Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lemon Leaf

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

-Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II, William Shakespeare
V and I were walking around near Karlovo náměstí, and it was time for lunch. After a brief discussion about the options in the area, we decided we were in a Thai mood.

We headed down to Lemon Leaf, which has both Thai and "continental" offerings.They were doing good lunch hour business and most of the tables were occupied when we got there.The restaurant had a buffet for 169 CZK. I took a quick glance, but it didn't appeal to me.There were chicken legs, a beef soup, some basic salads, and a few fruits and vegetables. This was continental. We came for the Thai.

Also on the continental menu, they offered items like pork tenderloin wrapped in Irish bacon with mushroom and Gorgonzola cheese (205 CZK), pastas, salads, and such.

The tables are a bit crowded together, but the ceilings are very high and that helped dissipate the many conversations in concert.The waitress tried to give us a table in a main traffic area near the kitchen door when we arrived.

We asked for a different table, and were told the empty ones were reserved. We persisted and she offered us a table near the bar.

I saw on their chalk board that there was a special lunch menu for 99 CZK.

And from 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm, they would take 25% off the regular menu prices.

Another draw for the restaurant is that they offer free Wi-Fi.

I didn't get a chance to test it myself.

Not all Wi-Fi hot spots are created equal.

They started us off with some bread and spread.

I thought the rolls were fairly ordinary, but V liked them.

Neither of us liked the spread.

It was a chalky cream cheese, mixed with chopped red and green peppers.

Now, I've heard good and bad things about Lemon Leaf over the years.

I can't really say which is correct. I always order the same dish from the Thai side of the menu every time I go, so I can't vouch for the rest of the menu.

I got my usual sweet beef red curry with lime leaves (209 CZK). It had chopped peanuts, spicy chili seeds, big slices of lightly-cooked sweet red pepper, and a lot of fish sauce.The beef was thinly sliced and very tender.

The sticky rice was extra (37 CZK).

It was little more gooey than sticky. It was better on my previous visit.

But I still liked it combined with the curry.

It might not appeal to everyone, but I have a thing for sweetness in Thai food.

V is less that way, but also thought it was good.

Perhaps that is because we are both partial to dishes with lime leaf and peanut.

In fact, V liked the red curry sweet beef more than her own selection.

She got the yellow Thai-style curry with vegetables, coconut milk, and cashews (145 CZK).It had eggplant, zucchini, and potatoes.

I thought the ground up cashews added a great flavor to the sauce, but it didn't have as much going on compared with my main course. It was very spicy and also very sweet (thought it did not mention sweetness in the dish's name).

I enjoyed it more than V did, but we agreed that the sweet beef was the better choice.

The yellow curry can also be ordered with chicken (167 CZK) or prawns (249 CZK). She got it with jasmine rice, which is an extra 37 CZK.

V had a half-liter of Hoegaarden witbier (57 CZK). It took a long time to get to the table.

When V asked the waitress when it was coming she was told, "I don't know. I don't deal with the drinks from the bar."

Nice.

I got a bottle of Korunni sparkling water (38 CZK). And that's all we had.

Now, I'm not recommending you go running to Lemon Leaf for Thai food. I'm just saying I like one dish there. And be aware that is very accurately described on the menu.

By any other name, it would still be sweet beef.

Lemon Leaf
Myslíkova 14
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 224 919 056


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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Osteria da Clara

"He who knows little, quickly tells it." Italian proverb
Osteria da Clara is a little, new Italian place with modest prices and lofty culinary aspirations.It took over the space once occupied by Valleta in Vršovice, just over the line from Vinohrady.

I thought Valleta, loved by some, was a reasonably-priced, if imperfect attempt at adventurous and creative cooking. It was interesting and different but never excited me.A couple of visits to Osteria da Clara the first week after it opened has me interested. And at least two dishes had V and me excited.

There were imperfections, but I think (and hope) those can be attributed to the restaurant's newness.

The small dining room has changed in subtle ways from the Valleta days, with a nicer chairs and rearranged tables. But there were only around eight of them.There was also a better looking, stained wood cover for an overhead air vent. But they should get rid of the beat up, old couch near the front door. It brings down an otherwise clean-looking space.

Meals began with chewy, crusty bread. It came with a strong olive oil that had a pleasant, ever-so-slightly bitter finish.

For a starter during a solo outing, I had the crostini misti (95 CZK).

There were three different offerings on the plate. Toasted bread covered with chopped chicken liver, toasted bread with chopped tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and basil, and warm polenta topped with melted cheese.

