Thursday, March 29, 2012


“We enjoy change and freshness and disco was only one area we've delved into." Barry Gibb
The big news for foodies recently was that Michelin awarded one coveted star to the Prague restaurants, La Degustation and The Alcron.

The only previous recipient was Allegro at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was helmed by star chef, Andrea Accordi. When he moved on, Allegro closed down.

Instead of maintaining the status quo, the Four Seasons folks started over from scratch, changing everything from the food to the furniture.

In Allegro's place is the brand new, CottoCrudo. The name means "cooked/raw," which is the basic theme. The executive chef is Richard Fuchs.

You can enter either through the hotel or directly into the bar lounge area.
As you walk into the main restaurant, you pass the Crudo Bar.
There, a variety of mozzarellas, other cheese, and cured meats can be prepared according to your wishes. Some enjoy watching the show.

The dining area has casual chic feel that is much better than Allegro's more hotel-like space.
It's modern but not pretentious. Lighting was low, but not too low, lending more atmosphere.

The dining room is non-smoking. There is outdoor dining on the terrace in warmer months. Smoking is allowed there, weather permitting.

We went shortly after opening when things were quiet and scored one of the few tables with a castle view.
The music was cool, but not too heavy. A friend did complain to me that on a separate visit, the restaurant was busy and loud.

A basket of bread arrived. There was good, crusty Italian bread and light, spongy focaccia flecked with rosemary.
Strong, sharp olive oil sat on the side.

We wanted different wines, so my date had the 2010 Giacobbe Pinot Grigio, blush (180 CZK). I had the 2010 Broglia Gavi il Doge (150 CZK).
The prices are for .15 liter servings.

It would be easy to run up the bill quite quickly with wine. Most, but not all the bottles on their list are over 1000 CZK. They do offer .5 liter servings for those who want to split the difference.

We also had a .75 liter bottle of Mattoni (90 CZK). I was glad to see they served this good Czech mineral water and don't push the fancier and more expensive Italian stuff.

I started off by ordering the smoked mozzarella from the Mozzabar (140 CZK).
I've had semi-hard circles of scamorza before, but I'd never tried a fresh, creamy ball of bufala like this. The lightly smoky and silken cheese was a revelation.

In some places, the tomatoes are an afterthought. These Italian imports were just amazing -- the best I've had outside of Naples. They captured the true essence of the fruit.

I also had to try their salumi so I got the Misto CottoCrudo board (380 CZK).
This included Prosciutto di Parma, salame felino, bresaola, mozzarella di bufala, Pachino tomatoes, and rucola. This was some of the best I've tried. All the meats were soft and buttery.

Often, I find this stuff too salty. This was not the case here. The salinity levels were right where I wanted them. My date didn't want any, so I ate it all myself, with only good effects.

It was time to taste their raw fish. First up was the lobster with pink grapefruit, and chives (240 CZK).
The price looks small for lobster, but so is the portion. The pieces were the size of your thumb. But they were very good pieces, so delicate and lightly cooked.

The grapefruit does not overwhelm -- it has a hint of the citrus with little bitterness and some sweetness. Underneath was gari, the pickled ginger served with sushi.

Next, we had the scallops with red radish, lime, and sweet chili (190 CZK).
These six pieces were the size of small coins and sliced just as thin. The olive oil and tiny slices of non-spicy chili pepper dominated. The scallops themselves provided more of a buttery texture than flavor.

Then there was the yellowfin tuna with sea salt and coriander (190 CZK). This one was just a little more substantial.
The chunks of fish were as fresh as could be. They sat on cucumbers that absorbed a small amount of a mild garlic and balsamic vinegar, lending some sweetness. They were gone in four quick, meaty bites.

At this meal, we shared one main course (piatti forti). It was the pan-fried cod with chickpea puree, guanciale and artichokes (490 CZK).
It's hard to emphasize what a nice piece of fish this was. The chef did it justice with not too much heat and not too little. Top to bottom, it was just right.

On the side, there was a lemony chickpea puree, whole chickpeas, the tasty tomatoes, excellent artichoke hearts, and wilted bok choy. My health conscious date deleted the guanciale without me catching her. She knows I don't allow substitutions during my evaluations.

Even without it, this dish was gorgeous in its simplicity, letting the outstanding quality of each element shine through.

I'm a big dessert guy and couldn't make up my mind, so I went for the mix of three desserts (280 CZK).
There was the crostata with ricotta and mascarpone, which was basically cheesecake but seriously heavy and didn't thrill me. There were biscotti, which I can't imagine paying 180 CZK for as a separate dessert.

