Sunday, December 28, 2008

Paul Weller At The Little Whale in Prague

“One should never make one's debut in a scandal. One should reserve that to give interest to one's old age.” Oscar Wilde
Tabloid tales are not my usual fare. But when we are out on the town and one basically falls on top of me, I gotta say something.

We stopped into The Little Whale (U malé velryby) last night for a quick drink and dessert. We ended up staying for a party.

The kitchen was closed and acoustic blues guitarist Brad Huff was celebrating his birthday by playing for friends.A gray-haired man with a much younger girlfriend stumbled in. He asked the guitarist if he could sing with him and was told that he could not.

Shortly afterward, Brad took a break. The girlfriend came over. I think the conversation went roughly like this.

"You should really let him sing with you," she said.

"No. He's drunk and rude," Brad replied.

"Do you know who he is?" she slurred. She was sloppy drunk, herself.

"No. Who?"

"Paul Weller."

"I don't care who he is," Brad said. The girlfriend was getting angry.

"I've heard of him," someone said to Brad. "You should let him sing."

No one, including me, recognized Weller when they came in. But I am familiar with his 70s and 80s groups, The Jam and The Style Council. He's also been a relatively successful solo artist since the 1990s. A few other people knew who he was, once his name was mentioned.

"OK," Brad relented. "He can sing a song with me." The girlfriend replied with a very nasty tone.

"Oh! Nowwwww you'll let him sing. Now that you know he's famous."

Weller didn't hear this contentious little conversation, but was still interested in doing a song. So, he sat down with Brad, and they did some blues riffing.

Weller repetitiously howled and mumbled his way through the improvised song, such as it was. He kept repeating a few phrases over and over again. Not his greatest performance.

Brad sarcastically exclaimed "Amazing!" toward the end of the song. When they finished, the girlfriend was hurling insults at the guitarist.

"Ladies and gentleman, the famous...." Then, she'd sneer, point at Brad, and shrug her shoulders.

And yet they stayed.

Despite the weird, bad vibes in the very small resraurant, the wobbly couple sat down for a while at the invitation of The Little Wale's owner, Jason.

Weller was too drunk to speak. He kissed Jason on the top of his head. The girlfriend seemed very unhappy and just kept saying, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?"

I'm not sure why. Very strange and a little disturbing. We tried, but no one could have any meaningful communication.

After a while, there were no good feelings or sympathy toward them from anyone in the room. The girlfriend was insulting the guitarist on his birthday. They were literally falling down drunk. There was pity at their pathetic state.

And as it got more and more pathetic, a few people, having been duly informed of the man's fame, took out mobile phones with cameras and recorded their final "performances" of the evening.

There's more to this sorry and sordid story. But perhaps a blog about Prague's food and drink scene isn't the proper place for it. Just doesn't feel right here.

For that stuff, you'll have to go elsewhere. If you are really into tabloid tales, head on over to The Sun or The Daily Mail.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Prague Christmas Beer Markets 2008

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.” Confucius
I don't know much about beer.

I drink a lot of it, to be sure. Usually Pilsner Urquell or Primátor Weizen. There are some beers I do not enjoy, like Staropramen.

But in the end, I'm just not that discriminating. If I want a beer with dinner, I'll drink just about anything.

My reviews of beer break down like this.

I liked it. Or I didn't.

So, if you want to know more about beer in the Czech Republic, don't ask me. I can recommend, however, that I you should read Max Bahnson's Beer Philospher. Or Evan Rail's Beer Culture. Or Velky Al's Fuggled

Which was how I found out about the Christmas Beer Markets taking place at Prague's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, running December 20-22, 2008.

Max sent me a tip with a link to Evan Rail's post about it.

Tickets were 150 CZK, but with that you received a free beer and could keep a special .3 liter beer glass. I got five friends to come along with me.

The hotel is a mix of old and new in Mala Strana, built on the site of a former 14th century monastery. The vaulted, high ceilings are gorgeous. Things were fairly disorganized for the Saturday evening session. The taps for the free beer were not working when we arrived.

