Friday, June 25, 2010


"Simple pleasures are always the last refuge of the complex." Oscar Wilde
If I had to pick a favorite cuisine, it would probably be Thai. Or perhaps Italian. Or possibly Mexican. Or could be Japanese. Or maybe American. Or... I digress.

I love Thai food. It's something I'll go out of my way for if I think there's a chance it's good.

Major Dan told me about ThaiOishi, a restaurant with separate Thai and Japanese menus near the Palmovka metro station. He said they did a decent job, the prices were good, and that he and Hana Montanova were semi-regulars. It also received a very positive review in The Prague Post at the end of last year.

The small, square dining room with a small alcove has just a few tables.There are attractive brick walls, and a picture of the Thai king and queen. Otherwise, the decor is not much to write a postcard home about.

The bar section is particularly unattractive and cheap-looking.But looks don't matter so much if the food is good. And the dish I give the most weight to at a Thai restaurant is the Pad Thai.Speaking of looks, my point-and-shoot camera died, so I had to take this picture with my little Nokia.

I ordered this Pad Thai with shrimp (150 CZK). The crustaceans were small, but there was a generous portion, considering the bargain price.

How did it taste? I'd rate it as just OK, a little above average, but not exceptional. It had a touch of sweetness that I like, but did need more lime. The same dishes at Noi and Modry Zub Noodle Bar are usually better and more complex, and with a better mix of flavors (but also far more expensive).

I had an inexpensive .33 liter bottle of Mattoni mineral water (15 CZK), and the bill came to just 165 CZK.On my next visit, I started off by sampling the beer.

ThaiOishi only serves Holba on tap. I had a half-liter (22 CZK).I hadn't tried this beer before and didn't think it was anything special. But it was a refreshing change from the usual offerings like Gambrinus or Staropramen.

I ordered another of my favorite Thai benchmarks, the Tom Ka Gai soup (70 CZK).This was enjoyable. It was bursting with lime leaf, galangal, mushroom, green onion, and coriander. The chicken was surprisingly tender and fresh. There was a spicy kick.

I always wish versions in the Czech Republic would be a little creamier, but I was happy enough with it as it was.

Next, I turned my attention to the Japanese menu and its sushi offerings. I ordered the Rainbow Roll (250 CZK).The first thing that I noticed was that it didn't come exactly as advertised.

The menu said it included barbecued eel, shrimp, tuna, salmon, butterfish, red snapper, and avocado. The difference was that instead of butterfish and red snapper, I got a lightly cooked shrimp along with the fully cooked one, and octopus. The seven rolls were filled with avocado, cucumber, and krab cream.

I would have preferred the original line up, but I was pleased with the freshness of all the ingredients. I'm a particularly big fan of eel, and this one was tender and delicious. It compared favorably to the cold, rubbery one I had recently at Hanil. Even the octopus was easy to chew.

The Rainbow Roll is one of the more expensive items they serve, but it was nicely filling. The bill for this trip was 342 CZK.

On visit number three, I had some nigiri as an appetizer. I ordered two salmon pieces for 90 CZK.The salmon was buttery and fresh, but on the small side. The rice was well-prepared with a hint of rice vinegar and wasabi.

If you order one piece, it is 50 CZK. That's better than most other sushi places around town, with at least one exception being the newly discovered Sushi Tam Da (thanks for the tip, Crispy).

Then, I took a walk on the Thai side with the Kaeng Phed Nue (150 CZK). This red curry beef fell flat for me.The beef itself was the usual low-quality, tenderized-but-still chewy little strips. The sauce was watery. The large amount of bland bamboo shoots didn't help. I derived some pleasure from the basil, lemongrass, lime, and other flavors fighting to get through. But not enough.

I poured it over jasmine rice (30 CZK), and the sauce all but disappeared from view.
The price was not bad, but in this case, I would have paid more for something better. The total tab for this trip was 292 CZK.

A week later, I was on the Tram 19 and realized it stopped close to ThaiOishi, so I made a fourth visit.For my first dish, I had the chicken satay (75 CZK). I'm sorry to say this was one of the worst versions I've had in a long time.The thick pieces of chicken on sticks had a greasy, uniform surface that led me to believe they were fried in oil. While the chicken was yellow from a marinade, it was almost devoid of flavor.

