Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sahara Café

"One of the common denominators I have found is that expectations rise above that which is expected."
-George W. Bush, Sept. 27, 2000
I first went to Sahara Café right after it opened. I thought it was a great looking place, in a nicely reconstructed old building, but the menu was pretty limited at the time.

Later, I read The Prague Post's review of the newly opened Garden Restaurant downstairs at the Sahara, back in December 2006. Critic Dave Faries enjoyed what he called "a tremendous steak" of Argentine beef, and used words like "tender, silken and densely flavored."

So, with expectations held high, we went for a try.

And I'll say it was good. And expensive. And it didn't meet my expectations. I expected the best and, for me, it didn't make the cut. So, as good as it was, I was a bit disappointed.

The Sahara steak was about the same price as La Casa Argentina. I've had my problems with that place, but the Argentine steak at La Casa was definitely better.

So, Sahara Café didn't make it into my rotation.

Until recently.

I returned with a friend and brought along slightly lower expectations. And guess what happened? I've been a couple of times now to the upstairs Sahara Café, and I liked just about everything.They don't call it tapas, but the upstairs Sahara Café menu offers many small plates, mostly in the 60-120 CZK range. The menu calls it Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.

They start you out with very nice bread. It comes with soft, almost melted butter and a sweet red onion relish. I detected a touch of wine in it. It is great, one of the better and original complements I've had with bread in a long time.

My friend got "Arabic Salad" for 65 CZK. It was a very nice combination of finely chopped peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and various leaves mixed with olive oil and lemon juice.I believe there was some red onion in there, too. It reminded me of a non-liquid version of gazpacho. Very good.

I sampled the "Spanish Empanadas" for 50 CZK. They are folded puff pastries, filled with chickpeas, eggplant, and onion. It is served with a spicy and very tasty Moroccan tomato sauce.I liked it, but there were just three of the little turnovers. They were gone in six bites.

I ordered the Oriental-style tuna tartar. I got the 75 gram starter portion for 220 CZK. You can also get 150 gram main course version for 390 CZK. And it also comes Siciliana-style, but I didn't ask what that was.I have to confess, I was talking and not focusing much on deconstructing the dish, but my recollection is that the chopped, raw tuna was mixed with cilantro, soy sauce, and ginger. I do remember it was fairly salty and not so much like other versions I've had. No wasabi. But I still enjoyed it and would try it again. There is also beef tartar for the same price.

I got a taste of the lamb kebabs, which are 90 CZK. These are actually mini lamb-burgers, topped with a little chopped tomato.They did have a nice lamby flavor, and the chopped meat was mixed with herbs and spices. They are served on top of a yogurt-tahini mixture. I must say I'd prefer chunks of grilled lamb, rather than ground meat.

Other highlights of the starter list are octopus salad (120 CZK), hand-cut Patanegra ham (240 CZK), grilled mushrooms (80 CZK), and foie gras (200 CZK).

One of the standout features of Sahara Café is the space itself. I'd say it is one of the most beautiful and best-designed restaurants in the city.Different dining areas are separated by curtains hanging from the high ceilings. The floors are high-quality wood that looked like teak. There is a beige-white color scheme throughout, with a few dashes of color.It is also very large. It is filled with stylish, comfortable couches with throw pillows. Those seats are often filled with Prague's nouveau riche, expats, and people having business dinners. But I also saw many couples on dates, enjoying the dark, romantic atmosphere.It was empty when I was there, but it can get quite full on a weeknight. I enjoyed my evening visit so much, I thought I'd come by on a weekend afternoon to try a few other things. I sat out on the deck in back.This area has a view of the restaurant's beautiful garden. It's nice, green lawn takes up most of the courtyard, with tall, leafy trees framing the area.I would always choose the garden tables with this view over the tables out in front on Náměstí Miru. The tiers of canvas umbrellas look great, and they did a fine job restoring the building that houses the restaurant. Anyway, back to the food.

