Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ambiente - The Living Restaurant

** This restaurant has closed, but a similar restaurant under new management has opened in its place.

"The man who has no imagination has no wings." Muhammad Ali
I can't imagine life without wings.

I have great memories of the all-you-can eat wings night at a local restaurant back when I was in school. We'd have wing-eating contests. I imagine they hated us.

There was no time limit. The best I ever did was 62. I think the record was 121. And a half.

Good times.

Despite such overindulgence, I never lost my soaring love for wings. And when I landed in Prague, I was only too pleased I could still find some good ones.

Wings were what made Ambiente a regular stop in those days. The official name is Ambiente - The Living Restaurant (written in English).

It's such a long, odd formulation. I just call it Ambiente on Manesova to avoid confusion with other parts of the Ambiente group. It's got garish yellow walls with bright blue accents, but also some more refined touches like dark wood veneers around the seating area.

The Ambiente folks have been very successful over the years, so there are now a number of other spin-off restaurants like Ambiente Pasta Fresca, two Restaurante Brasileiros, Pizza Nuovo, and Cafe Savoy to name a few.

Anyway, back to the wings. In my opinion, Ambiente's are the best in Prague. And I will even say, for my tastes, they have the best ribs, too.

On a recent visit, I had the Carolina ribs and wings combo. The wings are almost always plump, juicy, and crispy.

The ribs are always meaty, tender, and unlike most places in town, I can't remember having any that were dried out. The pork pulls right of the bone for easy sauce dipping.I was never a big fan of classic wing hot sauce, so there is another reason I like them. The menu describes Carolina style as a sweet-and-sour marinade of honey, tomato juice and lemon. They come with a sweet, tomato-based mango chili sauce that I love.

A regular portion is 239 CZK, but there is also an all-you-can-eat option for 314 CZK. All the wing and rib dishes have this option now. It does not appear the student crowd has discovered this yet. Wings come with sliced carrots, celery, cucumber, and a sour cream (not blue cheese) dressing for dipping.

Another favorite is the Caesar salad. It is not really a classic recipe. On the menu, it is actually called "Caesar salad by Cardinal Cardini." Do not ask me why. Googling this name does not help.The dressing is on the sweet and mustardy side, but tasty. It is topped with freshly-fried bacon and shaved Parmesan.

The small version is 119 CZK. That's a lot of cash for a salad and this was a fairly small portion. We like it, but don't think it is good value for money anymore.

You can also get the small version with grilled chicken for 135 CZK, and the large, 100 gram version with chicken is 188 CZK. The large with tiger prawns is 224 CZK.

Another starter we had was the spicy tomato soup (69 CZK). It said it had celery and cilantro (koriandr) and sounded sort of like a Bloody Mary to me.

It had an enjoyable sweet-salty combination, with the celery and the meat of the tomatoes gave the soup some body. I'm a big cilantro fan, but I really couldn't taste it.

Let's talk some more about main courses. On my last visit, I had the steak and chicken fajita combo (295 CZK). I remembered having this years ago and enjoying the beef.The tender meat was served on a sizzling iron plate with onions and peppers. I will say the beef was the best part, but it was not as good as I remembered it. The chicken was pretty flavorless and dry.

It came with grated cheddar, chopped tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, and a green chili, lime, avocado salsa. The tomatoes had no seasoning. I'd much prefer some pico de gallo. The sour lime salsa was tasty, so I poured it all into my fajitas.

The guacamole was decent, but a very small amount, hidden by the fact that it sat atop a bed of shredded lettuce. There was a warmer to hold the flour tortillas and keep them soft.

V had the Creole jambalaya (258 CZK). First, I'll say I've never been to New Orleans, and I'm not a big expert on what makes an authentic jambalaya.

Then, I'll say it had a nice smoky flavor, with chunks of ham mixed in with onions, red peppers, and long-grained red rice.There were 11 tiger prawns in the dish. They were on the small side, and a bit dried out, but not too bad.