Also, we found out we were supposed to receive a coupon for a free beer when we arrived downstairs, but it wasn't given to us. When the taps opened, a big line formed and couldn't be bothered going back downstairs for the coupons.

In the Grand Ballroom, which is not very large, bottled beers were lined up on several different tables.We only saw two other beers on tap, one made with coffee and, if my Czech can be trusted, one with dill.

Of course, this was a nice hotel, and I was interested in the food.There were a lot of small dishes, all for 40-50 CZK.

I started off with a Peking duck salad. There was freshly shredded meat on top and a sweet soy and ginger dressing on top.Pretty good.

There was a carving table with pork ribs and duck, but I had trouble finding someone to serve them.I collared a passing chef, and he agreed to cut me some ribs. He said he didn't know how many I should get, so he gave me three. I found out later a serving should have been two.The meat was very fresh and tender, if a bit fatty. I was hungry. I ate every bit. The soy-based sauce on the side was on the salty side, but overall, it was good.

Someone else got green curry chicken.I was a bit dubious about the simple look of it. But looks can be deceiving. It was good, with a spicy edge.

There was a goulash that everyone loved.The meat was very tender after a long braising.

The beer sausages with onion sauce was also popular.There was a small cheese plate. I had one creamy, tangy piece, studded with pepper corns.I tried a walnut tart, which was nothing special.I also had a spicy Sacher tarte, but it was dried out and disappointing.


Did you actually come here to read about beer? Well, OK. Here goes.

The favorites of our group were the beers by Nørrebro Bryghus of Denmark.We got several bottles of their Bombay Pale Ale, including some to take homeA .6 liter bottle was 95 CZK.

I really like their La Granja Stout. It had a strong coffee flavor, way more than you'd find in a Guinness.Unfortunately, a .6 liter bottle was a steep 140 CZK.

G-Man really liked their special Christmas brew.He then went over to a table selling German beers. I had asked him to pick up a wheat beer. He came back with a pop-top bottle of Klosterbräu Braun's Weisse.The beer guy had convinced him that it was better served warm. I scolded G-man for believing him. They had very limited capacity for putting beer on ice and no refrigeration.

The proof was in the tasting. We did not enjoy it at room temperature. It's a shame because some rate this beer highly.

We shared a bottle of BrewDog Hardcore IPA.Hardcore is right. This beer has 9% alcohol level. Most of us were put off by the initial flavor. I don't think I've had such a strong beer before.

The Aventinus Weizenbock was quite good (.5 liter/50 CZK).It had 8% alcohol, but seemed to mask its boozy kick much better.

There was one beer that everyone agreed was the least favorite. In fact, of the six of us, no one wanted to finish the bottle. This was the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier -- smokebeer (.5 liter/35 CZK).I'm not very good at breaking down beers into constituent flavors with commonly understandable taste reference points. You know -- a caramel head, a hoppy nose, a gorgeous body -- stuff like that. With my blunt beer hammer palate, I will just say this:

It tasted like a salami.

The info about the Christmas Beer Markets said there would be a limit of 300 people per session.

I did a rough head count of the people there. From what I could see, there were only about 60.

Which was fine with me. The space would be too small for a number approaching the limit.

I'm not sure of the value of this exercise on beer writing, limited as it is. Especially when it was reported by someone who was clearly under the influence of alcohol.

But, as Confucius says, “If you shoot for the stars and hit the moon, it's OK. But you've got to shoot for something. A lot of people don't even shoot.”

Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Nebovidska 1
Prague 1 -Mala Strana
Tel. (+420) 233 088 888

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Friday, December 19, 2008

U bílé krávy - At the White Cow

"Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak." Woody Allen
I really don't like Czech beef.

I find most cuts extremely tough and lacking flavor.

When we want quality in Prague, we usually go to El Barrio de Angel.

They serve tender Argentinian beef cooked over a flame grill.

Almost a year ago, I wrote about their great rib eye.

