Degustation opened in 2006 and is owned by local restaurant group Ambiente, which also owns Čestr, Lokál and Café Savoy in town, and Hospoda in New York. Head chef Oldřich Sahajdák trained at the Culinary Institute of America and then worked in kitchens in Germany, Portugal and Italy as well as a stint in New Zealand picking fruit in order to improve his English. For ten years he has worked with the Ambiente group. The cooking here is intended to celebrate the traditions of the local cooking, inspired by a Czech cookery book written by Marie B. Svobodová in 1894. Some recipes are adapted: rabbit is used instead of the beaver meat specified in the old book, for example, but the idea is to showcase traditional Czech cooking, updated for a modern audience. As we shall see, in some cases the updating is considerable.
In 2012 Degustation was awarded a Michelin star. It is situated in the lovely old town, just off the main square. The L shaped dining room seats 38 diners at one time, with eight chefs working on any given shift. The kitchen is entirely open to view of the dining room, and some of the dishes are served by chefs rather than waiters.
The wine list is extensive, with nearly 500 separate wines, with plenty of coverage of Italy as well as France, and a smattering of new world wines as well. Example wines were Marques de Riscal Gran Reserva 2004 at CZK 2,050 (£62) for a wine that you can find in a shop for CZK 833, Domaine Weinbach Cuvee Catherine 2008 at CZK 2,255 for a wine that retails at CZK 999, and Domaine Devillard aux Perdrix 2009 at a reasonable CZK 3,595 for a wine that retails at CZK 1,998, There were two tasting menus at CZK 2,150 (£65) and CZK 3,150 (£96) as the choices, with no a la carte menu offered.
The meal began with pickled celeriac with lovage and lovage salt, which had good celeriac flavour but was quite sour (14/20). A trio of nibbles followed: fried pork skin with red cabbage and garlic, rabbit ear with mustard honey and fried mustard sees, and potato hay with carpet. The pick of these was the rabbit, which had a quite punchy mustard kick (15/20).
Beef tartare in a crisp bread sandwich was excellent, the crisp delicate, the beef nicely seasoned and with good flavour (16/20). A carrot flavoured with juniper, with sea buckthorn yoghurt and carrot powder was pleasant enough, the astringent sea buckthorn flavour well controlled, the carrot having good flavour. In case you are wondering, sea buckthorn was apparently used as an ingredient in the original cookbook (14/20).
Onion came with onion purée and onion dust, leek puree, lard and tapioca pearls. The onion was enjoyably sweet, the leek flavour good (15/20). This was followed by potato dumplings, kefir (sour milk) and ham crackling. The dumplings resembled gnocchi, the sour milk tasting better than it sounds, the ham excellent (15/20).
Next was chicken with peas, peeled barley, horseradish, herb butter, caramel cornflakes, horseradish and kefir snow. The chicken, sourced from a local farmer whose chickens run free on her farm and in the neighbouring forest, had particularly good flavour, as did the peas, while the horseradish added an enjoyable bite (16/20). Also excellent was calf sweetbreads with morels, peas, pea purée and leaves and wild garlic. The sweetbreads were carefully cooked, the early season peas having lovely flavour (16/20).
A buckwheat crisp with cheese and yoghurt was pleasant if unexciting (14/20). Plum jam with bread ice cream, beetroot essence and beer foam was enjoyable enough, but the beetroot seemed to me too sour (14/20).
Service from the smartly dressed waiters was hard to fault in terms of efficency, the wine topping up spot on and the staff friendly. The bill came to CZK 3,888 (£117) for one person with a nice bottle of Fritz Haag Riesling to drink. If you shared a bottle of modest wine then a typical bill would be around £95 a head. Overall I liked Degustation, which is clearly trying to take a fresh approach to traditional Czech cooking, and generally succeeds.Book