Thursday, May 29, 2008

Kávovarna at Palác Lucerna

"Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess." - Oscar Wilde
When we last left our story's four insatiable adventurers, they were having beers, burgers, and a chimichanga in the Wild West Show scene at Buffalo Bill's.

For most, this would be enough. For us, the saga continued.

It turned into an unexpectedly long night of wide-ranging social intercourse and eclectic eating, liberally stimulated by the liberating effects of drink.

I was with the Michigan Man, the English Editor, and of course, the lovely and charming V. EE suggested Kávovarna, just off Wenceslas Square.

Off we went.

It is in the Palác Lucerna, which has an interesting history.

It was built by a man named Vácslav Havel, the grandfather of former Czech president Václav Havel.

The first section of the arcade opened in 1907 and it was it was finished in 1921.

A more recent addition was the David Černý sculpture hanging from the ceiling.

It is a comic reinterpretation of the statue that dominates the square outside.

St. Wenceslas is riding his horse, but in Černý's version, the horse is hanging upside down. Love it.

We entered this often crowded, smoky establishment and got a table and stools by the window looking out into the arcade. But the view can be interesting in any direction.This cafe is great for people watching, inside or out, which is the attraction of this place for some.

There were tables "outside" in the passage for people who want a little less noise and smoke, though it's too cold to sit out there in the winter.There was also a non-smoking room inside.

It can get a little noisy, and the chairs are nothing to write home about. But there are other attractions.Kávovarna, along with the rest Palác Lucerna, retains the patina of the past. It isn't fancy, but it has the charm of unprimped age that Nouveau Retro establishments can only aspire to attain.

During our visit, we started with half-liters of Pilsner Urquell (35 CZK). They also have Litovel dark beer for the same price.

There sell Hoegaarden, Guinness, Stella, and Leffe Brune in small bottles.

Bottles of red and white wine were available at 180 CZK to 550 CZK, with selections from the Czech Republic, France, Spain, and Chile.

Other alcohol-based drinks could be had, but what was interesting was the extensive non-alcoholic drink section of the menu.Sure, you can get your basic cappuccinos or espressos at this cafe.

But there were many other more creative options that were made at a separate coffee bar. There were a large variety of flavored syrups on display.On separate visit, I wanted to try a coffee, but I decided to keep things relatively simple. I ordered the Vanilla Royale Iced Coffee (54 CZK).

I really liked it.

Maybe you could take or leave the huge amount of whipped cream and the cherry. But it had a good coffee kick, and the syrup gave it just a touch of sweetness.

It beat the pants off the two different iced coffees I tried at Prague's new Starbucks. Those were truly awful.

At the global chain's outlet at Malostranské námestí, I had an iced Americano on one visit and an iced cafe latte on another.

One was way too watery. The other was way too milky. And they cost almost twice as much for a serving of approximately the same size.

Coffee Heaven is also in Palác Lucerna. It has more comfortable chairs, but it is also quite expensive.

At Kávovarna, without any extra cost, you can go wild with the syrups.

For example, they offered an iced Black Forest Mocha. It had chocolate, cherry, and coconut syrup, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings in a half-liter glass.

I doubt I'll ever try that.

Or an Iced Banana Split Cappuccino. Or a Hazelnut Decadence Iced Latte. Or a Double Decadence Delight, which has creme caramel syrup and chopped walnuts.

The cost for all are the same -- for your wallet or purse, anyway.

If coffee is not your thing, you can have a hot chocolate flavored with peppermint, raspberry or any other syrup. The even have sugar-free flavors.

There were syrup-flavored sodas (44 CZK) and even granitas (39 CZK).

But enough about the drinks. Let's jump back in time to our over-the-top evening adventure and talk about the limited food options.

I'd had a good memory of the spicy sausages with mustard and horseradish (45 CZK). I'd tried them a year earlier.