El Barrio is a little cheaper and a lot less pretentious and hectic than La Casa Argentina where I had a fine steak and bad service a long while back.

Anyway, I recently picked up a recommendation to try U bílé krávy.It's a modest little place with modest prices just behind the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square.

On my first visit, I walked down the stairs into the reasonably rustic restaurant. Just a couple of tables and a bar in the front room.There was a hallway and then another small room.I'd guesss there were around 10 or 12 tables altogether.

There was plenty of country kitsch decorating the dining area.The waiter brought fresh, sliced baguettes with butter mixed with red pepper.

Be aware that there is a 30 CZK cover charge per person.

The waiter was quite a character. He spoke very good English, but was somewhat abrupt.

Then, V showed up after a few minutes, and his gruff exterior melted away. For the rest of the meal, he was all charm and humor. Very efficient.

I started off with a beer. They have Krušovice Mušketýr on tap (38 CZK). Not my favorite, but this one was pretty good. The right temperature and carbonation.For an appetizer, I got the baked goat cheese with honey and walnuts (135 CZK).A little expensive, considering its simplicity and that it came on what I'd call Tesco toast.

This bothered me at first, but overall, I have to admit I did enjoy it. The combination of warm, tangy cheese with honey made me forget issues like presentation and cheap white bread. And hey, goat cheese ain't cheap these days.

V ordered the escargot on red wine (168 CZK). There was a generous portion of snails.V said they were not her favorite, with a strong garden-like, earthy flavor. She did enjoy the sauce, which she said reminded her of coq au vin.

At this point, I'll note that the Internet version of the menu, as of this writing, is out of date. Some of the prices were off by about 15 CZK.

Also, the Internet menu listed sauces like demi-glace, which I love. But I asked the waiter, and it was no longer available.

For a main course, I ordered the 200 gram Charolais filet (310 CZK) with a side of fries (45 CZK).I was hoping for real French-style frites, but they were just regular steak-fries like those you get at the supermarket.

I asked for medium-rare, but I'd say it came out straight-up rare.The quality of the meat was excellent. I was surprised how tender it was.

However, the flavor was lacking on a number of levels. I wished for more of a smokey taste from the grill. It needed salt. And it came with a one-dimensional, rather sour wine sauce.

I came away from the meal feeling that there was potential. I wanted to try something different, hopefully better.

So, I returned with two friends for another meal.The service the second time around was less efficient and less friendly. We had different, younger waiters. We had trouble getting their attention.

I couldn't help but think that it would be better if V was with us.

I ordered the Charolais entrecote with wine and shallots (270 CZK). On the side, I had the Lyonais onion cake 50 CZK).This steak was the opposite of my first. It had more flavor from the grill and the sauce was a little more subtle.

However, the meat was also relatively tough. One side was lean and dense and hard to cut. The other side had more fat and more tasty and tender. I was unhappy to find that it was barely warm.

The cheesy onion cake was dried out. It had a mealy texture. It had seen better days. And strangely, again, I still liked it. A freshly prepared one is probably even better.

One of my comrades, the G-man, had the faux filet, also known as sirloin, with a mushroom cream sauce (275 CZK) and potatoes au gratin (55 CZK).I had a taste of his beef. It looked and tasted almost exactly the same as my entrecote. The mushroom sauce would have been good, except most of it was cold.

Dan the Man got the Steak Classic with herb butter (260 CZK) and Brussel sprouts (38 CZK).I did not try his. I asked him if he liked it. He gave a half-shrug.

Dan is a man who, unlike me, doesn't get deeply expressive about food. But I've known him for years, and I understand his non-verbal communication fairly well.

Translation: "Whatever. Nothing special. Leave me alone."

I had high hopes for this restaurant.

I'd heard they had some of the best steaks in Prague.

To be fair, people have different expectations, as well as different experiences on any given night.

But my expectations had me dreaming of savoring this great hidden spot just a few step behind the National Museum with steaks for less than 300 CZK.

