Friday, February 29, 2008

Brabander: The Art of Culinary - Brno (Closed)

** This restaurant has closed.

"A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman's birthday but never remembers her age." Robert Frost
V's mother, who lives in Brno, had a birthday. We decided to take her out for a nice Sunday lunch.

Our first thought was to go to Brabander: Living Restaurant. It is one of our favorites in the Czech Republic's second city. I wrote a post about that place a few months back.

However, we'd taken her there before and decided to try something different. But not too different. And we wanted to be sure it would be good.

So, we went to Brabander: The Art of Culinary. This second, oddly named Brabander, has a similar cuisine to the first, and yet nothing on the menu is the same.

I should note that the Internet menu was not up to date when I wrote this.

We entered the bar area off the street. No one was there to greet us, so we walked up the stairs. We passed a deck that would be great for outdoor dining in the warm weather.

Sun was shining into the main dining room, giving it a much different feeling than subterranean sister restaurant.The meal started with an amuse bouche. It was light, creamy duck liver pate on a nut wafer.For a starter, Maminka had beef carpaccio (165 CZK). It was a decent, basic version.It came with rucola leaves, shaved Parmesan, olive oil, and lemon and lime wedges.

L had the goat cheese pyramid (165 CZK). The name pretty much says it all.It was light and creamy, but fairly ordinary. On the side were a few mache leaves and red peppercorns.

V had the scallops (219 CZK). There were two, sitting in a shell with melted butter. They were large and perfectly seared.V didn't want all the butter, so I soaked it up with bread. The butter had a great scallop flavor.

An interesting note here: The menu originally said there was one scallop. The "one" was crossed out, and "two" was written in its place. They had a similar dish at the other Brabander, but it was only one scallop and went for 145 CZK.

I had a grilled goat cheese salad. The waiter thoughtfully asked if I wanted a smaller, starter portion (97 CZK). The goat cheese, with a crsip, browned surface, was warm and light.It sat on spinach leaves, which didn't have the snappy freshness I was hoping for. There was a dressing made with very sour cherries. I thought it was a nice contrast, but V thought it was a bit too sour.

The service was super solicitous and ostentatiously polite. Some people like that. Some people don't. I prefer slightly more ordinary human interaction, but I didn't mind so much. V prefers service with a little less, shall we say, personality.

For the main courses, Maminka had the best dish of the lunch: lamb tenderloin (380 CZK). It came with a plum sauce, roasted potatoes, and shaved Parmesan.It was the best lamb I've had since a memorable meal in 1994. The four large pieces meat were cooked perfectly rare, and they were almost impossibly tender.

The potatoes went well with them. The sweet plum sauce was one-dimensional, though, with a strong prune flavor. They could have done better with that.

V had a seared tuna salad (180 CZK). The tuna was cooked correctly (something we often have trouble with in the Czech Republic).The salad, with a variety of lettuce leaves, had a basic dressing and there wasn't much seasoning on the tuna.

V really enjoyed it, and I thought it was pretty good. But I liked all the other main courses better.

L had the pork tenderloin (239 CZK). It was cooked close to medium (I don't mind pink pork), and was also incredibly tender.The meat was larded with chunks of smokey pork fat and pancetta (I think), which added to the flavor.

The dish came with a wonderful mushroom cream sauce, a little tower of couscous (which I didn't taste), and some roasted baby tomatoes.

I had the butterfish (249 CZK). The square cut of fresh fish was cooked with a beautiful, golden crust and yet remained moist and flaky throughout.It came with a lime, coconut cream sauce that was a great complement. On the side, there was nori-wrapped sticky rice. I cleaned the plate.

We all ordered dessert.

V ordered the strawberry "caprese" with mint, vanilla mozzarella, and vanilla balsamic syrup (119 CZK). It was... interesting.The strawberries and syrup were nice. The sweetened cheese did have a good vanilla flavor, but the gelatin-like texture was a little too odd for me.

L got the cheese cake (125 CZK). It was moist and creamy -- a fine housemade version.On top was a lime gelatin. Many Czech cakes are made with gelatin on top, and many people enjoy it. I really don't like it, myself.

The birthday girl had the crêpe Suzette (129 CZK). It was a tasty but small folded crêpe, with plenty of Grand Marnier.It was prepared in the kitchen, so we did not witness it being flambéed. She liked it very much, but I do wish it was a little more substantial.

I had the nougat and chocolate dessert (149 CZK). The nougat had a sticky, almost curd-like texture, and it was intensely sweet.The English-language menu said it came covered in chocolate. But it didn't say that it was a sweet and crunchy shell, flavored with white chocolate. Not bad, but there was no love.

