The colorful and (formerly) aristocratic spa town of Karlovy Vary would seem an ideal location for fine-dining restaurants to flourish, but I was surprised to discover only a handful of establishments that looked memorable. Fortunately, the restaurants that we did try ranged from good to excellent, making it possible to dine well at every meal over the course of a short stay in town.
With one or two exceptions, the best restaurants in Karlovy Vary are in hotels. But since I failed to find a recommendable property in town, the best idea is to visit as a day trip from Prague, approximately two hours away by car.
With vaulted brick ceilings, stained glass and dark wood, this restaurant has a cozy and traditional atmosphere, ideal for a winter’s lunch. This is a place to come for comfort food, not culinary fireworks. I started with a plate of grilled shrimp in an herbed beurre blanc, a simple but well-prepared dish that was a pleasant change of pace from Czech recipes. My satisfying main course of a roast goose drumstick — rather like duck confit — came with sweet braised cabbage, addictive caraway-spiked gravy and an assortment of dumplings: potato, bread and (my favorite) bread-and-bacon. A glass of zippy local Grüner Veltliner managed to pair well with both dishes, surprisingly enough. For an Old World dining experience, Embassy is a fine choice.
Hotel Embassy, Nová Louka 21. Tel. (420) 353-221-161
The most opulent dining room in Karlovy Vary belongs to the main restaurant of the Grandhotel Pupp, the town’s most famous hotel. Immense crystal chandeliers glitter beneath the double-height ceiling, elaborate drapes partially shade the giant windows overlooking the canal-like Teplá River, and candles glow on every table, flanked by brocade-upholstered chairs. It looks as if the Grandrestaurant should be very expensive, but its prices are surprisingly reasonable, at least by American standards. I greatly looked forward to our dinner, since chef Ondřej Koráb seeks to emulate “traditional Czech cuisine in the form in which it even conquered the Imperial Court in Vienna.” As we sipped flutes of lively and juicy Château Valtice sparkling wine, an amuse-bouche of cured salmon with bright lemon mousse arrived, making for a very pleasant introduction to the restaurant. A citrusy white blend by Vinařství Kraus worked well with some sweetly smoky trout, accompanied by fluffy sour cream and sweet-sour orange gelée. Our server talked me into a main course of duck confit, and though it was entirely traditional, it proved delicious, with a well-rendered duck leg, sweet-sour red cabbage and toothsome škubánky (rather like thick, torn potato pancakes). Plummy St. Laurent by Vinselekt Michlovský was a superb pairing. And I indulged in pear strudel for dessert, with paper-thin dough and luscious vanilla sauce. I had fun dining in such over-the-top surroundings — there aren’t too many dining rooms like this left — and though the food could hardly be described as innovative, it was delicious.
Mírové Nám. 2. Tel. (420) 353-109-111
Many articles hail Le Marché as the best restaurant in Karlovy Vary. It occupies the ground floor of a freestanding 19th-century villa, set on the bank of the Teplá River on the outskirts of town, a short walk from the Quisisana Palace. Since it was too cold to dine on its patio, we sat at a table in its bright French-country dining room, populated with a mix of families and couples. Service was friendly but seemed harried, struggling a bit to attend to the busy Saturday-night crowd. Diners can choose a three- or six-course menu of French and Asian-inspired dishes, some of which were more inspiring than others (I had no interest in trying tuna tartare with lime and sesame in a Karlovy Vary restaurant, for example). I opted for a starter of roasted foie gras, chilled to an ice cream-like consistency, with warm Cognac-foie gras sauce and braised apple chunks. Served on toast, it tasted rich and sweet, and a glass of honeyed and zesty Gotberg Pálava married with its flavors beautifully. But Stanislav Mádl Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) fell a bit flat with my otherwise tasty main course of tender, rosy veal slices with a truffle-spiked Champagne-cream sauce, creamy potato purée and fresh-shaved black truffle. A scoop of mixed-berry sorbet was a light and refreshing end to the meal. I liked Le Marché (closed Sunday), but I rather wish I had ventured to its new sister restaurant, La Hospoda (open daily), located at the opposite end of Karlovy Vary, a 20- to 30-minute walk from the Quisisana Palace. It doesn’t have as tranquil a location, but its menu of modern and traditional Czech cuisine looks more appealing.
Mariánskolázeňská 4. Tel. (420) 730-133-695
My favorite restaurant in Karlovy Vary occupies a narrow cross-vaulted space in the ground floor of the Hotel Promenáda, a peach-and-cream confection set just above the Market Colonnade. The space looks fashionable, and the smartly dressed staff provides formal, professional service. Although the menu makes nods toward Czech recipes and contemporary presentations, it feels rooted in the glory days of Escoffier, with dishes like entrecôte Rossini and supreme of guinea fowl. I can’t remember the last time I saw double-bouillon Brillat-Savarin on a menu. It proved to be a deeply flavored beef broth with julienned carrots and a little stack of Viennese-style frittaten (noodle-shaped crêpe slivers). Also rare to see is skrei, a coveted Norwegian cod in season only in winter. A moist and delicate fillet of it arrived with buttery parsnip purée, sweet roast pumpkin and crunchy, slightly briny samphire. And I wasn’t going to pass up dessert in a restaurant like this. The crêpes Suzette looked tempting, but we opted for a lighter dish with a similar tableside preparation: pears with sabayon and sorbet. A waiter brought over a cart on which he ceremoniously created the dessert, sautéing red-wine-poached pears in caramel sauce and dramatically flambéing them with local pear brandy. He plated the pears, liberally drizzled them with the pan sauce and amaretto-infused sabayon, and scooped some fresh raspberry sorbet on the side. I deeply regret agreeing to share the dessert. Promenáda looks contemporary, but its food hearkens back to another era. It’s an extremely appealing contradiction.
Tržiště 31. Tel. (420) 353-225-648