Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Rocky O'Reilly's

Let's say you feel like going to an Irish pub, having a decent dinner, and watching Premier League football. So, you get on a plane with 17 of your best friends and fly to Prague.

Happens every day.

Let's say you then go to Rocky O'Reilly's, billed as Prague's biggest Irish pub. If you do, odds are you won't run into me. I'm not there when football is on. Too crowded. But if there are no major sporting events going down, there's a chance you just might see me with a steak sandwich in my hand.G and I went the other day for dinner. The restaurant is divided in two. On one side, there is a smaller, separate bar and dining area. Next door, there is a space with a much larger room in the back. We scored a table in the small front room by the wood fire, which is not so easy during the winter.
As Prague pub food goes, Rocky's is on the pricey side, but pretty good. Then again, I haven't tried a lot of the menu. That's because I almost always get the steak sandwich. It costs 245 CZK, but the online menu is way out of date and says it is only 175 CZK.

If I feel like a big change, like getting a bit wild, I get the Fillet Steak. It's not that I don't like variety. Obviously, I eat all kinds of different food. It's just that I like Rocky's steak and steak sandwich so much.

The waitress came by. Male customers seem to like their uniforms -- micro-miniskirts, and tight white T-shirts with silk-screened hand prints over the breasts. Prague's version of Hooters. I haven't taken a survey, but some female customers may have a less enthusiastic response.

We ordered. G went for the steak sandwich. I got the Fillet Steak. When the food came, I waxed fanatic on the virtues of the sandwich sitting on G's plate.
"This is one of my favorite steak sandwiches of all time. First, the bread is great. I've never seen bread like this for sale anywhere else in Prague -- a long roll with a crunchy crust and a soft interior. Notice all the melted garlic butter on the inside."

"I noticed," G said.

"The slices of steak are thick and tender. Easy to take a bite out of without it pulling out of the bread. And the sautéed red onion and mushrooms. Simple and perfect. But you know what else I like?"


"No cheese."

"I like cheese on a steak sandwich."

"Most people do. But I think most steak sandwiches drown in cheese. It covers up the other flavors and generally makes a mess. For me, this is just right. Maybe I'll throw a little Heinz Soja on the top, teriyaki style."

I wrap up my riff on the steak sandwich. G is a good friend. He lets me talk it out.

The Fillet Steak is good, but you might consider it expensive at 395 CZK, considering the surroundings. The out-of-date online menu currently says it is 375 CZK.

The first time I had it, I remember being very impressed. The next couple of times, it was still very nice, but not as good as my first memory. It is very tender and comes in a buttery brown pool of gravy, I think from the pan. I will go back to the steak sandwich next time.

We shared an order of onion rings. These are good -- big, thick crunchy rings. G said he'd had better in the USA. Prague is not a big onion ring town in the first place. If you want some, Rocky's has the best.

They have two 10-degree beers, Gambrinus (28 CZK/.5l) and Budvar (45 CZK/.5l). I suppose I can understand why they don't sell the stronger Pilsner Urquell. They might have more of a crowd control problem on football nights. There is also Guinness (85 CZK/.4l), Strongbow Cider (85 CZK/.4). And there is Heineken (85 CZK/.5l), but I'm having a hard time imagining who would come to Prague and order that.

The menu includes dishes like Irish Stew, Cottage Pie, Fish and Chips, Chili con Carne, and a Beef Burrito. Rocky's also serve a few Irish-style breakfast dishes until noon. The prices may be aimed at tourists, but they do get quite a few Czechs in there, too.

If you go, there is also a good chance you'll see the barrel-chested proprietor of Rocky's, Robbie Norton, standing out front. I've never met him, but it is obvious he knows that taking care of his customers, many of whom are tourists, is a good business move.

On the wall, there is a list of 10 warnings to be heeded by visitors to Prague. They include such useful advice as don't change money on the street, watch out for dodgy taxi drivers, beware of pickpockets, and buy and stamp your tickets on public transportation. Seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people would have benefited from reading this list right after their arrival in town. You can find the list of warnings in full on Rocky's website.

This list is only missing one important warning: If you don't order the steak sandwich, you'll be sorry.

Rocky O'Reilly's
Štěpánská 32
Prague 1

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Mariánské Lázně - Part II

Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

If you come to Mariánské Lázně for the waters, you are in the right place. If you come for the food, you were misinformed.