The sweet coconut-peanut sauce was nice, but served very hot, temperature-wise. I had to wait for it to cool down a bit.

In contrast, I had the satay at Modry Zub Restaurant a week later, and it had the grill marks and smoky taste I was hoping for. On the other hand, theirs was also smaller and almost twice as expensive.

Next, I had the Lab Mu (110 CZK). This was much better.
The minced pork was mixed with the requisite lime juice, fish sauce, red onion, chilies, and ground, toasted rice. It wasn't as spicy or delicious as the version I once had at Modry Zub Noodle Bar, but it was good enough that I'd get it again.

Finally, I decided to go Japanese again and got the beef teppanyaki (180 CZK).Teppanyaki literally means grilled on an iron plate and was made famous in the USA by the Benihana chain.

The chunks of meat were in that nether-zone between tender and tough. Some pieces were better than others. But there was very little seasoning or flavor that came through. I found it boring.

My final visit, which left me more than stuffed, cost 387 CZK. I won't rate the service because I always ate at odd hours and was usually the only customer. The food did come relatively quickly.ThaiOishi does some moderately good sushi by Prague standards, and a few respectable Thai dishes, all for close to rock-bottom prices. But there were definitely some things to avoid.

It's definitely not the kind of place I'd make a special trip for. It's too simple for that. But it is a restaurant I wouldn't mind having in my neighborhood, either.

Novákových 9
Prague 8 - Palmovka
Tel: (+420) 775 217 919

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Czech Please on FaceBook

Czech Please on FaceBook is turning into a great place to talk about food and drink in Prague and the Czech Republic. There are lots of brief reviews, observations, and tips there that I don't have time to write a full post about.

The number of fans is getting big -- lots of people to bounce things around with. So tell your friends -- the more people the better. Feedback and comments are always welcome, here or there.

I also cross-post stuff from my Czech Please Twitter page.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Jáma Steakhouse

"All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure." Franz Kafka
Jáma Steakhouse has been open for more than a month.I went twice in its first week and once more last weekend.

I debated with a friend about whether it is fair to write about a place that is so new. My answer was and always has been that if they are charging regular prices, I expect regular quality, even from the first day. That argument brought him around.

Even on my last visit, in their fifth week, they were still using a limited, temporary menu. Also, as of this writing, the website written on their business card wasn't functional. But I'm not surprised, either.

As Max Munson, the genial owner said recently in The Prague Post, "I saw the location and liked it," he says. "It was a case of fire, ready, aim."

The interior is casual and basic. This is no fancy steak palace.The background music was on shuffle and veered wildly from Jay Z to Billy Joel to Green Day to generic 80s pop.

The bar side of the restaurant looks a little better, but the seating was awkward and uncomfortable.Along the wall was wooden banquette-style seating without padding. Not only that, but it was elevated enough that a tall man's feet, such as myself, would not reach the floor.

There was nothing to rest them on. So they dangled. Even the tall stools lacked useful foot rests.

One of the most notable and laudable aspects of Jáma Steakhouse is its beer selection. Rather than the standard Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, or Staropramen, this place serves regional beers from the K Brewery Group.Prague's quality, non-standard beer gadfly, Pivni Filosof, did a good, informative post about Munson and his decision to go in this direction.

So the first thing I did was order a .3 liter glass of the 12 degree Lobkowicz (28 CZK).Normally, I'd get a half-liter (45 CZK), but I wanted to try as many of their five tapped beers as I could.

I'm a fan of the Lobko. My powers of beer description are not great, but I thought it quite similar to Pilsner Urquell, with its strong, Saaz (Žatec) hoppy bitterness.

After I placed my order, I was surprised to receive a "gift" from the chef. An amuse bouche, if you will.It was a medium-sized potato pancake. I hate to criticize a gift, but it was dry, rubbery, and just too large and dense ahead of the heavy meal to come.

My first beer was gone, so I got a .3 liter glass of 11 degree Klášter Kvasnicový (24 CZK).This beer tasted bland after the stronger, more assertive Lobkowicz, but I had it on another occasion and enjoyed its complex, yeasty character much more.

