Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Coffee Heaven at Muzeum (Closed)

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet" by William Shakespeare
Who would've dreamt you'd find sushi in Prague's Muzeum metro station?

Not me.

But it's true. You can now get raw fish at a new Coffee Heaven outlet at the top of Wenceslas Square.

This chain has been expanding in Prague, though this is one of the smallest ones I've seen. It's not much bigger than a closet. But it's hard to miss with their bright blue neon sign.There's just enough room inside for a refrigerator case and a service counter. Don't even think about sitting down somewhere.I saw the sushi on my first visit. There was very little to choose from.

The price tag of 198 CZK for a very small box gave me pause, but curiosity got the better of me.

It came with three pieces of salmon nigiri and four salmon avocado maki. It came with a little plastic, fish-shaped bottle of soy sauce, a package of wasabi, some pickled ginger, and chopsticks.The good news was that the fish was fresh. Also, the avocado in the maki was soft and ripe. On the downside, the rice had no real flavor, and I could hardly taste the soy sauce, despite squirting the whole tube on everything.

Not bad, but I still had a big hunger after spending the big money.

I also bought a fajita wrap for 89 CZK to eat later at work. Again, not cheap for what you get.

The bag said heat me, so I did.

The tortilla is filled with beef, refried beans, onions, and jalapenos.The beef was very tough and a bit too salty, but still tasted OK. The jalapenos lacked sourness and a spicy kick. But, I still kind of liked it and would get it again.

Why? Because I love refried beans.

One afternoon, there was a special -- two sandwiches for the price of one. I got a fajita wrap and also decided to try the toasted mozzarella and prosciutto panini. Big mistake.

It took a long time to toast, so I was standing around for quite a while. Even worse, I took one bite and realized the prosciutto was... aged. It tasted horrible. I threw it out after one bite.

I went back another time and picked up the turkey wrap for 79 CZK.

The microscopic writing on the package said it has turkey breast, mayo, sour cream, iceberg lettuce, rucola, tomatoes, salt, and pepper.

It was pretty boring. The turkey was bland, there was a miniscule amount of rucola, and I didn't see any tomato at all. It wasn't very filling, either.

I'm not a big coffee drinker, so I didn't have any. But V enjoys stopping there for a cup when she can, even though it is expensive by Prague standards.

So, Coffee Heaven doesn't win any awards on the value for money front. Most of their offerings don't add up to a complete lunch for someone like me.

But for those who have sworn off McDonald's and KFC, it is a convenient and slightly healthier choice (if you don't get an old panini).

I wish there were more quick, quality options in the area. But I guess I'll have to keep on dreaming.

Coffee Heaven
Muzeum Metro Station
Wenceslas Square
Prague 1

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Brabander: Living Restaurant - Brno (Closed)

** This restaurant has closed

"Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible."

- Bertrand Russell
In the past, I wrote about what I consider the best restaurant I've tried in Brno, Ristorante Rialto.

And while it is great, it is also the most expensive.

The second best restaurant we've tried is almost as good and far less expensive. I am talking about the Brabander: Living Restaurant in the center of the city.When we are in town, we almost always end up here. Equally good is the sister restaurant in Brno, Brabander: The Art of Culinary.

On this visit to Brabander: Living Restaurant, we took along another couple.

The dining room is below street level, with salmon pink walls, and brick arches.The tables are nicely set with quality stemware and flatware and covered with pink table clothes and cloth napkins. There are often candles burning.The meal starts with a small amuse bouche. It was a small slice of French bread, topped with pesto, cheese, tomato, and basil. The combination was baked in an oven, melting the cheese and toasting the bread. A simple, but tasty little bite.

We all decided to get starters. The Divine Ms. C got the the fish soup, which is called a Provencal bouillabaisse. Perhaps not as complex as a real bouillabaisse, we all liked it a lot and thought it was well worth 55 CZK.Her personal Englishman ordered the aubergine soup with feta cheese and chili peppers. It wasn't bad, but was not as flavorful as the ingredients would lead one to believe. This was only 45 CZK.V got the single scallop served with a sherry sauce and leek and grape marmalade for 145 CZK. The menu, in English and Czech, called it a mussel. Trust me, it was a scallop under that sauce. It was big one and nicely cooked.You don't get a lot of scallop for the money. But we so loved the sherry sauce, we were fighting to soak it up with some bread after the scallop disappeared.

