Monday, April 28, 2008

La Rocca (Closed)

** La Rocca has closed down. It has been replaced by another Italian restaurant. I will have to investigate whether they've improved anything else besides the signage (January 2009).

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
-Jonathan Swift
V wanted to take me to La Rocca, an Italian restaurant in Vinohrady.

She really enjoyed a pizza from there a few months earlier and wanted me to try it.

We walked in past the bar area. There is seating upstairs, but we decided to go down another set of stairs.The restaurant was relatively empty on a Friday night, with only a few other tables occupied.V noticed there were no pizzas on the menu. She asked the waiter about it. He told us La Rocca has stopped making pizzas.

He pointed to the empty space where the pizza maker used to work. In the same area, there was a flat-screen television blasting out music videos.

V was very disappointed about the pizza.

We tried to assuage the disappointment with a couple of half-liters of Czech Budweiser (45 CZK) each. This usually helps many problems.

On our table, there was a hand-written special menu listing fresh seafood that was available.

I noticed when we came in that there was a small refrigerator table with a modest selection of fish, calamari, and such.

I briefly considered the calamari, which I believe was 399 CZK for 200 grams, but I decided it was too expensive.

V said she had tried the fresh Orata (Sea Bream) on another visit, which was nicely priced and she said tasted very good.

Instead, stuck to the regular menu, which also has a number of seafood items.

For a starter, we split a Caprese salad (85 CZK). It was made with sliced mozzarella that was creamy and had a little tang to it.They also offer a Caprese di bufala, but you pay a premium (159 CZK).

The tomatoes were ordinary and I did wish we were given more than one leaf of basil. I had to cut it into small pieces to make it last while we ate the rest of the dish.

We were given balsamic vinegar and olive oil to apply ourselves.

I had the spaghetti scoglio (299 CZK) which came one good-sized, shelled prawn, a few very tiny ones, and calamari.There was some other seafood in there, but it was very dark.

It was a generous portion. The big prawn tasted great. I appreciated the added flavor of the parsley.

The skins of cherry tomatoes also added to the flavor when they got on the fork, but there wasn't enough tomato flavor for my tastes. The calamari were rubbery. We thought the dish was only OK.

V got the seafood risotto (249 CZK). It also had one good shrimp. It was made with a tomato sauce that was salty and one-dimensional.The calamari was just as rubbery as in the other dish. And the mussels, which came without shells, tasted... a bit off. I chewed on one that was just fishy badness.

Not pleasant.

Our total bill was 768 CZK. It was not the most expensive dinner for two we've had recently in these days of skyrocketing prices. But we didn't enjoy it so much.

We expected better. Thus, we were disappointed.

La Rocca
Vinohradská 32
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel.: (+420) 222 520 060

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Mad Bar

"We have a great bunch of outside shooters. Unfortunately, all our games are played indoors."
-Weldon Drew
Like you, I have some strange habits.

For example, I play basketball every week at 7pm at a gym. This is not the strange part.

It is that my pre-game rituals include some, shall we say, idiosyncrasies.

First, I'm usually very hungry before the game. Unlike my associates, I hate playing on an empty stomach. I need energy. So, I eat just before I play.

Some have remarked upon this to me, finding it odd. But there's more.

I also believe I play better after a couple of beers. Certainly, this is counterintuitive, at the very least. It runs up against what is known about the effects of alcohol on hand-eye coordination.

And yet it works for me.

It has something to do with my hand-mind cooperation. I have no doubt that our game statistics (if we kept them) would bear this out.

Beer doesn't just build confidence in bars. I firmly believe that, either way, it helps one to score.

Which brings me to my recent pre-game show at Mad Bar.It is a relatively new place in Malá Strana with a clean, modern interior.In the past, I'd often met other players for drinks nearby at Kolkovna's Olympia (other players drink with me, they just don't eat). But we got tired of Olympia's service issues and somewhat higher prices.

At Mad Bar, I was very pleased to discover they served Pilsner Urquell.

Not only that, but there is a Happy Hour from 4pm to 7pm and everything, from food to drink, is 25% off.

The normal price for a half-liter of Pilsner is 36 CZK (it is 39 CZK at Olympia). But during Happy Hour, it was only 26 CZK.

