Saturday, November 28, 2009

Café Bar Wigwam

“While living I want to live well.” Geronimo
Every week for years, I've been going to the same restaurant/pub in Malá strana to meet a group of friends. While it is far from perfect, Café Bar Wigwam fills the most of my group's requirements of all the establishments in the area.It serves Budvar, which is 32 CZK for a half-liter of 10° and 35 CZK for 12°.This is acceptable and agreeable for those with prohibitions against Staropramen beers.

The place also keeps relatively late hours -- it is open until 1 a.m. every night but Sunday.And it has a non-standard pub menu, serving what I call Czech International Interpretative.

For a long time, the interior design was devoted to essentially Central and South American Indian culture or perhaps even African, rather than that which relates to the type of Indians who lived in actual wigwams.Quite amusing. But this changed after a recent interior update that saw the addition of some North American Indian photos, along with heavier chairs and tables. I like the way the place looks.Sometimes every table is taken. Sometimes the place is sparsely populated. I once asked the barman why it was so full on some weeks and not others.

"I have no idea," he said. "If you find out, let me know."

What is certain is that if the restaurant is full, smoke will get in your eyes. The place is not too well ventilated and the clouds really hang in the air, especially in winter. The eclectic classic rock/disco they always play can get a little tiresome after you've heard it a few times.

The most ordered meal among all my friends is some variation of the hamburger. They recently started offering the jalapeno burger, which everyone gets (135 CZK). It comes with steak fries.Now if you read my review of the hamburgers I've eaten in in Prague, you'd know I have a love-hate relationship with this one. Currently, I'm in a hate phase. The meat is always cooked completely through, it is crumbly, it has an odd seasoning I can't quite place, and the bun is small and disintegrates.

The fries are large and look good, but they have a somewhat chewy rather than crispy texture. The jalapenos themselves are the best part -- whole sliced peppers across the top. Just keep in mind that all my friends keep ordering it every week and think I'm too hard on the poor burger.

Oddly, on a number of weeks, they have run out of them. They also do a chicken burger, which is just OK (125 CZK).But I suggest you avoid the pork neck burger (125 CZK). It comes with Niva cheese and Dijon dressing, a combination I find quite awful.

So, I've been trying a number of other dishes. Recently, I had the pork ribs (125 CZK).These were fairly tired and dried out, but not past the point of acceptability. There was a sweet, tangy sauce, and it came with a baguette. I'd rank them pretty low on my Prague rib scale. That said, I'd probably get them again over the burger.

One of the favorites among my group is the Mat Saman Curry (145 CZK).This is an approximation of red curry chicken. It's nothing like an authentic recipe, but it is one of the best things they do. The coconut milk sauce is very thick and on the sweet side. Green and red peppers are mixed in along with onions. The portion is large and comes with a big plate of rice.

Curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a recent addition to the menu, the chicken yakitori (145 CZK). I could see no evidence it was grilled over a fire.It was much more like a Czech version of Chicken Satay, served on popsicle sticks. The tender meat tasted of coconut and fresh ginger. The sauce was basically Thai chili sauce mixed with ketchup. So, yeah, it's not real ethnic cuisine, but then again, I prefer it over typical Czech pub grub. Once a week, anyway.

One of the biggest losers on the menu is the fried chicken in a tortilla (130 CZK).I suppose it resembles a KFC Twister, but those are much better. The chicken was overcooked, and all the fried coating fell off and mixed with the iceberg lettuce in the tortilla.It was a mess and did not taste good.

The penne with mushroom, olive, chicken, and Parmesan is a better choice (95 CZK).The sauce could be creamier, but it does have a nice mushroom flavor, and they are generous with the shaved Parmesan.

To sum up, Wigwam is a decent place to go for a generally young crowd, inconsistent, quirky, occasionally decent food, and quite good prices. The staff is very friendly -- once they get to know you.

And they serve my current drink of choice, hruškovice (45 CZK) or pear brandy, in chilled shot glasses.

When I'm out with my friends, I don't need much more to live well.

Café Bar Wigwam
Zborovská 54
Prague 5 - Malá strana
Tel. (+420) 257 311 707

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

La Finestra in Cucina

"May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." Dwight Eisenhower
For a lot of people, La Finestra in Cucina is the place to be.The Old Town Italian restaurant is a window on what's hot right now in Prague's restaurant scene.

