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Review: Chez Marcel

An old favorite still has heart, but little heat


Posted: November 16, 2011

By Fiona Gaze - Staff Writer | Comments (2) | Post comment

Review: Chez Marcel

Walter Novak

Moules a frites is one of the many delights at this cozy eatery straight out of Paris.

With the excitement of new restaurants opening up around Prague, it can be easy to forget some old favorites as they fall by the wayside.

One such place is Chez Marcel, a long-running casual brasserie in Old Town that specializes in simple, comforting French staples like quiche, mussels and incredible pommes frites, all in a cozy space that feels straight out of a movie. The recent birthday of a French friend, who said Chez Marcel was one of his favorite restaurants for a taste of home, was a fortuitous chance to see how it has stood the test of time.

Ultimately, Chez Marcel still succeeds in treading that coveted fine line between friendly, intimate eatery and high-quality restaurant. The checkered tablecloths, comfy leather banquettes and black-and-white tiled floors, along with vintage French advertisements on the arched, muted orange walls, manage to not feel kitsch, and while there were several disappointments with the food - namely that two dishes were served at off temperatures - the overall experience was still pleasant. It's the sort of place that's perfect for lingering over another glass of wine or a Cognac long after the plates have been cleared.

Servers were courteous and transitioned seamlessly between English, Czech and French. There were several serving the table, but the flow was never disjointed; rather, someone was always on hand to remove items or bring the next course. In addition, even the house wine was poured at the table, which was a nice touch.

The starters set the bar for the meal. Homemade pate had an appropriately musky taste, but was dried out to a crumbly meatloaf. The onion reduction served alongside was earthy and rich, but needed a superior pate to complement it. Slices of still-warm, fresh baguette, however, were enjoyable even on their own, and were an elegant way to mop up the garlic-butter sauce accompanying the escargot, which is available in either six or 12 pieces. The snails, already relieved of their shells, were slightly small but exquisitely tender, and the sextet was a good-sized palate-warmer.

A slice of quiche Lorraine, listed as a starter, was a satisfactory meal for a light appetite, completed by an accompanying side salad of fresh greens tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. The quiche was very good but a bit too eggy, and could have done with a bit more baking time, as parts were slightly watery. But it was fluffy and creamy, the chunks of ham were top-quality, and the crust was just right.

Of the mains sampled, two were simply not warm enough, despite the short wait between courses. One plate, the duck confit with Sarladaise potatoes, was bafflingly tepid throughout, and the potatoes, at lukewarm, were reduced to a uniform, soft mass. They aspired to be hot, partly fried crispy rounds cooked in the duck's fat and tossed with onions and garlic, but lacked the heat, and the crispness. They were disappointingly bland.

The duck, likewise, while tender and with a crisp, fatty skin, was barely warmed, giving the dish the air of a half-heated leftover. In theory, a lot of preparation goes into a confit: the leg of duck is traditionally salt-cured for upward of a day in myriad herbs and then blanched in fat. This one had a whiff of a rich, rustic flavor, but it was hardly detectable.

The steamed mussels Marinieres also had issues with warmth. Served in a heaping plate, some of the moules were the perfect temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. Some were completely lukewarm, while others felt downright refrigerated. It was an unfortunate distraction, as otherwise they were delicious: small, Mediterranean mussels with a fresh, supple flesh and a hint of brine, turned decadent with a brothy garlic and onion sauce. The meat came away from the shells easily, either by polite fork or, satisfyingly, hand-to-mouth. Ultimately, it was the hugeness of the portion and not the temperature issues that left this plate unfinished.

An included side to the moules, Chez Marcel's pommes frites, were heavenly: big, fat, perfectly salted thick fingers of fries that needed no condiment but were even better dipped in the mussels' broth. The same fries came with several other dishes, including the best of those sampled (and one of the priciest on Chez Marcel's menu), the beef entrecote steak.

Having a truly excellent steak is always a revelation, and this one was most illuminating. The entrecote was thick and cooked to rare (a preference had not been asked), and the meat was silky smooth, practically melting on the tongue. It had been lightly salted and came with a thin, stock-infused gravy, just enough to be welcome but without detracting from the amazing meat. It was well worth the price tag of 390 Kč.

Chez Marcel's mains are filling enough, but the French cheese plate is a delight if it can be squeezed in. Several types of brie, camembert and blue cheese, as well as the beautiful Reblochon cow's cheese, were served alongside slices of apples, pieces of walnut and a cluster of fat, red grapes.

The creme brulee, unfortunately, was cold. The shell cracked promisingly, but the inside was completely and unfortunately chilled.

Chez Marcel is still a lovely Parisian bistro, with a timeless, hidden-away charm. But heating things up a bit would go a long way to reigniting the favor that it held for so long.


Fiona Gaze can be reached at
fgaze@praguepost.com

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