We had a variety of drinks. It should be noted that wine by the glass prices are listed on the menu, but in the amount of .1 liter, whereas the waiter pours .2 liter glasses. So double the prices you see listed.

Overall, it was an enjoyable meal. I'd certainly recommend this restaurant.

I just want to say something here about the quality and the prices.

Many of the dishes at this restaurant are as good or better than I might find at fine dining establishments in Prague. And I'd say the prices are easily half what they'd cost in Prague -- even the lamb.

The bill for the four of us was reasonable, considering all we ate and drank.

But because the meal was part of birthday gift, I don't want to publish the total amount I paid.

That would be undiplomatic.

Brabander: The Art of Cullinary
Pekařská 4
Brno, Czech Republic
Tel. (+420) 543 215 250

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Half & Half Update

"An optimist will tell you the glass is half-full. A pessimist will tell you it is half-empty. An engineer will tell you the glass is twice the size it needs to be."
My struggle last year to find decent fast food around Wenceslas Square is neverending.

Last year, I wrote about Half & Half a few times. It's time for an update because it changed its offerings significantly and for the better since it first opened.Now, the focus is on Italian and Greek cuisine, along with their previous dessert offerings. And they do a decent job, at least compared with everything else out there.

The first change that caught my attention was the pizzas under heat lamps in the front window. They usuall have a wide variety of pies prepared, with many interesting toppings like fried zucchini and eggplant, peppers, pepperoni, rucola, and more.On one visit, I ordered a slice with mushroom. Most are around 45 CZK.

The slices were not nearly as large as those from Pizza Grosso, behind the National Museum, which go for 30 CZK. The sauce isn't as nicely seasoned. But Half & Half's was still not bad.It usually has a good, crunchy crust, unless it has been under a lamp for too long.On another visit, I tried the Hawaiian pizza. I once read a real Neapolitan restaurateur said a Hawaiian isn't a pizza, it's a cake. Let them eat cake, I say.I also went for some white pizza. I wished it had more garlic and ricotta. But it was a nice change from the usual pizzas and not one you'll see at too many other places around town.One day, I decided to try something new after I saw these fried balls behind the counter.

It was pretty unusual.

Basically, it tasted like breaded and fried rice pudding, with a square of mozarrella in the center.

It needs to be heated at the shop or in the microwave at work. It's not good cold.

It cost 25 CZK. There were a few varieties available -- I also saw one with tomato and mozarrella inside.

They are cheap and filling, but they sit pretty heavily on the stomach.

In a display case, there were other offerings like chicken legs, stuffed peppers, lasagne, and moussaka.I got the moussaka (89 CZK) one afternoon. It had a light, creamy cheese on top. It was very heavy on the potatoes, which were cut into long, thick slices. The meat was on the bland side.My all-time favorite lunch at Half & Half is the chicken gyros pita (59 CZK). It is one of the best sandwich-type meals you'll find in the area.They use real Greek pita bread, brush it with oil, and heat it in the pizza oven. When it comes out, Greek yogurt is spread on the pita. It tastes better than it looks.A very generous portion of chicken is freshly carved off from the rotisserie. There is so much meat, it is pretty messy to eat.

I spread it out on a plate, if I can. They chicken is very well-seasoned and also moist, with some crisp pieces. It has never been dry or overcooked.I always get it with raw red onions and tomatoes. And I tell them to leave off the only other option: cold sour cabbage. No thank you.

Half & Half is actually two shops next two each other. You have to walk outside to go into the half that serves desserts. There is good quality gelato in the window.They also sell a variety of fancy cakes, cookies, and Greek honey desserts like baklava.I tried the chocolate cake (75 CZK). It was very fudgey but I didn't fall in love with it.They also often have my favorite Greek dessert, which goes by the unwieldy name galaktoboureko (69 CZK). It is custard, baked in phyllo, coated with honey.A nice version (although more expensive than the gyros pita!).

On a visit last year, I became a fan of their chocolate milkshakes, which are made with top quality gelato. They charged 65 CZK for a .4 liter shake.The shake was good, with a very strong chocolate flavor. T.G.I. Friday's shake is better only because they use more ice cream. Half & Half's uses more milk.

For some perspective, they charged 45 CZK for a single serving cone of gelato, but you get less gelato than in the milkshake. I think they have a .3 liter shake for 55 CZK.

Service is not always great and can break down if a crowd comes in. Some of the women who work there don't speak great English, which is not great in a tourist zone. Sometimes their Czech is a little challenged, too.

I do wish Prague had more quality quick lunch choices like Britain's Pret a Manger sandwich and salad chain. There is still nothing as good as that.

But things are getting better.