For a starter on my second recent visit, I ordered the goat cheese crostini for 80 CZK. It's a piece of toast with olive oil, topped with grilled tomato and baked with goat cheese. It is small, but the goat cheese is nicely warm and moist. The whole thing is on top of some ruccola leaves.I don't have a list of the main courses available and the Sahara Café menu is not available on line at this time, but I ordered the barbecued pork ribs for 380 CZK. They unlike almost any I've had before. I liked them.You've heard the phrases "meat falling off the bone," and "fork-tender?" Apply them to these ribs. The slightest touch and the meat is free. I tried picking them up and eating a few, but they are better suited to knife and fork.

The ribs are covered in barbecue sauce that I thought, at first, could have had a little more kick and character, maybe some tartness. The are sweet, but not cloying.

By the end, I had more appreciation for the subtlety of the sauce. The ribs had rosemary and sage sprinklied on top, and the herbs really did add a unique tone to such a familiar dish.

Sahara Café is not cheap -- all those little dishes can add up. My weekend lunch, with a couple of bottles of mineral water, added up to 558 CZK. The evening snacks were around 500 CZK. But I feel I got value for money.

Now, after all this, it would not be unexpected if you have high expectations about Sahara Café. However, I'd suggest you lower them a bit. There's a much bigger chance you'll enjoy this place.

Worked for me.

Sahara Café
Námestí Míru 6
Prague 2 Vinohrady

Tel. (+420) 222 514 987

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Monday, August 27, 2007


“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”
-Boris Pasternak
Sometimes, tourists are the primary audience for a post.

Sometimes, a post is more for people who live in Prague.

This time, the audience is far more narrow and select: Residents of Prague's Upper Vršovice neighborhood.

When Nanocafé opened on Kodaňská a few months back, I found it rather surprising. I wondered what the people behind it were thinking.It is a cafe the size of a phone booth, with four tables and a few stools inside. Out front, there are four tables surrounded by straw mats sitting under a big Hoegaarden umbrella. It is near the Slovinska bus stop, but it is a relatively quiet residential area, so I imagined the potential for foot traffic would not be high.

I walked by it many times, but I never gave it a second look. Which is where V comes into the picture. She is preternaturally curious and, one day, stuck her head in the door. And what she saw impressed her. Nanocafé serves her favorite beer in the world: Leffe Blonde.

Certainly, the attachment is somewhat sentimental. V spent a good deal of time working in Brussels.

Nanocafé serves it from a .3 liter bottle for 49 CZK, which is pretty steep. But we rationalized that it wasn't too bad because that is about the same price we've seen it selling for at Delvita. And when it comes to love, money is no object.

Another surprise was that the place is run by a cool and friendly young couple. We stopped by late one evening for a drink. Around midnight, we asked what time they closed.

"10 o'clock," we were told. "But we'll stay open later if we feel like it."

Another night we started there around 10 pm and were told they wouldn't stay open until midnight, like last time. Still, we were asked if we wanted another round at 11 pm. Our kind of place.

They told V that she is really their only Leffe Blonde customer. So, she'd better keep drinking it significant quantities.

Even I, very unexpectedly, fell for a new beer. Nanocafé sells Primátor Weizenbier, which is brewed in Náchod. It is a top-fermented, light-coloured wheat beer with unfiltered yeast.

They serve it with a wedge of lemon at the top of a tall Primátor glass, but I think it has a very nice tartness on its own and a slight honey sweetness. I just love it. A great summer beer at 34 CZK per half-liter glass.

It is also sold by the bottle at Delvita. If memory serves, it was only around 17 CZK for a half-liter. A great alternative to the much pricier Hoegaarden.

Nanocafé also has Stella Artois at 34 CZK for a half-liter.

They have a small menu of snacks like Medovnik for 30 CZK, fruit cheesecake for 40 CZK, and panini. And, of course they have espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes for between 24 and 39 CZK. There is a long list of teas to choose from for 24 CZK, including green lychee. They have banana, strawberry, blueberry or vanilla milkshakes for around 36 or 38 CZK. I even saw pear cider (34 CZK) and ginger beer (29 CZK) on the menu.

We asked the young woman in charge how the business was doing. I was surprised when she said they were actually making the most money from the coffee business.

One big reason, she said, is that there is a no smoking policy. They get many mothers from the area coming by during the day with their baby carriages to socialize or just sit outside. They also have free Wi-Fi.

