Monday, August 31, 2009

Ha Noi

"If you want to gather a lot of knowledge, act as if you are ignorant." Vietnamese proverb
For such a small and unassuming spot, there's been a big buzz around the relatively new Vietnamese restaurant, Ha Noi.The Vinohrady establishment got some positive mentions by long-time Prague restaurant critic Evan Rail on the pages of The New York Times and Lidové noviny. He mentions the surprising lack of Vietnamese restaurants in Prague, given the large Vietnamese population in the city.

It's also noted that on, a discussion of the restaurant's pho, or noodle soup, is filled with comments like "pretty good - not quite Vietnamese standard" and "best I've had in Prague" and "bargain for that quality."

However, Ha Noi was essentially panned by Pan Cuketka, the popular food blogger and reviewer at Týden magazine (Czech only). He basically said Prague is still waiting for a good and authentic Vietnamese restaurant.

I enjoy a variety of Asian cuisines, but like many out there, I'm not an expert on Vietnamese food. I'm just a guy who eats out a lot and loves trying new things. And after three visits, I've got my own opinions.

Despite being in a cellar space, the room is bright and cheerful enough, with brick accents, orange walls, blond wood floors, and yellow table cloths.On my first visit with V, I went straight for the pho bo or beef noodle soup (79 CZK).It was stocked with paper-thin slices of meat that were surprisingly tender. Noodles floated underneath.

On the side were a lime slice, cilantro, and bean sprouts.There was also a potion of vinegar, garlic slices, and red, hot chili peppers.There were so many of my favorite flavors here. However, I felt that they were not assertive enough.

Perhaps an authentic version has a slight blandness to it. But for my tastes, it didn't cause much excitement.

I wished there was more lime, and I added a lot of the garlic potion to give it more of a punch.

Don't get me wrong. It wasn't bad. I just didn't find it particularly special.

This first meal was a few months ago, and it was before Ha Noi came out with its one-page Vietnamese menu.

So V ordered something from the regular Chinese menu -- sweet and sour chicken on an iron skillet.This was pretty dismal. For some reason, she thought that since it was served on hot iron, it wouldn't be fried in batter. A simple misunderstanding.

However, the crust was really unfortunate. It had an odd and unpleasant consistency, somewhere closer to chewy than crunchy.

The chicken slices rested on vegetables and there was a standard sweet and sour sauce on the side.

I was drinking Pilsner Urquell. The great news here was a half-liter was only 26 CZK.

It tasted good, though I do like it a little colder.

On my second, more recent visit, I started off with two kinds of spring rolls.They have the classic fried roll, like the one on the right, filled with pork, shredded cabbage, and carrot (49 CZK for three). They also offered one free when ordering a main course.

But the rolls listed on the menu as "nem ga" said in Czech they were made with chicken.There were also fried rolls made with just rice noodles called "bun nem." There were no fried rolls listed with pork.

At the bottom of the Vietnamese menu, they listed non-fried spring rolls (29 CZK each).Inside, there were shrimp, rice noodles, Thai basil, red pepper, cucumber, and what I believed was chicken. But the menu said it was pork. The dipping sauce was sweet, but also quite spicy.

Then, I went for a dish that a few people recommended, the bun cha (79 CZK).This was roasted pork with torn Thai-style basil leaves over plain rice noodles. There was a sweet and sour sauce on the side.

The New York Times piece mentioned that it came with bird chilies and peanuts but I didn't see those.

The pork itself was slightly overcooked and tough. Pan Cuketka called the meat "intolerably salty." I wouldn't go that far, but it was definitely on the wrong side of the salinity scale.

Like him, I also thought I tasted soy sauce, which is not part of the classic bun cha recipe. Most recipes also call for a decent amount of sugar, which I had a hard time detecting.

I poured all of the sweet sauce over the top to cut the salinity and give the noodles some flavor. It helped, but not enough. Still, I felt that with better attention to detail in the cooking and flavor, the dish had potential.

I felt I didn't have the full measure of the Vietnamese menu, so I went back one more time. I ordered a bottle of water and was disappointed to see they have those .2 liter bottles of Bonaqua (20 CZK).I much prefer Mattoni. Those tiny Bonaqua bottles don't quench my thirst.

