Friday, July 30, 2010


"Don't interfere with something that ain't bothering you none." Cowboy Proverb
Years ago, just after it opened, I went to Cowboys a couple of times for steak and cocktails. The Kampa Group restaurant, on Nerudova below Prague Castle, left me unimpressed.I thought the food was just OK, the service was weak, and the prices were high. The negatives were somewhat offset by the great terrace.

In other words, not terrible, but not value for money.

I never went back until last week. My soon-to-be-departed friend, Flash, invited me to join him there for dinner. Though dubious, I didn't question his choice. He's been a good friend, illuminating my world on everything from African authors to how to communicate with women.

The reason for his choice? He had a 500 CZK coupon.

We walked in through the street-level passage to the reception desk.Despite the threatening weather, we wanted to go to the roof terrace. We told the greeter girl that we knew the way.

It was only 6:30 p.m., but the main restaurant was empty.It's a nice looking space, a little dark, but atmospheric, with vaulted brick ceilings and cowhide seating.It was also empty there when we left, but perhaps that could be ascribed to the deluge of rain that poured down later.

The terrace is one of the nicer ones in the city, with a view that includes Malá Strana's St. Nicholas church (just out of frame).Many of the tables have canopy-like umbrellas to ward off the rain. But there is also a stylish, two-level wooden structure for greater shelter and warmth.Flash ordered a .3 liter glass of Pilsner Urquell (55 CZK). I had a Mojito (165 CZK).Both glasses were small for the price. His beer was fine. The cocktail was both intensely sour and sweet, but still drinkable.

Homemade focaccia style bread was chewy and satisfying (but on a second visit, it was hard and stale).It was soaking in olive oil in the bowl. I would have preferred to pour it myself.

I got the grilled octopus starter (365 CZK). There was one long, meaty tentacle on top of eggplant "caviar" and underneath rucola.The octopus did not have much flavor from the grill, but was very tender and tasty. It had a tangy flavor from a marinade.

The pesto, with the strong essence of basil, was balanced well by the more neutral eggplant. I liked it, but I much prefer the more generous and much cheaper octopus at Giardino - enoteca con cucina.

For his dinner, Flash got the charbroiled Cowboys sirloin burger (345 CZK). It comes with good bacon, melted cheese, chopped pickles, tomato slices, and mixed, leafy lettuce.Flash pronounced it a "damn good burger" and complimented the large American-style bun. The salty meat had a good texture, it wasn't over-seasoned and had the right charbroiled flavor.

It came with excellent, crispy, homemade French fries.We liked just about everything about this burger and fries except the price. But with his coupon, Flash wasn't too bothered.

I went for the 250 gram rib eye (375 CZK). Everything with the steak was extra. I also had the mashed potatoes with spring onions (45 CZK) and the red wine sauce (25 CZK).On the plus side, it had a wonderful flavor from the flame grill. However, the meat itself did not make for easy cutting.

The menu says the cut is "the most marbled for more flavor." But marbled meat should also be tender. This one wasn't, and there was also a vein of very tough gristle though the middle. The beef was cooked medium-rare, as requested.It didn't say where this meat was sourced from, but it was not nearly as good as the North or South American cuts I've tried elsewhere in Prague.

The chunky mashed potatoes reminded me of the potato hash you sometimes get with breakfast at a New York diner. They just needed more salt. The sauce on the side was sweet, and tasted like red wine barbecue sauce, and I'd understand if that doesn't sound appealing, but I loved it.

If you didn't do the math, the whole plate, with sauce and potatoes cost 445 CZK.

I couldn't resist ordering a chocolate fondant for dessert (215 CZK). It was baked to order and came straight from the oven to the table.I'd rate this one as average. There was too much sugar, which gave the exterior a sticky, crunchy texture. The chocolate was good, but more cocoa intensity would be better. Vanilla ice cream around Prague almost always falls short for me, and this one was no exception.

The meal for two costs 1755 CZK before tip.

I felt the need to return one more time, so I came back the next evening. The downstairs restaurant was empty again.The buildings on the terrace had about 12 tables occupied, upstairs and downstairs, mostly by couples.It seemed like date night and, indeed, the room had a romantic feel.