The spa town is definitely worth a visit if you enjoy looking at restored grand hotels or nature walk in the nearby woods. And, of course, there are the spa treatments if you like that sort of things. There may be some good places to eat that are hidden away in the hotels. We didn't see them. Granted, we didn't look very hard.

The Colonnade near Hlavní třída

The town's main street, Hlavní třída, is full of shops selling tourist kitsch and the large, round sugar wafers that the city guide calls "spa waffles" (Lázeňské oplatky). The streets and restaurants are pretty deserted in the winter.

We were in a bit of a hurry, so we thought we'd just find into a decent place for lunch while walking down this central street. We were wrong.

One hotel restaurant looked decent from the outside and very depressing on the inside. We walked out. Then, we saw the Churchill Pub and Restaurant in the Hotel Excelsior.

Inside it looked very clubby, with wood paneled walls, big, stuffed leather booths, and a picture of Sir Winston on the wall. A little more inviting than the other place.

V got chicken with tomato sauce (180 CZK). The chicken was chopped into small granules of meat. The sauce itself had a ketchup and water base. A coulis, if you will. V also had a small salad of lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and cucumbers (30 CZK). No dressing. Oil and vinegar available on request.

I had penne with four slivers of sun-dried tomato, four slivers of sautéed onion, olive oil, flecks of tasteless basil, and Parmesan cheese (105 CZK). Not bad, actually. I like minimalism.

For drinks, we had a couple of bottles of Mattoni mineral water (30 CZK each). V had the house red at 60 CZK a glass (20 cl).

Shortly after we came in, I noticed the music. It was the Muzak version of "Feelings." As the next song began, I realized it was the Muzak version of "Feelings."

"They're playing the same song over and over again," I said.

Luckily for V, she had never heard this tune before, so the full effect was somewhat lost on her. As for me, at the beginning of the meal I was laughing. By the end, I was crying. Lunch was an emotional roller coaster. I needed to get off.

Before we left, I had a shot of Becherovka to calm my nerves. Then, I had a shot of Fernet Citrus. To help me forget.

Churchill Pub and Restaurant
Orea Hotel Excelsior
Hlavni 121
Mariánské Lázně
Czech Republic
Tel. 354 697 111

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mariánské Lázně

True, a commenter on a previous post became overwrought during the intense debate on salads and sandwiches. But before you write off such a person as completely lacking in perspective, know this:

With the little information available, Mr. Anonymous got one thing exactly right. I am, in fact, a lazy, sandwich-obsessed millionaire.

So, now you know.

As much as I'm in love with Prague’s over-priced, shop-made sandwiches, even people like me need to get away once in a while. That is why V and I decided to go to Mariánské Lázně for the weekend.

We booked a hotel, but were distressed to learn that there was a special winter discount package. This meant we’d be sharing the hotel with, shall we say, people of a lesser economic orientation. Then, we were told our helicopter would be too heavy for the hotel’s roof, so we’d have to drive. It takes two hours from Prague by limo or, I suppose, a car.

First, let me say that Mariánské Lázně is not a fine-dining Mecca. We thought, perhaps, we could remedy the situation with big wads of cash. We decided to have dinner in the restaurant of the spa town’s five-star Hotel Esplanade. Because it is the low season and there are not many guests, they serve dinner on many nights in the bar area.

The bar looks like it belongs in a very posh golf clubhouse. The walls have green damask, framed by rich wood paneling. Many guests do come to play on the nearby courses. If you have a fetish for greens and fairways, there are photos on the walls.

First, let me tell you, there are no sandwiches on the menu. The closest thing you’ll find is the breadbasket, and that is filled with an uninspired selection of slightly stale slices and rolls.

For a starter, I went for the beef carpaccio (250 CZK). I liked it a lot. The very thin slices of fresh beef were completely covered with large sheets of Parmesan. The Parmesan was drizzled with balsamic syrup. It just needed a few shots from the salt and pepper mills. I’d get it again, but wish the portion would be a little larger for the money.

V went for the escargots (290 CZK). They were unlike any escargot she had had before. They were actually dry. No lake of melted butter and garlic. And, no big deal, but no shells, either. There was shaved Parmesan on top. They came with boring, dry, lightly toasted brown bread, probably picked up from the supermarket.