Then there was the Amarena cherry chocolate cake. Dio mio!
You'd think that cream would be heavy, but you'd be wrong. It was impossibly light and heavenly. Inside, there were sweet and sour cherries with chunks of bittersweet chocolate.

An espresso at the end was 50 CZK. This multifaceted meal cost 2520 CZK. I was surprised we kept it under 3000 CZK.

We enjoyed the meal so much that we were back again a few days later. I called to reserve the same table again. They wouldn't guarantee it, but it was quiet so we scored it again.

On our return, I needed a stiff drink after a hard day, so I started with a cocktail. The London Rain is Tanqueray, fresh mint, and dry vermouth (230 CZK).
It was soul-refreshing. I really dug the verdant look and flavor.

I rationalized that some of the wines cost just as much, and it is a Four Season hotel, after all. However, the price is well above what you'd fine at Prague's top cocktail bars. My Italian companion had the Aneri Prosecco (230 CZK), which she enjoyed.

They have some serious cheeses beside mozzarella. There was robiola capra from Piemonte (140 CZK) on the left, with its creamy hint of goat. I had the gorgonzola dolce from Piedmont (110 CZK) on the right, which was also creamy and mild.
At the lady's suggestion, I tried the Pecorino di Fossa from Marche (240 CZK). It was expensive for such a small slice, but it was the most interesting and worth the experience. It was sharp, tangy and, to my surprise, it had a sharp, stinging finish. This sheep's cheese gets its kick from a complex maturation process that includes being left in straw-lined holes in the ground.

For a starter, my date had violet artichokes with mint and thin wisps of that same Pecorino di Fossa (360 CZK).

The fine artichokes were mixed together with eggplant and their quality tomatoes, some of which were concentrated into sweetness. It was a tasty but expensive little salad.

I couldn't resist the pull of the homemade black tagliolini with lobster (550 CZK).
The tender lobster meat had just the right sweetness. We agreed that the pasta was overcooked. And this was the only time the fresh tomatoes misfired for me. I thought the sauce was too sweet and one-dimensional.

During the meal, we tried a glasses of Chablis (240 CZK) and Barbera d´Alba  (230 CZK).
The enjoyable red was round and full-bodied.

For a main course, I had the tagliata di manzo with glazed shallots and morels (640 CZK).
The medium rare beef from Piemonte had the lovely lean but tender and dense texture I'd experienced before with a steak I'd had at La Finestra in Cucina. The meaty morels were rich and chewy and the shallots were a fine partner. The fennel underneath was just too sweet and overwhelmed the rest. I'd give La Finestra's rib eye the edge in this battle.

My Italian companion ordered the grilled yellowfin tuna with eggplant caviar and caponata (630 CZK).
Before we could say anything, the waiter took the words out of our mouths, saying that the fish would only be briefly seared on each side and served very rare -- basically "blue."

"Perfect," we both said. "That's exactly how it should be. We want to see a lot of red."

Of course, there will always be different interpretations of "very rare." so when it came out with a centimeter of cooked fish on the outside of the thick cube of tuna, it was sent back to the kitchen. To their credit, it was re-done without fuss or complaint and a new tuna arrived, cooked exactly as desired.

And it was a pristine piece of quality tuna. The rich caponata sat on a piece of decadent, buttery toast. The tomatoes had a lemony pop. I know caponata includes capers, but neither of us are big fans of those and there was an overabundance, including in the eggplant caviar.

I'd say the service was generally excellent, both friendly and efficient, though both visits were on quiet nights. The waiters were knowledgeable about the dishes, fielding many questions about ingredients and preparations.
I'd take away a point because the overly helpful manager sometimes followed up after the waiters, asking questions that had already been answered or grabbing a plate we'd already requested to keep on the table.

We were carried away by curiosity on this second trip, wanting try everything. Our lack of restraint, perhaps due to the extra round of drinks, showed up on the tab. The bill for this evening was 3810 CZK. Drinks accounted for 930 CZK.

This ristorante has its work cut out for it. There is plenty of competition for Italian places on the top end, including Aromi, Gabriele Ristorante, VINOdiVINO, Divinis Wine Bar, and neighboring La Finestra.

I've eaten at all of them, and I say the Four Seasons is worth a visit. I was often amazed by the quality, if not always by the creativity.

If you are looking for freshness and change, delve into CottoCrudo.