I feel optimistic when I think that, years ago, there were half as many places to get a decent, fast lunch around Wenceslas Square.

I feel pessimistic when I think there are half as many as there need to be.

For now, Half & Half will have to do.

Half & Half
Wenceslas Square 51
Prague 1
Tel. 222 240 696

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Burgers of Prague

I try to do a fresh burger survey every year -- here's a newer one.

"Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely." Auguste Rodin
Where can you experience the best hamburger in Prague? A juicy question. But perhaps a waste of time.

The question, I mean.

Who can seriously answer that? A lot of good burgers are served up in this town. But who has tried them all?

The Prague Post has had an article the past couple of years on Prague's best burgers. I had sampled the offerings at a few of the places mentioned. But so many good burgers were not included in that competition.

So, I have my own list.

What follows are not necessarily the best burgers of Prague. I will not even say the list is objective.

It is, in fact, only a list of all the hamburgers I've eaten over the last year. I've put them in the order that I like them:

Czech Inn Hostel: (NOTE: Unfortunately, the Czech Inn has stopped serving burgers) Call me crazy. Call me unconventional. I put this one at the top. This home-style hamburger is the one your mother would make (if she made really good hamburgers).

It was not flashy. It was not gourmet. It was just right and hit the spot. The patty is large, a little crumbly, like Mom's, with just the right amount of fat and salt. The bun is big, dusted with flour, and doesn't fall apart.

It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and a square of melted American-style cheese. There was no bacon. A fried egg on top was an option. It came with a hefty amount of fries and mayonnaise on side for 150 CZK.

My only quibbles? The Heinz ketchup was served in large packets instead of a bottle. And on one visit, the fries were not cooked in the freshest oil.

The Czech Inn is an upscale hostel, a few tram stops outside the center. Its pub has a very nice look, with great, artistic plaster work on the walls and ceilings.

There is also an English-language trivia/quiz night every Monday at 8pm. Big fun.

Potrafena Husa on Vinohradska: This hamburger was close to perfect. The high-quality meat had a great smoky flavor from the grill.

It had bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. All the toppings are thoughtfully cut to fit under the bun. You rarely see this kind of attention to detail.

The bun was very good bread and toasted. The fries were great.

I had only small issues with this burger. One was that the ground beef was actually too lean. It was on the dry side after cooking.

Because of this, I order it rare, but it always comes at least medium.

Then, there's the price. It is now 312 CZK, up from 290 CZK when I last wrote about. Ouch!

The cost does take some of the pleasure out of it for me.

This place, which serves Czech and American-style dishes, is often full of Czech urban professionals and expats. It appears they are willing to pay any price.

Fraktal: This burger is a favorite of many, and it has been one of mine. The burger patty itself was thick, round, and nicely charred on the outside.

The ground beef sat on a sturdy, poppy and sesame seed roll. There was generous amounts of bacon and cheese.

The burger came with lettuce, red onion, sliced sweet pickles, a mayo-based sauce, and a side of fries and mustard. I also got a bottle of Heinz ketchup.

I had the small, 125 gram version for 175 CZK. The larger 200 gram version was 195 CZK.

Small criticisms here: the tomatoes were sliced wedges -- not exactly the best shape if you want to throw them on the burger. The fries were large and good, but needed salt.

The dark, subterranean space is not my favorite place for a meal. The floor often smells of beer and it can fill with cigarette smoke.

I do like to sit at one of the few tables outside in the summer, if one is available.

El Barrio de Ángel: I'd give this burger the award for the best ground beef. It traveled all the way from Argentina. There was a wonderful flavor, made even more delicious by flame grilling.

The patty was well-seasoned, with a perfect amount of salt. The low fat content makes it very dense and even a bit dry in the middle, like Potrefena Husa's.

Still, juices dripped on the plate -- the chef brushes the burger a lot on the grill.

It came out with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo already on it. It was well-constructed.

My Argentine friend, Max, the Beer Philosopher, told me that this is the standard way burgers are served in his country. I'm not a big mayo-on-the-burger fan so I wished I'd had some choice in the matter.

Fries came on a separate plate. The cost is 149 CZK, which seems fair, considering the quality.

The biggest problem was the bun. Although nicely toasted, it was a flaky little thing that was dwarfed by the big, thick patty.

It appeared to come from a supermarket. It fell apart. This fine beef deserved better.

Ultramarin: I'm glad I went back to try this burger again recently.

It also had bad bun issues only a few months ago. But it has gotten an upgrade and moved higher on my list.

They call it the "Elvis King burger." It came with Irish bacon, sweet onion jam, fried onion, and a grilled mushroom cap. I really liked the onions.

