Thursday, December 27, 2007

Restaurant U Emy Destinnové

"Being in therapy is great. I spend an hour just talking about myself. It's kinda like being the guy on a date."

Caroline Rhea, actress
For a comment like this to be funny, it has to be a widely-shared, common experience that resonates with an audience.

But everybody knows that your abilities to show curiosity, listen, and talk briefly but entertainingly about yourself are key to a good dinner date.


And with all due respect to Ms. Rhea, these truths are self-evident for both men and women.

In addition, everybody knows that another important factor is where you decide to eat.

The newly revamped Restaurant U Emy Destinnové, while not perfect, is the kind of place I'd recommend for an intimate tête-à-tête over a meal.

It's walkable from Wenceslas Square, in a space below street level and used to be known as JB Club. You'll see the small bar area when you first walk in. It is not a big place.
The lighting is kept very low -- so low that it is hard to read the menus -- so flash photography doesn't do much justice to the atmosphere.In the back area of the dining room, you can have your meal on cozy couches and arm chairs, should you so desire.I can't say we loved the style of the coverings on close inspection, but it was really dark and I think few people but me would notice.

In the rest of the dining room and in a smaller back room, there are conventional wooden chairs and some nice touches like a grandfather clock.

One of the big attractions during winter is a real, well-stoked, working fireplace in the middle of the room. We sat right in front of the flames. I was the closest and did get a little too warm, but V loved it.

The website advertised live piano music on Wednesday and Thursday nights, but we were there on a Friday and their player was there, tickling the keys.

He played jazzy versions of "The Girl From Ipanema," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," and the theme from "Forrest Gump."

Whether you find this type of music appealing is a consideration, but I will say that V has a very soft spot in her heart for "Forrest Gump," so you never know what might work for you.

When I first read the menu on the internet, a number of items caught my attention, as well as the fact that the chef is American. The cuisine is basic international. Some rave reviews on Internet discussion boards helped convince me to give the restaurant a try.

We started with grilled eggplant stuffed with roasted peppers and goat cheese over tomato butter (95 CZK). We both liked this, especially the price.The warm goat cheese oozes out onto the plate and can be mixed with pesto and balsamic syrup that is drizzled there. The dish is topped with a sprig of basil. Everything on the place works well together.

The small Caesar salad (75 CZK) worked less well. It was too lightly dressed -- I could hardly taste the dressing at all. What I could taste of it didn't seem like a classic Caesar dressing to me.I thought the Romaine lettuce leaves were torn into pieces that were too small.

I like the big pieces of shaved Parmesan. The croutons were nice, though -- served warm and with a strong anchovy flavor.

For a main course, V got the pork tenderloin with a horseradish crust and apples under a Gorgonzola sauce (215 CZK). This was a winner.The pork tenderloin was very tender and the crust was nice and crunch. Neither of us could detect any horseradish flavor in it, but we still liked it. The Gorgonzola sauce was creamy, salty, delicious, and comforting and the sweet, fresh apples were a nice counterpoint.

V got a side order of very fresh green asparagus (60 CZK). There was sliced garlic on top. It went well with the dish.

Presentation could have been better -- it all tasted better than it looked. The non-headlining salad dominated the plate.

I ordered the black sesame crusted tuna served with wasabi pesto and ginger soy vinaigrette (330 CZK). For a side, I had the rosemary potatoes (40 CZK).I liked the tuna, but didn't love it. My reason for this requires some explanation.

When I order tuna, I only like it very rare. I've had problems with getting my tuna seared rare almost every time I've ordered it in Prague. Even at Kampa Park.

So, I went through my routine with the waiter, telling him I wanted it "very rare" using the Czech word for red, and saying I wanted it "like sushi."

When it came out of the kitchen, the tuna was cooked almost all the way through. Around the edges, it was all white, but toward the middle, it was pink, not red.

It was a fairly small piece of tuna and also pretty thin, so cooking it rare would require just the briefest of searing.

I thought about sending it back, as I did at Kampa Park. But I had a taste and it was still pretty good. I certainly would have enjoyed it more if it had been done the way I liked, but the sesame and soy flavors were very nicely balanced and made up for a sin or two.

I do like wasabi very much and could see it drizzled on top, but couldn't taste much of it.

For dessert, I had a special of the day, what they called a "brownie." It was not a brownie in any classical sense. It was a nice, crunchy, chewy, small chocolate dessert, around 100 CZK, I think.