Amid the crostini, there was white bean salad with red onion and a bit of tuna fish. This unadvertised addition was also offered as a separate starter (95 CZK).I'm a chopped chicken liver fan . In the old days, I used get tubs of it at a New York deli and make sandwiches. I enjoyed this version.

The chopped tomato crostini was basic but tasty. I thought the addition of the sun-dried tomatoes was a good idea.

I believe the polenta had a blue cheese on top. It was a small serving, but enough -- it had a pungent kick.

On the second visit with V, I ordered the insalata di pollo antica -- chicken salad with walnuts, raisin, and orange (95 CZK). There were a few rucola leaves and splashes of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.The chicken, served cold and shredded, was nicely prepared. It could have used more seasoning. All the ingredients were fresh and good quality, but I thought the dish didn't pull together as a whole.

Looking back, I'd have cut up the chicken, orange, and rucola into smaller pieces at the start, tossed them together, and added a touch more dressing. But maybe that's just me. I did this as I was finishing it and enjoyed the salad much more.

V got the calamari caldi con barbabietole -- warm squid with beetroot, leaks, white wine and cream (115 CZK).The squid were tender, but unspectacular when considered on their own merits. However, the sauce was the star here.

The mixture of the wine and cream, along with the added calamari flavor, had us soaking it up with our extra bread. Only the bland beets were a disappointment.

For a main course on my first visit, I got the fettine di maiale -- pork fillet with pine nuts and balsamic vinegar (235 CZK). I absolutely loved this.The thick, brown coating on the meat tasted like a lovely Marsala wine sauce. There were unannounced raisins, giving it natural sweetness. Fresh sage took it to another level. Fantastic.

I asked the waitress about the sauce. After consulting with the kitchen, she said it was actually made with table wine, but that the carrots were cooked in Marsala. The carrots were perfect -- warm, but still with some snap in them.

There was cold, anise-influenced fennel and a small amount of cold, roasted eggplant, red pepper, and zucchini.

The roasted potatoes had potential, but weren't as good as they could have been. Also, the pork was just a little tough.

On the second visit, V had the spaghetti al zingaro, which is made with ginger, chili, garlic, tomato, and marjoram (129 CZK). She raved about it.It had the zesty zing of fresh ginger and the spicy bite of the chili. I'd never tasted a pasta quite like it before, and it took me a few bites to get used to it. V liked it so much, she complimented the chef when he came out of the kitchen.

She also took the opportunity to ask him if the menu will expand, since it is pretty short.

He said probably not. The plan is to make changes every two weeks. But he said he'd make the spaghetti al zingaro for her any time, on request. Nice guy.

My sources tell me he's British, worked in restaurants in Florence, had a Czech girlfriend and... you know how that goes.

Anyway, on this second trip, I ordered the scaloppine dello chef (235 CZK). It was thinly sliced, tender pieces of beef topped with a Gorgonzola cheese sauce and, if memory serves, fried fennel.It also came with the great carrots, better-prepared roast potatoes, and what V believed to be fried Chinese cabbage. The dish was OK but didn't grab me nearly as much as the pork dish.

Things I didn't get to try: breast of guinea fowl with pancetta, olives, and orange (285 CZK) or the fish of the day (285 CZK).

The wine list reminded me of Al Pacino -- short, cheap, and Italian. With all due respect, padrone. I mean that in a good way.

Wine by the .2 liter glass were all 35 CZK. A .75 liter bottle of Chardonnay della Venezia was only 175 CZK, while a bottle of Chianti Colli Senesi was 375 CZK.

There was no beer on tap. They had .33 liter bottles of Pilsner Urquell and Budvar for 35 CZK.

I ordered dessert on both visits.

The first was a housemade tiramisu (95 CZK). I'm not a big connoisseur, but this one was really good.The ladyfingers were soaked in plenty of real espresso and liqueur, and each bite revealed chunks of dark chocolate inside. The strawberry was ripe and finely sliced. Yum.

On the second visit, I had the panna cotta with brandy and orange (95 CZK). There was an orange sauce but not a lot of brandy flavor. Still, this sweet, creamy dessert tasted heavenly.There was one problem. Ice crystals in the middle. I mentioned it to the waitress, and she confessed the freezer had broken down some time earlier. Such are the opening week kinks in a new restaurant.

I wasn't thrilled about it, but I'll say this. It was good enough that I really want to try it again (without the ice crystals).

Yes, we'll be going back, even though it wasn't perfect. And not just because we live in the area.

I thought that pork was one of the best dishes I've had in a long time. V felt the same way about the zingy spaghetti.

