Friday, March 18, 2011


"My favorite animal is steak." Fran Lebowitz
When I arrived in Prague a century ago, the Ambiente restaurant on Mánesova was an early favorite. It was one of the best-run dining spots in town, with super tasty wings, ribs, steaks, and much more.

The Ambiente Restaurants Group has opened a number of the city's best eateries in the years since. Sadly, the Mánesova location closed recently and I am going through Carolina wing withdrawal.

At the same time, they've just opened a new restaurant called Čestr. It's in the completely done over space once occupied by Zahrada v Opeře (Garden in the Opera) next to the State Opera.It's in the building that was once the Czech Federal Parliament, later the Radio Free Europe headquarters, and is now an annex to the National Museum.

Inside, it is a very bright, wide-open space with simple round tables and basic chairs.There is a busy open kitchen.There are big tanks for the fresh-brewed, unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell direct from the brewery.They have a meat locker with windows for viewing whole sides of Czech beef.I looked in and could actually see tags detailing the cattle's birth date as well as its... let's say expiration date.The varied designs on the ceiling that look like blue snowflakes are actually just cut-outs of steer heads arranged in different patterns.There are even decorative meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The whole restaurant is non-smoking.

I arrived for my first visit and received their folded paper menu.Offerings vary from day to day. Right now, they only had Czech-language menus. If you want a cheat sheet, there is an English language sample menu on the Internet.

Inside the folds, there was a card with tongue-in-cheek explanations of the restaurant's philosophy and the origin of its name. Čestr is a shortened version of Český strakatý skot, which is a type of Czech cattle. The credo: small portions are good, they wake up the taste buds.

A waiter arrived promptly and delivered what was to be the first of many new experiences. It was an amuse beer, if you will.A small tasting glass with a swallow or two of 18 degree Master dark beer, topped with foam from regular Pilsner Urquell. Cookie crumbs were sprinkled over that. It was... interesting. Taste buds awoke.

Next came a little butcher block with a few slices of excellent, recently baked Czech bread.It was better than you'd find at most places, with an earthy, smoky flavor.

Of course, I was in the mood for a larger beer. Čestr serves tanked Pilsner Urquell which is delivered direct from the brewery and unpasteurized (40 CZK).Crisp and cold, it's as good as it gets.

Their drinks menu is only posted on the wall and online.Many of the beverages are over-priced. A shot of Becherovka was 78 CZK, a .2 liter Coke was 55 CZK, a .3 liter glass of homemade ice tea was 55 CZK.

They charge 35 CZK per person for an unlimited amount of filtered sparkling or non-sparkling water. I know filters aren't free, but that's still pretty steep for tap water.

I ordered an appetizer of their beef "sashimi" (145 CZK). Don't let the close-up give you the wrong impression. This is a small portion on a small plate.But there was no denying that the very fresh slices of raw tenderloin had big flavor. It was dressed with what the waiter said was a Ponzu sauce which is made with mirin (a sweet rice wine), and citrus.

It was lightly spicy, salty, and sweet. There was also apple jam with ginger, though I didn't taste much of that. It was more like little dabs of apple sauce. I liked it.

Then I had the vysoký roštěnec (185 CZK), which the waiter translated as "entrecôte." Their English online menu called it "top sirloin." It was served on one of those little butcher blocks along with a small, sharp, folding knife shaped like a fish.

I asked for it medium-rare. It was cooked properly. It was lightly salted and the natural flavor was pretty good. There was a light external crust from the non-flame grill.

I had one problem with it. It wasn't tough, but it wasn't tender either. There was a proper ribbon of fat, but overall, the beef wasn't well-marbled.

I'm sorry if this wounds anyone's national pride, but I have never thought Czech beef was very good compared with imports, especially from North and South America.

Almost all the grilled meats were 125 grams. Gram for gram, prices are a bit more expensive than some other good steakhouses.

And just a warning: I absent-mindedly picked up that folding fish knife upside down and when I attempted to cut the steak, I almost folded it on my finger. I like my steaks on the bloody side as long as it's not mine.

Sauces are extra. I got the Périgourdine (25 CZK). Served in a small copper pot, it is described as a demi-glace with duck liver and black truffle.It was lightly sweet with a hint of mushroom. I did not find it particularly exceptional or complex. It did not compare to the amazing demi-glace that was once available, ironically enough, with the entrecôte at Ambiente's Cafe Savoy.

There was a separate pot for the fries (65 CZK). These are homemade and fried in sunflower oil.They were the best fries I have had in Prague -- hot, crispy, perfectly sized, nicely salted and highly addictive. This is dangerous because side items are all-you-can-eat. I must add that I did receive one batch on another visit that were a little undercooked and not hot enough.

Once assembled on their cute zwiebelmuster-style cow plates, it was an enjoyable steak frites meal.Next. Dessert. Valhrona chocolate cake (125 CZK). Highly advisable.The three cold chunks of rich, fudgy chocolate were lightly laced with chili that produced a subtle, slow burn. Cookie crumbs gave it crunch.

Even more impressive than the chocolate was the homemade peanut ice cream. Nutty, sweet, and creamy, it was incredible. I lamented that the portion of ice cream was so small.