It's gotten some rave reviews. The Prague Post awarded La Finestra three stars out of four, with critic Claire Compton describing the food as "heavenly" and "ethereal." The Prague Spoon's Laura Baranik, usually parsimonious with her praise, gave it her highest rating, four spoons. The soon-to-be defunct Gourmet magazine's Alexander Lobrano described a much loved lunch of succulent veal, delicious potatoes, and excellent wine.

I did find one mildly dissenting voice. It was that of Czech Business Weekly's Milan Ballik. Amidst many enjoyable dishes, he related his disappointing encounter with an overcooked, tough T-bone.

I went twice to La Finestra. It's not very large, but it is a beautiful space with brick walls, vaulted brick ceilings, and hardwood floors. On the first visit, I made the mistake of thinking I didn't need a reservation at 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The place was packed with diners, including a few families with small children.I really wanted to try the place, so V and I reserved a table and decided to come back in 30 minutes.

When we returned from our walk, our table still was not ready. We were directed to the "bar," a tight space by the window to the kitchen which gives the restaurant its name.V had a .1 liter glass of prosecco (130 CZK) and I had a small bottle of Aquila water (45 CZK). Watching the chefs work and the food flying by was fun.

Less enjoyable was the company at the bar. A portly middle-aged man with a stinking cigar was showing off his flashy mobile phone to his young, blond girlfriend.

Being in close proximity to such clichés sets V on edge. From my point of view, puffing on a cigar in the presence of fine food is like swearing in a church. So, our good mood soured a bit. We were there for 15 minutes. I partly blamed myself for poor planning.

I asked for a non-smoking table. I was not thrilled that those tables were isolated in a narrow space at the back of the restaurant.Meanwhile, Mr. Stogie got one of the best tables in the house, by the front window.

There was one benefit to our table. It was next to another window into the kitchen. It was great fun to watch the chefs at work through our meal.Unfortunately, our placement had a big drawback. The host seated all three non-smoking tables in the back at the same time. The same waiter had to take care of us all.

Triple seating a server is something that restaurants should try to avoid at all costs. It seemed that we were third in line for everything all afternoon, and it got quite irritating.

To start off, we got crusty, chewy bread. It came with good olive oil and fried chickpeas.We were starving, so we wolfed down several oil-laden slices.

For an appetizer, I ordered the fried salt cod in crispy potato pastella (345 CZK). The presentation wasn't so pretty. The dough was greasy, with a soaked napkin sitting underneath them.But looks aren't everything. The dish came with an excellent, sweet-salty-sour homemade garlic mayonnaise.

The delicate cod, mixed with the crunchy shell and the mayo, was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures.In our travels, V has had some great Caesar salads. She often judges a restaurant on how they execute this common offering.

So she ordered the "Classic Ceasar salad with anchovies" (245 CZK).For V, the dressing is everything. Her take was that the flavor was almost there, but the texture was not. It was too thin and watery.

I had a bite and thought that the Romaine lettuce was slightly wilted, lacking crispness. I also considered it too small for the price.

La Finestra and its sister restaurant, Aromi, take pride in their wine lists. We love good wine, but the high prices often deter us in restaurants. Most of the wines by the glass were 180-200 CZK and that was for just .15 liter.

But V wanted wine, so she ordered the cheapest one they had, a Moravian white for 130 CZK. The waiter forgot about it and eventually had to be reminded to bring it. He was apologetic.V thought it was just OK. For me, it was too fruity, sweet, and one-dimensional. I didn't like it at all. We shared a big bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water (95 CZK).

For her main course, V ordered the grilled octopus (425 CZK). It came with a Chianti wine reduction and a rucola salad.The two tentacles were large and long, but V thought the portion would be bigger for the price. The meat was tender, but with some snap to it. There was a good balance of salt, with a slight smokiness. We both liked the octopus by itself.

But we both decided the wine reduction was not a good match for it. It was sweet, but not acidic enough. It would have gone perfectly with a red meat dish like lamb but seemed out of place with seafood. V also said that the dressed rucola leaves were too boring and ordinary.

I had the veal saltimbocca. It cost 425 CZK, but note that as of this writing, the menu on the website said it was 345 CZK.In Italian, "saltimbocca" means "jumps in the mouth." But with this particular dish, I'd say the white meat couldn't jump.

