Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Aldente Trattoria Italiana

"We may define therapy as a search for value."
-Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology

I've been in therapy for a long time. When it comes to food and drink, my search is never ending.

It's not the price that counts. I've found value in a sausage on Wenceslas Square. I've found value in a lobster salad at The Alcron.

In a search for something new, we went for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Old Town called Aldente Trattoria Italiana.

It took over the space of a cafe called Blatouch that was an old favorite of intellectuals and journalists. Though it reopened in Vinohrady, the passing of its Old Town location is much lamented in certain circles.

The new Aldente interior is very colorful and bright. Too bright for me. There are lights everywhere. They glare off the intensely yellow walls. Candles on the table are always a nice touch, but they'd have better effect if they turned down the wattage in the room.

There are some nice, rustic touches -- dark-stained hardwood floors, red and white table cloths, and a central table featuring various cheeses and cured hams. To pay for those table coverings, there is a 45 CZK per person cover charge. More on that later.

Our waiter was Italian, adding to the feeling of authenticity.

On the other hand, he spoke very little Czech or English, which caused difficulty and some frustration on the communications front.

The menu was a fairly brief document. As a starter, I ordered orechiette with fresh tomato and scamorza cheese. And yes, it was al dente.For the most part, what you see is what you get -- pasta on top of melted, chewy cheese, mixed with chunks of cooked tomatoes. A sprig of fresh basil sat on top of it all. There was also the pleasing flavor of what tasted like pancetta.

Overall, it was quite simple. I enjoyed it. Was it worth 180 CZK? Let me think about it.

V got the seafood pasta. It is cooked in aluminum foil. This foil is molded into the shape of a swan before it is brought out.

The dish was full of small clams and very small shrimp. Again, there was not a lot of complexity here, but there was plenty of pasta, full of the steamed in flavor of the sea.

Was it worth 220 CZK? I wavered on the edge here, but I'll go with a 'yes' on this one.

For a main course, I ordered lamb chops with grilled vegetables. You do get five of them, and they are fairly meaty.But, there was little that was special about them, in regards to preparation and seasoning. They were not particularly tender.

The grilled vegetables were nice, but very plain, and I wouldn't mind having a few more. A large lettuce leaf covered what would otherwise be a large expanse of naked plate.

I know lamb is not cheap. But was it worth 380 CZK? Not for me. I wouldn't order it again.

V got the langoustines. They were expertly cooked, and the tails were delicious.However, the photo doesn't give much perspective. They were small little buggers. There was not much meat in the tails, and even less in the other parts.

And there were just three of them, resting on lettuce that covered and otherwise large expanse of naked plate (sound familiar?).

I was pretty disappointed how little food there was for 500 CZK. So, no, I don't think it was worth the money.

We had an Italian Cabernet for 460 CZK. It was one of the cheaper bottles on the wine list. Forgive me, I can't tell you the label, but I didn't like it very much. It was too intense for me -- not a subtle wine at all.

The final bill for our meal, with two course each, plus wine and a tip, was a little over 2000 CZK.

As a whole, I can't say I appreciated the meal on a value for money level. I can think of many other places I'd choose first when spending that kind of money.

And after looking at the bill today, it appears we were charged the cover charge twice. It says "ostatni 2x45" on one part of the bill. At the bottom, it again says "ostatni 90." Both were definitely a part of the total. I can't think of any reason that charge would be there twice.

Not a happy discovery.

I do think we would have been happier if we stopped after just the starters. Both pasta dishes we had were relatively filling. That would have felt more like value for money.

But Aldente Trattoria Italiana actually looks cheap compared to the two Italian restaurants across the street, Amici Miei and Vinodivino.

I've heard some good things about those other places, in spite of the high costs. Then again, I'd heard a good review of Aldente from a visiting tourist. This person really liked it a lot. So, you never know if your feelings about quality and value are the same as someone else's.

Anyway, Vězeňská Street has turned into something of a Little Italy for Prague dining, but with Wall Street prices.

And speaking of Wall Street, I'll leave you now with the words of Gordon Gekko:

"Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another."

