Written by: Tim Gosling
Photo: Dorothea Bylica
Found behind a small courtyard on Vejvodova, Le Terroir is a venue with a mission. There’s little debate that the grape is the most important ingredient at this small but superb restaurant.
Vít Hepnar & Jan Punčochář
Co-owner Vít Hepnar hopes that the refined backdrop it provides will suggest a serious study of the palate, rather than a knees-up vinárna.
As one of Le Terroir’s sommeliers – and a confirmed drinker – he says he knocks back at least one bottle each day. Along with his deep knowledge of “geology, geography, biochemistry and the philosophy of the wine makers”, Hepnar claims that a good sommelier simply has to drink wine. “You can’t learn it from a book,” he insists.
The base for Le Terroir’s menu is Czech, French or Italian, and is dictated by the vicissitudes of the seasons, the drive to offer variety, and a self-imposed obligation to control prices. Therefore, the offer changes about every eight weeks, and the young but talented chef, Jan Punčochář, strives to introduce inventive combinations – such as a white fish paired with barley and forest mushrooms, which can be found between the foie gras with onion marmelade starter and the pistachio flan dessert.
“Our kitchen is very simple, classic – to go with the wine,” Hepnar announces. The wine leads, while the menu designed around it is reassuringly short: “I get bored if I see a menu with eighty choices instead of eight,” the sommelier sighs. His approach to sharing his expertise gained from visiting winemakers in his favored Burgundy region is embalmed in authenticity, gentle but uncompromising. Recommendations for entrees – such as pumpkin ravioli with small duck breasts or hare saddle with chestnuts – are made only in the context of “a Burgundy, well matured in the bottle from a single vineyard…it has a lot of fruit, but because it’s eight years old, it has some animal and mushroom notes.”
While he co-manages the restaurant, Hepnar is clearly in his element rummaging about in the Roman cellar that houses his collection of over 650 European vintages. Movement is precarious amongst crates spilling straw from under bottles dark green and brown. The stone walls are propped up by racks, shelves and cabinets hosting meticulously arranged bottles according to region. Guests are invited into this Aladdin’s cave to choose their tipple.
Ducking through the doorway, a three-step descent deposits you onto a display case built into the flagstone floor of the brick and stone dining room. Enclosed are compartments filled with soils from which vines have grown, the variety taking in chalk from Champagne or gravel from Bordeaux. Classically white-sheathed tables bask in subdued spotlight, whilst at the far end leather armchairs cluster around the depository for cigars, a collection of Almanacs dating from 1921 and a bookshelf lined with tomes for worshippers of the vine.
A team of eight runs Le Terroir, and Hepnar says he deliberately recruited young people to take advantage of their energy and relative inexperience, clean slates on which he could etch his ethos: “train them to do their work with heart”. Youth and enthusiasm aside, Hepnar insists staff be formally attired. “If they’re going to be working with a EUR 300 bottle of wine, they should at least be wearing a tie,” he opines.
Looking forwards, Hepnar would like to do away with a food menu altogether, dreaming of picking the choicest ingredients on a daily basis and inventing a menu to accompany the wine. “At the end of the day we would have nothing left,” he smiles, adding “and then we would start from scratch the following morning.”
Vejvodova 1, Praha 1 · tel.: 602 889 118 · www.leterroir.cz
FARTHER AFIELD: U Madly
Restaurant U Madly does not need to be introduced to people in Beroun. They know it quite well, and so do drivers that frequently go from Prague to Plzeň. With the capacity of 300 seats, the place fills up almost to the last chair every night. The respectably large space, resembling a pub of the middle-ages, is only dimly lit, but it radiates the ambience of primal enjoyment. The basic premise of the restaurant was to offer really good beer – be it Pilsner, Budvar or Velvet – for higher price, yet large portions of cheaper food as a bonus. During ten years of existence, U Madly’s success has proved this a good strategy. And although the sign above entrance promotes Irish Guinness for 48 Kč (another draft beer added to the offer) the cuisine is pure Czech. Specials named after Madla – “Madla’s casserole” or “Madla’s kettle” – are the most popular dishes on the menu.
Restaurant U Madly
Na Ostrově 3, Beroun, tel.: 311 625 103
Open daily 11- 24, pá, so / Fri, Sat 11-01
How to get there: About 20 minutes from Prague
chairman of the Czech Leasing and Financial Association
“I like to visit JB Club, which is unique as part is a restaurant and the other part an English gentleman’s club with leather armchairs, a fireplace and all the trappings. The cuisine focuses on beefsteaks that are prepared with various ingredients and sauces, but you can also order fresh salmon. The tartar beefsteak or sirloin Stroganof are excellent, and the offer naturally includes a wide choice of quality Moravian, French and other wines. The service is perfect, and a pianist plays here several times a week, which underlines the cosy ambience. I also love to come for business lunches.”
JB Club, Kateřinská 7, Praha 2, tel.: 224 918 425