft. One thing that made an impression was the Belgian chocolate cake from the display case, which they seem to have every time I’m there. It was so rich that even I couldn’t finish it, but it was elevated a few notches above your average chocolate cake by a silky ganache topping and thick, moreish sea-salt chocolate base.
But my initial enthusiasm – you could call it infatuation – has waned. The food has so far been too inconsistent – which I suppose would explain the very varied reviews it gets – and Bruxx has been open for too long now for us to put it down to teething troubles. Cleaning the mussels should be way higher on their list of priorities, for a start, and what the heck happened to those amazing tiger prawns?
With me and Bruxx it was love at first bite, but in the end, I got my heart broken. That’s not to say that, like the most hopelessly besotted of love-drunk idiots, I won’t keep crawling back for more in desperate hopes that they can change.
Náměstí Míru 9, Praha 2