Four Seasons Hotel
Veleslavinova 1098/2a
Prague 1
Tel: (+420) 221 426 880

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

La Bottega di Finestra

"Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity." H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
I grew up near New York City. That means I was surrounded by Italian food.

Italian-American food to be precise. In addition to the many restaurants, there were fantastic Italian delis with sausages hanging from the ceiling, cases full of fresh salads, prepared meals for reheating, cured meats, and amazing, fresh sandwiches.

In New York, the long rolls stuffed with all kinds of things from meatballs to fried eggplant are called "heroes." And they are that to me.

In recent years, Prague has been getting some high quality Italian food shops that remind me of my youth. Wine Food Market and La Bottega di Aromi arrived in recent years.

But the newest of all is La Bottega di Finestra.
It's in Old Town, next to the restaurant La Finestra in Cucina, the sister restaurant of Aromi.

When I walked in the door, it reminded me of a richer, fancier version of my childhood deli playgrounds. And I came to play.

The shop's display cases are a cornucopia of Mediterranean edibles. Let's go through them on a case by case basis.

In the front room, along with a number of tables for sitting down for a nice meal, there are salads, quiches, beans, rolled and stuffed veggies and more.
They have fresh pastas, sauces, and olives.
There's a dessert case with mostly Italian sweets and baked goods.
Wicker baskets offer up bright, fresh produce.
In the passage to the large back room, there's a meat case with fresh sausage, duck and other birds of a feather, and Chianina beef.
Close by are fresh fish and seafood on ice, including squid, oysters, salmon, and prawns.
You can take the stuff home, or they'll cook it for you. The caveats here are price is marked up 80 percent for preparation and it could take up to 45 minutes.

In the back, walls were filled with medium to high-priced Italian wines -- many are 400 CZK and beyond.
Nearby, there was an quick-moving Italian man to meet our ham and cheese needs.He works in front of a well-stocked "cheese cave."
There are also tables in the back and we grabbed one.
On the table was a menu with six daily special offerings.
We started with the mozzarella and Piennolo tomatoes, which are only grown on vines around Mount Vesuvius (115 CZK).
The cheese had a rich and creamy character, and there was plenty of basil. I'd never had this type of tomato. These were quite sour. But I thought it was a nice price for a Caprese with imported components.

With our meal, we had .15 liter glasses of Hartmanm Pinot Grigio (110 CZK) La Minaia Gavi di Gavi (115 CZK).
Both were dry and very drinkable, but we preferred the fruitier Pinot. Any bottle can be pulled off a shelf and served for the list price plus a 30 percent corkage fee. We also had a .7 liter bottle of Mattoni (75 CZK).

He had some of their excellent, crusty, homemade Italian bread and rolls (19 CZK).
If you like them, you can by whole loaves.
We tried some items from the salad case. I got the mangold leaf stuffed with bread crumbs and Parmesan.
Mangold is also known as Swiss Chard. The full leaf had a refreshingly verdant flavor, though the cold block of crumbs and cheese inside were not especially interesting or the greatest texture.
We tasted a beautifully smoky and silky aubergine caviar. It was one of the best eggplant spreads I've had. And there was a cold layered mozzarella, eggplant, and tomato offering. This was OK, but nothing too special. Maybe it'd be better if it wasn't served at such a cold temperature.

These three items on one plate came to 169 CZK.

Then we wanted some hot stuff. They had homemade veal and truffle ravioli behind the counter (145 CZK).
The waitress suggested a butter and sage sauce. My Italian companion argued against it, saying the sage would clash with the truffle.

I love butter and sage, but she was right. The butter was fine, but I had to take away some of the sage. Oh, and the ravioli was terrific, al dente pockets filled with minced meat and the aroma of the expensive mushrooms.

From the daily menu, I went for the cannelloni filled with ricotta, radicchio and topped with a Parmesan fondue (145 CZK).
I thought it would be heavy. It wasn't (at least by my standards). The interior was creamy and crunchy, while the Parmesan that pooled below but was not poured over the top, was tasty and tangy. Given the quality, it was a real good deal.

We pressed on. We put ourselves in the hands of the master behind the counter.  We asked him to pick out some cheeses.
There was a salty, creamy Taleggio, a tangy Branzi from the Bergamo region, and a good and a goaty mountain goat cheese (capra alpina). We enjoyed that one the most.

How much did the cheeses cost? I don't know. These weren't on the bill at the end.

He also sliced us some Prosciutto di Parma that was so thin, you could see through it.
It was quality stuff. But it was good it didn't weigh much. That ham goes for 1365 CZK a kilo. Our slices cost just 19 CZK.