I ordered the beef sirloin carpaccio with 12 year-Old balsamic vinegar and ruccola for 115 CZK. There was plenty of shaved Parmesan cheese on top, along with some mache leaves, and a lemon wedge on the side. The waiter gave me some fresh-ground black pepper.I actually enjoyed eating the meat with some lemon juice separately. Otherwise, it was to indistinguishable from all the other flavors. I can't say the balsamic stood out as extra-special to me.

For a main course, V got the seafood risotto with cuttlefish ink for 179 CZK. She liked it, but wished there was a bit more seafood.It had calamari and chunks of salmon (not her favorite fish). The lemon and lime wedges that came with it helped boost the flavor.

The Divine Ms. C had a spinach salad with goat cheese and cherry tomatoes for 99 CZK. She wasn't terribly impressed.It was simple, with a very light amount of dressing, and the slices of goat cheese were served cold.

The Englishman had venison ragout with caramelized apples and cranberries and spätzle sautéed in butter for 195.The dish was on the sweet side, and the fruit really covered up the taste of the meat, which was a little tough.

I think I had the best dish -- baby double lamb chops in a mushroom-mint crust served with green beans in balsamic vinegar.There were only three pieces of lamb, but there was a nice amount of meat on those small bones. It was incredibly tender, and the mushroom crust was very flavorful. I didn't taste much mint. Three are sprigs of rosemary and thyme on top.

The green beans were fresh, and came with, shall we say, a healthy amount of English-style bacon. The sauce for the beans was creamy, and I didn't taste much balsamic vinegar there. It cost 299 CZK, but I could imagine it costing a lot more in Prague.

Side items are extra, so I ordered roasted potatoes with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes for 40 CZK to go with it. I was happy with my choice.

Desserts looked great, but we didn't have time this time.

I have a few other points of interest regarding Brabander. The original place is called Brabander: Living Restaurant. It was so successful, they opened a second outlet, also in the center of Brno, called Brabander: The Art Culinary. The menu there is almost completely different.

We were told that there is no connection between Brabander: Living Restaurant and Ambiente: The Living Restaurant in Prague.

The name Brabander, we were told, is derived from the Brabant, the area of the Low Countries in northern Europe.

So, now you know.

Sure, Brabander: Living Restaurant holds the second best slot on our list of Brno dining options. But given the mix of quality food, good service, and moderate prices, this choice doesn't require much of a compromise. It is pretty close to ideal.

Brabander: Living Restaurant
Joštova 4
602 00 Brno
Tel. (+420) 542 211 922

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Zlatý Klas

"A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do."

-Miles Davis
A good friend -- to some, a legendary veteran of the 1990s Prague scene -- called for a special gathering on a recent Friday night.

The occasion: His wife and kid would be out of town.

A rare event, indeed. Turnout was high.

The initial meeting took place at Zlatý Klas (The Golden Shaft of Wheat), a Czech restaurant owned by Pilsner Urquell, in Prague 5's Smichov-Anděl neighborhood. It was to be the beginning of a long night on the town.

I rarely choose Czech restaurants myself, and this is a part of town I don't get to often, but I'd heard good things about the place.Zlatý Klas is a tank pub (tankovna), meaning that the beer is fresh from the brewery and kept in large tanks on the premises.The original restaurant used to be a short distance away. But it moved to its new and larger home about a year and a half ago.The place was designed to look like it has been around for a while. The walls are mostly brick, with a worn patina to give a feeling of age.

Lots of odds and ends hang on the walls, like oars and croquet mallets. But there are also modern touches like flatscreen televisions showing sporting events. I found our big table near the bar. It's a very busy spot. A lot of pouring going on there.The big place was almost full that Friday. But our waiter was quite quick with the beer orders. Soon enough, I found myself with a nice cold one.It was so fine. It went down quickly and easily. I actually smiled. I've really come to love the sharp, bitter flavor of Pilsner Urquell. A half liter is 31 CZK.