For my meal, I had the mixed rice and glass noodles with beef (89 CZK). There was crushed peanut, cucumber, and basil on top.Under the noodles, there was a sweet sauce that turned into a nice broth. The waiter encouraged me to mix it up well.The meat was tender and had the best balance, not over salted. I wished there was more of it. I thought I'd even ask for a double order of meat over a single order of noodles. I'd pay 178 CZK for that.

I did add some Chin-su hot sauce to perk it up. But even without that, I liked this the best of all the dishes I tried. Warning -- that red chili sauce is hot stuff.

The service was always good -- polite, friendly, and efficient.The food always came fast. Maybe too fast. I was concerned too much was pre-prepared and reheated.

I definitely wouldn't say someone should go too far out of their way to try Ha Noi. But I did like a couple of things -- the spring rolls and the mixed noodles.

And I absolutely loved the prices. It's a decent, non-standard addition to the neighborhood. I'll be back from time to time.

Some might say I know too little about Vietnamese cuisine to fully appreciate Ha Noi.

I can only say that in my ignorance, I've learned quite a lot.

Ha Noi
Slezská 57
Praha 2 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 728 774 637

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Czech Golf Course Food

"Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose." Winston Churchill
I hate golf.

In fact, few have done more than me to tear the golf courses of this country into little pieces.

Yes, I play poorly. But I try.

If you are not a golfer, forgive me this indulgence. I report every week about what I've been eating, and I always like to do something a little unusual.

So, here we are.

First, here's a look at my favorite 9-hole course, Golf Hostivař.I think it is the best-kept of the ones I usually play. It was 800 CZK to tee off on a weekend.

There is a modern club house building.And in the back is a restaurant with a pleasant outdoor patio. There are sheep grazing nearby.

For the human grazers, the menu was relatively ambitious and on the upscale side.I was happy to see they had a lava grill outside.

I decided to splurge and ordered the rib eye steak (350 CZK). It came with grilled vegetables marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil.It looked pretty, but this was a pretty big disappointment.

A rib eye should be the tenderest of cuts. But this one was very tough and overcooked. There was a good smoky flavor from the grill, but it was tiresome to eat it. The veggies were well prepared, still with some crunch.

On a later visit, I went for the Thai chicken breast burger (195 CZK). There was wasabi mayo, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and fries on the side. A quality bun.This was much better, among the best chicken sandwiches I've had in Prague.

It was not whole breast, but a re-formed patty. Still, it held together well, had a great char from the grill, and was well-seasoned. I could taste the wasabi in the mayo. Fries were fine -- thick and fried crispy.

Michigan Man had a grilled chicken thigh with American potatoes and a small salad.He said it was very good, but I didn't taste it myself.

They serve Pilsner Urquell on draft (40 CZK/Half-Liter).It did taste mighty fine after a game. They don't offer Gambrinus, but do have non-alcoholic beer.

Another course I've played on a number of times is at Golf & Country Club Hodkovičky.It's down along the Vltava River, south of the city center. This 9-holer is not as well kept and is also 800 CZK on a weekend.

One problem for me: there is always a concern about killing a roller blader or cyclist on the popular paved paths that run along the fairways.

I've only had one thing from the restaurant, but it is something I can recommend.They do a fine bacon cheeseburger (235 CZK). It's not flame-grilled as far as I can tell, but the large patty was made with top-quality beef.There was a big, strong bun. It had all the fixin's -- lettuce, tomato, red onion, smoky bacon, cheddar cheese. It all fit together.

Not cheap, but neither is golf.In this context, it was worth it. I'd get it again.

The fries were excellent. I'd just criticize them for being stingy with the little dish of ketchup. I had to ask for extra to put on both my burger and fries.

And I was not happy with the tiny .2 liter baby bottle of Nestea that they served (39 CZK).It hardly quenched my thirst, and the price was crazy. I ended up going over to a nearby vending machine, buying a half-liter ice tea bottle for cheaper and refilling my glass with it.

They also offer a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell for 45 CZK.Unfortunately, I could not partake in that more economical and satisfying beverage since I was driving.

Golf Resort Beřovice is the furthest from the center of Prague, about an hour drive. And it is also the most hilly. The weather was mixed, but we did get a nice rainbow show.