I have been especially surprised in the last few weeks to see that Nanocafé has grown relatively popular. Or as popular as a place can be with seven or eight tables. They are often full and people stand around drinking and socializing by the door.

If more than two or three people reading this decide to drop by, they probably won't even fit. Just so you know.

I asked them how they will survive the winter if 50 percent of their tables are outside. They said they will try to keep the tables warm with heaters.

I have to admit, I'll be surprised if they'll be able to deal with the cold weather and keep the business going strong.

Then again, I've found that Nanocafé is full of surprises.

Kodaňská 22
Prague 10

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Riegrovy Sady - The Movie

I wrote recently about one of Prague's most popular beer gardens, Riegrovy Sady.

In summary, it is a good place to sit outside on a summer evening, drink cold beer, watch sports on a big screen, eat bad sausage, and do some people watching.

And people, I've been watching.

I shot a load of video up there of people doing all of the above. Originally, I thought I'd do a narrated report. Then, laziness set in, and I figured I'd just lay down a music track and show what the scene is like for those of you who don't already know.

My initial thought was, "Hey, people are interesting. People like looking at other people."

But on reflection, the video was kind of boring, so I threw in a bunch of editing gimmicks. When it was done, I showed it to V.

"It's kind of boring," she said.

Oh, well. At least she's honest.

It's too late to turn back now. So, here it is: A Czech Please People Watcher report.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Café Imperial

"It is better to be beautiful than to be good."
-Oscar Wilde
The artistic landmark that is Prague's Café Imperial has reopened after its makeover.

So, when some friends and colleagues said they were meeting there for drinks, I had just a little extra incentive to join in.

First, I should say that I never went to the old Café Imperial. I have no basis for comparison. Second, I got there after everyone finished their meals, so I don't have too much to say about the food.

But who cares?

This is one of the most unique cafés you will ever see. It is a rather dramatic space.

The tall walls and high ceilings are completely covered with Art Nouveau ceramic tiles and mosaics dating back to the Imperial Hotel's construction in 1914.The exterior of the hotel, which houses the café, is Art Deco. I took a picture of it, but it was too dark to post.

The ceramics contain a wide variety of scenes in relief, like little angels, animals, or hunters. Some of the walls also have intricate wood carvings.The tile-clad columns in the middle of the room are particularly impressive.I was hungry, so I did order a club sandwich for 180 CZK. It comes with decent fries. It's nothing too special. The sandwich has the standard bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes. There is a touch of mayo.What is non-standard from my point of view are the cucumbers and sliced, boiled egg. They use a whole piece of chicken breast that is a bit dry and also unwieldy to eat. I'd much prefer thinly-sliced chicken or turkey.

I took a brief survey of what others at the table had before I arrived. I was told:

The mushroom quiche was good, but a rather small portion for 150 CZK. The hamburger was big and good, but had to be sent back because it was seriously undercooked. It was very enjoyable after recooking, and cost 210 CZK. The tuna sandwich for 180 CZK did not look good or taste good.

I saw other people receiving fancier meals than what we ordered. The menu offers dishes like Irish beef cheeks (295 CZK), pork fillet with beer sauce (225 CZK), loin of tuna (290 CZK), and fillet of John Dory (395 CZK).

Some of it looked pretty good as it went by, but you never know. The more expensive plates are brought out with a flourish by the kitchen staff, dressed in their uniforms. They made quite a production of bringing out two apple turnovers with vanilla ice cream. Club sandwiches apparently get ordinary waitress delivery.

And, of course, they also serve breakfast. The English Breakfast is toast , fried eggs, bacon, beans, sausage, marmalade, bread, butter, and coffee or tea for 190 CZK. For the same price, you can get the American Breakfast of two eggs any style, bacon, tomato, sausage, hash brown potatoes, butter, bread, and filtered coffee. They also do omelets with ham, cheese, or veggies.

But the main focus of our visit was the alcoholic beverages. They do have a cocktail menu.

I started with a dry, gin martini, what they call a "martini cocktail" for 105 CZK. If you don't say anything in advance, it comes out with two ice cubes in it, and a rather small pimento-stuffed olive with no toothpick. The poor little thing got caught under a cube. Getting it out without fingers or utensils was a bit tricky.