For dinner, I got smoked pork with red and white sour cabbage and dumplings (Špekové knedlíky s uzeným masem, zelím a cibulkou) for 155 CZK.The sliced, pink pork was nice and tender. It had fried onions on top. The warm, sour cabbage (zeli or sauerkraut) was the best I have had in a very long time. The white cabbage was actually almost brown, and very nicely seasoned and nicely sour. The red version was only just a little sweeter.

A couple of other people said they wished they'd ordered the same thing. The general consensus on the other dishes was that they were just OK.

M got the goulash (Plzeňský gulášek, houskový knedlík a bramboráčky) for 155 CZK.It had raw onions on top. On the side were decent, fluffy dumplings, and a some small potato pancakes. It was declared to be "average, norhing special."

Another guy got the breaded fried chicken steak (Smažený kuřecí řízek) for 129 CZK.I asked him how it was. He said it was a decent version, but it is pretty hard to make this dish special in any way.

There was a pork steak with pepper sauce for 119 CZK (Vepřový steak s pfeffer sosem).Again, a respectable version, not dry at all, but nothing to write home about.

There was one more dish, but can't find it on the online menu. I believe the dish was pork inside fried potato pancake batter with grated cheese on top.It looked pretty good, if on the heavy side, but I didn't taste it myself.

Service was efficient. Drinks and food came fast all evening, and we were there for quite a while. There were no complaints.

Given a choice, I'd pick Zlatý Klas over Bredovský dvůr for Czech food and fresh Pilsner Urquell.

By the end of the meal, we were all feeling pretty good. We enjoyed the quality of the beer as well as a great quantity. We had shots of Becherovka and vodka for dessert.

But things were just getting started. The night was still young.

Nobody was wobbling too badly at this point. That would come later.

In fact, by the end of the evening, I must report that walking unassisted on the cobblestone streets of Prague was something of a challenge for my good friend.

Perhaps I'll get him cane for his birthday.

Zlatý Klas
Palác Křižík - Anděl
Plzeňská 9
Prague 5

Tel. (+420) 251 562 539

If you want to read more about Zlatý Klas, The Czech Business Weekly just did its own review. You can read it here.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Passion Chocolat (Closed)

"If we resist our passions, it is more through their weakness than from our strength."

- François de la Rochefoucauld

Passion Chocolat, the new French patisserie in Vinohrady, is hard to resist.

It is located in an upscale, recently reconstructed building, about a ten minute walk from the top of Wenceslas Square.

Angels and swans, surrounded by gold leaf, stand guard above the doorway.I took a long look at the offerings in the front windows. That day, there were quiches, croissants, brioche, and pain au chocolat.I also saw many of their pastries and cakes there, including their Tarte Tropezienne, which I first sampled earlier this year St. Tropez.This is a first-class, quality establishment. They've created a bright, cheerful space with high ceilings, good lighting, and artistic renderings of green vines, with what look like cocoa beans, crawling up the walls. I was told it was done by Czech designers.But it is the display cases where the true art work resides (sorry, no pictures of the inside cases). As I studied the many cakes on offer, the proprietor, Nadine Musso, offered to explain them.

This woman is as sweet as her desserts. She took genuine delight in telling me about the various creations and answering my many questions. She truly has a passion for her work.

Her husband, Jean-François Musso, is the pastry chef. He is usually hard at work in the back, creating the desserts. If you are lucky, he might pop out with something he is working on and give you a taste.

Given the name of this shop, I decided to try the most intensely chocolate dessert they had. I picked out the cake and asked Madame Musso what it was. She said it was made with a very special type of chocolate.

"Valrhona?" I asked.

"Yes!" She had a big smile. She knew I understood. This is special stuff. I first discovered the unique taste of Valrhona chocolate years ago at the Atlanta restaurant, Bacchanalia.Madame Musso told me that she had an arrangement with the Valrhona company for special deliveries. She said the Four Seasons hotel is the only other establishment in Prague that gets it delivered from France. She even brought out a large bag of the Valrhona cocoa powder from the kitchen to show me.

