Monday, June 30, 2008

National Geographic Traveler

"The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are." - C.S. Lewis
National Geographic Traveler now has a web page showcasing 50 of the world's top destinations. It's called Places of a Lifetime.

The great cities of the world are represented. Prague is there, of course.

Basically, the Prague page gives an overview of the sights, entertainment, hotels, and such. There is a list of recommended restaurants, but I was not involved with that.

However, there is also a page of useful links. And there, you will find a link back to Prague's first English language blog dedicated to food and drink.

There is a good post there today about the National Geographic Traveler's Places of a Lifetime web page. I highly recommend it.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Bohemia Bagel at Holešovice

“Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”-Niccolo Machiavelli
Often, I lie in bed and think about my problems. Personal hurdles to overcome. Things like "I need more blog posts about Prague 7 breakfast spots." Heavy stuff.

One morning, the English Patient called. He informed me that the Divine Miss C, and two out of town friends had a craving for bagels.

"Should we go to the Bohemia Bagel in Malá Strana or Old Town," he asked.

"Neither," I replied. "You're coming from Prague 6. The best would be the Holešovice location. Closer for you and probably less crowded." Which was certainly true.

"OK, we'll meet you there."When we arrived around noon, the place was practically deserted.The seating in the main dining area is awkward for groups bigger than four, so we sat in a smaller room with standard tables that could be pushed together.By the time we left, all the tables were full. A lot of late risers in Prague.

I actually arrived before everyone else. I was hungry and thirsty, but I'm not really a coffee drinker.

So, I ordered a "real American" chocolate milkshake (95 CZK).

I didn't think it was so good. It was not thick enough, or chocolaty enough. It was more like creamy chocolate milk.

T.G.I. Friday's at Anděl has many faults, but their chocolate milkshake is far better and cheaper.

The breakfast menu had the creative title: Wake-N-Bake. Funny. I just hope my mom doesn't ask me to explain why.

I was recently disappointed by the Homerun Breakfast at Red, Hot & Blues. So, I decided to try Bohemia Bagel's similar offering, the Charles IV stack (169 CZK).It was two fried eggs, American bacon, sausage patties, two American pancakes, real maple syrup, butter, and a mini-bagel. The Internet menu says either bacon or sausage, but I got both without asking.

The little sausage burgers were tasty, especially with a little syrup. The bacon was big and thick, but on the hard and chewy side.

The pancakes were terrific. Big and hot, and the real syrup made a real difference. Way better than the little, thin ones at Red, Hot & Blue. The Bohemia fried eggs were overdone and not so special.

The English Patient and one friend ordered the Full Monty (179 CZK). It was English bacon, two eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, baked beans and sausage links and mini bagel.He told me he enjoyed it very much, with only one caveat.

He had the same issue with the bacon that I did. He said it was something between English and American bacon. A bit too hard.

I believe one of the visitors had a ham omelet, which came with hash browns and a mini-bagel (139 CZK).The Divine Miss C had a mushroom and cheese omelet. She later told me it was "dry and pasty" but was helped by a quantity of Heinz ketchup. She felt she could make better at home.

I did not taste any of the other breakfasts, but I can tell you that everyone except Divine Miss C raved and said they really enjoyed them.

I now have one less problem to lie in bed and worry about. At the same time, my friends and their guests were, for the most part, more than pleased with my restaurant suggestion.


Am I a Machiavellian manipulator? Or a selfless Samaritan?

As you consider that, just remember that Machiavelli was not exactly known as a "win-win" kinda guy.

Bohemia Bagel at Holešovice
Dukelských Hrdinu 48/Šimáckova 21
Prague 7
Tel. (+420) 220 806 541

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Prague Food Festival 2008

"Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Forrest Gump
Perhaps it's no surprise. I was very excited about my first Prague Food Festival.

I missed the event last year because I was out of town. Not this time.

I hustled out of work on Friday afternoon and took a tram to the river.The festival, with food from some of Prague's finest restaurants, was on Žofín Island. There was beautiful weather.