Strangely, she actually liked them. V described them as “very snaily snails.” And happily for her, there were 15 of them. I tried a couple. There were very large and meaty. But I missed the butter and garlic. To me they tasted like, well, garden-variety snails.

I tried the Caesar Salad with grilled chicken breast (290 CZK). I did not like it. The chicken breast had a nice smoky, grilled flavor. It was also warmed over, dry, and almost too salty to eat. There was no Romaine lettuce, only iceberg and some other green leaves. There was shaved Parmesan. The dressing was mustard-based, with a hint of anchovy. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

V got a seafood salad. It came with nicely grilled shrimp and scallops (390 CZK). The shrimp were a bit dry and may have been reheated. Both salads came with generic white toast. V said the rest of the salad was not very good, but the seafood made it worthwhile. But at this price, I personally wouldn’t recommend it.

For a main course, I had the grilled pork tenderloin with green beans, bacon, and scalloped potatoes (450 CZK). The pork also had the great smoky, grilled flavor, but was not as tender as I was expecting. I’d say I liked it, but it was not worth the money.

V had carp (CZK 290). I don’t like carp and don’t know why anyone would eat it outside of the Christmas season. Like my insightful, commenting friend, Mr. Anonymous, I'm rather astounded when someone doesn't share my point of view.

“Why would you get carp at a nice restaurant?” I asked.

“Because I wanted fish, I didn’t feel like salmon, and the other ones seemed too expensive.”

In the end, she said it was good, but bony.

The Pilsner Urquell was perhaps the most expensive I’d ever had at 100 CZK, but it tasted much better than usual because I was in a clubby room of a five-star hotel.

Looking around at the end of the meal, I was pleased to see a very young,extremely wealthy couple sitting nearby with a vicious dog at their feet. We had noticed them arriving earlier in the day driving separate cars: A new Mercedes S-class and giant black Cadillac Escalade. Finally, a few more Escalades in the Czech Republic! But there was also a non-wealthy couple near us, wearing jeans no less! We wondered how such people could get into this exclusive little place.

"Oh, yes," we recalled. "The coupon clippers."

But seeing people such as this did pique our curiosity. What must it be like to live in their world? We decided then and there that we would eat our next meal at a cheap, bad restaurant in the tourist zone.

Stay tuned for part II.

Hotel Esplanade
Karlovarska 438
Mariánské Lázně
Czech Republic
Tel. 354 676 111

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Half & Half - Update

I revisited Half & Half, the new sandwich, dessert, and coffee shop at the top of Wenceslas Square. I wanted to see if they'd improved since my first visit.

The short answer: No.

I got the grilled focaccia with cheese and tomato sauce and a thick hot chocolate. The woman grilled the semi-circular bread, then took it out, poked at it, and peeked inside. She didn't seem to want to give it to me. She had a mournful look in her eye that said, "You poor man. This might kill you."

Still, I took it. I don't know why.

I brought it back to the office, and studied it. It was old. It was stale. It crumbled and broke apart as I tried to eat it. I threw most of it away.

At least there was the hot chocolate. I had tried this right after they opened, and it was pretty good. On this day, there was barely any left in the glass swirling container that keeps it hot. I got the dregs. This time, it tasted different. It had an unpleasant, slightly sour tang. I threw most of that away, too.

As far as I am concerned, this sandwich place is toast.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yessi Café (Closed)

Look. I just want a place that I can rely on for a quality sandwich every day in the center of a booming capital city. Is that asking too much of a member of the European Union? Can we get a European Commission directive on this?

When I say "a quality sandwich," I don't mean one that was built on an assembly line next to the Skodas in Mlada Boleslav. I'm talking about a sandwich that is made on fresh-baked bread with a thoughtful, creative combination of quality ingredients and put together with, oh, just a little bit of love.

A ham slice on Styrofoam with albino lettuce and a butter chunk will not do.

There are a few sandwich possibilities. Half & Half was reviewed here recently, but it really didn't make the grade for quality. There is Bakeshop Praha, which I like, but the great bread for their sandwiches suffers badly in their display case. And for me, it is just too far away for lunch during work.

Now, there is another option: Yessi Café in the Stara Celnice shopping complex, just off Náměstí Republiky.
It has a nice interior that incorporates some of the interesting architecture of the old building. The furniture is comfortable, and I even think the electric green and aubergine color scheme works for the place.
The menu above the counter lists a variety of baguettes, baps (rolls), wraps, salads, and more than 10 kinds of tea. You order at the register. They do both take out (take away) and table service.