The "brownie" was chock full of walnuts. I liked it, but thought it was missing something. It might have been better if served warm instead of cold of perhaps with a little vanilla ice cream.

V got raspberry Port wine sorbet (99 CZK). It was a decent raspberry sorbet, but also nothing special. We really couldn't taste the Port wine at all.

V had a few glasses of Moranian wine (55 CZK each) and I had some .3 liter glasses of Pilsner Urquell (35 CZK each). We also had a few bottles of Mattoni sparkling water (40 CZK).

The final bill was around 1200 CZK, which we thought was a good deal considering we both had three courses and a few drinks. With a lot of main course in the 200-300 CZK range, the restaurant was quite a bargain compared with a lot of similar offerings around town.

Some dishes were better than others, but I would like to go back and try a few other items on the menu.

I'd say Restaurant U Emy Destinnové would be a good option for Valentine's Day, which is just around the corner.

Since I introduced her to this new place, V wanted to return the favor.

She took me down the street for a shot of Becherovka at a smoky neighborhood pub called Uterus.

If you can think of a more romantic end to a date, I'd like to know.

Restaurant U Emy Destinnové
Kateřinská 7
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 224 918 425

View Larger Map

Read the full post

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Dinner at Home

“Rule a kingdom as though you were cooking a small fish - don't overdo it”
-Lao Tzu
I usually write about restaurants and bars. But today, I thought I'd do something different.

We eat out a lot, but we also cook at home quite a bit. So, for just this one-time special occasion, I'll write about our Christmas dinner.

For reasons I'd have a hard time explaining, we have developed a tradition of cooking a Thai meal at home.

We started with a tangy Thai chicken salad. This is made with garlic soy-marinated chicken, cashews, water chestnuts, chopped galangal, and shallots. The dressing is made with coconut cream, fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar.It is all served over lettuce. Cilantro is thrown on top. I'd call it crunchy explosion of flavors, with a strong taste of the salty fish sauce in the sweet, creamy dressing.We had hot-and-sour soup, Tom Yam Goong. It is made with kaffir lime leaves, mint leaves, lemon grass, cilantro, galangal, scallions, red chilies, lime juice, mushrooms, and nice shrimp from Thai's Asian Food shop. It is sour, spicy, with the flavor or lime dominating.For a main course, we had monkfish marinated in soy, garlic, and fresh ginger that was then lightly fried in rice noodles. There is a dipping sauce of soy, rice wine vinegar, chopped red chilies, and scallions. The key here is to get the noodles crispy without overcooking the delicate fish.We put regular mashed potatoes on the side. I thought about adding some wasabi powder to them, but decided not to in the end.

These recipes all came from The Ultimate Chinese & Asian Cookbook, published by Hermes House in 1997. We've never seen it in a book store since we bought it, but it is still available on Amazon. It's a great book, very large and heavy, with wonderful pictures. We use it all the time.

For dessert, we made warm molten chocolate cakes flavored with orange zest. It was served with a fresh raspberry coulis and a scoop of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream on the side.Raspberry's were pretty hard to find, but I got a box from the Asian green market on Ujezd for 99 CZK. I later saw a same-size box at Fruit de France for 200 CZK.

The recipe for the cakes came from Dessert by Williams-Sonoma.

We also had a bottle of Robertson Winery Ruby Cabernet 2006 from South Africa. It was very dry, a little on the sour side. We didn't love it. About 200 CZK from Delvita City market.After we were completely stuffed, I observed one final Christmas tradition by falling asleep on the couch. Hope you all had a good one.

Happy New Year!!!

Read the full post

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Prague Christmas Market Food

'Twas the month before Christmas
And all throughout Prague
Little stands sprang right up
With walls made of log

I went to the market
On Wenceslas Square
But Old Town's is better
It's prettier there

They sold lots of trinkets
To the tourists' delight
But I care not for dolls
Or rocks filled with lightsBut this fest was festooned
With some stands that sell food
Not really that cheap
Just some of it goodWhat first caught my eye
Was a big roasting ham
This was the real deal
It didn't come from a canI wished nothing more
Than to have me a slice
Then I saw a small sign
And it showed quite a priceIf you should want
Such fine meat in your hands
It costs 90 crowns
For each hundred grams