The ticket cost 350 CZK, but that includes 250 CZK worth of food tickets, called Grands. You get a pack of ten. I bought 1000 CZK more because I was hungry, curious, and I was coming back with V on Sunday. Any extras would be used later.It was good I bought the tickets in advance. There was as big line for non-ticket holders on Sunday. We breezed right in.I first went on a survey mission, noting and observing what was available. No sense wasting valuable stomach space on any of the more mundane offerings.

The first stand that really caught my eye belonged to Restaurace V Zátiší. This is a top-rated restaurant that I'd always wanted to try, but never got around to visiting.They had a few dishes, but I went for the lamb chops with a violet, mustard, and lavender crust, a basil and caponata foam, and sweet marinated peppers with pine nuts (150 CZK).It was delicious. I did not taste much in the crust besides butter and bread crumbs, but I liked it anyway. The meat was fabulous, and the basil came through subtly in the foam.

I was sorry there was not so much meat on the bones, but I got three pieces. I saw people with meatier chops, but they only got two.

I was pleased the chef showed such consideration. However, I had them again on Sunday with V, and we got two smaller chops.

The peppers were good, too. The acidic flavor was a really nice counterpoint to the salty, buttery meat.

On my way to my next stop, I came across Pavel Maurer doing a television interview.

He organized the festival and publishes Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide. As a fellow foodie, I have great respect for his promotion of all things culinary.

On the other hand, I have problems with the guide itself. Letting people sign up on the internet to rate the restaurants gives me the feeling that the ratings are subject to gross manipulation.

The guide's Top 10 lists are just nonsensical, and they get huge attention in the Czech media. The Top 10 by the Experts list is more rational.

Anyway, right behind where Maurer was standing was the stand for Allegro at the Four Seasons Hotel (which was ranked #9 by Maurer's "independent" assessors). This restaurant was awarded Prague's very first Michelin star.

We ate there years ago, right after the Four Seasons opened and before it ascended the culinary heights. These days, it is more than I want to spend.

Their main offering was white asparagus risotto, morels, and taleggio bergamasco cheese. It was a whopping 10 Grands or 250 CZK.It was a decent-sized portion. The risotto was cooked perfectly al dente. Very nice and chewy texture. The cheese, despite its fancy name, had rather ordinary flavor. And, unfortunately, the mushrooms and asparagus didn't ascend above the cheese.

I was pretty disappointed and didn't think it was worth the money. I expected an eye-opening experience, but it just didn't happen. I enjoyed many other restaurants' dishes much more.

In fact, the offering I enjoyed most came from the most unlikely of sources. I saw a stand with a sign for Makro, the wholesale market.It turns out, they were cooking lobsters from a seafood distributor. For 10 Grands (250 CZK), I got half a tail grilled with butter and pine nuts, two tortelloni stuffed with cheese and asparagus, and strawberry flavored whipped cream.This was fantastic. The best lobster I have ever eaten in Prague, without question. It was cooked perfectly. The tender, sweet meat melted in my mouth.

The idea of mixing it with the flavor of strawberries surprised me at first, but I immediately fell in love with it. The tortelloni were on the dry side, but had the clear flavor of asparagus.

One interesting note. This was the first place I took V when we returned on Sunday (OK, she made me stop for a flute of Bohemia Sekt Brut Imperial on the way). The price had gone up to 300 CZK. She asked them about it. The chef said the lobsters were bigger on Sunday.

In truth, I can say from first-hand experience that this was not true. On the other hand, even half the tail was quite large both days. It was cut into five or six really big chunks.

I thought the price was too good to be true on Friday. But even on Sunday, it was more than worth it.

After V grilled the chef about the grilled lobster, I also pointed that there was one less tortelloni on Sunday. He smiled. I was just playing. We didn't mind so much.

Under the same tent, Chef Jean-Paul Manzac, of Brasserie M was cooking.

He had grilled chicken with ratatouille and escargot en croute, but these dishes didn't appeal to me.