I got a starter of the fried, cheddar-filled jalapenos (110 CZK).I was hoping for something made in-house. Instead, they were the same Makro-sourced frozen poppers that they have at Crazy Cow Steakhouse and many other places around town.They're just OK, but not worth the money. I saw some fried mozzarella sticks go by and they looked about the same.

Beer number three was a .3 liter Velen 12 degree wheat beer (25 CZK).It had a light honey note. To my taste, the tart, cloudier Primator Weizenbier, which they have on tap at Neklid, is much superior.

For my main course, I got a 200 gram piece of my favorite cut, the rib eye (265 CZK).This Irish beef was one of the thinnest steaks I'd ever seen in a steakhouse. To compensate, it was also wide.

In short, it wasn't pretty. However, the flavor was good. It picked up a smokiness from the grill. The beef was perfectly salted, fatty in a good way, and very tender.

The gravy was made with beef bullion mixed with sliced red chilies. It wasn't creative cooking, by any means, but it tasted OK, and it was quite spicy. The fries had a ridged shape, and were seasoned, hot, and crispy.

This quirky steak had me wondering how they handled other dishes. On my next visit, I tried a .3 liter glass of the Klášterní tmavé 10 degree (22 CZK).It had a mild caramel flavor.

Now, if you know me, you know I had to try their hamburger (165 CZK).The price starts out OK, but to add bacon costs 45 CZK, and to add real cheddar costs another 45 CZK. So that's a hefty 255 CZK total for a bacon cheeseburger and fries.

The patty was made with good quality ground beef, and was simply seasoned with salt.It was like a big, fat, juicy backyard burger. That's the good part.

But I was disappointed that it tasted as though it was cooked on a pan or griddle rather than a flame, which I greatly prefer. In their kitchen, they have both.I asked for the burger medium-rare, but it came medium-well.

The bacon was too hard and crispy for me, and the tomatoes and onions were cut too thick for good placement on top. The steak fries were different from the first visit, but still good and crispy.

At the end of this meal, I had a .3 liter glass of their Schwarzenberg 10 degree (19 CZK).I liked it more than the Klášter Kvasnicový.

Then, I waited four weeks and returned with V to see how they do some other steaks.But first, I got their starter of chicken wings (99 CZK).They were soaked in a Thai-style chili sauce mixed with red chilies.

These were not good. The wings were barely warm. They tasted as if they had been prepared long before and reheated. And just partially.

The waiter brought us a sample glass of an off-menu cherry beer.It tasted like a sweet cherry soda. I didn't think I could drink a whole glass, but V liked it.

Then, I got my 200 gram Uruguayan Charolais fillet (345 CZK).I ordered the Port wine reduction with beef broth and grilled vegetables on the side (45 CZK).

I didn't enjoy this steak at all.It was tougher than a fillet should be. I'm not even sure it was a fillet. It tasted like it was cooked on a griddle or a pan rather than on a flame.

Even if some people don't appreciate fire-grilling as much as I do, I think the menu should state the different ways the steaks will be cooked.

The sauce was essentially the same as the gravy chili sauce I had on the first visit, which had disappeared from the menu. It tasted like the same beef bullion, but if there was any Port wine in it, much less a reduced Port wine, I'd be amazed.

The "grilled" vegetables were just a miserable mushy mass of pan-fried red and white onions and peppers.

V did a little better with her New York strip loin (245 CZK).The Irish beef tasted better my South American cut, partly because this one had a smoky flame-grilled flavor. Otherwise, it was surprisingly tough and hard to chew. It reminded me of Czech Roštěná steaks I've had.

The small dish of mushroom cream sauce, which V asked for on the side, did have the flavor of wild mushrooms in it. But it grew cold quickly in the dish. The fries were a disaster -- oily, soggy, and limp.

My first solo visit cost me 487 CZK without tip. The second was 296 CZK. The third was 905 CZK. They weren't cheap meals, but not bad for a casual steakhouse.

However, there were serious deficiencies in both the quality of the meat, its preparation, and the conception of the steaks and sauces.

Crazy Cow Steakhouse was far from perfect, but did a much better job with its steaks. Though Jáma Steakhouse did have a better burger.