There's an old show business saying: Always leave them wanting more. This dish certainly helped me to understand their small-serving philosophy more clearly. How would my taste buds ever sleep properly again?

The service was friendly and blindingly fast.In some restaurants, that wouldn't work, but here it felt normal. Finished plates were often cleared in a flash.

The bill for this three-course meal, which left me quite full, was 585 CZK without tip. And this was before they instituted the 25% soft-open discount through the end of March.

On the next visit, I started with the lamb tartare (135 CZK). The minced Židovice lamb is mixed with shallots, coriander, lemon peel, egg yolk and virgin sunflower oil.It was very fresh, but did not taste particularly lamby. The dominant flavor was cilantro, which I do love. It came with home made potato chips, which were great, but not in sufficient quantity to support all the meat.

I had the spinach salad with grilled chicken (125 CZK). True to form, the portion was tiny.The leaves were thickly coated with a dressing made with Gran Moravia Parmesan. It was Caesar-like and delicious. There were pieces of garlic in there.

On the downside, I did not like the small pieces of chicken. They were cold, not tender, and slightly dry.

Then I had the 125 gram grilled beef tenderloin (185 CZK). It also was available in a 250 gram version.This was much more tender than my previous steak, but still not up to steaks from other regions previously mentioned.

It tasted very good. I asked for it medium-rare, but it came out rare. Even so, it was quite good cooked like this, and there was no reason to complain.

I coated the meat with their pepper sauce (25 CZK). That is made with fresh green peppercorns, butter, demi-glace, and brandy.Biting into the peppercorns provided strong bursts of flavor, but I did not taste much pepper flavor in the sauce itself. It was a good complement, but again, I didn't think it was great.

For visit number three, I returned with my foodie friend, Jersey Girl.Not everyone I've talked to appreciated the interior design, she thought it was cheerful, interesting, and liked it.

It was on this visit that I noticed that the chairs were not comfortable. Maybe that's part of the wake-up plan, too.

JG didn't want a Pilsner, so she ordered the Master 18 degree.It only comes in a .33 liter bottle. It's a rich, strong, dark beer.

I started with the homemade matjes herring (118 CZK). It was marinated in organic yogurt and served with pickled beets.I'm a major herring aficionado, but more for the fresh or brined version you can get in The Netherlands.

This version was fairly standard, with very firm chunks of fish. It was just OK and not something I'd get again.

JG ordered the tomato salad. She loved it.She noted that the skins of the cherry tomatoes had been removed. The sweet vinegar really brought out the essence of the tomatoes. It was simply mixed with red onion and leek.

For her main, she had the trout filet cooked on butter (258 CZK). The fish sat on a bed of zucchini and peppers seasoned with thyme.The fish was pristine and fresh and perfectly cooked to a delicate state. There was one big problem. It was totally bland.

She asked for salt, since there was none on the table. The waiter brought a comically huge salt canister that looked like it was originally intended for watering plants.They do believe in some large things, apparently.

I had the beef ribs (165 CZK). I thought they were great.The menu states that the ribs are cooked in wine for 16 hours. They were boneless, fork tender, and there was a great deal of fat on them. It was easy to cut that off. The fat also made its way into the wine-infused, beefy sauce. A guilty pleasure.

On the side, I had the roasted cabbage filled with apple (65 CZK).The diced fruit was cloying and tasted like sauerkraut. The cabbage leaves tasted like apples. It was a cute-looking concept, but the taste just didn't work for me.

I returned for a fourth and final time with a visiting American VIP from Vienna. In addition to the usual unadorned bread, we also received a quartered slice with cream cheese this time.VIP had the tenderloin cooked medium. It was tougher and more chewy than the one I had. I think rare is the way to go with all the beef.

I wasn't so hungry and just got the smoked duck breast starter (128 CZK). I've never had duck quite like this.It was incredibly soft, almost gelatinous. In both taste and texture, I found it indistinguishable from ham.

It came with what can only be described as red cabbage foam. In a menu filled dishes that sometimes successfully contrasted the pedestrian with the puny and precious, this went too far.

Yes, it tasted exactly like sweet red cabbage. No, I would not get that again.

A filling meal for one will generally go for around 500 CZK a person. The restaurant is already doing quite well in its soft open. It was always about two-thirds full during my visits.

Even though other restaurants have failed in that location, I have little doubt it will succeed. I'd consider it one of the best dining and beer drinking options around Wenceslas Square. That said, there's not a lot of top quality, good value competition in the immediate area.

If my prime goal is steak, Čestr would not be my first choice. Personally, I'd go for the rib eye at El Barrio de Ángel, the tenderloin with Chianti reduction at U Emy Destinnové, or the rib eye in the low-rent surroundings of Crazy Cow.

Čestr is definitely worth a try, and I'll be back, I'm sure -- especially for the great beer, fries, and peanut ice cream.

I went to Čestr four times because the concept intrigued me. I'd never seen anything quite like it before.

I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it or even how to categorize it. Calling it a steakhouse seems wrong, but that's as close as I'll get for now.

When you compare it with the other steak spots around Prague, Čestr really is a different animal.