I ordered a Sea Breeze (165 CZK).It was heavy on the grapefruit and very sour. It needed more cranberry juice.

On this visit, I started with the goat cheese salad (245 CZK). I'd say this is one of the best versions I've had in a long time.The cheese itself was a perfect thickness, heated all the way through, but maintaining a light, ethereal quality. I thought that putting it on top of a piece of date bread was a masterful idea. The sweet, cake-like bread and the salty-tangy cheese went so naturally together.

The rucola was heavily dressed with balsamic vinegar, but I thought that worked well in the mix. There was also what I believe were roasted pumpkin seeds (though not mentioned on the menu description). The strawberry was a good addition, but there was just one, sliced into five pieces. One more berry would have sufficed.

Finally, I got my main course, the pork ribs (285 CZK). This seemed like the biggest bargain on the menu. It came with corn on the cob, and a baked potato with sour cream.The menu said it was supposed to come with barbecue sauce, but I got a serving of tomato salsa. I asked the waiter for the right sauce and received it quickly.

But that wasn't the only thing wrong with dish. Some of the ribs, which had very little sauce on the exterior, were very fatty. Overall, they were just boring and ordinary. I pulled off pieces pork and dipped them in the bottled, hickory-flavored sauce. That was OK, but I expected something more exceptional. I didn't finish them.

The side items were disasters. The corn had a char on it from the grill. But I took one bite and found them watery, mushy, and tasteless. The potato had decent flavor, except that it was served at room temperature. There was no heat in it at all.

In my long ago visits, I had problems with the service, and I've seen some complaints about it online. That said, the service on both my visits was top notch. It was efficient, friendly, and occasionally charming.

On my second visit, a tall, young, and good-looking waiter was so nice and helpful to a couple of attractive Danish girls sitting near me, they invited him to go clubbing (he politely declined, citing the need to finish his shift).

So, after all these years, has Cowboys or my opinion of it changed? The answer is yes, but not much.

There were some bright spots. I liked the food a little more. It's not the worst choice a visitor could make while being herded down the tourist trail.The people dining with me on the great terrace seemed to be enjoying themselves, the atmosphere, and the view. I wouldn't want to interfere with that.

But my biggest issue with Cowboys is the same as it ever was. Great location and view aside, if you really care about value for money, I wouldn't bother.

Nerudova 40
Prague 1 - Malá Strana
Tel. (+420) 296 826 107

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Sushi Tam Da

"That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest." Henry David Thoreau
Sushi in Prague is too expensive. Cheap sushi is hard to find. ThaiOishi, which I wrote up recently, was one of the few relatively inexpensive places I've found.

I've heard some speculate, "Well, Prague is far from the sea. That's why it's expensive." Which is nonsense. Paris is far from large bodies of water, and I've found plenty of Asian shops there with nigiri for 1 euro each.

So when I find another cheap sushi place just a 10 minute walk from my flat, I have to stand and applaud. Or sit and write. I thank "Crispy" again for tipping me off.

I'm talking about Sushi Tam Da on Perunova, not far from Vinohradska.The non-descript exterior is matched by the non-descript interior.There's just one room, and it ain't too pretty.But I'm less picky about where I eat than what I eat.

My favorite sushi is unagi, or freshwater eel. In Prague, it is usually one of the most expensive things on a sushi menu.

So when I saw Tam Da's sushi menu, I couldn't believe my eyes. It offered four California rolls (surimi, avocado, cucumber) with each roll topped with unagi. And it was only 88 CZK.For some perspective, at Miyabi, just one piece of nigiri with this fine flesh will set you back 100 CZK. One unagi nigiri at Samurai costs 140 CZK. At Sushi Bar the same order is an astonishing 249 CZK. Tam Da gives you four pieces of unagi with a roll underneath for a fraction of that.

But is it better?

It's certainly better than the cold, rubbery unagi I had recently at Hanil. Maybe the eel is better at the other places I mentioned. I wouldn't know. Except for my Hanil experience, I've always considered unagi too expensive to order and enjoy in this country.

Tam Da's were tender, tasty, and served cool. The roll underneath was less successful -- the surimi didn't have good texture and the avocado was not ripe. But all I cared about was the eel -- the rest was just an inoffensive platform for it.