Visions of cheaper food
Danced in my head
So I moved through the crowd
For some sweet, sugared breadOne street-fired dessert
For those in the know
Is a round rolling snack
It's called a trdloThis sweet is not measured
By grams or by pounds
Each one that you eat
Will cost 50 crowns

For cheese and some ketchup
On top of fried dough
You can go to the stand
That's selling langošeOn sausage, on corn cobs
On beers you can suck
On these you can count
If you visit this truckHot mead can be had
Should you so request
This honey's got sting
It puts hair on your chestA favorite of many
Who come to the square
Is mulled wine, called svařák
They sell lots of it thereIt cost 40 crowns
For each plastic cup
It can help keep you warm
It can help light you upI'd seen just enough
It was high time to flee
I jumped on my ride
Good old tram 23

And I thought to myself
As I rolled out of sight
I don't love Christmas markets
But for some, they're alright

Read the full post

Monday, December 17, 2007

Amigos (Closed)

This restaurant has closed -- there is a new restaurant in Prague 5 with the same name.

Rosita: I was thinking later, you could kiss me on the veranda.
Dusty Bottoms: Lips would be fine.
Scene from "¡Three Amigos!" (1986)
When it comes to Amigos, my memory is not very good. I'm not talking about the juvenile, self-indulgent film comedy starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short.

That I remember.

I'm talking about the Prague restaurant, Amigos. Some say the Vinohrady establishment is one of the best Tex-Mex spots in town.To be honest, that's not really saying so much when it comes to the Czech chimichanga circuit.

Some say Cantina on Újezd is better. That place is certainly popular, but I'm not going fight that battle today.

Best quality questions aside, there is also the quantity of Amigo's offerings. The restaurant is known for it's extensive, tome-like menu.

Amigos used to be called Kojak's, but I heard some talk that they had to change it after coming under pressure from the "Who loves ya, baby?" people.

It's hard to believe it was July that I ate there with my friend, The King of England. We stopped in for food after shooting pool at the nearby Harlequin Billiard Club.

I wrote a post about that place, but never got around to writting up Amigos. I don't remember so much about what we ate now -- not that I remembered much the day after we were there. We had a few beers over the course of the evening.

But I still have the photos. Since I hate waste, I thought it would be worthwhile to put them out.

The Amigos interior was a glaring mix of yellows, reds, and Tex-Mex kitsch.His Royal Highness got the sampler plate, the Plato Surtido (250 CZK). It was half a chicken quesadilla, small honey-mustard wings, small BBQ pork ribs, jalapeňos rellenos, and tostada.I remember that the wings were decent, but smaller and not as good as at Ambiente, which is just up the street. The fried jalapenos were pretty heavy and a bit greasy. The quesadilla got quite soggy under all that salsa and sour cream. I wish they'd put it on the side.

I had one of my favorites -- the beef chimichanga (200 CZK). Or perhaps it was the chicken chimichanga (130 CZK). That just goes to show you how much I remember.It came stuffed with refried beans. On top was sour cream, guacamole and jalapeňos. It was served with Mexican rice, lettuce, tomatoes and a dish of salsa in the middle of the plate.

Overall, I am comfortable saying this about Amigos: It was OK. When I need a Tex-Mex fix, I'm sure I'll be back. But it was not so outstanding I needed to put it in my regular restaurant rotation.

If it was, I'd definitely remember.

Restaurant Amigos
Anny Letenské 16
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 222 250 594

View Larger Map

Read the full post

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Maze by Gordon Ramsay (closed)

** On February 13, 2009, it was reported that Gordon Ramsay had turned over management of Maze to the Hilton Hotel. The opening chef, Philip Carmichael, has left town. The restaurant will be given a new concept.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings

- Cassius in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Like Caesar, Gordon Ramsay is known for his stormy relations with his underlings. He also rules over an empire that spans the known world.

He has conquered television, starring in his own television cooking shows. But stars of a different sort are what I'm interested in.

Ramsay has earned a total of 12 Michelin stars, so far, over the course of his career. He is the current holder of 10. One of his restaurants, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road in London, has three of them.

Michelin stars, however arguable, are among the most widely discussed measures of a restaurant's perceived greatness. It is not uncommon for jet-setters to plan their extensive travels around visits to these stellar establishments.

When I read that maze by Gordon Ramsay had opened at the new Hilton Prague Old Town, I had to see for myself what the buzz was about.

I had to know if there was some new standard of culinary comparison.