Aldente Trattoria Italiana
Vězeňská 4
Prague 1

Tel. (+420) 222 313 185

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My Favorite Things

Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

"This is Spinal Tap"

I was in a reflective state of mind today, and I started thinking about my all-time favorite food and drink in Prague. And the thoughts put me in a good mood.

So I thought I'd share.

I wasn't thinking about specific restaurants or bars. Often, it is one specific dish or drink that makes me feel good and makes me return, whether everything else is good or not.

Here are my top ten favorites with just a little bit something extra. This list goes to eleven:

1. Risotto alla pescatora at Kogo at Slovansky Dum.

As someone who craves variety, I am always surprised how much I love this dish and how often I order it. The seafood is always fresh and plentiful. Shellfish galore. There is tomato, wine, and plenty of garlic. I love the leafy parsley thrown in the mix. I always think I'll make myself order something different at this restaurant, but I rarely do.

2. Entrecote at Cafe Savoy.*

The cut of beef is usually good, but not that special. It is not so large. But the demi-glace that comes with it is a rich, smile-inducing treat. The fried string onions on top soak up more of the sauce only add to the feeling of decadence. And I order a side of fries to go with it to clean up any sauce that remains. None ever does.

* Update -- I'm sorry to say that this version of this dish is no longer on the menu. They still do an entrecote, but it is done with herb butter and grilled vegetables. It is nice, but without the demi-glace, it doesn't do it for me anymore.

3. Nasi goreng at Zahrada v opeře (Garden in the Opera).

The Indonesian rice, seafood, and chicken combine into a wonderful melange of flavors. But it is dominated by finely chopped Kaffir lime leaf. This is among my favorite seasonings in the world. It comes with lime wedges for squeezing, so it has a pleasant tartness, and there are chopped, relatively mild red chilies for a little kick. It is up to you how much you want to mix in.

4. Hot chocolate at Cafe Louvre.

The inspiration for this post. The drink is thick, rich, and almost pudding-like. It comes in relatively small cups that always leaving me wanting more. So today, I ordered two at once to go with my club sandwich. I enjoyed the second cup even more than the first.

5. Steak sandwich at Rocky O'Reilly's.

It ain't cheap these days, and I don't want to go when a big game is on TV, but this sandwich is close to perfect for me. They use very good quality steak. It comes on a long, crunchy-toasted, buttered roll. There are fried onions and mushrooms. And no cheese. Some may miss this, but I don't. I sometimes throw a little sweet Soja sauce or ketchup on top.

6. Carolina wings and ribs at Ambiente on Manesova.

These wings are delicious on their own, with crispy-sweet skin. But then you add the fantastic mango chili sauce that comes with them and they go to a whole new level for me. It's sweet and spicy and I love it. I could drink that sauce straight. The ribs have never been dry and the meat is easy to pull from the bone so you can dip it in the sauce. The best ribs in Prague, I'd say. There is an all-you-can-eat option, but I've never gone that far.

7. Bacon cheeseburger at Potrefena Husa on Vinohradska.

Maybe the best burger in Prague. It has a great, smoky-grilled flavor, good bun, and very well constructed. The only failure is that the high-quality beef they use isn't fatty enough and it can be dry, especially because they tend to overcook them. Not cheap, but the place I go when I need some comfort food.

8. Chocolate gelato cone at Cremeria Milano.

An intense chocolate experience. Better than all but a few fancy restaurant desserts I've had in my life. Made with Cream & Dream gelato, which can be found at a number of other places around Prague. I associate it with Cremeria Milano because that's the first place I tried it.

9. Mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio.

This "European" mojito comes in a big glass filled with crushed ice. Sure, this drink has become a cliche and the most-ordered concoction (a bartender told me), but there is a reason. Many bars are often in a hurry to make this work-intensive drink, and La Bodeguita is no exception. But more often than not, they get they combination of lime juice, mint, rum, brown sugar, and soda water just right. I used to sit at the bar and have one while snacking on a goat cheese and spinach salad, but I must admit it's been too crowded for me lately.