Alas, that was just a dream.

For me, U bílé krávy could have been so much better with more attention in the kitchen on preparation, presentation, and flavor.

It did not make the cut, so to speak, for a return visit.

If you want to get a good steak dinner there, I have a feeling that, like Cloquet, you are going to hate reality.

U bílé krávy
Rubešova 10
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 224 239 570

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Munich Christmas Market Food

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” J.R.R. Tolkien
It is that festive time of year again. But V and I were feeling less than merry.

We needed to get out of town for a long weekend and a change of scenery. V, ambitious and adventurous woman that she is, offered suggestions such as flying to Istanbul and Amsterdam.

I, being far less ambitious, suggested driving to Munich.

Thankfully, she agreed.

The trip from Prague took about four hours. It can be done a quicker with less traffic and a heavier foot on German roads. Living on the east side of Prague adds some time to the drive. Also, I got lost in the center of Munich, which has inspired me to buy a sat-nav system.

The focus of the weekend was food and drink.

The first night, we looked into Hofbräuhaus, but it was touristy and insane, so we moved on.

We ended up having dinner at Haxnbauer. It's also a big, touristy place, but V said she had the best pork knee of her life. You can see them flame roasting on spits in front of flames in the window.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures there. I did find a good picture on someone else's site, here.

But to make up for it, I took plenty of photos of the endless offerings in the historic center's Christmas market.Unlike last year's Prague Christmas Market Food post, this one will not be in verse.

I'd say the most popular stands in Munich were those selling Glühwein, usually for €2.50The mulled wine was very sweet, with a some fruit and spices like cinnamon mixed in.

It was served from heated pots. But I saw most of it came from pre-made Glühwein bottles that were poured in. They don't mix up special batches on this scale. Also, it was served in mugs that had a €3.00 deposit, unlike in Prague where the svařák comes in cheap plastic cups.

V stopped and got a bag of hot chestnuts, which are called maroni, for €2.50. The price varied slightly from stand to stand.It was very crowded in the market, especially in front of the Rathaus on the Marienplatz.It was not easy to move quickly through the masses.Next in popularity were the many types of sausages.It seemed like the long red thin ones on buns, what I'd call a "foot long", were everywhere. Very hot dog-like. Don't give me a hard time for not knowing the name in German.

There were a number of things I wasn't too familiar with, not being an expert on German food. There was something called schupfnudeln for €5.00.It's sort of a Bavarian potato gnocchi with sauerkraut.

I saw baked apples with what looked like sugar bubbling out of the center.There were stands selling fresh fruit, freshly dipped in chocolate.The smell of almonds cooked with sugar was just about everywhere. I loved it when we first got there. But by the end, it was beginning to be too much.At a chocolates stand, I found one of my all-time favorite treats. Milk chocolate covered toasted coconut.One long piece cost €2.50. I bought five. The stuff is the closest thing to crack for me. By the time we got home, I was regretting that I didn't buy at least 10.

It's not so easy to find it done the right way, with the coconut toasted into golden crunchiness and paired with good quality chocolate. I'm afraid I won't taste its likes again for a long time. Unless someone knows a source in Prague...

We had a nice walk through the English Garden and saw the Christmas market at the Chinese Tower. In the restaurant in the house there, we had a snack of beef carpaccio and mushroom soup and weizenbier.

It was great. A nice, peaceful break from the cold.

From the market outside, I had a fresh-cooked waffle with powdered sugar.It was pretty bad, actually. Almost burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside. I think it was a steep €3.00.

Back around Marienplatz, they were selling crepes with a multitude of fillings.The potato shack was a big favorite. They had fries, but also potato pancakes.One of the last things we got in Munich was a Christmas tree. We bought a cute, full-branched, medium-sized one for €25.00.On our last night, we couldn't eat any more pork or cabbage. We found a place with all-you-can-eat running sushi for €12.00 per person.

Despite its non-traditional nature, the dinner brought us great cheer before we loaded up our sled and headed back to Prague.

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