V also had a margarita with no salt(128 CZK). It was very strong, very sour, and not very sweet. It was made with real lime juice, and there was plenty of pulp to prove it.

V loves sour drinks, and so she liked it. I thought it could have used ice, but she didn't want me to bother with ordering any. A touch more sugar would have also suited my tastes.

On another visit, I decided I needed to sample a steak. I had the 200 gram black Angus La Morocha from Argentina (375 CZK). I didn't find it very satisfying, especially for the price.

I got it with the Bordelaise sauce, which is described as a "demi-glacé sauce" made with veal marrow and comes with buttered green beans.

I also ordered the recommended side of homemade french fries cooked in peanut oil (50 CZK). The fries are good, though not as crispy as I'd like.

The cut of beef was small, thin, and fatty throughout. It was very similar to the entrecote at Cafe Savoy, which is owned by the same company.

At Savoy, I was totally in love with the demi-glace sauce, which was discontinued. The Ambiente version was OK, but quite different, and not as thick or as rich. And it didn't come in its own serving boat.

For some perspective, the 200 gram Argentina rib eye steak at La Casa Argentina is listed at 287 CZK on their website. I had that steak last year, and it was much better.

The problems I had with the service and kitsch La Casa Argentina are something to consider. But still.

As for drinks at Ambiente, a .15 liter glass of Modry Portugal wine was 68 CZK. Mattoni sparkling mineral water was 39 CZK, and a very small Coke was 39 CZK.

The restaurant also offers its food to go, and puts it in sturdy boxes for traveling. We've even reused them to transport cakes and Christmas cookies.

For one take away order, we got the corn on the cob. It is nicely grilled and buttery -- again, the best I've had in Prague. But they cost a whopping 114 CZK. Too much.

I also took home some Carolina wings. It was 174 CZK for nine, and comes with the usual fixings.

Unfortunately, one of the precious plastic cups of mango chili sauce turned over in the box and spilled a bit. They just put some plastic wrap over the top of the cup.

We haven't had it for a while, but we liked the Bailey's and chocolate fondue for 158 CZK. It comes with mixed fruit, but they'll substitute all of one kind of fruit if you ask.

My view of Ambiente these days is that it is Prague's premier yuppie diner. It is filled with memorabilia like Marilyn Monroe posters that will make any American feel at home. Everyone on the staff speaks English.It is almost always full, and if you show up without a reservation now, there is a fair chance you will be turned away.

When I first came to Prague, I remember saying what a great deal the place was. I don't feel that way so much anymore.

I used to be pretty passionate about Ambiente. Now, we're just friends.

We did try a lot of different dishes on recent visits. But I keep this place in my life for only one reason, really.

I imagine you could say it brings me back to a great love that took wings in my youth.

Ambiente - The Living Restaurant
Mánesova 59
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 222 727 851

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Anonymous said...

One thing I do recommend there is a great Sauvignon by Barabas. Less than 500Kc and the best Czech white wine I have ever tasted.

Anonymous said...

Fajitas without refried beans?? Heresy! Cantina is my preferred choice for this dish - more authentic and cheaper.

That steak looks awful and undersized. For a decent 300g bife de chorizo or bife ancho for around 300 Kc, I'd recommend the recently opened Argentine restaurant in Smichov (even if the Prague Post doesn't).

Brewsta said...

Yeah, to be honest, if a little immodest, we make better fajitas at home. With plenty of refrito and homemade guac.

The reviews for El Barrio de Angel are all over the place, but I do want to try.

Anonymous said...

Same here, home-made fajitas all the way baby!

Give El Barrio a whirl some day - the steaks are IMHO the genuine article and very tender, the service is 1000% better than La Casa (not hard), the wine is excellent and affordable (around 450 Kc for a good ARG Malbec) and the decor is quite impressive. Btw the chef working the grill is from Buenos Aires.