We played 18 holes (1400 CZK on a weekend), and we were pretty exhausted by the time we hit the Birdie Restaurant.

I was too tired and forgot to take a picture of the dining area or the food before we started eating. We sat outside, but you can see how the inside looks on their website.

I had steak tartare.They allow you to season it yourself if you want, but I let them do it. And they did a good job. The beef was top-notch, very garlicky, with the right amount of onions, salt, and the rest.

I rubbed young, fresh garlic on the topinky, the oil-fried Czech bread, and it was extremely sharp. I passed some around and my friends enjoyed it.

Michigan Man had the pork schnitzel with mashed potatoes.I had a bite, and it was pretty greasy. But they used good pork, and it looked quite filling.

J had steak in a pepper cream sauce with American potatoes.The beef looked overcooked to me, but he said he enjoyed it and was glad he ordered it.

All in all, the food to be found on the Czech golf courses I've played was better than I expected.

And thinking about their food helped me take my mind off my game, which is singularly ill-designed for getting that damn little ball in the hole.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Essensia at the Mandarin Oriental

“Disappointment is the nurse of wisdom.” Sir Bayle Roche
Why did I want to eat at Essensia?

Well, it was a beautiful evening, and I wanted to sit outside. I was in the mood for something special and ready to loosen the purse strings. And I needed something new.

I'd read chef Jiří Štift recently started cooking at the Mandarin Oriental and had introduced a new menu. He used to cook at Alcron in the Radisson SAS. We ate there years ago when he ran the kitchen and greatly enjoyed it.

So we got to the hotel in Malá Strana as the sun was setting and sat out on the wooden deck.The tables looked inviting, with flowers and plants around them. It was only mildly disturbing that cars and taxis regularly drove past. The deck is in the hotel driveway.

Things started off well, service-wise. Our super polite, somewhat overly attentive waiter brought us refreshing, cool towels.There was a real, little orchid on the side.

We ordered a .75 liter bottle of Mattoni (190 CZK). The waiter brought a separate glass of ice and slices of lemon with fancy toothpicks, a nice touch.I expected five-star hotel prices, but I was still surprised how much they jack up the cost of drinks.

We were waiting for Jersey Girl, our faithful foodie friend, to join us, so I ordered a gin and tonic. V had a Campari and orange juice.I got a separate little bottle of tonic, which cost 110 CZK. The shot of Gordon's gin was 160 CZK. I didn't know the prices until the end, but I was pretty stunned when I found out it was 270 CZK for a basic long drink.

V's Campari, by itself, was 150 CZK. The juice was fresh-squeezed and cost another 120 CZK. That's 270 CZK altogether. She thought they used too much Campari, making it too bitter for her taste.

I don't know about everybody else, but the practice of charging separately for alcohol and mixers puts me off. And compared to the Mandarin Oriental, the Buddha-Bar's gimlet seemed a relative bargain at 190 CZK.

We were hungry and had to ask for bread. It took a long time for it to arrive. The waiter apologized profusely that the bread he had sent to us had been given to another table by mistake.There was some OK stuff with walnut mixed in, but the poppy seed rolls were on the stale side. The other slices were unremarkable. There was whipped garlic butter and regular butter on the side.

The waiter disappeared for quite a while and when he came back, we had trouble getting his attention.

Finally, we did. But we didn't consider the newly unveiled gourmet Czech section of the menu. If you are interested, it's not on the internet. Except for here if you can read it.We were all in the mood for their Asian offerings.

I was the only one who ordered a starter. I got the soft-shell crab in wasabi tempura (480 CZK).It was a large portion of crab, easily double the size of the cheaper version I had at SaSaZu. The delicate meat was fresh and delicious. The tempura shell was perfectly crunchy, but I was disappointed I couldn't detect the wasabi.

On the side was the basic Thai chili sauce you can find in any supermarket. I expected something a little more creative from a big name chef at a fancy hotel charging top-end prices.

Under the crab was what was described as "soy bean and shiitake mushroom salsa." I'm not sure what made it a "salsa," but I found it very dull and uninspired. It was overwhelmed by the earthy flavor of the bean sprouts.

I'm really not a fan of sprouts, so I asked Jersey Girl for her take. She's generally a vegetarian who eats fish sometimes. Her opinion: "Nothing special."