The veal had a number of problems. It was overcooked, and it was a tough cut. Perhaps that was because it was thicker than versions I'd had in the past. It had pounding marks on it, but the hammering didn't do enough to tenderize it. By itself, the meat was dry and bland.

The prosciutto, so delicate in its cured state, had been reduced to the texture of shoe leather. It was actually difficult to cut. Its saltiness did balance out the blandness of the meat, but my jaw grew weary from the chewing.

The other major ingredient in saltimbocca is sage. I love sage. But in this case, it was super intense and overwhelmed the sauce. I had to use it sparingly.

The one saving grace was the onion potatoes. The sweet, fried onions, mixed with the buttery potatoes were a pure joy. But it was not enough to relieve my unhappiness with everything else on the plate.

I was full, but I always have room for dessert. I was very curious about the vanilla souffle, but couldn't bear the thought of waiting for it to be cooked to order.

At times, our waiter could be very polite and solicitous, but then he'd go MIA. We were already at the two hour mark. Dishes needed to be cleared, and he was having a conversation with the big spending table next to us.

I decided to keep it simple and ordered the pistachio crème brûlée (175 CZK).This was quite perfect. It was smooth, creamy, and rich, with the special and specific taste of green pistachio paste.I got to see the chef through the window hit it with a blowtorch to seal the top. I loved every bite.

Getting the check required another waiting game, even though by this time, after 4 p.m., the restaurant was almost empty. The bill came to 2145 CZK, plus tip. I was rather annoyed at this point, so I left less than the usual amount.

We felt the restaurant was a mixed bag and left disappointed.

I understand that reading a lot of hype about a restaurant can lead to inflated expectations. I also considered that bad timing on a busy Sunday had led to perhaps unusual problems. So I had to try again.

V refused to join me. Once a restaurant bothers her in some way, that restaurant is dead to her.

So I dined solo during a relative lull at 6 p.m. on a Monday. And despite the early quietude, I heard them fielding phone calls for reservations that evening and saying they were fully booked.

There was no awkwardness due to my solo status. The service was friendly, but too active. I was asked the same questions by two different waiters and a manager. My scanning of the menu was interrupted several times in quick succession.

I asked the waiter to recommend a glass of red wine to go with my meal. He suggested the Barbera d´Asti, Cá di Pian (200 CZK for .15 liter).It was as he described it -- medium-bodied, lightly acidic and tannic. The first taste wasn't as smooth as I'd hoped, but I warmed to it as the meal progressed.

I received an amuse bouche of beef tagliata with grilled polenta and cranberries.The cool, rare beef and cranberries were excellent together, but the polenta was unpleasantly cold.

I noticed that they do consider the seasons when putting their menu together. I ordered the pumpkin risotto with Parmesan cheese and aged balsamico (295 CZK/appetizer portion).The very al dente, creamy rice was a pure pleasure on each fork full, with the tart cheese and sweet vinegar. I liked it a lot, but one thing puzzled me. I tried and tried, but despite the orange color, I could not taste the pumpkin. A small disappointment in an otherwise delicious dish.

After this, there was another amuse bouche -- a small glass of creamy, very sweet lime sorbet.

I had one small taste, and then my main course arrived. This was clearly a service snafu. The waitress grabbed my sorbet and started moving quickly away.

"Hey, hey, hey! I'm not finished with that!"

"Yes, but it won't be so good now with your meal. I will bring you another one later." And she was gone. True, there was some sense in this. However, she never did bring me back another one, as promised. It was forgotten.

My main course was a 300 gram rib eye in mustard sauce with Italian zucchini and a small salad (595 CZK). I was told it was Italian beef cooked over a lava grill.I was confused when it arrived. On the beef was a reddish-brown sauce, so I called over the waitress.

"Just wondering, what kind of sauce is this?"

"That's a mustard sauce."

"I was curious because it doesn't look like mustard. Or just not what I expected."

"Yes, it is a demi-glass with mustard mixed in. Is there a problem?"

"No, not at all. I love demi-glace. I just found the description confusing." She looked concerned until I assured her that it really wasn't a problem.

The sauce was positively popping with peppercorns and rather salty. But it was rich, satisfying, and almost decadent on the meat.

The beef itself was quite different from an American rib eye. The thin cut, cooked medium-rare, was certainly tender, with a healthy marbling of fat in the middle. But the flesh had more of a firmness or denseness to it.It picked up a hint of smoke from the grill, and I enjoyed every bite. The lightly grilled zucchini also tasted of the grill and, along with the light, acidic salad, provided a great counterpoint. Potatoes would have been too much.