10. Complimentary green salad at Hanil.

The sushi is OK, nothing too special, but reasonably priced for Prague. But one of the things I most look forward to at this Japanese/Korean restaurant is the very simple green salad they serve all diners at the start of a meal. It has a soy vinegar dressing that, yes, I did once drink from the bowl when the lettuce was all gone. I love it that much. The waiter told me the secret ingredient, but if you want to know, you have to ask yourself.

11. Brownie at Passion Chocolat.

Actually a soft cookie made with high-quality chocolate, nuts, and candied orange. I eat a few of these every week. Yes, there are three entries on this list that involve chocolate, one of the great loves of my life.

But these are just my tastes. And on a different day, I might make a different list. In fact, I'm sure I would.

So how about you? Crisp apple streudels? Schnitzel with noodles? What are a few of your favorites things?

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

"I dropped my pants in a tattoo parlor in Amsterdam. I woke up in a water bed with this funky-looking dragon with a blue tongue on my hip."

-Angelina Jolie

Unlike Ms. Jolie, I always remain fully conscious when visiting Amsterdam. I go at least once a year.

Drugs and debauchery are big attractions for some. But there are plenty of other good reasons to visit the city.

First of all, my father was born in Amsterdam. I have many relatives there. And those are reasons enough to go regularly.

Then there's the food. After so many visits, I've developed something of a routine when it comes to eating and drinking a few beers. In my head, there's an eclectic list of things to do.

Topping that list of favorites is Indonesian food. My grandfather spent his boyhood in Java where his father was building railroads. A taste for this country's cuisine runs in the family.

If you ask any of my Amsterdam relatives where to get the best Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), they all have one answer: Tempo Doeloe on Utrechtsestraat. It is very popular and booking is a must.

I've been there, but we always go somewhere else. For us, the most fun is Sama Sebo. We love the informal style and atmosphere.

Here's how it works. They take reservations for the small restaurant. But we prefer to sit in the more lively, but equally small bar area, Cafe de Posthoorn, where reservations are not accepted.

We try to show up at an early hour, maybe 6 pm. If there is a wait for a table, the waiter will put your name on a list. Then you go have some drinks in the tiny bar area. It can get pretty cramped.

When your table is almost ready, the waiter will hand you some menus in the bar and ask what you want. You order then, and the food is then waiting for you at the table when you sit down.

In the past, we always ordered the rijsttafel with cost €27.50 per person. It is a hell of a lot of food, though. A rijsttafel at Sama Sebo is 17 different dishes.

It is possible to get a mini version of it. They pile just about everything on to one plate for €15. Ask for the "combo plate."

But we decided to go a la carte this time and just get our favorites. We got bami (noodles), nasi (rice), fried shrimp, toasted coconut, and pork with Indonesian soy sauce.We also ordered chicken sate, pork sate, and gado gado (salad).I absolutely love the sate sauce at Sama Sebo. It is very thick and rich and sweet and spicy. They give you tons of it, and it is good to order shrimp crackers to dip into it.

We had a couple of beers and a couple of glasses of wine and the total bill was 60 euros with tip.

One of our favorite places to drink in the center of Amsterdam is Hoppe at Spui 18/20. There's been a bar here since 1670.

It's small, narrow, dark, and smoky. Cigars are allowed. There is fine, white sand on the floor that is replaced daily.

The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists. For us, Hoppe is just a place that feels comfortable and familiar.They serve Amstel at this bar. It's usually served in small .3 liter glasses for €2.20, but you can get a pint for €4.50.

Another hangout for us, along the same lines, is Cafe t'Smalle at Egelantiersgracht 12. It is much newer than Hoppe, founded in only 1786.

In the summer, there are tables outside on the canal. It was pretty crowded inside with locals on the cold and rainy afternoon when we were there.We were lucky and found a table up the steep stairs in the warm, paneled back room.Depending on the time of day, you can get lots of different snacks, salads, and sandwiches. It's not gourmet, by any means.

We love the "mature" cheese, which comes with whole-grain mustard. It's less than four euros and the sharp, pungent squares are plenty for two people.

For a more beer oriented experience, I can recommend a place we stumbled upon for the first time on this trip.It is called In de Wildeman on Kolksteeg 3, between the palace and the Centraal Station.

The bar boasts at least 17 different beers on tap and 200 different bottled beers.