We wanted a chilled bottle of rose wine with our summer meal, and I was disappointed that there were no French options in that category, only Czech. I ordered the Svatovavřinecké Claret (820 CZK).I was unimpressed. I found it far too sweet and not so refreshing.

At this point, between the starters and the main courses, our waiter disappeared again. In fact, the whole outside staff went AWOL. I'd guess it was for close to 15 minutes. We wanted another bottle of water.When he came back I got his attention.

"Hey, where you been?!?"

"I'm so sorry. A number of tables were seated inside, and we have to take care of them as well."

We ate inside a few years ago, right after the hotel opened. We thought the food was pretty good then, if overpriced, and that the white-washed walls and stone floors gave the dining room a cold and uninviting atmosphere.

Anyway, on to the main courses. At the beginning of the evening, V saw a gentleman outside eating lobster, but didn't see it on the menu. She asked and was told it was a special, unlisted dish. The waiter checked for her and said there was one portion left. Nice.

So she had the grilled lobster (950 CZK). This was a dish that was worth the price.It was split and fried in a healthy amount of butter, with just the right level of salt and other spice. The meat was fresh and tender.

She enjoyed it greatly, and the few bites I got were delicious. There was a small amount of grilled vegetables on the side, which she said were not too remarkable.

I ordered the pepper-glazed beef entrecôte (590 CZK). The meat, cooked medium-rare, came with stir-fried vegetables and jasmine rice.There was a slightly sweet but thin teriyaki-style sauce over the meat, which pooled under the vegetables. I wasn't sure how to cut it without mashing the steak down on the veggies -- there was no separate plate.

When I began cutting, the beef seemed a little tough. When I began chewing, it tasted well-seasoned and grilled. But it was also very tough. And gristled.

My jaw began getting tired. And I started to get annoyed. This was not good quality, well-sourced beef. This was not worth almost 600 Czech crowns. I could get a far better steak down the road at El Barrio de Ángel for half the price.

There was a nice mix of vegetables underneath -- cherry tomatoes, baby corn, peppers, zucchini, and such. But sitting in the uninspired sauce, they didn't bring me much joy.

Jersey Girl had the Phad Thai with shrimp (490 CZK). It has to be one of the most expensive versions in the city. And it was perhaps the worst iteration I have tried."It's really sour," Jersey Girl told me. I took a bite.

"Oh yeah. Intense. But it also reeks of fish sauce. Really skunky."

I love a few dashes of fish sauce in Asian cuisine. We use it quite often at home. But this tasted like they dumped a whole bottle in the mix, along with a crate of limes.

To make matters worse, there were only four medium-size, over-cooked, dried-out shrimp, along with some microscopic ones. The noodles were dry and clumpy, too. The table next to us was talking and considering ordering the phad thai. JG said with a stage whisper, "Don't do it!"

Down the street at Noi, you can get a far-superior phad thai with six properly cooked shrimp for just 240 CZK.

We weren't happy, and we wanted out. But our waiter had disappeared again. The sun had gone down, there was little lighting on the deck, and we were sitting in the dark. Fuming.

"I'm so sorry," he apologized when he finally turned up again. "It was very busy inside. Can I offer you some free coffee or would you like dessert?"

"No, just the check. Time to go," I said. We had no desire to stay a minute longer than we had to. The finally bill was 4250 CZK. Jersey Girl kicked in 1000 CZK, and I picked up the rest. Serious money.

Contrary to the misapprehensions of some out there, I don't get free food. When I eat at an expensive restaurant, I pay for the meal out of my own pocket. I can afford a pricey meal, but I do maintain the expectation I will get value for my money and good service.

After this dinner, I was angry. The lobster and part of the crab dish were enjoyable. But that's not good enough. The steak and the phad thai were failures. I did not like the wine. The mixed drink prices were outrageous. The service was just plain "sorry."

I was embarrassed I had invited a friend to share in this learning experience. You'd think a place called Mandarin Oriental would take their Asian cuisine more seriously.

But after dining at Essensia, I was nursing the feeling that I'd been bilked out a fair amount of cash.

If you are looking for a fine Asian meal on the town in Prague, there are plenty of far wiser choices you can make.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Nebovidská 1
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 233 088 888

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