It also helps that the prices are probably 30% less than what you'd pay for similar cooking in the center, especially since side dishes were included.

Now, old school restaurant critics might wait for a restaurant to be open for a month or two to let some issues get smoothed out before writing a review.

In the blogosphere, we play by different rules. But they are not new rules.

It is not widely known, but we often use old Italian proverbs as our guides.

Osteria da Clara
Mexicka 7
Prague 10 - Vršovice
Tel. (+420) 271 726 548
Email: daclara (at) seznam.cz


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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Boulevard Bageterie

“There's nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex.”
-Billy Joel
What's better than a good sandwich, then?

Wait. Don't answer that.

I'm sure the list is long. Besides, there's no great need to waste time thinking about it. Prague is still not a good sandwich town.

Unfortunately, I'm a good sandwich kinda guy. So, I do have my own short list of places I go, like Yessi Cafe at V Celnici or Culinaria.

When I'm in the middle of Wenceslas Square, which is often, and need a sandwich, I usually wander up Vodičkova street to Boulevard Bageterie.What's so great about the place?

Not so much.

There really is only one reason I keep going back.

It's all about the baguette.

The meats and toppings, usually nothing too special, rest inside nice, long, warm, crunchy baguettes.

It really makes everything else taste better.

On my most recent visit, I had the Bruselská baguette (89 CZK).

It came with chunks of chicken, blue cheese dressing, and grilled onion.The chicken was actually pretty good here. It had a peppery flavor, but you don't get a whole lot. Or perhaps it looks like you don't because it was quite a long piece of bread. Loading it up with meat would be quite costly.

The onion spread was tasty, but there wasn't so much. I'm not a big blue cheese fan, and this dressing was very salty.

For a drink, I had the ice tea. I liked it a lot. It is made with lightly pre-sweetened real-brewed tea with real lime in it. Lemon would be better, but it was still just fine.

They used a somewhat non-standard, aromatic tea. It is served with ice or without, but if you get it with, they don't give you too many cubes. I like lots of ice in my tea.

They only charged 15 CZK for the drink when ordered with a sandwich. By itself, it was 29 CZK.

For dessert, they offered cakes, cookies, and brownies. But I decided to get a hot chocolate (39 CZK) to go on this cold and blustery day.

It was served in a small cup, with corrugated sides so you can hold it. It was super hot. I burned my tongue with the first sip. The hot chocolate was topped with a little whipped cream.

Underneath the cream, was a very thick variety of hot chocolate. Pudding-like. A skin will form on the top if you let it sit for a while.

I really do like the thick stuff -- my favorite is at Cafe Louvre.

But Boulevard Bageterie's really doesn't compare. It was on the bland side -- the chocolate flavor doesn't stand out.

It was not bad, but it is not exactly cheap, and there was no love there.

The shop itself was not bad to look at, with bright colors and graphics, and fairly comfortable seating. You can sit on a stool by the window and watch the people go by while a heater blows warm air up from the floor.Above the counter where you order, there were great pictures of the different types of sandwiches and their ingredients, which help you with your choices -- especially for non-Czechs. The menus were not in English.There was a refrigerator where this is a good variety of meal-sized salads (79-99 CZK). They had chicken Caesar salads, Caprese salads, and a Salade niçoise.

V really liked the niçoise (89 CZK) -- it came with sliced potatoes, boiled egg, baby spinach, baby tomatoes, and tuna.

She said she had to get two dressing packages with it though, because one was not enough. But her colleagues were impressed with it when she brought it back to the office and put it in a bowl.

V said the yogurt with müsli and fresh fruit (32 CZK) was delicious. They also have some bottled fruit juices in the case.

On another visit, I had the Brooklyńska baguette (89 CZK). It had sliced turkey, bacon, tomato, grilled onion, and mustard dressing. I guess this was my favorite one -- and not because I grew up near Brooklyn.I have a weakness for bacon. But the turkey was the weak spot here. It usually tastes a bit off to me, and again, there's not a lot of it. Maybe that's good.

Of course, I had to try the Americká baguette (89 CZK). This came with meatballs, Emmental cheese, grilled onions, barbecue sauces and something like mayonnaise.Not even considering the odd combination of toppings, this was certainly the worst sandwich I tried.

Perhaps meatballs was not an appropriate name. "Bread balls" would be more accurate.

I wanted to try their onion rings -- a 29 CZK additional charge with the sandwich.

Same problem. Call them bread rings. Stale ones, at that. They came with a strong blue cheese dip. Bleh.

They sell a few other warm sandwiches: The Frankfurtska (70 CZK) had grilled hot dog, cheese, bacon, peppers, grilled onion and "devil" sauce.