We drank a lot of wine over the course of the weekend.

There were several different wine stands. The biggest one featured Italian wines.

Most glasses were 25 or 50 CZK. I didn't keep track of everything we tried.

I did have a nice Italian red. It was a Tedeschi Valpolicella from 2005.

They even let me have a taste before I forked over my two Grands.

Next, I went inside the one big tent.

There was a good band playing Cuban music (the same band played my friend's wedding a few years back).I went to the stand for Mlynec, a top restaurant near the Charles Bridge that I've been to several times in the past.

I chose their rib eye steak with shallot sauce, chipotle salsa, and guacamole. This was a great deal for 125 CZK.The small steak was smoky and tender. I loved the shallot sauce. It was fairly sweet and sour and made with red wine. The salsa had a good spicy kick.

The guacamole was the only sour note. It was so sour, it tasted like it was made with pickles and the avocado was not ripe.

I took V here on Sunday for a repeat taste. The beef and salsa were just as good.

I was disappointed that the flavor of the sauce had been toned down significantly. But I was happy the flavor of the guacamole had been toned down significantly.

On Friday, I traveled to the far end of the island to the Cafe Savoy stand. This restaurant is one of my regular favorites in Prague, and apparently for many others. They drew a steady crowd.I sampled the homemade gnocchi with ricotta and baby spinach. I enjoyed the simplicity of this dish very much.I love ricotta, and it had a good, creamy tang. The spinach was cooked, but still had a bit of crunch to it.

I wandered back, doing a little people watching while appreciating the view of Prague Castle from the island.I was getting pretty full, and it was time for dessert. I went back to the V Zátiší stand.

I had the organic apple mille-feuille with organic yogurt sorbet (50 CZK). The layered apple was sliced impossibly thin and cut into tiny squares.By itself, the apple didn't taste so special. But when mixed on the fork with the acidic sorbet, pieces of walnut, and syrup, it took on a much more interesting character. Very refreshing.

I walked to the other end of the island.

There, I admired the suckling pigs roasting in a rotisserie.

But I was done with the main courses.

At the stand for the Hilton Hotel's CzecHouse Grill, I sampled a tiny chocolate crème brûlée (25 CZK).

Very chocolaty.

On Sunday, the third and final day of the festival, there were some restaurants that weren't represented on day one.

We headed to the stand for the Hotel Paříž and its Sarah Bernardt Restaurant. There, we tried their scallop with cauliflower puree, caper sauce, and cumin veloute (100 CZK).The one scallop was seared perfectly. Its pearly and delicate flesh was great. The caper sauce and puree were balanced well, with a touch of sourness. V said it reminded her of her favorite scallop dish in Prague at Little Whale.

We went to the stand run by Ambiente: The Living Restaurant, part of the same group that runs Cafe Savoy.

We had the Uruguayan strip loin with a mushroom sauce, french fries done in peanut oil, and grilled tomatoes. I believe it was (125 CZK).We thought the meat needed more salt. It was good, but not great. The five fries were tasty. The tomatoes were sweet and good. Nothing too special here.

We walked over to The Sushi Bar stand, which has a reputation as one of Prague's top raw fish joints. They had some basic maki that looked very dull and untempting.

V opted for three fresh oysters on ice with lime (150 CZK). Good oysters.

We decided to try some food from the Coda Restaurant in the Aria Hotel. We got the seared tiger prawns with sesame-sprinkled lettuce and a ginger dressing (100 CZK).The two shrimp were plump and hadn't lost their flavor after losing their shells. Cooked perfectly. The iceberg lettuce leaves were boring, but the strong presence of ginger did liven it up.

I needed a little dessert, so we had the handmade chocolate truffles from Auberge de Provence (50 CZK).

What can I say? Good deal. Good chocolate. There were six different types, and each was a rich, pleasant surprise.

Like the plate chocolates, the whole Prague Food Festival was filled with happy discoveries.

I really didn't know what to expect from my first visit.