The menu (only in Czech on the net) seemed somewhat limited. They do serve a few breakfast items. There were also some sandwiches, salads, pastas, baked potatoes, and a burrito and a quesadilla.The descriptions didn't inspire me so much, but I can't really say anything about them, either way, because I didn't try the above mentioned items.

What I did try was the spicy sausage (klobasa) on black beer sauce with Czech bread (65 CZK or 49 CZK at Happy Hour).It took a fair amount of time to get to my table -- around 20 minutes. But when it came, I liked it very much. As odd as this might sound, it appeared that some love, skill, and attention went into its preparation.

The snappy skin was artfully cross-cut with a knife to allow some, but certainly not all of the fat to run out. It was perfectly fried. There were small chunks of fat inside, but it was also tender and flavorful. And fatty -- but in a good way.

However, it did not really live up to its "spicy" billing.

It sat atop a great, salty beer sauce with red onions and green peppers. And there was great, freshly cut Czech bread. There was also some lettuce, which I ignored, and some carrot strips, which I did eat.

On another visit, I had the chicken quesadilla, which was pretty bad. It was buried under iceberg lettuce for some reason.

I quite enjoyed the music they played, with funky cool blasts of brass. My friend, Big A, joined me and also commented favorably on the tunes.

Looking around a bit, I saw that Mad Bar has Wi-Fi. The bad news? According to the sign on the window, the place closes at 10pm. So, no post-game shows will be held there.

I left feeling quite satisfied with the beers, the small meal, and the price. It's certainly a good alternative for people looking for something less hectic than Olympia.

As for the basketball game afterward, I can report that it was good night for me. I scored early and often. I was in The Zone.

Right up until the beers wore off.

Mad Bar
Plaská 5
Prague 5 - Malá Strana
Tel. (+420) 775 122 256 or 257 219 855

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Noem Arch - Brno

“Such is the human race, often it seems a pity that Noah... didn't miss the boat.”
-Mark Twain
It was certainly appropriate that it was pouring down rain the day we went to the Noem Arch restaurant in Brno.In English, V said she thought the name roughly translates as "Noah's Ark," but if that is the case, the Czech is not correct. Flaunting her Czech linguistics degree, she insisted it should be written as "Noemova Archa."

It turns out, there were plenty of things we found we not quite right about this flashy-looking place.

There is a giant, smiling photo of "celebrity chef Roman Hadrbolec" on the wall outside the restaurant.

According to his personal website, he served celebrities on a cruise ship and worked as a caterer in California for some big Hollywood stars.

You can also read about how he worked as a model and placed second in a swimsuit competition.

I'm sorry, but after eating in his restaurant, we were left with the impression of style over substance. That he's a pretty boy who serves pretty food, some of which tasted pretty bad.

That's a harsh assessment, but we didn't enjoy it much and honestly thought we could have done many of the Asian-influenced dishes better ourselves at home.

The dining room is big, open, and a little glitzy. We both thought it was a nice, modern space.Unfortunately, just outside the restaurant's big windows, there's an auto garage and a Tesco parking lot.

The waiter was the hyper-attentive sort that some people appreciate. Us? Not so much.

We're just not the types who need a guy wearing one white glove on his right hand to pour our mineral water throughout the meal.And speaking of water, we were offered the sparkling variety, said yes, and received .75 liter bottle of San Pellegrino. It wasn't too crazy a price at 100 CZK , but we didn't realize until later that small Mattoni were also available. I wished he had offered a choice.

One nice service touch was that they had little stools for women to put their purses on under the tables so they didn't have to rest them on the floor or hang them on the back of the chair.

There was an amuse bouche. It was a little piece of toast with creme fraiche and red caviar.

For a starter, V got the calamari with sea salt and chili peppers (250 CZK).

It is described as "lightly crumbed fried calamari rings." The flour-like coating was greasy and soggy. There was no crunch at all.

I've eaten fried calamari all over the world, including Hollywood. I'm something of an addict. And based on that extensive experience, I have come to believe that the exterior should be crispy. It will take more than one celebrity chef to convince me otherwise.It came with chili sauce on the side. From a bottle. Now, I happen to like that sticky, super-sweet stuff with the chili flakes. I have a bottle at home. But perhaps I expected a little more creativity.

It was a pretty small serving of calamari, but perhaps I say that because I just came from a trip to the U.S.A. where the same money would get you super-sized portion of fresh fried rings.