I was getting full, but I went full tilt at the desserts. I had a piccolo Cannolo Siciliano (35 CZK). Inside the softened shell casing, the sweetened ricotta was lusciously lemony, with chunks of chocolate mixed in.
One tiny tart was filled with a rich pistachio puree (35 CZK). The other two had cream and fruit (32 CZK each). I liked them all but wasn't thrilled with the size to price ratio.

This almost endless feast set me back 1162 CZK. I thought it was absolutely worth it.

Before I go, I just have to mention that next door at La Finestra in Cucina, I had one of the best dishes of the year. It was Ravioli filled with oxtail, served with aubergine caviar and Parmesan fondue (375 CZK).
This ravioli released a beefy perfume that went up through the palate and directly into my sub-cranial pleasure centers. Eyes rolled back and the smile turned up.

I saw this repeated when my vision returned to normal and my date took a bite. The blissful reaction was the same. The super smooth sauce was different than the version at La Bottega and was one of the most decadent things I've tasted in a while. And the sweet eggplant puree underneath balanced it all out. Wow.

Let me conclude by saying that of all the Italian shops that have rolled into town, La Bottega di Finestra is the Ferrari. Depending on your tastes and hunger, it can get a little expensive, but I'm glad I didn't miss the opportunity for a test drive.

La Bottega di Finestra
Platnéřská 11
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 233 094

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cheap Eats in Prague

"Anybody who thinks talk is cheap should get some legal advice." Franklin P. Jones
I eat in a lot of expensive restaurants. I also have plenty of "go to" spots around Prague for inexpensive meals.

In addition to good value, I've also looking for something that tastes good -- or at least not too bad. And when I talk about taste, I'm just talking about what appeals to me.

Those who live here will have their own favorites. Prague is full of low-priced offerings, especially at lunch time. I couldn't begin to list them all.

What I will do, however, is give you my list, in no particular order, of places I like or know about that I stop at for a low-cost bite or two.

Pho Vietnam Tuan & Lan
I wrote about this Vietnamese place with no tables just recently and it has become a favorite. I recommend the Bún Bò Nam Bộ (85 CZK) and the fresh (unfried) spring roll filled with shrimp, pork, and egg (30 CZK).
Real Vietnamese cooking is the up and coming cuisine in Prague these days. I'd also recommend Red Hot Chili in Karlin for their breakfast-only banh mi sandwich. Or try one of the small shops at SAPA market in Prague 4 or Holešovice Market.

Arslan Kebab
Prague has a number of kebab shops, and many people I spoke to agreed that Arslan Kebab is a stand out. The small, Turkish-style doner kebab with the beef/lamb mix (49 CZK) is delicious.
I went last week and the meat was freshly shaved. The salad in the bread, from onions to cabbage to tomatoes were fresh and well-kept. I've seen more than a few shops with tired-looking stuff and dried out meat that was shaved long ago. They do their own bread, in addition to Turkish "pizza" or pide and it's very good. Also worthy in the area are the kebabs at the Middle Eastern spot, Safir, at the top of the Nový Smíchov shopping mall.

This is a nice little place in Karlín that specializes in soup. A small bowl is 36 CZK and a large is 57 CZK. They do recipes like chicken with tarragon or tomato cream with fresh basil. They almost always sell it all, and by the end of the day, they usually only have their borscht with beef. Chačapuri (Khachapuri) or cheese bread with meat (45 CZK) or spinach or beans (32 CZK) can help fill you up. did a bigger article on other soup joints like Dobrá polévka, Polévka je Grund, Home Kitchen, and others.

Bea's Vegetarian Dhaba
I'm a big meat eater, but I stopped by the Bea's hidden in a little courtyard on Týnská recently.
I got this plate with a cabbage-filled spring roll, onion chutney, potato, broccoli and corn curry, and spicy beans. It was all quite tasty, with a fair amount of heat.
I must add that at the end of the day, the food has been sitting around a little too long. This platter cost 49 CZK, and they had free green tea, They do take the "sitting around" factor into account and offer 30% discounts one hour before closing time.

Jan Paukert
Want something more Czech? Try Jan Paukert on Národní for their chlebíčky or small, open-faced sandwiches. Mr. Paukert is said to have invented them. They go from 21 to 39 CZK.
I like the kind with ham, egg, pickles, and potato salad.