I decided that this was a little too much effort, so I switched to Jack Daniels with a little ice. Except I was informed that they didn't have Jack. So, instead, I joined my English buddy in ordering a Jameson with ice for 78 CZK.

The Divine Ms. C was drinking Cosmopolitans for 105 CZK a pop. A .15 liter glass of Pinot Noir (label unknown) was 98 CZK, and a .15 liter glass of Czech Riesling (label unknown) was 85 CZK.

You can't really tell from flash photos in a big room, but the lighting was too bright for most of the evening.I can understand why they want to keep the place well illuminated, but it does hurt the atmosphere. Toward the end of the evening, someone got on the dimmer switch and brought the lighting down.

There is something else you must know. Every time something is written about Café Imperial, the following must be mentioned:

Believe it or not, there used to be a tradition of doughnut throwing at Café Imperial. Anyone willing to pay 2000 CZK could hurl stale doughnuts at any other customer. However, the thrower would have to bear the brunt of the adverse reactions of those targeted.

One story from last year said the practice was discontinued. A more recent story said it will be revived.

I really can't say whether you should go to Café Imperial for the food. I can't say I tasted or even saw enough to say whether it is good. But, it's not the primary attraction for most people, anyway.

What I can say is that I'm pretty sure Oscar Wilde would have recommended it.

Café Imperial
Na Poříčí 15
110 00 Praha 1

Tel. (+420) 246 011 440

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Farah Oriental Market

I usually write about Prague restaurants.

But, every once in a while, I want to do something different. Perhaps a restaurant in nearby Brno or one in far away Avignon.

Or an international food shop.

Back in March, I wrote about the Greek offerings at Olympia Delikastesy a Vína. That little shop has a devoted following, me included, and it was a popular post.

Today, I have another favorite shopping stop on my mind: Farah Oriental Market (orientální potraviny).

"Oriental" means they mainly carry Middle Eastern, Turkish, and Indian foods and spices.

A big reason to go to Farah is for the lamb chops. I'm sure others have their sources, but for me, good ones have been hard to find.

Farah's lamb chops have always been very fresh, meaty, and tender. With this batch, we took the easy route and soaked them for a while in a Marks & Spencer red wine marination.Usually, we put them in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and rosemary. We'll grill them on the terrace if I can get motivated to start a fire.

The shop has a small meat case. The lamb chops are kept uncut and when you order them, the butcher takes them in the back and hacks them apart with a cleaver. They cost 210 CZK per kilogram.They also carry Merguez lamb sausage. We bought some on the last visit. It costs 179 CZK per kilogram. We froze them, so I still haven't tried them yet. The website says the meats are halal.

Next to the meat case is a sweets case, with honey-phyllo desserts and a variety of other non-diet substances. I haven't had the impulse to try these.Aside from lamb, the many spices available at Farah draw us back. There are buckets and buckets of the stuff, as well as many prepackaged varieties.On the last visit, we got 200 grams of turmeric for 94 CZK. It was also our source for garam masala for a recipe V wanted to make.Believe it or not, despite all the restaurant talk here, we cook at home. A lot. V cooks to relax. Very international. I am the chief seasoner, stirrer, and all around cleanup guy. And eater.

Anyway, a big part of Farah is devoted to Middle Eastern and Turkish canned goods. There are a few Asian items, as well. I made an impulse buy of some stuffed vine leave, or dolma, for 53 CZK a can. I'm kind of into these little things, and theirs were better than other canned brands I've tried.There is just a wide variety of stuff, and I didn't take notes, so I can't begin to tell you everything that is on the shelves. I did enjoy browsing for a while.If you've got other good exotic food sources around Prague, feel free to share.

Farah orientální potraviny
Myslíkova 5
Prague 1
Tel. (+420 224 930 704)

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Taverna Olympos

"And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul."
So, knowledge about Greek food must be super good for the soul.

One of the best places I've found in Prague for a Greek meal in Prague is Taverna Olympos. It is just a few stops on the metro from the city center in the Žižkov neighborhood.

A big attraction during the summer months is the huge garden for dining in the back. Some of the tables are under a roof, while others are under some big, leafy trees.