The burger was served with housemade french fries with the skins on. They were very greasy and cooked to an orange-brown color. I liked them, despite the large amount of excess oil.

Mayo came on the side, and bottled Heinz ketchup was also available.

It costs 220 CZK. That's up from 175 CZK when I had it with the bad bun in November 2007.

Cafe Bar Wigwam: This is the hamburger I eat most often. I am a regular at this place.

The "Classic Burger" is usually nothing too special. It has a bad, supermarket bun. They use decent beef, usually cooked to well-done.

There's lettuce, tomato, good bacon, red onions, melted cheese, and tons of mayo on top.

What do I like about this one? It is 115 CZK with fries included. The best bargain of the bunch.

There is also a strangely endearing aspect to this hamburger, at least for me. It seems it is never made the same way twice, week after week.

The shape and size of the patty is always changing. Sometimes it is a wide and flat. Sometimes it is a small lump. The toppings vary from time to time.

It's never great, and only rarely bad. These weekly changes keep me from getting bored with it.

Mozaika: I know this burger is much loved, and this is one of my favorite restaurants.

Still, I really haven't loved the Mozaika burger. It was the least conventional, but I didn't downgrade it for that reason.

It came on a big, spinach bread bun, with baked mushrooms, sweet onions, mayo, tomatoes, and lettuce.

The beef patty was quite large. It is heavily seasoned and very good. However, the toppings just didn't work for me.

Both times, I've had it, they mixed together into something of a mess inside the bun. They fell out of the bottom after a few bites.

It was very messy and hard to eat with your hands. The bread itself didn't hold together so well, either.

It came with fries or a small salad and goes for 199 CZK.

Hergetova Cihelna: This was the most expensive hamburger I've eaten in Prague.

In summer, you might consider that you are paying for the view of the Charles Bridge from the terrace. In the winter, you're just paying for the burger.

The beef patty was big and char-grilled. On the side were pickles, onions, tomatoes, coleslaw, ketchup, and mayo. The sesame seed bun was big, and perfectly toasted. The bacon was great. The fries were thick and crunchy.


The tomatoes were cut into awkward-sized chunks rather than slices. The slaw had way too much mayo. The meat was very fatty, and had an odd, rubbery quality.

It tasted good, but the texture bothered me.

And I was really bothered by the price: 395 CZK. Wow! I won't be doing that again.

T.G.I.Friday's: If you want a real American-style hamburger, what better place than an American restaurant chain? Well, to be honest, there are better places.

I had the WORLD FAMOUS FRIDAY'S® BURGER. I went for the smaller 150 gram version for 160 CZK. The larger 250 gram burger is 210 CZK. Neither come with any side item like french fries.

The large, thin patty had a nice, but familiar flame-broiled flavor. It came on a large, sesame seed bun, pre-loaded with great, thick bacon, American cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomato, and onion.

After a few bites, I realized why the flavor was familiar. It tasted almost exactly like Burger King's Whopper. I do like Whoppers, But if I want one, I'd rather go to BK and pay less (there's a rumor they are coming to Prague).

The only difference between the two in my mind was that the WFFB had better bacon and didn't come with mayo like BK's.

The faults of the Friday's burger? Too much melted cheese that overwhelmed at times. Also a bun that was big enough, but was too soft and barely held together.

I had it with onion rings for 35 CZK, which were almost completely flavorless. I loved their chocolate milkshake, but it was 85 CZK.

One other thing worth mentioning. I would never go to the T.G.I. Friday's on Na Příkopě, only to the one at Anděl. The prices are drastically different.

At Na Příkopě, there was only burger size on the menu (they didn't give the weight), and it went for 290 CZK. The ribs are 380 CZK there, but only 240 CZK at Anděl (though 50 grams less).

U Dědka: There was nothing very wrong with the hamburger at U Dedka. It was just my least favorite.

The meat was a big, round lump with melted cheese and bacon on top.

The burger came with toppings on the side: sliced, white onions, pickles, jalapenos, lettuce, annoying tomato wedges, liquidy coleslaw, mayo, and ketchup.

The ground beef ball was too rare for me.

Also, the meat had a very distinctive and different taste. I really couldn't make out what kind of seasoning was the source of this flavor (or if it was definitely from a seasoning). I didn't like it. Also, the bun was not toasted.

It was 140 CZK, but unlike many of the others, it did not come with fries.

And those are all I've tried. And not a single McBurger in the past year (though I did have a fine Angry Whopper in Munich).

Since some of these hamburgers were eaten many months ago, I must mention this caveat: There may have been changes since my visit.

If you know of some good burgers or would rank them differently, I'd love to see your Burgers of Prague list.

And some day, I'd like to take a look at the Burghers of Calais.

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