The cake itself was sublime. It is like an extra thick chocolate mousse, with layers similar to a sponge cake inside.Just a small bite is all it takes, and the intense cocoa flavor will hit you. It has a unique flavor, with the slightest sour note on the side of the tongue after the initial sweetness passes.

On top of the cake are two bittersweet pieces of Valrhona chocolate. They are even more intense than the cake itself.

There are a lot of good pictures on the Passion Chocolat website, but it is mostly in French now.

I'm not a big coffee drinker, so I got a small pot of Earl Grey tea to go with it for 70 CZK. The pot has enough hot water for two cups.

Passion Chocolat serves Lavazza coffee. An espresso is 40 CZK, a cappuccino is 47 CZK, and a cafe latte is 50 CZK.

I decided to take a few pastries to sample at home. They were placed on a cardboard base and then wrapped with paper in a triangular shape and tied with a brown ribbon to protect the contents. So French.

First, I had a raspberry and cream tarte. This is going to be one of my regular favorites.It has a cake-like base. On top is a sweet cream that is whipped so thick, it is almost like butter. Around the sides, it is studded with six fresh raspberries. On top, there is a crunchy, thin, very sweet sort of meringue.

I ate it like a sandwich -- the best, most decadent sandwich I've had in a long, long time. The dense cream is firm and holds its shape as you take bites out of it.

Another dessert that attracted my attention was the nut tarte.It had hazel nuts, walnuts, almonds, and after much discussion, what I believe were sunflower seeds. Maybe I even missed a nut in there somewhere. They are all coated with a dulce de leche, some of which gathers at the base of the tarte.

If you are crazy about nuts, this is the dessert for you.

I did not get an itemized bill. But it is worth mentioning that these rich desserts do require deep pockets. The tea, chocolate cake, raspberry tarte, and nut tarte added up to 285 CZK.

On another visit, I noticed there were more savory items, including some simple sandwiches, in the window. Small salads were also on offer, along with the quiches. They will not be doing real, French-style baguettes. I was sorry to hear that -- I'd really love to find a place to buy some.There were three or four sandwich choices. One was tomato and cheese. I got chicken breast on a crusty roll to go.It looked a little dry, so I asked for a little salad dressing on it. The sandwich, with olives, lettuce, and tomatoes was fine but nothing too special.Also for take away, I got a layer cake with coffee butter cream icing. It got a little banged up as it traveled to my office. It looked much better in the shop.The cake layers between the icing were soaked in espresso, giving the dessert a flavor similar to tiramisu, but richer. I actually got a little caffeine jolt from it. It all sits on a very thin base of dark chocolate.

On top, are two very sweet, meringue-like sugar cookies with a little of the coffee butter cream in the middle.

I asked for a pain au chocolate. Those were gone, but Madame Musso took a stick of the high-quality chocolate they use, broke it in two, and inserted the pieces into a croissant for me.The croissant was small and light, not so crunchy, a little on the chewy side by the time I ate it after lunch. I gave it a little zap in the microwave at work. An short spell in a conventional oven would have been better. Still, the chocolate melted inside, and the combination was heavenly.The tab for the cake, croissant au chocolat, and the sandwich was 185 CZK.

I also tried a "brownie," which is tastes like a brownie, but is made with really fine chocolate. It is crunchy around the edges, but smooth and chocolatey in the middle. It has toasted nuts on top.And I had a very small tarte with cream and raspberries. The raspberries are very fresh. It was a great little bite. There is also a full-size version.Though not cheap, Passion Chocolat is a special place. It is as if they picked up a French patisserie and everything that makes it run and dropped it in the middle of Prague. In fact, the owners also have a shop in Fréjus, in the south of France.

They will also be selling their own chocolate bonbons by the box. There's a machine in the back of the shop so customers can watch the treats being made.

I'll end a quote that was not made by a famous Frenchman, but was made to a famous, if fictional, Frenchman, one Jean-Luc Picard.

It really captures my feelings about Passion Chocolat:

"Resistance is futile."

Passion Chocolat
Patissier-Chocolatier-Salon de Thé
Italská 5
Prague 2

Tel. (+420) 222 524 333

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