I ordered the stuffed homemade rice paper roll (150 CZK). The menu says the cold roll is filled with "chicken, prawn, rice noodles, lettuce, Rau Om herb and mint."It comes with the chili sauce or peanut sauce. I chose the latter. I really liked the sauce, but I don't have much else good to say.

The chicken was just naked as far as we could tell. We couldn't even taste any salt. Super bland. A missed opportunity. We couldn't taste any seasoning on the rice noodles inside, either. Super-duper bland. Plain lettuce?

The shrimp were OK, but not much expertise goes into those. We love the flavor of mint, but sadly, there were only a few small leaves dominated by everything else.

We've made both of these starters in our own kitchen from an Asian cookbook recipe. When we make the rolls, we soak the rice noodles in fish sauce and a little sugar. Also, we use basil instead of lettuce.

And we roll them thinner and tighter so they can be cut with a knife. The big fat one we got exploded all over the plate with one cut. No more roll.

For a main course, V ordered the Red Snapper in banana leaf and stuffed with aubergine and lime sambal (390 CZK).

The menu said it was steamed in a banana leaf, but it was apparently removed in the kitchen.It was a nice piece of fish. The vegetables, including carrot, bean sprouts, and Enoki mushrooms was quite good.

But the aubergine and lime sambal? Truly awful. Both of us thought it was inedible. The stuffing was intensely salty, and it also had an unpleasant, acrid sesame flavor.

Something was wrong with the oil, we both thought. V had to scrape it off to the side of the plate.

I had the lamb saté with spicy peanut sauce (300 CZK). We both liked this the best.

There was a respectable amount of lamb, which had been beaten into a tender state, and cooked on wooden skewers. It had a slight smoky flavor. The peanut sauce, again, was nice.The rice noodles on the side were mixed with peanut and coconut milk, as far as I could tell. It was also bland.

I asked the waiter for salt. He brought some, explaining that salt is not left on tables because dishes are "as they should be."

Trust me, salt was a big improvement. I threw some on the lamb, as well. I also put some peanut sauce into the noodles (was that how it should be?).

After the DIY seasoning at the table, we both enjoyed it.

But overall, we were pretty unhappy. The bill for lunch, with tip, came to 1500 CZK. I don't mind spending that kind of money if I leave with a smile on my face.

But we weren't smiling. We were disappointed.

This Hollywood extravaganza wasn't worth the price of admission.

And unlike most Hollywood productions, we didn't even get a happy ending.

Noem Arch Restaurant
Cimburkova 9
612 00 Brno – Královo Pole
Tel. (+420) 541 216 160

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Saint Nicholas Cafe (Closed)

** NOTE: This place closed long ago under its long-time original management. I've read it is now a pizza restaurant under the same name. (August 12, 2012)

"Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited." Ambrose Bierce
I was planning a meeting with the English Patient and a couple of Irish friends.

We needed a place for a drinking session. Food was an afterthought.

Location was an issue -- Mala Strana was requested.

Saint Nicholas Cafe was chosen.

The exterior wasn't much to look at, with beat up, patchy painted walls.

After stepping through the first set of doors, the entrance to the cafe inside a passage is slightly more attractive.

Inside, slightly below street level, is a dark, atmospheric, and even historic space. The owners say the building dates back to 1554.

There are often expats seated at the bar. Saint Nicholas Cafe is not far from a number of embassies.They also say the decorative painting replicates the style of a much earlier time. There is certainly a patina on the walls. Whether it is from age, cigarette smoke, or both, I cannot say.As I said, the main order of business for us was alcohol.

Becherovka and beer to be specific.

The four of us consumed 18 Becherovka shots (50 CZK each), 6 half-liters of Pilsner Urquell (40 CZK each), and 4 half-liters of Gambrinus (33 CZK each).

A typical English-Irish meeting. Damage inflicted on all sides.

For the uninitiated, Becherovka is a liquor flavored with cinnamon, anise, and 32 other herbs that supposedly have medicinal qualities.

It is 38 percent alcohol, which was the only medicine I needed.

As the session stretched into the evening, we decided to order food. The menu options were limited. We settled on three pizzas.

