Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hard Rock Cafe - Prague

"Any problem you can't solve with a good guitar is either unsolvable or isn't a problem." Unknown
Perhaps it will hurt my expat street cred, but I confess my interest was immediately tweaked when I heard a Hard Rock Cafe was opening in Prague.After all, I am an American guitar player with a penchant for good hamburgers. I fall into a very specific demographic niche.

Just days after Prague's Hard Rock started doing business, I went to the restaurant on Malé náměstí, just off Old Town Square. They converted the old V.J.Rott building, with its neo-Renaissance façade, into the familiar, music-themed restaurant.Within the establishment's 1900 square meters are three levels and two bars. The platform behind the downstairs bar can be turned into a stage for live acts.This location is considered the largest Hard Rock Cafe in Europe.

When I arrived, I was directed up the stairs, past old wood paneling and a painting from the building's past life.V was not interested in joining me, so I was dining solo. Sometimes, when you eat by yourself, you get the feeling you aren't a valued customer.Unfortunately, this was one of those times. The place was barely half full, and they directed me to one of the worst tables in the house.

It was next to the swinging doors of the kitchen. So, I can report they have white-tiled walls in there. This area also turned out to be a rather hectic meeting spot for the many servers.

In the opposite direction, the table did have a good view of the five meter-long guitar-shaped chandelier and the bar on the floor below."Are you eating alone?" the smiling waitress asked.

"Yes, just me."

"Awww." She made a sad face. "Really?"

"Just me. You can join me if you want," I said. So, she did. Cute.

We talked for a minute about where I was from and whether I was enjoying Prague.

"So far, it's been pretty good," I said.

Her name was Tereza, and I was her first customer. She was very nice and not in a scripted, corporate way. Refreshing.

It's understandable she thought I was a visitor. After a good look at the prices, I realized tourists are probably the target customer rather than long-term expats. I'd also note that I couldn't find a Czech language version of the restaurant's website.

Our enjoyable tête-à-tête concluded after I ordered a bacon cheeseburger (280 CZK) and a chocolate shake (120 CZK).

Now, I've studied the burgers all over Prague. This one was excellent.I'd call it the second best in the city (I'll tell you my favorite in a moment).

The top-quality meat was flame-grilled. This is key in my book. There was American-style bacon and cheese, plus lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion. The bun was perfectly toasted.

The fries came with a little skin on them. But they were just barely warm.

For the record, I'd say the best bacon cheeseburger in Prague is at Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice. It is very large, flame-grilled, with more bacon and a slightly better bun. It edges out the win for my affections even before you add the fact that it is only 155 CZK, fries included.

Then, it's no contest.

The Hard Rock's chocolate shake, topped with whipped cream, was extremely thick.The generous amount of chocolate ice cream was nice, but it wasn't mixed well. It was too thick to drink.

You can quote me on this: I sucked really hard. The flimsy straw failed to maintain structural integrity and collapsed. I had to wait a while for the ice cream to melt before I could partake.

Over the loud music, Tereza told me that ice water was free. I like the bubbly stuff, so I ordered soda water, thinking for some reason that would be free, too.My mistake, but it cost 60 CZK. That's more than a half-liter of Staropramen, which is only 50 CZK.

So, the bill for this trip was 460 CZK. It was a good, classic American meal, with a fun and fast waitress. I was quite full. But I considered it a steep price to pay for a burger, shake, fries, and water.

My curiosity levels about other offerings was still high, so I went back the next night. By myself. And they tried to give me the exact same table again. Which I refused.

It felt like that scene from "Animal House," where the rich fraternity boys repeatedly direct the two misfit pledges, the hapless Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman, to the room for social outcasts.

On this second visit, I ordered their famous Hickory-smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich (250 CZK).It came with fries, baked beans, and coleslaw.

I had a pretty young-looking guy as a waiter this time. He told me the pulled pork came with a choice of barbecue or a vinegar sauce. The latter sounded more unusual and intriguing. I asked for that.

When I took the first bite, two things happened.

First, half the pork fell out of the bun onto the plate. It was a huge amount of meat. Plan on using a knife and fork at some point.

Second, the super sour vinegar and slaw hit the back of my throat, and I had to stifle a serious cough.