There's a decent play area with swings and a slide for children. They were under heavy use. The slide looked steep. There was also a large, even younger contingent. The baby buggies were bumper to bumper.

The garden is very popular with a somewhat older crowd, too. In fact, on a Friday afternoon, we tried to book a table there for later in the evening and were told it was not possible. It wasn't completely full a Saturday, although the weather wasn't as nice.

Sitting near us, A British gentlemen dining with a lady expounded upon his fondness for Taverna Olympos. He loudly explained to the lady and, through the luck of the draw, to us, that the restaurant is more of a local favorite and not full of tourists.

Expatriates now fall into the "local" category in Prague. I counted more than a few, though many were cross-pollinating Czexpat* families.

We started our meal with a round of cold starters. We got the eggplant spread for 80 CZK. It was very good, with a light vinegar sourness, along with a hint of smoke.There was a little bit of feta cheese and red pepper mixed in. Chopped parsley was sprinkled on top.

We also ordered the taramas, also known as taramosalata, for 80 CZK. This was not bad, but not good. It was nicely smooth and sour, especially with the accompanying lemon squeezed on top.Even though the taramas had a nice pink hue, neither of us could detect any fish egg flavor. V loves to be reminded of the sea, and there were no little reminders here. She said she had taramas from a supermarket in Normandy during a recent trip and liked it more.

Pita bread to go with these starters was an extra 30 CZK. It is hard to imagine a Greek meal without pita, but this was money well spent. The bread was wonderfully fresh and warm from the grill, sprinkled with herbs.Speaking of the grill, for a main course, I got the mixed souvlaki for 180 CZK. There was chicken, pork, and beef cooked over a flame on wooden skewers. The beef was delicious, the chicken was perfectly cooked, and not dry at all.

I enjoyed them all, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the pork. Smoky, tender, and juicy. They should be eaten as quickly as possible. They do dry out as they get cold.Like many dishes, the souvlaki comes with only token salads on the side and a small amount of tzatziki.

So, I ordered a side of fries for 40 CZK. These are a very Greek version -- not crisp, a bit greasy (pun not intended), with feta cheese broken up on top. It was better than it sounds. The potatoes had good flavor. Do not ask for ketchup.

V ordered the lamb skewer for 240 CZK. We are both big fans of lamb. We thought this version was OK, but not as nice as the souvlaki.The difference was that we didn't think the lamb was flame-grilled. It didn't have the same smoky taste. It was also a little on the dry side.

We had good service in the busy garden and thought our waiter knew what he was doing. He knew the menu very well. During the meal, however, our British neighbor began complain to his lady that the waiter did not know the wine list at all.

When the waiter returned to talk to the man, he got a little lesson. All I heard was "Grapes! Grapes! Grapes!"

I avoided such complications and stuck to beer, as usual. First, I ordered a .4 liter glass of Staropramen Granat for 30 CZK. This was not good. The pipes needed a cleaning. There was a strong metallic taste.

For a second round, I had a glass of Platan, a beer brewed in the southern Bohemian town of Protivín, for 30 CZK. I liked it much better than the Staropramen. V drank a .25 liter carafe of Rotonda white wine, which goes for 80 CZK.

One authentic touch at Taverna Olympos is the manager's "office." His very business-like desk is right in the middle of the service area, next to the pass-through for the plates from the kitchen. This part of the restaurant looks exactly like a favorite spot of ours in Samos. But it could be anywhere in Greece.The restaurant also has a reasonable amount of indoor seating for when the weather turns cold. It was pretty empty inside when we were there.

Greek-themed art is painted directly on the walls. The furniture does not look all that comfortable or particularly Greek. The paper table coverings with the blue print helps.I had only been to Taverna Olympos once before, and that was years ago. I liked it then, but for some reason, it fell off my mental check list.

The menu itself is quite a large document. So. if anyone knows a dish that is particularly good at this particular restaurant, feel free to share the knowledge.

We could all use a little more soul food.

Taverna Olympos
Kubelíkova 9
Prague 3

Tel. (+420) 222 722 239

*I'd like to claim I coined this term today, but there is one Google hit for "Czexpat" and one for "Czexpats." "Czechpats" is apparently a golf tour company.

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