We sampled a Margherita pizza with tomatoes and onions (105 CZK).There was a diavola pizza with pepperoni, onions, and a some red and green cherry peppers (145 CZK).And a Hawaiian pizza with the standard ham and pineapple (125 CZK).My memory of these pizzas are somewhat hazy. For example, I don't recall what that white cheese in the middle of the diavola was.
In fact, after the initial post, I was angrily informed by a commenter that the "cheese" was, in fact, an egg. Such are the dangers of drink.

But I do remember that the crust was good and crunchy. Also, the price was nice. I have the receipt to prove that.

Otherwise, all the pizzas were fairly unremarkable. No one was too impressed. But I'd certainly get one again if I needed food support during a prolonged a prolonged beverage-oriented mediation.

I have to confess, I was feeling pretty dead when we were done. I'd had my share of drinks, washed down with pizza dough.

But I knew what to expect -- it wasn't exactly a meeting of saints.

Perhaps if I do a little more editing...

Saint Nicholas Cafe
Tržiště 10
Prague 1 - Mala Strana
Tel. (+420) 257 530 204

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Posezení U Čiriny

"I do not like broccoli. And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli."

-U.S. President George H.W. Bush, 1990
V often makes me do things she thinks are good for me. Since I'm not president of anything, it is usually good politics to do what she asks.

One day, she decided I should broaden my culinary horizons. Her feeling, ironically, was that I needed to visit more restaurants frequented by Czechs.

And so it came to pass that we had lunch at Posezení U Čiriny (Gathering at Čirina’s).The chef, Irena Kosiková, once worked as the personal cook for Vaclav Havel when he was the Czech president.

Serving the high, if not the mighty, runs in the family. A recent article in Tyden magazine informed us that Kosiková's grandmother cooked for Hungarian nobility in Budapest.

Also of note, the restaurant was The Prague Post's editors' choice in 2004 for the best Czech or Slovak restaurant.

In addition to Czech and Slovak cuisine, there were Hungarian choices and local interpretations of Asian dishes.

The small dining rooms were very cozy, with just a few tables, low ceilings, and historical prints on the walls.

All the other tables were full and, yes, all the diners were speaking Czech.We were lucky to get a table as mid-afternoon walk-ins. It's popular, so if you want to go, I'd recommend reservations.

We started off splitting a bowl of borscht (40 CZK). V said it was good, but more of a Hungarian version than Russian. I thought it was on the bland side. I added a lot of salt.Havel himself is said to love the stuff. But the Tyden article said that Kosiková was the castle cook, the president kept his own spice grinder on the table.

The article said Havel is not, for the most part, a fancy food lover and likes Central and Eastern European traditional "classics." Which they have at Posezení U Čiriny.

And he likes the place so much that he brought his old friend, Joan Baez, to the restaurant after her 2007 concert at Lucerna's Grand Hall.

For a main course, I ordered the "Napoleon" skewer -- pork tenderloin with bacon-wrapped prunes (260 CZK). The meat was coated with drippings from the pan.

There was rice on the side. and it was mixed with broccoli. I don't love broccoli any more than the first President Bush. V makes me eat it because it's good for me. But there was only a little, and I really didn't mind so much.

Overall, the dish was just OK. I liked the mix of sweet and savory. But the pork was over-cooked and on the tough side.

We had to wait a long time for the main courses to come. V mentioned the delay to the waitress and she apologized. Our server said the kitchen was swamped because of a large party in another dining room.

V got the chicken with almonds, leeks, and pineapple (180 CZK). Rice was extra (40 CZK).

She had had it before and recommended it to me, but I thought I should try something more... regional (though I'm sure someone could argue there is a tradition of Asian-style dishes in this country).It was quite sweet, but the chicken was incredibly soft and tender. There wasn't much more to it than that.

I'll confess that I liked it more than the pork. In fact, we switched plates halfway through the lunch.

Aside from drinks, that's all we had. Perhaps, at a place like this, we should have tried specialties like the Bryndzové halušky (140 CZK), Slovak-style potato dumplings with sheep cheese, and bacon.

I've heard the strapačky se zelím (140 CZK) is also worth trying. It is similar to halušky, but instead of cheese, it has sauerkraut mixed in.

There are many variations, so I hope I've described it properly.

In the final analysis, I can't say I liked Posezení U Čiriny that much. But I didn't dislike it, either.

The dining room had a warm atmosphere. And if V wants to go again, I'll go and have the chicken without complaint.

Even about the broccoli.

Posezení U Čiriny
Navratilova 6
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 231 709

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