Man, that was strong stuff. I made sure there was much less of it in each bite.

The pork itself was shredded and tender. I love smoked meat, but I couldn't detect much in the way of smoke flavor.

The beans were quite sweet. I ended up pouring them on top of the pork. Maybe I'd have been happier with the barbecue sauce.

The fries were properly cooked and delivered much hotter than those on the first visit. The little ramekin of coleslaw was nothing special.

The Hard Rock Cafe has a cocktail menu with lots of pretty pictures. I decided to try a couple.

First, I had a Golden Rita, AKA a margarita (180 CZK). It was made with Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila, Triple Sec, and Hard Rock Margarita mix.It came in a classic margarita glass and was strong. However, for the money, I was expecting something a little more... impressive. I wished the glass was filled a little higher.

I prefer my margaritas on the sour side. This one was too bland for my taste, even after I squeezed in all the juice from a thick lime slice. I suppose it could appeal to more middle of the road tastes.

I asked the waiter for extra ice. It never came. In fact, he disappeared for a long time. When I wanted a second cocktail, a waitress noticed my forlorn look and took my order.

I went for the Mojito (130 CZK).Bartenders tell me this is the most popular cocktail in Prague, by far. And I've had more than my share for comparison.

I thought this one was just bad. It was intensely sweet, almost syrup-like.

I usually find mojitos refreshing, but this candy-like cocktail really dragged me down. I'd urge them to change their recipe.

Suffice it to say, I was in no mood for dessert.

The bill for this second visit totaled 560 CZK. The majority of the tab was for the two drinks.

I felt I had to return one more time. There was one more thing I wanted to try. I went for an early lunch right after they opened at 11:30 AM.

This time, the greeter asked me if I'd like to sit at the downstairs bar. I said no, so he then told me to pick any table I wanted.

I had a very earnest and friendly waiter named Kevin from Sweden. Then, I saw my old friend, Tereza, and we had a good chat about life in the restaurant business. Since there were few other customers, they both kept me company and made sure I had everything I needed.

I ordered the Hickory-Smoked Bar-B-Que Ribs (390 CZK). They came with fries, baked beans, and coleslaw.The rack had a number of positives going for it. The meat had some char to it along with the smoky flavor I'd been looking for. It was also quite lean. I liked their sauce. It was not too sweet and had a nice tang.

However, there is a downside to lean ribs. They were not as tender as I expected. The menu says the meat falls off the bone, but I had to use a knife and pull pretty hard to get them apart.

I also thought they should have been hotter. Like many restaurant ribs, these had to be cooked mostly in advance. That's how they can come out 10 minutes after you put in your order. It was a lot to eat and the ribs lost a lot of their warmth by the end of the meal.

Now, there is a strain of thought that restaurants shouldn't be reviewed until they've been opened a while. But I reject that.

I know the realities of new operations, but my feeling is that I'm paying the same prices that people will pay six months from now. They should be firing on all cylinders from the start.In the end, I concluded I did not really belong in the Hard Rock Cafe's target demographic.

On my way out, I browsed past the restaurant's guitar collection. Instruments used by REO Speedwagon, Seether, and Asia didn't do too much for me.

But I must admit I was awed by what is probably the most prized item. On the stairway was Bob Dylan's well-worn Gibson acoustic/electric guitar, along with a hand-written set list written by the man himself.I stared into the display case and, for a long moment, I forgot about my problems with issues like the prices, the mojito, and the waiter who forgot about me.

It's amazing what a good guitar can do.

Hard Rock Cafe
Dům U Rotta
Malé náměstí 3
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 224 229 529

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Céleste Restaurant and Bar

"Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire." George Bernard Shaw
It's a famously original building with a few different names and lots of interesting angles.This architectural landmark is known as the "Dancing House." And "Fred and Ginger." And the Nationale-Nederlanden building after the bank that commissioned it.I'd always been curious about the restaurant that once lived atop the Frank Gehry/Vlado Milunić creation. But the menu and the prices of La Perle de Prague left me uninspired.

We never went.

When I heard La Perle had closed and was replaced by a new restaurant, I found the online menu of Céleste. And there I found inspiration for a visit.