I always order tuna nigiri (38 CZK) and salmon nigiri (34 CZK).The pieces may be slightly smaller than average, but the prices were at least half of what you'd pay elsewhere.

Tuna nigiri at Sushi Bar is 149 CZK and their salmon is 99 CZK. At Samurai, the prices are 90 CZK and 80 CZK, respectively.

I was happily surprised the Tam Da's tuna tasted so fresh, with no fishiness. The buttery salmon glistened. The rice was also not too cold, and had a sweet tang to it. Perhaps there was too much rice vinegar in there for some, but I liked it.

I also tried their tuna maki (64 CZK) and salmon maki (58 CZK).It was just fine, with the same good fish.

The menu has a bad habit of calling many different kinds of maki "California rolls." I tried the one with salmon, avocado, and cucumber (68 CZK).The salmon was good, but again, the avocado wasn't ripe. Still, it was a filling portion for a fair price.

The sushi was served with a very sweet and spicy kim chi, along with Kikoman soy sauce.I was drinking Mattoni with my meals.The beers available are Kozel, Gambrinus, and Pilsner Urquell.

What about the non-sushi offerings? Tam Da does have a larger menu that covers those familiar Czech-Vietnamese interpretations of Chinese, Thai and other Asian cuisines.

On one visit, I went for the cold spring rolls.They were filled with omelet, lettuce, red pepper, cucumber, shrimp, and unflavored noodles.They were very bland, and would have much benefited from the insertion of mint or basil. There was a sweet dipping sauce on the side.

I tried Tam Da's version of Tom Ka Gai soup (34 CZK). The spicy, sweet coconut broth had some of the usual ingredients like cilantro and lemon grass.Despite the sweetness, it was bland and needed some balance. I asked for fish sauce in Czech and English, but the owner didn't understand. So I said "Nam Pla" the Thai word for it, and he got it.

There were also less usual ingredients like eggplant, basil, tofu, and sliced banana. Banana? That's right banana.

What the soup did not have was chicken. I found this amusing because the translation of the words "Tom Ka Gai" is "Soup Galangal Chicken." For the record, the menu, which is only in Czech, called the soup "Tom Khaguey."

Finally, I went for the "Thai-style rice noodles," which I assumed would be their version of the classic dish, Pad Thai (74 CZK).It looked like Pad Thai. It has many of the expected ingredients. It just didn't taste much like anything close to an authentic version.

The first thing I noticed was the dominating, disconcerting flavor of Czech soy sauce. The noodles were overcooked and gloppy. It was quite salty. I didn't like it. But I asked for some lemon, and then poured the rest of my sweet kim chi into it. After that, it was much better.

The bright spot with this dish was the chicken. Unlike many other restaurants which cook the Phad Thai meat into dry, leathery chunks, this one had buttery, tender, and savory chicken pieces. It's another cheap meal, but just be prepared to season it yourself.

I spoke to the owner and he said business was best at dinner. But he said they are doing a lot of take-away business throughout the day. He said the location is not great for foot traffic, but things are slowly building with word of mouth.

And the words from my mouth are these: Forget about the rest of the menu, but go for the sushi. It is not world class and not even top Prague class, but it is better than you'd expect, considering it is perhaps the cheapest sushi place in the city.

Too often in Prague, eating sushi in Prague can be disappointing in terms of quality. And you walk out feeling financially filleted.

But Sushi Tam Da can be a nice, cheap pleasure.

Sushi Tam Da
Perunova 13
Prague 3 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 602 476 871

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Terasa Hotel U Prince

"You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." George W. Bush
Jersey Girl's brother, Jersey Boy, was in town for a visit, and she suggested meeting for dinner on the rooftop terrace restaurant of Hotel U Prince.I was wary because of its tourist trail location above Old Town Square. I would have nixed the idea, but I recall reading one comment on Tripadvisor, a site I use a lot, that the food was decent. But that was a long time ago. If I'd really done my homework, I would have read the dedicated restaurant review page.

On this warm, beautiful spring evening, the terrace was packed with tourists who were eating, drinking and snapping away with their cameras.I got there first and, with good timing, scored one of the best tables.