I couldn't finish it. I thought it would be a shame to finish it after my appetite diminished. I took the rest home to V, and she agreed it was top notch.

As I said earlier, I always have room for dessert, and I really wanted to try the chocolate truffle cake (165 CZK).This cake is notable for having actual truffles in it. That's right, the kind you dig up from the ground. Other reviews have commented positively on it.

The chocolate in the cake was rich, intense, and very fudgy. It was surrounded by fresh whipped cream, strawberries, and vanilla ice cream that didn't impress me.

You don't exactly taste the fungus in the cake as much as you detect its subtle aroma in your nose. Is it good? This is entirely subjective, but I did not like it at all.

It was just strange, and the jarring juxtaposition diverted my thoughts from the great chocolate with every bite. Try as I might, I couldn't get used to it.

I have one other small observation about the ends of meals. At the end of our last visit to Aromi, we received two complimentary glasses of limoncello. During my visits to La Finestra, I saw many tables receiving limoncello. Whether they paid for it, I do not know. But none was offered to me either time. It set my mind to wondering. So, if you go there and you do get free limoncello, I'd love to know how you qualify.

I liked at least half the dishes at La Finestra, but for these prices, I'd say they need to do better.

The service was always polite and occasionally good. But it also lacked focus and consistency. It felt like style over substance.

Does La Finestra deserve three stars? Four spoons? I don't give stars or spoons. But over the course of two meals, I did give them 3800 Czech crowns from my own pocket.

I may be in the dissenting minority, but I do think that was too generous for what I received in return.

La Finestra in Cucina
Platnéřská 13
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 325 325

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Velvet Revolution 20th Anniversary Concert

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.” Vaclav Havel
Sometimes I get lucky. Last night was one of those nights.

I attended the very special concert and celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.It was held before a few hundred people in the intimate setting of Pražská křižovatka -- Prague Crossroads at the Church of St. Anne.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the playwright who helped inspire and lead the revolution, was the guest of honor.The performers were Joan Baez, Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed, and Renee Fleming.Highlights included Reed's performance of "Dirty Boulevard," Vega singing "Tom's Diner" backed by the orchestra, Fleming's "Ave Maria" and Baez's rendition of "We Shall Overcome," which the audience joined in singing.

We were on a high as we walked out of the concert hall on such a beautiful fall evening. A drink was in order and nowhere could be more appropriate than Divadlo na zábradlí -- Theater on the Balustrade -- where Havel got his start as a playwright.

It was just around the corner. I had a feeling that the concert's after-party could be there because there was a chalkboard by the door with a sign that said: "♥ 9p-1a" A heart is Havel's symbol -- he always draws one after his signature.

Then I thought I must be wrong. The theater's bar was relatively empty, and we got seats at a table right in the middle. But then, it turned out, I was right. Just a few minutes later, a parade of celebrities began arriving.

There was former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who pulled up a chair across from us.He then got a kiss from Joan Baez.Lou Reed got a lot of attention when he walked in with a couple of security guys.Renee Fleming and Suzanne Vega were also there, but I was having such a good time, I didn't take photos. Or perhaps I'd had too many vodkas at that point.

There were also some big Czech names at the party, such as the artist, David Cerny.The actor Pavel Liška was holding court at another table.There was a VIP room off to the side of the bar, but everyone was moving in and out, including us. It was all very relaxed and casual.And, of course, the guest of honor was there.As with so many other things, it wouldn't have been the same without him.

The concert was shown on Czech television, but I made my own video of the concert highlights and after-party.
All photos copyright of Czech Please ©

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Café Imperial

"If the Czar only knew..." Old Russian saying
People often ask me for restaurant tips. Give me a price range, location, and maybe a cuisine preference, and I'll give you a menu of options.

Last week, I needed to give myself some restaurant advice. I wanted to take out a couple of high school friends, Adam and Steph, who came over to surprise me for my birthday. For the event, V threw me a surprise party at Osteria da Clara. Everyone loved it.

But a few days later, I was lacking dining ideas. My two friends are New Yorkers who didn't want to spend a fortune, but I wanted to impress them. For some reason, I couldn't get the perfect choice to pop into my head.

In the end, I chose Café Imperial, which is part of a hotel in the center of Prague.I settled on this place for its interesting ceramic tiled interior and its not excessively priced menu.I'd never been terribly impressed by the food, but I hoped for the best.