The prices were a bit lower, but not cheap by any means. Just reading the menu on the web, I had trouble deciding what I would order on a visit. We headed over on Good Friday to test my decision-making skills.

We crossed the busy intersection in front of the building, pausing look back and take in the early evening view of Prague Castle across the river.We entered the small street-level bar , called Bar Céleste. The server there approached us with an officious tone.

"Yes, hello. Can I help you?"

"We're here for dinner."

"Do you have a reservation?" He move quickly toward us, and there was something like suspicion in his voice.

"Yes."

"May I suggest a drink at the bar before you start?" I considered it for a moment, but just then, a noisy car went through the intersection outside the open door and convinced me otherwise.

"We'll go up to the restaurant." He called the elevator.

The man gave us both an unpleasant feeling. But I want to be fair. I did walk in with my little camera out, thinking I'd take a picture of the bar.

The building attracts plenty of tourists, and several were snapping pictures outside. I'm sure pushy shutterbugs have to be fended off on occasion if they wander inside.

When the elevator door opened on the top floor, we had a very different experience.We immediately recognized the host, and he recognized us. He used to run the restaurant Atelier in Vrsovice. We were regulars there until it was sold and went downhill. It closed down a while ago.

We looked around the modern-art inspired dining room.It is divided into a larger, circular area, and a smaller, thumb-like section. The host said we could choose one of two tables in the different sections.Most have great views across the river, but he saw us looking longingly at an unoffered two-top with the best direct view of Prague Castle.

"You're the first ones here. You can take that one." We've lived in Prague for many years and see the castle all the time, but V was still thrilled.Each table had a purple tulip, in keeping with the room's purple accents.

Before the meal, I took a walk out onto the building's terrace.There were no tables out there, but it'd be a nice place for some when the weather stays warmer at night.

A waitress brought a bread basket and asked us to choose the type we wanted. Maybe it's just me, but I prefer to have the basket on the table.

V got rosemary bread, and I had an onion roll.V's was slightly warm. Mine wasn't and I wished it was. But still, this was good stuff, fresh, moist, and a little sweet. There was fresh butter with fleur de sel.

I took note of the music. It was barely audible, and nondescript, with some drum beats bleeding through. We both thought something more stylish and soothing and at a proper level would add to the atmosphere.

Then came the amuse bouche, a duck foie gras mousse. I'd say it was one of the best pre-meal offerings I've ever had.It was served in a small espresso cup or demitasse, but it was substantial.

Underneath a creamy foam was the smoothest, lightest, cleanest-tasting pate I can recall. It had a hint of sweetness along with a subtle, nutty flavor. With its cool, ice cream-like consistency, it was something I could imagine having for dessert.

And here, perhaps, is the highest praise of all. V cannot stand duck or goose liver. She had a taste and actually took a second bite, clearly impressed. I'd never seen that before. Still, she gave me the rest of hers, which I gladly consumed.

Before the amuse bouche came, I almost ordered the duck foie gras terrine starter. I was glad I didn't -- that would be too much, even for me.

I was very curious about the ravioli main course. The host said it would be no problem to get a half order as an appetizer (188 CZK).It rested on a pool of perfectly melted butter. Assertive Parmesan cheese shavings and sage sat on top. The small ravioli held a generous amount of ricotta, which I have fondness for.

I'd say the dish was competent, but simple, with no big wow factors. One of the reasons I ordered the ravioli was because I love sage. We even grow it at home. So, I wished it came with more than just a few small leaves.

V got the half Atlantic lobster (495 CZK). On the side was beetroot and jus perfumed with star anise.She was in heaven. The cold lobster meat, most of a claw and half a tail, had been properly prepared -- delicate and sweet. In this town, we've had our share of mediocre, over-cooked, over-priced lobsters.

The beets had a clean flavor, without much of the earthy taste I usually associate with that root vegetable. When we finished it, I asked V for her opinion.

"Any comments?"

"Can I have more?"

"Enough said."

V was drinking wine by the glass, a Grüner Veltliner, I believe. (150 CZK each). We also shared two .7 liter bottles of Mattoni (110 CZK each). I was glad they offered Czech mineral water, unlike some places that only pour fancier Italian stuff.