It was on the corner of the roof, overlooking the square, the Týn Church, and the crowds gathered in front of the Astrological Clock.While I waited for the Jerseys, I looked through the cocktail menu and then ordered a mojito. They had small version for 139 CZK. But I decided to go for the large (199 CZK).It was large, indeed, and strong. It was well-mixed, with wide-bore straw for sucking up the minty-limey goodness.

Though it was over-packed with ice, I was more than happy with my drink, the view, and the weather as I waited. In due course, the tardy couple arrived and was also pleased with our prime location table.

Then, waiter brought bread -- some dull, dry rolls.We ordered from the big, picture book menu. The photos certainly looked nice.

Jersey Girl had the large Parma ham salad (349 CZK).She said the lettuce was boring and the ham was not very good.

I thought there should have been more leaves considering this was a large salad for a large price. But I disagreed about the ham and thought it was fine.

I got the small plate of tagliatelle with spinach, Parma ham, and shiitake mushrooms (199 CZK).It was small, indeed. Perhaps that was a blessing. It was terrible.

After the pasta was overcooked, but before it was allowed to dry out, it had been soaked in balsamic vinegar. This turned it brown and gave it a sickly sweet tang. I could find no sign of spinach in there.

By looking extremely carefully, I detected a few, meager flecks of ham. The tired tagliatelle didn't look nearly as appetizing as the picture on page 23 of the menu.

For drinks, Jersey Girl had a .25 liter bottle of Bonaqua for a rather astounding 59 CZK, along with a glass of red wine (148 CZK). Later, she got a large mojito. Jersey Boy had a Jameson (99 CZK).

For my main course, I had the grilled, spicy lamb loin with risotto and apricots (599 CZK).The tenderloin could have been great, but there was a failure in the preparation of this fine meat.

Some pieces were medium rare, as I like, while others were cooked through. I didn't detect any spice, and it didn't taste grilled. Most importantly, it would have been much better if it was served hot instead of barely warm.

The so-called "risotto" was a disaster. It was crunchy and also dry as a desert. I feared it would blow away in a light breeze.

Or perhaps I mean it was like a dessert. The cinnamon stick in there didn't work for me.

Jersey Boy had the grilled duck breast and baked thigh with gnocchi and sweet white cabbage (399 CZK).He didn't like it at all. The breast was relatively flavorless. One bite of the soggy, mushy thigh and he decided he didn't want any more. Even the sauce was bland.

The gnocchi was rubbery and lifeless and had very little cabbage to perk it up. He ate less than half of this expensive dish. He was shocked that he could get such a bad duck dish in Prague.

Jersey Girl had the spicy butterfish with asparagus and truffle emulsion, served with a potato puree (349 CZK).You might say I saved the worst for last. This was dismal.

It was overcooked, dried out, and tasted fishy and old. There was a desultory splash of balsamic across the middle of the fish that did nothing to mask its wretchedness. She barely ate a quarter of it.

When the waitress took the dishes away, she cheerfully turned to Jersey Girl, ignoring the uneaten food on her plate.

"Did you enjoy your dinner?"

"No!" she barked.

"Oh." The waitress seemed surprised and retreated. I must add that the fresh asparagus was very good, and we both liked the creamy potatoes. But that hardly makes up for the repellent main attraction.

When you walk up to the terrace at Hotel U Prince, you pass by an open kitchen with chefs dressed in white, busily preparing meals.I now think they should be arrested for impersonating food service professionals. They should be ashamed of the fancy-sounding, over-priced, poorly executed dishes they serve.

If you think my assessment is rough, go back to the link above and check out the verbal violence in some of the Tripadvisor reviews. Comments range from "worst service experienced ever" to "avoid this restaurant - disappointing and overpriced" to "extremely disappointing."Of course, these were mixed with some like "gastronomical delight at the Astronomical Clock." But it appears that more negative reviews than positive have been posted in recent months.

So, what's the point of this exercise? Most people living in Prague already know to steer clear of just about anything on the tourist trail.

Then again, there will always be some, like me, who go against their instincts and make a mistake.

And, of course, there are the many tourists who might more easily succumb to the lures of a pretty perch above Old Town Square.

So if I can save at least some of the people from being fooled, I thought it worth while to shout it from a rooftop.

Terasa Hotel U Prince
Old Town Square 29
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 224 213 807

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