I had it a long time ago and remember not liking it much.

The Pařížská (79 CZK) had regular ham, Prague ham, cheese, and tomato.

They had a fried fish baguette (79 CZK) and they offer a special baguette sandwich that changes from time to time.

There were also cold baguette sandwiches, but I've never tried them. There was the Lososová (79 CZK) which came with smoked salmon, lettuce and cheese.

I saw one with prosciutto that looked decent with mascarpone cheese, and a Caprese (69 CZK) with mozzarella and tomatoes.

I've listed a lot of the other sandwiches here because the menu was not available online. And having surveyed the menu in the shop, I can also tell you one thing they did not have:

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

They have a few things that are better than that.

Boulevard Bageterie
Vodičková 21
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 514 559


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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Restaurant Vikárka

"Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it."

-G.K. Chesterton
You've survived a forced march over uneven, cobblestone roads. You've stormed the castle and viewed Prague from its ramparts.

Then, after a long day on thin rations, there's an attack.

The hunger.

You've heard the warnings from traveling troubadours: Danger lurks outside the historic walls of Hradčany.

Legions of rogue restaurants lie in wait. You face the very real possibility they will treat you like a serf, serve up glorified gruel, and levy charges for each crust of bread you eat. Or didn't eat.

Short of self-defenestration, how can you avoid this terrible fate?

It is a prime tourist zone I rarely visit myself, so even I struggle to answer this question.

But I recently visited a restaurant that had good food, a good atmosphere, a little bit of history, and very little highway robbery.

Best of all, it is within the walls of Prague Castle.

I'm talking about Restaurant Vikárka (The Vicarage).The buildings on this spot had many uses over the centuries, including as alchemist workshops and as stables.

But in recent decades, it's been a restaurant. It underwent a renovation in 2005.

The entrance is right next to St. Vitus's Cathedral and there is a lovely view from there.Inside the restaurant, there are a number of bigger and smaller dining areas. It was pretty busy.We were happy to walk in and find a table.

I ordered the hovězí svíčková (195 CZK), which is one of my favorite traditional Czech meals. It is roast beef (often overcooked) in a cream sauce with bread dumplings and some cranberry sauce.I really love the cream sauce, and this was a very good version. It is made with pureed root vegetables, beef stock, bacon, and cream (or sour cream).

There's more to it if you want to see a full recipe.

This version was a sweet, creamy, tangy and I couldn't get enough of it. I soaked up every last bit with my dumplings.

For some perspective, hovězí svíčková costs 169 CZK at the great Pilsner pub, U Pinkasů, near Wenceslas Square.

V had potato gnocchi in a mushroom cream sauce (180 CZK). The quality gnocchi themselves were nothing to write home about. The lighter, fluffier gnocchi at Kogo are certainly superior (and more expensive).But again, the sauce was great. The flavor of the mushrooms was strong and earthy. Overall, it was heavy, thick, satisfying comfort food that warmed me up nicely on a cold day.

I had a . 4 liter glass of Krušovice dark beer (60 CZK). That's very steep. Krušovice is OK, but not a great beer. The price elsewhere is less than half what Vikárka charges.

They did have Pilsner Urquell, but it was 80 CZK for a .33 liter serving. Crazy. At U Vejvodů in the center of Prague, a half-liter of Pilsner draft is only 30 CZK.

When I mentioned "highway robbery" earlier, the beer was what I was talking about.

As for the rest of the menu, soups were 50-60 CZK, and starters and salads were 85-180 CZK.

If you want to loosen the purse strings on the main courses, there was a steak for 425 CZK, lamb cutlets with marjoram sauce for 450 CZK, and grilled salmon for 320 CZK. I'd never eaten here before, so I can't vouch for the quality of the other offerings.

They had a small children's menu with a fried chicken cutlet, fish fingers, or spaghetti. We had no problem with the service.

One of the benefits of the location: There are very nice views of the castle walls from some windows. Cannons once stood in the same location a few hundred years ago.

The threat of Swedish invasion is long gone, but the international tourist invasion remains. As we sipped our drinks, we observed that they made up the majority of the diners.

V had a glass of red wine for 75 CZK, a .25 liter bottle of water for 35 CZK, and an espresso for 60 CZK.

The final bill was 605 CZK.

Yes, you could spend a lot here. But you could also get away with a pretty reasonable bill if you order selectively.

And believe me, you could do a lot worse.

More than a few restaurants around the castle would perfectly respect your hard-earned money.

Restaurant Vikárka
Vikářská 39
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 233 311 962


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