I started off ordering the Grilled Bread (opeceny chleb) with goat cheese, cranberry jam, and pine nuts (89 CZK). It came open-faced, which I wasn't expecting, but I was fine with that. It didn't have any pine nuts, but it did have basil pesto, topped by chunks of warm, melting chevre. I was fine with that, too. The cheese and pesto rested on two warm slices of what they call beer bread, which had a great, crunchy crust and a soft, warm middle that had soaked up the pesto. There was a bit of lettuce on the side. I pushed the goat cheese evenly across the bread, and then spread the cranberry jam across the top of that.

Oh, Mama! Pure comfort food. Next time, I will get two orders of this. Maybe three.

They also offer different versions. There is Grilled Bread with aubergine, tomato, mozzarella and basil pesto (79 CZK). Or there is a ham, cheese, tomatoes, and Dijon mustard (79 CZK). But one does not make a full meal.

After savoring my goat cheese, I decided I'd top off the tank with one of their baguettes. I got the chicken, sun-dried tomato, and basil pesto baguette (89 CZK).

It was OK, but not nearly as good as the first course. The baguette was fresh and crunchy. It came with three thick slices of chicken breast. The chicken was moist and fresh -- it did not seem to have been sitting around all day.

On the other hand, it was very bland. Salt would help. The baguette was carefully, but oddly constructed: a slice of chicken, then a whole sun-dried tomato alternating in a linear fashion down the baguette. So, you'd get a couple of bites of chicken, followed by a couple of bites of tomato. Repeat as necessary. The final oddity was that there was no pesto. I wasn't really fine with that. So, I asked at the counter.

"Um, excuse me. The menu says the chicken baguette comes with basil pesto."

"Oh, we made a few changes to the recipes since we put up the menu."

"Ah. OK. What is this other stuff?"

"Oh, that is a cheese spread."

Good to know. I don't think I'll get that again. But what is also good to know is that your sandwich can be built to order with a wide-variety of nice-looking ingredients at the counter. They have hummus, mushrooms, red beans, grilled aubergine (eggplant) or zucchini, and many others. I'd pursue this option the next time. Or I might try the Hummus Wrap with vegetables, sesame paste, and sesame oil (99 CZK).
On the other end of the front counter, they have some mighty fine looking deserts. As much as I wanted to try one, especially what looked to be Black Forrest cake, I had had enough for one lunch. But it is another reason to return. They also offer espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes.
Yessi Café has some high-class cousins. Their take away menu says it is part of the Pravda Group, which includes the restaurants Pravda, Barock, and Hot at the Hotel Jalta.

It is a still a bit too far from my work to go on a regular basis, but I'll definitely go if I have the time or I'm in the area.

I'm now a Yessi man. (Ba dum bum)

Yessi Café
V Celnici 4, Praha 1
Tel. 222 212 585

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Neklid Restaurant

If you live around the border between Vršovice and Vinohrady, there are quite a few options if you feel like walking for your dinner.

The best in the area is Mozaika, but it is a bit of an uphill trek, and a shade too pricey to visit on a very regular basis. 

Atelier isn't the same since the original cook and owner left. 

Potrefená Husa has the great bacon cheeseburger, but then there are the calories, and it is not so cheap. 

Waikiki has their interesting perspective on Mexican and Italian, but alas, no Hawaiian fare. 

There's Mon Ami, but Balkan cuisine is not something I can eat all the time. 

Down the block on Kodanská stands Sawadi, but much to my disappointment, it is a very odd interpretation of Thai.

And some of these places have a big strike against them for achieving regular "local" status: They are more than 200 meters away.

I always run the list through my mind, but it is usually an empty exercise. It is rare that any of them can compete with my favorite local spot: Neklid Restaurant.
Neklid has so many of the important qualities of a great local:

1. It is pretty cheap
2. Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, and Primator Weizenbier on tap
3. A friendly, smiling staff
4. More than the usual Czech cuisine AND it tastes good
5. Less than 200 meters away

What kind of food is it? I'd call it ICI: Interpretive Czech-International. Anyone who has lived in this country for a while has tasted Czech versions of their favorite international dishes. This type of cooking usually bears little resemblance to authentic recipes from other nations. You might find lettuce lilting on your fajitas or frozen corn killing your curry.