In essence, I had to find out if one of the most famous chefs in the world would produce one of the best dinners I've ever had.

Lofty expectations, yes.

But considering Ramsay's constellation of Michelin stars and prices floating above the clouds, I expected nothing less than an out-of-this-world meal.

I wanted a dinner fit for a king. Or a queen. Which is why I decided to take V there for her birthday.

The Prague Hilton Old Town used to be the Renaissance Hotel. The maze dining room retains the white and black marble columns with gold-metallic Art Deco accents. There is a blond and brown-stained hardwood floor. Some might call its geometric design maze-like.

Lighting is kept low -- so low where we sat that I found it hard to read the menu without holding it close to a light. I think a good lighting designer could illuminate the room in a more pleasing fashion.

The light coming through the ceiling panels had a cold, somewhat harsh glow that dominated the darkened room (it is much whiter than it appears in the photo). I don't know the provenance of the gold metal around the columns, but it had a tired, faded patina.

As for music, I couldn't hear any. What I did hear throughout the meal was the growing rumble and chatter of the diners as the evening progressed. It was not a very soothing sound for me.

Our meal began, simply enough, with bread and water.

The round, thin, pointed bread, perhaps a tribute to the humble Czech rohlik, was disappointing. The rolls were cold. They were gummy and chewy. They came with basic softened butter.

I've had much better bread baskets in Prague, and I expected something more enjoyable here.

We also had a .75 liter bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water (180 CZK).

For a starter, V ordered the Jerusalem artichoke velouté with duck ragout, cep brioche and cep butter (250 CZK). This was excellent.

The bowl was brought out with a dark mound of duck in the center. Then, the light, frothy velouté was poured over the top by the waiter. In the picture, you can only see a little of it peeking through.The velouté itself was pleasantly light and creamy, but we both thought it was difficult to discern the flavor of artichoke.

The real star of this dish, though, was the duck. Each morsel burst with the rich and salty flavor of the fowl. The smallest piece, scooped up in each spoonful, brought this "soup" to life and smiles to our faces.

A nice addition was the two small brioches. The hint of ceps, otherwise known as porcini mushrooms, was more recognizable in the butter.

I had the poached lobster salad with apple and fennel (420 CZK). Unlike most restaurants in Prague, this kitchen knows how prepare lobster. It was perfectly cooked. All the meat was amazingly delicate and tender.I received the lesser half of a claw, as well as a portion of chopped lobster meat that appeared to mixed with a touch of mayo. It had the flavor of onion.

On the side was a small, lightly dressed leaf salad dominated by the taste of dill. There was also a small pool of what we were told was lime mayo, but it did not really speak of citrus to me.

Now, when I say small, let me give some perspective since photos don't offer so much.

The lump of lobster meat on the plate was the size of a 50 pence coin. I tried to savor it, but it disappeared in four little bites. The leaves left the plate in just a few flashes of the fork.

This lobster salad -- simple and natural and well-prepared as it was -- did not offer me any revelations. I'd even say it left me unsatisfied.

We both agreed that a lobster salad we had at The Alcron was unquestionably superior. And significantly larger.

We shared a bottle of wine during the meal. I selected one of the lower-priced offerings on the menu, the 2003 Christian Moueix, Saint-Émilion Bordeaux (1250 CZK).

We both liked this wine very much. It was light on tannins and went well with our dinner. We did not regret staying away from the many bottles above the 2000 CZK mark.

The Wine Society website describes it as "a merlot-based Claret with attractively round fruit" and a "light to medium body." I won't try to better that description.

One interesting note on the wine: The price, for what appears to be the same bottle, is listed on that Wine Society web page at just £5.95 per bottle (though it was out of stock).

I understand a big name restaurant will have big mark ups. There is an empire to run, after all. But if it is indeed 580%, that would seem a tad on the imperious side.

For my main course, I ordered the braised beef short-rib with bacon, mushrooms, and baby onion (700 CZK). The waiter brought out a large white plate with several nearly black pieces of beef in the center. He then poured the braising sauce over the top.Think of it as a rich, intensely-flavored beef stew. The meat was cooked to the point of buttery tenderness, with some fat remaining.

The beefiness was tightly focused within the reduced sauce. The taste is familiar, but just a little better and more complex than I'd experienced before. Yet not dramatically.

What I'm saying is I liked it, but it was not love.