Wenceslas Square Sausage Stands
I'll confess it's been a long time since I've partaken in a sausage at Wenceslas Square. I used to eat them more often, even though they don't fit so easily into my "good taste" requirement. Perhaps my judgment was impaired by my choice of beverages. Almost five years ago, I wrote a blog post about trying many of them. A favorite from then was the garlic-studded Pražská klobása (Prague sausage).
It was 50 CZK in 2007, but now cost 60 CZK. I also liked the little white Norimberske (Nuremburg) links (50 CZK). But you better get them while they're hot and before they're not. There is a plan to eliminate some, if not all of the sausage stands as part of a major beautification project.

Bageterie Boulevard
If I have to choose a fast food chain, this is the one I usually go for. Why? Basically, I love the warm, crispy baguettes they use for sandwiches. Although the quality of what they put inside them is not always the highest, they are fairly creative. My favorite sandwich is the Brooklyńska (89 CZK). The baguette (you have a choice of three different types) is filled with turkey, grilled onions, cheese, tomato, bacon, and mustard dressing. I'll also confess to liking their "hot dog," called the Vídeňák or the Viennese (39 CZK).
It's two small dogs on a warm crunchy roll with bacon, grilled onion, and cheddar. The ketchup and mayo on it is not right for me, but I've grown to accept it. I must add that I love their homebrewed iced tea (37 CZK). It only comes pre-sweetened and flavored with lime, but I like it this way. I lived for years in the sweet tea region of the USA. They also sell it in take away bottles (39 CZK), but it has a limited shelf life.

Giallo Rossa
There are locations in Old Town and Vinohrady. The pizza here is hit and miss. You have to be open to choosing a slice (30 CZK) from the freshest pie, regardless of toppings.
I advise against ordering the older slices, even if it has the topping you prefer. The crispy crust combined with the decent, slightly sweet sauce and fresher cheese usually satisfies. For the same price, you can get a much larger slice at the pizza and gyro shop underneath Kotva at Náměstí Republiky.
Make sure to tell them to make it hot, as they often rush it in and out of the oven. This slice reminds me a bit more of a New York pizza. The well-heated crust is good, but the sauce, with a nice hit of oregano, is a bit thin.

"Hot dogs" at Náměstí Míru
Some claim that this párek v rohlíku (20 CZK) is the best in the city. I don't know about that and I'm not willing to find out. But I do pass by often and when I need an emergency food fix, I'll grab one. There are also Eurodog stands outside the Anděl (classic is 15 CZK) and Malostranská metro stations among other places.
These dogs don't compare to what you'll find on the streets of New York, but they are cheap, fast, and get the job done.

Butch's Burgers
Sometimes these burgers can be pretty good. Sometimes they're not. There is some luck involved. Either way, if you take your chances, they are huge and cheap. I get the Big Queen's Burger (82 CZK) with ground beef, mayo, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, bacon, fried onion (I recommend asking to hold the cucumber).
For much higher quality, go to The Tavern.
This restaurant is not open full time until March, but their Lokal Burger and Blue Smoke Burger are among the best in town for a little over 100 CZK.

Mistral Café
If I'm going to sit down in the center for a real meal, Mistral Café offers some of the best value.
There are sub-100 CZK lunch specials, and their regular menu has Czech and creative-non Czech items in a place with an art gallery feel. I recommend the pumpkin soup with grilled chicken (79 CZK), or the forest mushroom ragout with thyme and onion over potato cakes (98 CZK). The place was deserted the first three months it was open, but the secret is out and now it's regularly packed. Another favorite in the sit down restaurant category is Café Louvre. You get style, history, and decent, occasionally pretty good food.
I usually go for the club sandwich, a Mattoni, and a hot chocolate, but I'm not sure everyone will love this combo as much as I do.

Sushi Tam Da
Cheap sushi is something that was missing for a long time in Prague. Sushi Tam Da, which I wrote about back in 2010, was a pioneer in this area.
Its few tables are often full now, and I usually get an order to go. My favorite sushi menu selection for its price and quantity is the B23 -- that's an 8 piece salmon, avocado, and cucumber roll coated with sesame seeds (118 CZK). At 290 grams, that order alone could be a satisfying and healthy lunch. A piece of salmon nigiri is just 34 CZK, which is less than half what it cost at many restaurants in the center.

A number of other restaurants following Tam Da's model have popped up around the city like Asian Fast Food Binh Minh at Strossmayerovo náměstí.

As always, I'd love to hear any suggestions of your favorite cheap eats. If there are items on my list you find too obvious, unworthy, or even repulsive, I'll understand. Everybody has difference tastes, experiences and limits for price to quality.

In any case, the food is pretty cheap and so is my advice.

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