Yes, Neklid has its own interpretations, but they actually taste good. Sometimes very good.

The chicken Caesar salad is a perfect example. It really bears little relation to a true Caesar. This one does not have romaine lettuce. It even has some cabbage mixed in at the bottom. But it also has succulent, well-seasoned and freshly cooked pieces of chicken on top. Lots of it. It also has freshly fried bacon that has not been sitting around all day waiting to be reheated.There are tomatoes, boiled eggs in quarters, croutons, shaved Parmesan cheese, and a rather ordinary approximation of Caesar dressing. It is very big and I usually find it difficult to eat the whole thing.

If this still doesn't sound appealing, then how about if it is only 119 CZK? And what if I told you that the Pilsner Urquell is less than 30 CZK? Half a liter of Gambrinus is only 23 CZK. They also have Hoegaarden.

Another favorite is Neklid's grilled steak with soy sauce (Neklidná roštěnka na grilu se sojovou omáčkou). It comes with a wasabi cream drizzled on top, a bit of pure wasabi on the side, and some pickled ginger, the kind that comes with your sushi. Roštěnka is not the best cut of beef, but it is usually tender and easy to cut. Maybe it sounds like weird ICI cooking, but this is a great-tasting steak. It is one of the pricier items at 155 CZK. Potatoes are extra -- all are 30 CZK. The fries are good.

On a recent visit, I had the steak tartare with fried Czech bread (Tatarák - klasika, 4 topinky). The raw beef is excellent -- hand ground and bright red, with no visible fat. 

It is a fairly small
portion, but only costs 139 CZK. You season it yourself. The mound of meat is surrounded by tiny glass bowls filled with egg yolk, chopped onion, paprika, pepper, mustard, and whole garlic for scraping across the fried bread (topinky). 

Mix the meat and seasonings as you like and spread it on the bread. Heaven.

For those concerned about eating raw meat, I have been eating this dish on a regular basis for years and have never had a single problem. V thinks my brain is already full of holes, which may afford an immunity to the human variant of mad cow disease.

V ordered the vegetarian fajitas (Fajitas se zeleninou, fazolkami, tortillou a salsou - vegetariánské). Not your classic version by any measure. They bring out a hot iron plate, though not really sizzling, with green beans, carrots, eggplant, and white beans, along with flour tortillas, sour cream, and salsa. Relatively healthy and very filling for 129 CZK.

I also like their chicken wings (Pikantní kuřecí křídla se zakysanou smetanou), eight for 115 CZK, which have a variation of sweet Thai chili sauce on them. As near as we can tell, the bottled sauce is mixed with honey and soy sauce. It tastes pretty good, but not a major culinary achievement, either.

On another visit I tried the grilled pork steak with onion rings, red and white shredded cabbage and tartar sauce (Steak z krkovice na grilu s cibulovými kroužky a majonézovou omáčkou) for 129 CZK. It was a very juicy, a little fatty, but nicely seasoned with salt and pepper. The chef really knows how to season meat. I'd have it again.
V got grilled vegetables with honey for 74 CZK. There were red peppers, zucchini, eggplant, tomato, and onion. She liked it.
They also have pork ribs for 115 CZK, which look good, but I still haven't tried them.

Neklid Restaurant is not much to look at. The furniture is plain and generic. The blond wood paneling gives the place a cheap feeling. But Neklid is cheap in a good way, and there's a wealth of good things to eat there.
I wouldn't say it is the kind of place to go far out of your way for. Don't cross town just to go to Neklid. But I'd definitely say it is worth traveling more than 200 meters to go there.

Neklid Restaurant
Ruská 34
Praha 10 - Vršovice
Tel. 777 718 787
For reservations in English: 775 974 682

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Nebeský Mlýn - Brno

Plans to try a new, highly touted restaurant often begin with a sweet mix of hope and expectation. If you are lucky, there is that happy feeling of discovery when the establishment lives up to the hype. There are times, however, when the whole thing ends in bitterness and recrimination.

This was one of those times.

V had heard from friends, family, and no less than the Czech version of Elle magazine that Nebeský Mlýn (Heaven's Mill) was one of the best places to eat in the city of Brno. Maminka had wanted to go there for a long time, and it was her birthday, so off we went. We pulled into the industrial-looking parking lot behind an ugly steel gate, and it didn't look too heavenly.