The main edge Jáma Steakhouse has over the competition is its beers. But steaks should be main attraction at a steakhouse, not something that seems like an afterthought.

This feels like a restaurant started on the cheap, with starters out of a freezer bag, with a poor understanding of what makes a good steak, and with sauce recipes off the back of a bullion package.

So Max Munson and I agree. He opened his restaurant too soon. I think he didn't spend enough time and attention on quality and creativity.

He's always been positively responsive to criticism, so one can only hope he'll patiently and methodically correct the many errors of Jáma Steakhouse.

Jáma Steakhouse
Ostrovní 26
Prague 1
Tel: (+420) 222 542 823

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Mistral Café Restaurant

"The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, familiar things new." William Makepeace Thackeray
The menu on the wall outside Mistral Café Restaurant looks all too familiar.There's pork schnitzel, beef with cream sauce and dumplings, and steak tartare.

But if you assume that this new restaurant by the Starometska metro station is the same old thing, you'd be wrong.

First of all, it doesn't look like other Czech eateries in this city.The scored concrete walls, smooth concrete floors, open space, and high-intensity spot lighting, give the restaurant the spare aesthetic of an art gallery.It's not that surprising since it took the place of the Arzenal Design Lounge, which sold the art glass of Bořek Šípek.

There's a separate dining area in the back near the bar and service area.And there are three tables next to shelves of fresh herbs that look out over a nice garden.The back window opens wide, but it's not possible to sit outside.

I decided to go to Mistral after a positive comment on the Czech Please Facebook page. But the non-Czech offerings I saw on the menu when I walked by also piqued my interest.

On my first visit, I ordered the thick pumpkin soup with ginger and grilled chicken (79 CZK).I'll confess to low expectations. I'd never had a good pumpkin soup in Prague outside of my own kitchen.

But this one was excellent and almost exactly as I'd have made it. The soup was, indeed, made with real, pureed pumpkin, and it sparkled with fresh ginger. The sliced chicken breast was tender, and rested on a bed of sliced pumpkin.

One of my few quibbles would be that the chunks only had a dull, earthy flavor. Also, the soup was fairly salty and, for my personal taste, a hint of sweetness and a shot of lemon would have improved it.

I passed on their alcoholic offerings and ordered a chocolate milkshake (42 CZK). It was a generous size for the price.But this shake suffered from low-quality, artificial-tasting chocolate ice cream. It was also on the milky side and had small ice chips in it.

I ordered the bacon, egg, chicken breast and fried zucchini sandwich on toast with ginger mayo (95 CZK).This was a buttery, decadent sandwich, and I enjoyed every bite.

Everything on the toast had that just-off-the-grill taste. The properly-cooked chicken was similar to that in the soup. I thought I'd mind having zucchini in this combination, but the thin slices, cooked to softness, really worked.

I enjoyed it much more than the unwieldy bacon, egg, and chicken sandwich at Cafe Savoy. And it was also better than the simple Club Sandwich at Cafe Louvre.

I did not see or taste the ginger mayo, so I mentioned it to the waiter. This led to an odd, and somewhat amusing experience. The waiter communicated my complaint to the chef, who works in the basement, speaking via two-way closed circuit video.The audio of the chef could be heard all the way to my table.

"I put the mayo on the sandwich!" he said.

Then, the waiter comes over to tell me the chef is sure he put the mayo there. It could well have been true -- the heat of the chicken, fried egg, and toast may have caused it to disappear into the buttery bread.

Still, I didn't really taste it, so it would have been best if the chef had sent up an extra portion on the dumb waiter.

Along with my sandwich, I also got their homemade French fries (41 CZK).Some might find them too greasy, but I liked the large, lightly crispy wedges, served in brown paper. I had to ask for ketchup, which was duly sent up in a small dish from the basement without complaint.

It was a cold, unpleasant spring evening, and I was in full comfort food mode. I was pleased with my meal. The chef might not be a great diplomat, but he had a flair for flavor. It made me curious about how they execute other items on their menu. I was back the next day.

This time, I started with a Pilsner Urquell draft, which they only serve in .3 liter glasses (29 CZK).All good.

