London, New York, Prague. The capital of the Czech Republic is not the most obvious gastro hot spot, yet it is here that Gordon Ramsay's latest Maze restaurant recently opened, set in the newly revamped and rebranded Hilton Prague Old Town. The first Maze, offering a mix of à la carte and small-plate tasting menus, opened in London in 2005. That format was transported across the Atlantic a year later with a restaurant of the same name unveiled in September 2006 at The London NYC hotel in New York.
Why Prague next? Partly because this has become such a dynamic city. And partly because the opportunity was there, with the re-styling of a well-placed hotel in need of a good restaurant.
To date, Ramsay's restaurants have acquired a composite 12 Michelin stars and the new Hilton in Prague is hoping that his Czech venture, overseen by business partner Jason Atherton, will in due course earn another – which would be the city's first-ever such gourmet award.
On the night of my stay, the restaurant was only half-full after a "soft opening" just a few days earlier, and was largely patronised by local residents. They were clearly keen to try out some of the more inventive creations on the menu, such as pressed foie gras and poached chicken with fig marmalade, and dessert of "peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich with cherry sorbet" (actually a delicate concoction of ice-cream and sorbet).
A surprising sense of innovation pervades elsewhere. The hotel was built in 1993, just as Prague was opening up to tourism after the Communist era. The somewhat bland and boxy building changed its name, and branding, a couple of times and was latterly a Renaissance hotel, under the umbrella of the Marriott group.
Earlier this year a multi-million dollar overhaul took place in an astonishing four months, resulting in a property with considerably more character and charm. From light fittings to chairs, banisters and decorative metalwork, the new look is a contemporary twist on Czech Cubism, a style that was effectively a forerunner of Art Deco. Meanwhile, facilities include a bar also managed by the Ramsay outfit, and (not quite complete when I visited, but now open) an indoor pool and health club.
Hilton already has a well-established, 788-bedroom hotel in a more business-oriented area of the city, about a 10-minute walk east. The existence of two Hiltons close to each other may, initially, cause some confusion. But the intention is that the newly recreated Hilton Prague Old Town will be regarded as the chic and more exclusive option, well positioned for weekend breaks and the like.
The Hilton Prague Old Town (V Celnici 7, Prague, Czech Republic; 00 420 221 822 100; www.hilton.co.uk/pragueoldtown) is just outside the remaining Gothic gate guarding the road from the north into the network of cobbled alleys that make up the original medieval city. Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square and the old town hall, among other Prague landmarks, are within easy walking distance. Namesti Republiky metro station is just down the road.
Time from international airport:
Prague's Ruzyne Airport is a 30-minute drive, costing around €30 (£21) in a taxi.
With its wonderful parade of spires, domes and striking views, Prague can overwhelm. But the decor here provides a soothing counterpoint to such visual overload. The 305 bedrooms are furnished in pleasingly quiet colours and feature leather chairs and headboards and cleverly shaped cherry-veneer desks. All the rooms are equipped with a plasma television, ironing facilities, a laptop-sized safe and more.
Freebies: Bathrooms are stocked with Crabtree & Evelyn La Source soaps and shampoos.
Keeping in touch: Bedrooms have chargeable high-speed internet access. Wi-Fi is available in the public areas and meeting rooms.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €184 (£142), room only.
I'm not paying that: For another splendid Czech Art Deco option, head to the recently restored Hotel Imperial (00 420 246 011 600; www.hotel-imperial.cz), also in the Old Town. Double rooms start at €130 (£100), room only.