The inside of the restaurant was much more inviting, with rustic wood beams, a working fireplace, and an actual mill wheel. The wheel had a small trickle of water going over it and was turned by an electric motor.
There were only a few other tables there for lunch, but the service was hellishly slow. It took 15 minutes to get our drinks, more than 30 minutes for the appetizers to come, and the main courses took more than one hour. The whole lunch took more than two hours. For the most part, they were not pleasureable hours.

Then, another bad sign. Nebeský Mlýn had the biggest pepper mill I have ever seen in my life. It looked like it was about one meter tall. My father's friend was a restaurant critic in the New York area and had a theory that the quality of a restaurant is inversely proportional to the size of its pepper mill. Under this formula, I dared not imagine how bad things could get. Aunt L cracked that it looked like a cow inseminator. Nice way to start off the meal.

We ordered a bottle of white wine, Valtické zámecké Rulandské šedé (290 CZK), which was simple, relatively cheap, and good for the price. They also have Pilsner Urquell on tap.

The English-language menu had its share of amusing dish titles: "Drunk old woman" (pork, mushroom, bacon, beer, ketchup) and "chicken meat under a wimple" (chicken, anchovies, tomato, liver). Some wimple.

Before placing our food orders, the waiter brought around two platters. One platter was covered with various uncooked steaks, including a filet from Uruguay, pork tenderloin, veal, and ostrich. The other was covered with very fresh-looking seafood, including a dorade, tuna steak, salmon steak, and fair-sized octopus.

We asked the waiter if the tuna salad on the menu came with raw tuna or cooked.


There was a miscommunication here.

Based on all the fresh fish, there was an expectation of raw, sushi-quality tuna with the salad. Instead, it was a very boring salad, topped with tuna from a can. Uncooked, of course.

These things happen. More than once, it would turn out.

V got escargot, which she said was good, but not hot enough. M got cabbage (sauerkraut) soup, with slices of klobasa. She liked it. I thought it was the sweetest version I had ever tasted. I did not like it, and I love sweet dishes.

I had a half a duck with red and white cabbage, which was very good for 385 CZK. The skin was excellent, very crispy, not too fatty, and the meat was very moist. It came with dumplings and a fried potato stick.

The steaks were expensive, even by Prague standards. There was a T-bone steak for 580 CZK. M got the Uruguayan filet steak (Svíčková) for 582 CZK. It was her birthday, after all. It was very tender and tasty, with a pepper cream sauce. But 582 CZK?

Cousin P got the ostrich steak (368 CZK), which he generally liked, except for the fact that he was not asked how we wanted it cooked. It came medium rare and he wished it was cooked more.

V got the octopus. It was offered as an appetizer, but she asked for it as a main course. When it came, it was a very full, large plate.

"Wow, this is pretty big for an appetizer," she said.

"I don't think that's an appetizer portion," I said. "I think we'll get charged double for that."
This is the octopus after most of it had been eaten.

There was another miscommunication here, and it was much more painful than the first. We weren't paying enough attention, there was a birthday lunch going on. We didn't notice that not all the seafood that was on the platter had prices on the menu. It did not say "market price" or "price per 100g." But the tuna steak, for example, did list a price on the menu of 485 CZK.

After more than two hours, when the bill for the five of us arrived, it came to 3957 CZK. The highlight: V's 800 grams of octopus at 120 CZK per 100 grams. At 960 CZK, it was probably the most expensive single dish she has ever ordered in the Czech Republic.

Some of the food was OK, but nothing too special. The service was just terribly slow. V asked if it normally took this long to get food.

"Oh yes," she was told. The waiter seemed unbothered by the question, as if it demonstrated the kitchen's attention to detail.

It is possible to eat decently here and not break the bank. We felt we ate pretty well, when we finally got our food. But we also felt like our bank had been broken.

So, my questions are these: Did the restaurant take advantage of us or is it our own fault for not paying attention? What do you think?

Whatever the answer is, it is not going to make me feel any better. And because of that, we are never going back to Nebeský Mlýn.

Nebeský Mlýn
Palackého tř.91
Brno - Královo Pole
Tel.: 541 210 221

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Cremeria Milano (Closed)

Well, it's February, and we all know what that means: Time to cool off with a rich, satisfying cone of gelato. After sweating through a long Prague winter, you don't want just any gelato -- you want the best.

Yeah, OK, just about nobody cares about gelato at this time of year. I didn't think I did, either. But then...