As I mentioned, I had trouble deciding what I would order. I was torn between the Moravian lamb chops and the Moravian veal tenderloin. In the end, I went for the veal (525 CZK). It came with "marbled Marsala juice," Corrinthian raisins, and a creamy polenta.Sorry about the soft focus on the photo -- I was in too much of hurry to get a taste and didn't check it carefully.

On the plate was a tender cut of meat, not very large, sliced into four smaller pieces. It could have used a touch more salt, but it was close to perfectly seasoned.

The rich sauce was lightly sweet, and the raisins provided bursts of greater sweetness. I do tend to enjoy sweet dishes and favor anything Moravian (V is both). I'd probably get it again -- after I tried the lamb chops.

The polenta deserves special mention. It was fantastic. Spiked with rosemary, it was impossibly creamy. We were fighting over the three dollops of it on the plate.

I used to hear people rave about Gordon Ramsay's creamy mashed potatoes, and I have to say, he should take creamy lessons from this polenta.

V got the scallops (600 CZK). They had a morel crust and came with asparagus.We both felt disappointed.

First, three of the four scallops were very small. Second, those three were also slightly overcooked. There was too much toughness to the flesh. The fourth one was larger and, perhaps because of its size, was cooked correctly. It was much more delicate and tender.

V is a big asparagus fan, more so than me, but she thought that, despite the fancy presentation and the addition of "green marmalade" it was fairly ordinary. We didn't really figure out what the "marmalade" was, aside from diced asparagus. I'd have to say the morel crust was my favorite part -- very buttery.

For dessert, I ordered the chocolate lingot (195 CZK).Essentially, it was a chocolate mousse, on top of a long, thin cookie, with a strip of dark chocolate in the middle, and covered with dark chocolate.

On the side was an intensely sweet and sour orange syrup. The flavor reminded me of an orange lollipop. In a good way.

If you are into intense cocoa experiences, this is for you. I'm one of those people, and I liked it on that level. But I agreed with V's assessment that there wasn't much that was original or extra special about it.

Perhaps our host sensed V's need for the exotic, and he suggested a special dessert. Usually, we share just one, but she decided to get the strawberries with Reisling jelly and fresh thyme (195 CZK)."It's different and weird. Like me," she said. I agreed. The thyme was a great touch.

V finished with an espresso (65 CZK).

She asked for milk with it, which came heated in a tiny pitcher.

The thought the odd lumps of sugar were cute.

The total bill came to 2933 CZK without tip. That's a lot for a dinner. The servings were fairly small. But I did feel full afterward.

Was it worth the money?

The scallops weren't. And perhaps not the ravioli. The lobster, veal, and strawberries were.

It was something of a split decision. I asked V if she would want to return to the Dancing House for dinner.

"Yes," she said, flashing an expression of horizontal desire. "For that view. And to try the lamb."

And so we shall.

Céleste Restaurant
Tančící dům (Dancing House)
Rašínovo nábřeží 80
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 221 98 41 60

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Restaurace Zvonařka

That all-softening, overpowering knell
The tocsin of the soul - the dinner-bell
Lord Byron
It was a beautiful spring evening, and my boss asked me to suggest a place for a farewell drink for a departing colleague.

He had two conditions: We should be able to sit outside to enjoy the warm weather and it should be relatively close to Wenceslas Square.

A colleague had already called Restaurace Mušketýr, and it was booked. I knew Bredovský dvůr would be, as well. I thought Riegrovy sady beer garden wasn't appropriate.

In the end, I came up with Restaurace Zvonařka.The place is known for its large terrace, if not for its food. And I was correct in my assumption that the terrace would not be full. It's a nice spot, but often overlooked.In past summers, they fired up a grill outside, but it was too early in the season for that.

The word "zvonařka" is somewhat hard to define in modern usage. I was told by someone with a degree in Czech linguistics that it means something like "bell foundry" or a place for bells.

The restaurant sits on the edge of a hill. On one side, there is a view of the rich villas of Vinohrady.And on the other side, there is a view of the train tracks of Vršovice and the lesser environs of Nusle.When the leaves really come out, you see a lot less.

I had a half-liter of Gambrinus (29 CZK).Someone else drank Kozel dark (35 CZK).Pilsner Urquell is also available (35 CZK).