Legerova 75
Prague 1 - Wenceslas Square
Tel. (+420) 222 727 851

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Bresto Cafe & Wine Bar

"Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts." E.B. White
Sometimes, I judge a book by its cover. Or a restaurant by its front room.

Sometimes, I learn that this is not always a good thing to do.

I'd gotten a couple of recommendations about Bresto Cafe & Wine Bar over the last year. But when I glanced through the front window a long while back, it turned me off. I saw tables in a small bar area filled with members of the cell phone and cigarette set puffing away.

Not my kind of place, I thought. I didn't feel the urge to try it.

But I kept hearing positive comments about the French and Italian menu. I finally broke down, looked past my preconceived notions, and made my way to the restaurant on Štěpánská, not far from Wenceslas Square.The front room was not so smoky this time.I made my way to the larger non-smoking area in the back and was more impressed. I liked the modern, cheerful, artfully lit space.There was a cool, lounge-like area further back, with walls artistically paneled with wood from wine crates.Jersey Girl met me at the restaurant for dinner. She's a foodie, a great cook, and an admittedly tough critic. True to form, she quickly made a cutting comment about the tiny paper napkins on the table.

Since Bresto is a wine bar with oeno-inspired decor, she suggested we should have a bottle. I agreed.They have an extensive list with moderately priced French, Italian, Czech and other national offerings.

She ordered the Estampa Riserva Syrah-Cabernet (390 CZK).We thought it was great for the price. We also shared a bottle of San Benedetto sparkling water (90 CZK).

The bread basket contained fresh French baguette slices.There was a specific charge of 25 CZK for it on the bill.

I started with the duck foie gras accompanied by Port wine reduction and toasted Brioche (195 CZK).The liver was silky smooth and delicious. I especially liked the sweet, tart, and syrupy sauce. The brioche was the real deal, but unfortunately, it was dried out and crumbly.

Jersey Girl tried out their Caprese salad (145 CZK).She liked it, but thought the mozzarella di bufala could have been creamier. I thought it was perfectly fine.

She liked that the tomatoes were sliced so thin, making them easier to eat. I appreciated the balsamic reduction and the generous amount of chopped basil on top. I love basil and in many versions, you only get a leaf or two.

For a main course, she ordered a special of Penne Arrabbiata (159 CZK).She said she rarely finds any pasta she thinks is cooked correctly in Prague, and she proclaimed this one as perfectly al dente. We both also savored the garlicky fresh tomato sauce with a few lightly cooked cherry tomatoes. Simple but highly effective.

Bavette or flank steak is one of my favorites, so I had that (295 CZK).It was tender and delicious, with perfect levels of salt, pepper, and pan flavors.

I asked for medium rare. I'd say it was on the rare side, but the beef was of such quality, I was actually glad.It came with lovely roasted Grenaille potatoes and a creamy, dreamy pepper sauce. It was among the creamiest and most delicious I've had.

For dessert, I had the chocolate moelleux, also known as a fondant (135 CZK).It was a good, rich iteration with decent vanilla ice cream.With coffee, the bill came to 1471 CZK before tip. Not bad considering it included a bottle of wine.

We both liked our dinner so much that we decided to return the following week with Jersey Girl's husband, the English Patient.We shared a few .4 liter glasses of Pilsner Urquell (39 CZK) to start things off.JG's starter of grilled eggplant with sheep cheese (129 CZK) was pretty good.The thin-sliced aubergine was topped with a rich tomato sauce and some plump olives. The warm, creamy cheese was the star, with the eggplant and sauce fading into the background.

I sampled the French onion soup (45 CZK). This was my first real disappointment.I expected the usual brown, aromatic broth flavored with wine and caramelized onions. This version seemed more Czech to me. I found it bland and boring, and JG agreed.

JG had the La Riviera Salad (159 CZK). It came with grilled goat cheese, walnuts, and roasted cherry tomatoes with honey-balsamic dressing.JG complained that it was underdressed, but I thought it was fine. I always find white toast to be a boring complement. The cheese was good, but overall, it was unexciting.

EP had the chicken Caesar salad (139 CZK).I didn't taste it, but EP was not impressed. It was rather limp, and just an average iteration. Nothing special.

I had the black risotto with cuttlefish ink, shrimp, and candied lime (249 CZK).The rice had a nice buttery flavor, but it was overcooked. The shrimp were done properly with just the right texture, but didn't have much seasoning or taste on their own. The few small bits of lime were an interesting touch.

It was OK, but not as memorable as the risotto at Zelena Zahrada.

This bill for the three of us, which included four beers and a couple of glasses of wine, was only 1062 CZK. Service was good, but was better on the first visit than on the second.

If I had only experienced the first meal, I'd give Bresto a big rave.

The second trip was a little anti-climactic, but still, there is a lot of good to be found there -- more than most places. I think the prices are reasonable for the quality.

Now, I'm recommending Bresto, even though I've had to endure an "I told you so" and a "what took you so long" from a friend.

So I've finally gathered the facts and formed a fair opinion. It just took a little longer than it should have.

Bresto Cafe & Wine Bar
Štěpánská 31
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 212 810

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