Then, I ordered the grilled pork "sirloin" marinated in honey and chili with a mushroom ragout in cream sauce (189 CZK).I liked it. There was no sweetness from the honey marinade, but a very mild heat from the chili.

The meat itself, a generous portion of tenderloin, was tender, juicy, and cooked just right. They used good mushrooms in the sauce.

On the side were what they called "potato lumps." That's a pretty good description, but if it were up to me, I'd call them fried mashed potato fingers. I found them addictively delicious, especially with the sauce.

With this course, I had a .5 liter bottle of Kozel dark (37 CZK).
The subtle coffee-chocolate flavors in this beer went extremely well with this dish.

I felt obliged to try a dessert. I went for the pancakes with raspberry compote and Czech cream cheese or tvaroh (79 CZK). The little pancakes looked invitingly thick and fluffy. But I was disappointed.

Though clearly homemade, they had been made earlier and reheated. They weren't hot enough and were too chewy.

The cappuccino was fine.Although not perfect, something about Mistral intrigued me. I returned again the next day.

Since the first soup was so good, I thought I'd have another. I got the tomato with cheese-curd ravioli (49 CZK).The soup of pureed tomatoes had a thickness to it. But it was on the bland side. It came with basil leaves, but it would be much better with a stronger shot of basil flavor.

The "ravioli" were long, finger-like things that were stale and chewy. Very unfortunate.

They have some cocktails on the menu, so I tried a mojito (119 CZK).It was a good, well-mixed drink for a good price.

I wanted to see how they did a Czech classic. So I came back the next day for a third meal and ordered the beef with cream sauce and dumplings, also known as svíčková na smetaně (149 CZK).Although the literal translation is "tenderloin," most restaurants use a lesser cut. But here, they clearly used a better cut.

It even had the thick, round shape of a tenderloin. Of course, it was cooked almost to a braised state like many places do. But it was still tender and tasty.

But the sauce was the best part. Unlike some places with a thinner sauce like Lokál, Mistral's had a body to it from all the pureed vegetables. Its lemony tartness stood above its light sweetness.

I liked that there was a squeezable piece of lemon included, unlike most places which give just a slice. And instead of the usual cranberry sauce, there were dried cranberries.

The only bit that really failed were the dumplings. Those were really dried out and chewy.

I was still curious about what the kitchen was capable of so I came back the next day for an unprecedented fourth consecutive fact-finding trip.

I started off this visit with their ice cream coffee (52 CZK).Served in a large coffee cup, it was not mixed well, and there was not enough ice cream. After stirring it up, it looked like this.I added some sugar to make it more milkshake-like.

The mushroom risotto with chicken (145 CZK) was listed under small dishes, but it was not so small.This dish was probably the biggest failure of those I sampled. The rice was so al dente and even dry that I got mandibular muscle fatigue.

There were some beautiful wild mushrooms that made a contribution to great flavor.But the whole thing was way too salty. And in this dish, the ubiquitous chicken I'd seen in other items was overcooked, tough, and dry.

I also ordered steak tartare (249 CZK).I had expected it to come as a second course, so I was unhappily surprised when the waiter brought it out with my risotto.

The beef was lightly seasoned with salt and ground relatively smooth. Unlike many other versions around town, I couldn't detect any significant level of onion, garlic, ketchup, or mustard. Still, I enjoyed this simpler iteration.

There was roasted garlic on the side, which was a little more awkward to eat than the usual raw stuff that can easily be rubbed on the fried bread.

Mistral Cafe Restaurant can be frustrating.

Some dishes are great. Some fall flat. Sometimes you'll love what's on the left side of the plate, but not the right.

The kitchen took its eye off the ball when it came to consistency. Some of this, I'd hope, is because the restaurant is still very new and there aren't a lot of customers yet.

On the plus side, the prices are quite reasonable for the center of Prague. Some of the city's great sights are just a few steps away.They also do breakfast, which I have yet to try. But I'd be more than happy with one of those egg sandwiches.

Even with some miscues, they've managed to take plenty of familiar things and make them seem new for me.

And that's no small thing.

Mistral Café Restaurant
Valentinská 11
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: (+420) 222 317 737

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