The very pleasant host, I believe it was the manager, sat us in the center of the dining room.The bread in the basket that came soon after was cold and just average. But we all loved the spread that came with it.Our host proudly told us it was made from a special recipe that included smoked ham, cheese, mustard, horseradish, pickle, onion, and egg. Quite a combo. But be aware, there was a 20 CZK per head cover charge.

Adam and I felt like a beer and he wanted something different, so we each had a Master 18°, a strong, dark beer from Pilsner Urquell (.4 liter/60 CZK).It has a hint of coffee flavor at the finish and a very nice head. We both enjoyed it.

Steph had a .15 liter glass of a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, but I don't recall the label.She had no complaints about the drinkability, but the 190 CZK price tag left me with some sour grapes.

We ordered a large bottle of water to go with the meal. The waiter brought a one liter plastic bottle of Vittel (145 CZK). Plastic? I'd never seen that before in presumably upscale dining establishment. Adam also joked that one of the only times he'd been given cloth napkins with a meal in Prague was during brunch at our place.

For a starter, Adam had the smoked trout (185 CZK). We both liked the salty fish, though it was nothing exceptional.He enjoyed the potato salad with quail egg underneath more than I did. I thought it was way too sweet.

Steph got the goat cheese salad (195 CZK). I had a bite and really enjoyed the vinaigrette and honey dressing.It was also sweet, but balanced with vinegar tartness. The quality greens were dressed with just right.

The goat cheese was well-toasted on small circles of bread. But it was not so large, and wouldn't look too cheap for New Yorkers thinking in dollars.

I had the French onion soup gratinée (85 CZK). This was the closest soup I've had to the French onion soup of my restaurant youth -- something not so usual in Prague.I liked it, but wished it was better. The whole thing could have used a flavor boost. The melted cheese over toast had the perfect consistency, but was bland.

I thought the browned onion broth could have used a shot of wine or dry sherry. It was too one-dimensional.

For a main course, Adam got the classic Czech dish he'd wanted since his last Prague visit -- hovězí svíčková na smetaně (189 CZK).Unfortunately, it was far from the best version I've sampled.

The braised beef was on the tough side and, despite being under liquid, seemed dried out. But I really judge this dish by its veggie-based cream sauce. On this score, I found it thin and boring, with a hint of sweetness but not much else. The dumplings were nice, and it came with quality cranberry sauce. I was disappointed it wasn't better.

They were offering a few game dishes. Steph couldn't decide between the wild boar and the Zajíc Royale -- the hare. Our host recommended that hare, saying that was his personal favorite. So, hare it was (369 CZK).It came with egg noodles. She wasn't happy with it. Steph said it was dry and the meat was stringy.

I went for the deer (355 CZK). The meat was tender, but bland. It desperately needed salt. Also, it didn't have a lot of gaminess -- it could have easily been mistaken for a small, lean beef tenderloin.I was told it was served medium rare, which was fine. Two of the thicker pieces had red/pink centers. But the thinnest piece was cooked all the way through, which was a shame. The mushrooms and sauce underneath had potential, but also needed more seasoning.

There was no side item included in the price, so I ordered scalloped potatoes at an extra cost of 53 CZK.They were way too garlicky for my taste, and the top crust was dried out. It seemed like they'd been sitting under a heat lamp or in a stove for too long. Overall, I didn't think this main course was worth over 400 CZK.

Our total tab for the three of us came to 2205 CZK. I quickly noticed that a 200 CZK or 10 percent service charge was included in that price.That's how much we would have tipped anyway, but I don't like service charges being decided for me in advance. It's understandable for large parties, but not as a rule for all diners. Very annoying.

If the service was poor (which it wasn't), I'd have to go through the awkward situation of paying less than what is printed on the receipt. I think that is presumptuous and rude.

My feeling about Café Imperial is that it is a cool looking place with generally good service and good presentation. The food looks nice on the pretty plates.

They have some bargains, but if you're not careful, the costs can add up quickly. That may be because of an unexpectedly expensive glass of wine, or side orders that aren't included in some pricier offerings.

Most critically, I've been to this restaurant three or four times over the years and while far from all bad, I've eaten too many dishes that just didn't taste very good.

If the chef only knew...

Café Imperial
Na Poříčí 15
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 246 011 440

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