There is a list of the drafts written on the wall.

They even have Kozel and Staropramen. But we didn't feel the need for any taste of home.We had Mahr's Weissbier. It was very good, but V said her favorite is still the draft version of Primator Weissbier that we get in Prague.

In Amsterdam, there are plenty of Asian restaurants to choose from, and there is a big concentration of them between the Red Light District and Centraal Station.

For something quick, good, and not too expensive, we often go to Eat Mode at Zeedijk 105-107, just a few meters from the Waag.

It is very small, modern, and brightly lit. You can get a 360 degree view on the website.

The wooden seats are not very comfortable. But it is not a place meant for lingering.

We started with shrimp and vegetable tempura (€5.50).

The shrimp were good, the batter light and crunchy. A krab stick tempura was included.

We also shared a seaweed salad (€5.00). It was large, with a sour soy-vinegar dressing. There were two kinds of seaweed, a very fresh and generous portion, sitting on a bed of lettuce.

For a main course, I got a favorite -- barbecued Japanese eel with salad and rice for €10.00. This is a terrific bargain.It is a large portion of unagi-style eel, at least 200 grams.

V got Chinese noodles with "Japesnese curry" and chicken. It is a vast bowl, filled with long, thick noodles. Very filling and it only costs €7.00.

A .3 liter bottle of Singha beer is €2.50. When we want to eat a lot of delicious Asian food for relatively cheaply in the center, we go into Eat Mode mode.

For a quick snack, some Belgian frites in rolled up paper are available all over the place. Vincent Vega talked about drowning them in mayo, and V likes them that way, along with some ketchup.

I always pay a little extra and get them with sate sauce. The medium frites with the peanut sauce on top cost me €3.00 at a place near Rembrandtplein.

Another big Amsterdam memory for me is stopping at Febo on a cold winter day for a fried Indonesian-style croquette.

This place is an automat, meaning you put money in a slot, open a little window, and pull out the food you want.My all-time favorite is the Bami (€1.20).

It is Indonesian spiced noodles in a square, greasy, crispy-crunchy-fried shell.

There are plenty of other choices, and I tried many of them years ago, but the Bami is really the only one that does it for me.

Perhaps a biggest and most favorite Amsterdam food, for both V and me, is the fresh, new herring (Nieuwe Hollandse) that is sold from little shacks around Amsterdam.

There a couple around the Rijksmuseum, one near the Waag, one near the Koningsplein. There are a number of others scattered about the city.

We always get the herring on bread (broodje haring) with chopped onion and sweet pickle. We got one of our first at a place between the Rijksmusem and the Van Gogh Museum for €3.00. We had one or two almost every day.The bread is very soft and undistinguished -- basically just a holder for this beautiful raw fish.

The only time we were served better quality bread was at a stand in Haarlem. That was perhaps the best, freshest herring ever.

The herring can also be ordered without the bread or any extras, just cut up on a paper plate with toothpicks.

Still, all the fish we had in Amsterdam was wonderfully fresh, soft and buttery, with just a hint of saltiness.

I think of it as Dutch sushi and I enjoy it as much or more than any raw fish I have eaten in a Japanese restaurant.

It's not so common, but people used to hang them by the tail over their mouths and eat them that way.

And just because we were eating street food doesn't mean we could not have dessert.

No trip to Amsterdam is complete for me unless I've had at least one plate of poffertjes.

Poffertje stands are not so common anymore, but we did find this one set up on the Leidseplein.

These small, coin-sized pancakes are cooked in oil on a specially indented griddle. There is a certain art to turning them all quickly with a fork.

I wanted to make a short video, but the cook was too shy.

The hot little cakes are then topped with a large chunk of butter and then completely covered with powdered sugar.

I blew some of the sugar off the top for a better view. They aren't so pretty, but fresh ones, soaked in butter and sugar, really are delicious on a cold night.

This small batch was €4.00, which I thought a bit steep, but I would not let money interfere with my poffertje obsession.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but we are always desperately full at the end of every visit.

And let me tell you -- after a few drinks in a warm, paneled, candle-lit cafe, maintaining consciousness is no easy feat.

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