But we really loved walking around on a sunny day, drinking wine, and sampling some very good food.

I even saw tons of people photographing their food. Quite a hobby.

If your into food at all, I'd recommend giving the fest a try next year.

You never know what you're gonna get.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Rožmberk, Southern Bohemia

Voyage upon life's sea
To yourself be true
And, whatever your lot may be
Paddle your own canoe
-Sarah Bolton
We needed to get out of town for the weekend. V left it up to me where to go.

I really wanted to do a little canoeing. I strongly considered Český Krumlov, but decided it might be too booked up, and we might not get on the river on short notice. I had similar concerns about places on the Sazava River, near Prague.

Instead, I chose Rožmberk, a favorite hideaway for us, 30 minutes south of Krumlov by car, near the Austrian border. It's about three hours from Prague. We've been a number of times.It's a tiny town and was pretty empty on a Saturday. Granted, the weather had turned spotty.

I should also note that this was the town that football forgot. There was no Prima TV reception, so I couldn't watch any Euro 2008 matches.

Anyway, this is not a place to party too hard (except perhaps at the one local bordello). It's a place to relax.

Just a couple of days ahead, I was able to book us the cheapest room -- just 900 CZK -- at the Hotel and Restaurant U Martina.We had a view of Rožmberk's down-at-the-heels, but picturesque castle. The poor man's Krumlov, if you will.Rožmberk's sits on a big bend in the Vltava River, which runs up all the way to Prague.

We ate a lot of our meals on the patio behind U Martinu.It's right on the river, and there's a great view of the castle from there. I enjoyed it while eating my eggs and bacon.There's also a good-looking, stone-walled dining room inside.On our first night, V had the koleno (pork knee). She liked it, but I thought it was dull and lacked flavor.I had a simple klobasa with mustard and horseradish. Nothing too special.We finished with pancakes and jam. They were great. All too often, they come to the table cold and tough. These were freshly made and must have traveled quickly from the pan to our table.I should add, though, that we had them again the next day, and they weren't as good.

Next to U Martinu, there is a little shack where we spent part of an evening once sitting by the river drinking beer and eating little snacks.The next day, we took a five minute walk outside of town.

We went to a recommended restaurant, Rybářská Bašta.

There is also a wonderful view of the castle and river from there, but from a different and very pleasing angle.

You can watch the people going by on their boats.We started sitting outside, but lightning and rain kicked up, so we moved inside.V started with fish soup. It was a very Czech version with fish roe, and she absolutely loved it. She said it reminded her of soup she had when she was younger.I had the roe deer in a cranberry sauce with fries(220 CZK). The meat was very tasty with a smoky flavor.It did have a lot of gristle, but it had been pounded so hard that it was not bad. The sauce was quite sweet. The fries were good.

V had river pike. She thought it was good. I thought it was a bit dry and bony.On our last day, we ate at U Martinu again. V had very greasy potato pancakes. She said the grease tasted old.I ordered the pork schnitzel, but got a chicken schnitzel. Which was funny because that was what I wanted but didn't see it on the menu. Anyway, it was good, though the breading flaked off with each bite.We walked around the town at night. The rain had brought out armies of snails.

They fascinated V, who is a big escargots fan, and she just had to play with them.We finally got some canoe time on Sunday, when the weather was better. It is possible to go from Rožmberk up to Český Krumlov. We've done it before, and it takes 4-6 hours.

We wanted a shorter trip, so we had the canoe rental shop drive us about 10 kilometers south to Vyšší Brod. There is a famous monastery there.

It took us less than two hours to make it back up to Rožmberk. Part of the fun is stopping along the way for beer and/or sausages.Generally, the food is nothing to write home about. But it was good to get in some nature, and it is far from the most expensive weekend you can spend outside of Prague. I think the canoe rental cost, which included the ride south, cost around 600 CZK for everything.

Paddling our own canoe past some beautiful nature really helped to clear our heads and replenish the spirits.

I highly recommend it.

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