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A broth of ambition and apathy

The Woch restaurant would normally be too rich for my wallet, accustomed as I am to sandwiches at furtive lunch stands or grease-sodden fried cheese wedges at stand-up 'buffets'.
But as the newspaper was paying, and as I approve the expenses (a neat coincidence), I dropped work on a balmy April 3 evening for a culinary change in pace.
Opened around Christmas last year, Woch derives its name from a thirteenth century knight by the same name (he apparently had no other, like a Brazilian footballer). Woch was Bratislava's first recorded burgher, and by the restaurant's account a gurmán of no small reputation.


THE ENTRANCE to Woch.
photo: Ján Svrček

Woch Restaurant

Where: Františkánske námestie 7
Open: Daily 11:00 to 23:30, breakfast 08:00 to 10:00
Tel: 02 5443-2927
English menu: Yes
Reservations: Yes
Rating: 7 out of 10

The Woch restaurant would normally be too rich for my wallet, accustomed as I am to sandwiches at furtive lunch stands or grease-sodden fried cheese wedges at stand-up 'buffets'.

But as the newspaper was paying, and as I approve the expenses (a neat coincidence), I dropped work on a balmy April 3 evening for a culinary change in pace.

Opened around Christmas last year, Woch derives its name from a thirteenth century knight by the same name (he apparently had no other, like a Brazilian footballer). Woch was Bratislava's first recorded burgher, and by the restaurant's account a gurmán of no small reputation.

Slovak-English dictionaries translate gurmán as a gourmet, a connoisseur of good food. But it's dangerously close to the English gourmand, a person who enjoys eating and often eats too much, which explains why I felt so comfortable there, and why Woch itself seems to teeter on the divide between upscale ordinary and lower-end fine dining.

One's first impression is of low, arched ceilings and an ease of manner, both due to the fact the building was recently reclaimed by Bratislava City Council and private investors from centuries of oblivion (it was home to the last woman burned as a witch in Bratislava, and by 1989 was "filled with trash", according to Old Town spokesman Milan Vajda).

On closer inspection, Woch is what you would expect from a less kitschy Western 'theme restaurant'. The walls are hung with carpets resembling what one imagines thirteenth century Pressburg artists might have been weaving; modest ceiling chandeliers are hung with fake ivy, and doorway and window curtains seem to have been subtly sprayed with gold paint. The wooden chairs (sorry, chaires) have been 'antiqued' with a deliberately careless paint job reminding one of acid-wash jeans.

But then I opened the menu. Woch, while sticking firmly by its medieval Slovak raison d'etre, has put together an offer that could tempt the most jaded palate.

Appetizers include roasted poultry liver in puff pastry, Parma ham, and lokše (potato pancakes filled with goose liver).

Entrees feature chicken in honey and sesame, duck breasts in a ginger sauce, veal in calvados with apple and nuts, and pork sirloin with pureed chestnut.

Vegetarian dishes get muted play with spinach pancakes, bryndza cheese pastries and spinach gnocchi with roquefort dressing.

I'm still wondering how to describe my Spanish garlic soup and duck in port sauce with sour cherries. Back at the office and writing up this review, I still feel a little disappointed that at the prices Woch charges the kitchen didn't show more ingenuity or skill beyond making the soup spicy and the duck tender. But perhaps a lowlife diet these months past has given me unreal expectations of how the better half dines.

I'm also still wondering where to place Woch in the Slovak scheme of things. The service was faultless, an excellent Slovak Frankovka red wine delivered in balloon glasses, a basket of fresh bread (which I didn't eat but poked with questing finger) brought without my asking, wooden pepper and salt mills on every table, and literally no predictable want left unanswered.

What frustrates me still, though, is that Woch has so much unrealised potential. There was too much traffic of apparently family members or friends through the dining room to the kitchen; the music was either forgettable Western female vocalists or impenetrable Slovak pop, and too loud whatever it was. My waiter, while perfectly amiable, spoke little English, curious in a joint that will need expat traffic to survive.

At about Sk2,000 ($42) a couple, would it be so difficult to find a manager to dim the lights, choose some reasonable music, and at least have the English-language menu vetted for egregious mistakes?

It's coming to me, though, as I write. I went out half hoping to discover a place to bring my wife for our wedding anniversary next week, and I didn't find it. What I did encounter was a relaxed restaurant that I would recommend highly for business meetings, where jeans are no barrier and the food doesn't leave you feeling as if your blood has been exchanged for cooking oil.

But when I take my wife out it will be to a place which is evidently trying to be better than it is, where the owners work hard to ensure we enjoy our evening, given all the missed time together that affording it required. And somewhere that doesn't remind us both of the apathy that so stunts the development of the country we have chosen to live in.

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