We ordered a round of cheese nachos (90 CZK) for the table. These were quite bad.The very ordinary chips were covered with melted cheese that quickly cooled and hardened. Trying to pick up one chip often resulted in picking up 13 others that were stuck together. You had to peel the chips apart from the cheese. Very awkward.

The salsa was some sweet stuff from a jar. Pretty standard in Prague.

We ordered a few rounds of the large plate of 16 chicken wings with Buffalo sauce (150 CZK). These were very good.They were large, cooked just right, and I liked the sauce. It was sweeter than a classic American Buffalo sauce, but still had a nice tang. I ate many of these.

Later, we ordered a round with barbecue sauce, but the sauce was exactly the same. We weren't sure if we had gotten the wrong sauce the first time or the second time.

We didn't bother to ask because the service was not very good on the terrace, and we had a hard enough time just getting an order in.

There are two large rooms inside. I had a big birthday party there a few years ago.

They were very cool about giving me one of the rooms, without guaranteed minimum charge for the house. I just ordered a modest amount of food in advance and brought a lot of thirsty people, and they were happy. I don't know whether that deal is still available.

On this visit, we also ordered a few spicy klobasy or sausages (75 CZK each).They were quite popular at the table, so I had a hard time getting a picture before they had succumbed to knives and forks. They came with bread, mustard and horseradish. I thought they were a bit on the dry side, but not too fatty and quite tasty.

So, if you are looking for a place to hang out in good weather, maybe have some good wings, and can't think of where to go, perhaps Zvonařka will ring a bell.

Restaurace Zvonařka
Šafaříkova 1
Praha 2 Vinohrady
Tel:224 251 990

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Czech Please on Expats.cz

A new Czech Please development to report. I've partnered up with the website, Expats.cz.

The deal is this: They get first-run of a blog post.

I get some support for my rather excessive food and drink habit.

That's it.

Otherwise, everything else is the same as before. I remain editorially independent. The blog follows my life and not vice versa. No one tells me where to go or what to do.

Posts that appear on Expats.cz will go up on this site a couple of days later. For a debut, we did something special. We tried out the new French place on top of the "Dancing House," Céleste Restaurant and Bar.

If you have any questions or comments, I'll do my best to answer them.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Pâtisserie St. Tropez

"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate." Charles Dickens
Passion Chocolat was like an old friend. And I missed it when it was gone.

The pâtisserie and cafe on Italska was on my way to work.I used to stop by at the stroke of 8:00 a.m. a couple of times a week and pick up a warm pain au chocolate, fresh from the oven. Or a croissant filled with vanilla cream. Or a chocolate cookie. Or all of them.

It was in a bright and modern store-front space in a beautifully constructed building.But as the sweet proprietor, Nadine Musso, told me, things weren't working out there.

Five months later, Nadine and her husband Jean-Francois have opened a new place, Pâtisserie St. Tropez.It is just off Wenceslas Square, in Lucerna's Dům U Nováků.The easiest way to find it is from the entrance on Vodičkova. From that side, you can see the cafe's Art Deco exterior.The good news is that all the French-style cakes and pastries are just the same as they were before.Personally, I'm partial for anything with chocolate. Or creams. Or custards.They have whole cakes, as well. They really are edible works of art.Things can get a little nutty - I've heard a few people raving about these sweets.Getting back to chocolate, they still make their own special bon bons.They also do special holiday chocolates -- I saw specially designed eggs for Easter. Some of the creations have plenty of kid appeal -- as if the chocolate alone is not enough.Speaking of kid appeal, M. Musso makes the chocolates on the premises and you can see him at work through the glass walls.He wasn't producing any while I was there, but I'm sure it's fun to watch.

I like these people, I like their desserts, and I like the look of their new shop.I think the new, central location, with a lot of foot traffic, will work out much better for them.

What I don't like is that it is not on my way to work anymore. But it's often worthwhile to go out of your way to see a friend. Especially a friend with chocolate.

Pâtisserie St. Tropez
Palac Lucerna - Dům U Nováků
Vodičkova 30
Tel. (+420) 222 524 333
Mobile (+420) 724 547 565

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