V decided to try the glazed pork belly with spiced lentils and baby onion (700 CZK). I'd read that Gordon Ramsay has various versions of pork belly on the menus of his other restaurants.We agreed that the best element was the lentils. The sauce reduction was a close second. But what about the headliner here, the pork?

The meat itself was not tender. I did not appreciate its chewy, somewhat stringy consistency. There was a thick layer of fat on the pork. But for me, that was good. I like fat.

On the top, there was a fried onion that really was a work of art. At least I think it was a fried onion. I couldn't be sure because it did not add much beyond a super stylish look.

On the whole, the dish did not impress either of us very much.Both main courses came with a side of mashed potatoes, served in a cast iron pot with a lid. I'd already heard some people wax poetic about this.

They were pretty good, and I'm pretty sure that goodness was achieved with vast quantities of butter and cream.

The service was mostly OK, but it had its flaws and was not of the standard I'd expect. For example, after we finished our first glasses of wine, they sat empty. For a while.

Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Tragedy of tragedies, I filled our glasses myself. I once worked as a waiter in London, so I felt qualified to do so.

Information was conveyed in a professional, if perfunctory, manner. It did not feel particularly warm.The kitchen was moving in fits and starts. Our starters came out surprisingly fast. Then, there was a noticeable pause between the time we finished our starters and the main courses arrived.

To be fair, maze had only been open a few weeks, and I'd heard they were still advertising for staff of all kinds. Restaurants do take time to get their human machinery functioning at the highest levels. But since they take our money just the same, we shouldn't be too forgiving.

For dessert, V ordered the hot chocolate fondant with honey and milk ice cream (250 CZK). It seems like this dessert is served almost everywhere now. The reason is that people everywhere love it.

We love it, too. And we loved this one very, very much. It's one of the best I've had, which is impressive considering how many I've had.The dark power of the liquid chocolate center was considerable. The fondant is not huge, but definitely larger than I expected it to be. The honey was a fine addition to the ice cream.

I had the crème brûlée, which was a competent version, but there was little that was exceptional about it. Except for one thing. It came with a green apple sorbet.It was a small serving, but a big success, with the sweet and sour apples distilled down to perfectly balanced, palate-cleansing bursts. A very sour, thin slice of dried apple sits on top. I liked that, as well.

After you ask for the bill, you will receive your complimentary petits fours. These little cakes were warm, very sweet, buttery, and a nice way to end a meal.

Now, a little perspective on price. Our bill for dinner was an even 4000 CZK, including wine, but not including tip. In certain circles, that might be considered a bargain.

One could consider the fact that although Prague currently has no restaurant with even one Michelin star, a restaurant with three Michelin stars in Paris can cost $300 to $400 per person, according to the New York Times.

That's without wine. And that article was written before the dollar tanked again this year against the euro.

All the tables in maze were full by the time we left at the end of a workday evening. Even in these early days, it appears the market will more than bear the prices being charged.

These culinary customers came, even though, as far as I know, Mr. Ramsay was not on the premises. With so many other locations to reign over, you can't expect him to be personally frothing up your velouté every night. The kitchen is actually being overseen by head chef Philip Carmichael.

So, is maze worth the money?

I don't know about other patrons, but I spent my own money. It was earned sitting at a desk all week. I'm not on an expense account. Nobody is buying me dinner, hoping to get lucky. Not so often, anyway.

Yes, I can afford restaurants like maze by Gordon Ramsay on special occasions, but I am not a member of the rarefied crowd for whom price is not a factor.

The cost and attendant high expectations can and do affect my level of enjoyment. And I will say that we enjoyed a number of things.


This meal ranked among the more expensive I've had, but it was not really close to the best or most enjoyable. Many a time, I've paid less for more soul-stirring pleasures.

If I say I didn't love paying these prices for every aspect of this precious repast, some may find fault, not in the kitchen's star, but in myself.

I've been critical of a few things, but I certainly didn't come to Gordon Ramsay's to bury him. I would even praise him. But our praise only extended to about half of what experienced at Maze. I had hoped for better.

Perhaps I'm just an underling, but when people lavishly gush about the greatness of Gordon Ramsay and the transcendent experience of dining in one his restaurants, it leaves me feeling a little like the emperor is not fully clothed.

maze by Gordon Ramsay
Hilton Prague Old Town
V Celnici 7
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 221 822 100

View Larger Map

Read the full post