I was wandering alone through Old Town Square on Valentine's Day and headed down fashionable Pařížská street. I walked past some of Prague's fanciest shops, like Louis Vuitton. Then, I saw Cremeria Milano. I'd been there the summer before. The sense memory hit me hard. I walked in to the mostly deserted dessert shop.

A young man and woman, looking somewhat bored, dressed in period creamery garb, stood behind the counter.

Cremeria Milano has a good many flavors -- Hazelnut (nocciola), coconut, creme caramel, strawberry -- plus all the big favorites. But I had just one thing on my mind. Chocolate.

"One small chocolate cone, please."

The flavor is just phenomenal -- a deeply intense chocolate, rich and creamy -- something like a frozen version of the warm liquid center of a good chocolate fondant/moelleux cake. I'm a major chocolate addict, and I'd say this is one of the best chocolate experiences I've ever had. The price for this pleasure? 50 CZK.

The place has a small cafe seating area in the back. They also have a display case full of other rich-looking deserts like Black Forrest cake, Sachertorte, and tiramisu cake.
It felt a bit funny going into a gelato shop in the middle of winter. Going out, I could care less what time of year it was. There's never a wrong time for mind-blowing chocolate.

Look, I'm not going to pretend I've taken anything like a survey of the gelato/ice cream shops of Prague. All I can say is, I can't imagine how anything could possibly better.

Maybe nothing is better in Prague-- but you might find some gelato just as good. People are telling me the cold creamy stuff at Cremeria Milano comes from Cream & Dream, which has a location at Husova 12 in the center of Prague. Their website is in Italian, a very good sign for a gelato company.

Cremeria Milano
Pařížská 20
Praha 1 - Staré Město
Tel. 224 811 010

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Regular Favorites

What are the best restaurants in Prague? It depends who you ask. It depends how much money you want to spend. It depends on what kind of cooking you like. It just depends.

Above all, the most important factor is this: You want to return. Regularly. So, this is a list of 16 favorites, along with the reasons for elevating them to regular status.

  1. Kogo in Slovansky Dum Tuna carpaccio, lobster pasta, seafood risotto, gnocchi with cream, ham, and mushroom -- I could go on. Good service, a bright busy atmosphere, and not cheap but great value for money. Na Příkopě 22
  2. Ambiente on Manesova Carolina wings, the meaty ribs, the thick steaks, the non-classic but very tasty chicken Caesar salad, the chocolate fondue. Mánesova 59
  3. Cafe Savoy (also owned by the Ambiente group) Huge American or French breakfasts with fresh-squeezed juice and homemade hot chocolate. Goat cheese mache salad and the steak tartare. The best cafe in Prague. Vítězná 5
  4. Mozaika Unique takes on cuisines from Asia to Italy, like "tuna 'au roastbeef'" in a cozy little spot. Nitranská 13
  5. La Bodeguita del Medio Giant shrimp and juicy steaks for prices that are a bit lower than other top end establishments. The restaurant is very popular, but people tend talk more about the great mojitos and live Cuban music downstairs than the cooking. For what they do, the kitchen is one of the best in Prague. Kaprová 5
  6. Potrefena Husa Just for the bacon cheeseburger, washed down with a Hoegaarden. Vinohradská 104 and other locations
  7. Neklid Restaurant Off-beat wasabi and ginger steak (rostenka), steak tartare, totally non-standard but great "Caesar"salad, and, of course the dirt cheap prices. Unconventional recipes, off the beaten track, and not much to look at, but the chef knows what tastes good. Ruská 34
  8. Tiger Tiger (THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED) Probably the best Pad Thai Gai, with lots of big fresh shrimp. The Pad Ped Gai (chicken in red curry with lime leaf) is also a knockout. They have serious competition for "best status" from the Lemon Leaf because of their sweet beef red curry with peanut and lime leaf over sticky rice. Tiger Tiger Anny Letenske 5
  9. Hanil The best value for money sushi in Prague. They also do Korean dishes and have a great spicy fried squid. Slaviková 24
  10. Casa Argentina (also owned by the La Bodeguita people) Poor service, kitschy dining room design (roving spotlights?), weak appetizers, side dishes, and desserts. But the best grilled rib eye steak in Prague. By far. Damn them. Dlouhá 35
  11. Brasserie M On the expensive side for what you get, but a great copy of a French brasserie with a real French owner/chef. Vladislavová 17
  12. Sunday Brunch at the Radisson SAS It doesn't have the nicest dining room for brunch -- the Intercontinental can't be beat for that. But for quality seafood, all you can eat, The Radisson is the place. Stepanská 40
  13. Alcron The best seafood restaurant in Prague, with a very small, intimate dining room. Unfortunately, the prices have gotten so stratospheric that it will have to be a very special occasion before a return visit can be justified. Stepanská 40
  14. Celnice, Kolkovna, or Olympia Great Pilsner Urquell and, usually, better than average Czech cooking. The service can sometimes be on the unfriendly side. Celnice V Celnici 4, Kolkovna V Kolkovně 8, Olympia Vítězná 7
  15. Fraktal The best Mexican breakfast in Prague. The breakfast enchiladas are just terrific. People rave about the burgers, too. Šmeralova 1
  16. Zahrada v Opeře (Garden at the Opera) Lots of great dishes in a modern art setting next to the National Opera. I go for the nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice with seafood, season with lime leaf and red chilies. The Chicken Caesar comes highly recommended. Legerova 75 at the top of Wenceslas Square

There are plenty of other well-known restaurants in Prague that don't make the list for various reasons. I've been to all of these places and, for one reason or another, they don't pull me back for regular visits: Kampa Park, Mlynec, Bellvue, Alchymist Restaurant, Palffy Palac, Atelier, Coda, Staroceska Krcma Fontana, The Sushi Bar, Pravda, Barock, Red, Hot & Blues, Jama, Le Cafe Colonial.. this list never ends.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Half & Half

"A new sandwich place is opening at the top of Wenceslas Square! It looks really good and fancy!"

V's news got me pretty excited. We'd been waiting for this development for years. The top of Wenceslas Square is a culinary wasteland -- McDonald's, KFC, pizza, chlebicky (Czech open-faced sandwiches) and, uh, hmmm. That's about it.

A couple of days later, Half & Half opened its doors. It is appropriately called Half & Half because it is divided into two different shops that are next to each other, but not connected because a passage runs between them. One side sells sandwiches and pastries. The other side sells ice cream, which looked like gelato, and cakes.
On my first visit, I had ciabata s mozzerllou -- a ciabatta with tomato, mozzarrella, black olives, lettuce, and butter. The ciabatta itself was fresh and retained some crunch in the crust. It had a few slices of rubbery mozzarella -- think egg whites with a bit of salt. At 59 CZK, it wasn't going to break the bank, but you can see why. The ingredients were not of the highest, freshest standard. This seemed true of most of the sandwiches I saw -- very few layers of meats that didn't look very attractive on close inspection. They also do sandwiches on bagels and croissants.
The next day, I tried the ciabata s kurceim masa -- a ciabatta with curry-seasoned chunks of chicken meat, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise. The price is 55 CZK. The lettuce was totally wilted and soft. The chicken was fairly tasty, though, and the ciabatta was fresh.
I tried the brownie (35 CZK). It was more of the cake-like style brownie, not very large. And it was also very dry and crumbly. This may, in part, be a failure of the recipe, but freshness may have also been an issue. But Half & Half had only been open for two days at this point.

They also have a number of pastries that are "baked" in the shop. They are "baked" in the sense that start off as the embryonic pre-formed pastries from what I have heard is giant factory hidden beneath the great lawn of Letna that supplies the entire country with identical pastries. There are croissants, something like a peach turnover.

So, on my second visit, I tried what is called a "pecan braid" for 25 CZK. Sweet, crunchy decadence.

It is sort of a cross between a croissant and a pecan pie. And they have ones just like them at my work.

There is no escape.

I also saw they something of a favorite of mine -- thick hot chocolate -- the kind that has a heating machine swirling it around so it doesn't get too thick and begin to set like chocolate pudding. This was very good and I actually drank it before I could get it back to the office to take a good picture of it.

I'd call it pricey at 45 CZK, but I'll be back for more. It is not quite as good as Cafe Louvre's version, but better than the thick hot chocolate at Boulevard Crocodille on Vodickova.

They also do coffee, espresso, and cappuccino. The sandwiches won't be a big attraction. Perhaps the freshness issue will improve if and when they get busier.

Half & Half
Wenceslas Square 51
Prague 1
Tel. 222 240 696

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