This year, they looked slightly different (I have pictures of last year's, too). I didn't like these so much.They were not the type you usually find around town. They were more pepperoni-like.

Which I like.

But they were also extremely greasy and a tough to chew, unlike last year. We didn't feel like finishing them.

We also ordered the traditional cheese with green olives for 48 crowns.It was a fairly boring cheese, enlivened by slightly creative presentation.

There are several kinds of nuts, including cashews, for around 40 CZK. Don't come to this place expecting a serious meal.

Like me, V is very curious about trying different foods. She saw some Czech cheese cake, tvarohový dort.It's similar to an American version, but it has raisins and is a bit more crumbly. We enjoyed it.

They also sell chocolate pralines with different fillings. V is always pushing the eating experience envelope, so four of them suddenly appeared on our table.

I tried most of them. Some I liked, some I didn't.

Don't ask me me which ones. At this point, the memory gets hazy. When we got the bill, it showed 18 beers for the four of us.

Spreading them out over four hours certainly helped lessen the intoxicating blow.

The effects of the alcohol were also blunted by the Tex-Mex meal, greasy sausages, olives, cheese, cheesecake, and chocolates.

It's not a pretty list.

You might call it excessive.

But, we all thought it added up to an unplanned and unexpectedly successful evening.

Oscar would be proud.

Kávovarna at Palác Lucerna
Štěpánská 61
Prague 1 - Wenceslas Square
Tel. (+420) 296 236 233

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Buffalo Bill's (Closed)

"My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long." -Buffalo Bill Cody
Did you know that chimichanga was originally a Spanish nonsense word that roughly translates as "thingamajig?"

I didn't. I discovered it in the course of my extensive research for this post.

I also found out that, according to Wikipedia, there is some dispute about the origin of the chimichanga.

Did a burrito accidentally fall into a deep fat fryer in Tucson, Arizona in 1922? Or was it later? And why, then, is it called Tex-Mex?

So many questions.

Whatever the answers, disputed or otherwise, there can be no disagreement that the chimichanga, like the tarte tatin, is one of culinary history's more successful accidents.

It has traveled the globe. The manifest destiny of the chimichanga brought about its eventual and inevitable migration to the city of Prague.

I arrived in the Czech capital not long afterward. Back then, I occasionally went to Buffalo Bill's for my chimichanga fix. And I thought it was an excellent version.

The place was run by an older American gentleman who told me he had some of the restaurant's harder-to-find ingredients shipped over from the states.

One day, Buffalo Bill's was sold, the chimichanga changed, and I stopped going.

That was a long time ago.

Much more recently, some friends went there for a burger and a beer and invited me to join them when I finished work.

I did so with a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity.The restaurant, down a flight of stairs from the street, hadn't changed at all, as far as I could tell.

There were still all the Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley photos on the walls, along with the other Wild West Show memorabilia.

My friends both had hamburgers, but they were long gone by the time I arrived. Knowing of my interest in the subject, they told me they enjoyed the burgers and that they were pretty good, but not great.

The bacon burger costs 213 CZK, according to the menu on the Internet. It comes with fries. That's toward high end of the burger price range spectrum, as far as I am concerned.

But it is still cheaper than the Potrefena Husa Burger or the Hergetova Cihelna Burger. Those are good, but the prices are too hard for me to swallow.

Buffalo Bill's beer was a little easier to swallow. I ordered a half-liter of 12-degree Budvar (44 CZK). It was good.

The price was a little higher than average, but this is to be expected at a restaurant in the center that gets a lot of tourists.

In fact, there was a very long table set up next to us where a large group of Dutch wedding revelers were seated later.I was hungry, so I called ahead and had my friends order me a beef chimichanga.

I saw later on the menu that there are two types. There's the "Tex Mex Beef" (196 CZK) and the "Beef & Bean" (186 CZK). They got me the "Tex Mex Beef", but if I were there, I would have gotten the bean version.

The flour tortilla was perfectly fried and crispy on the ends. But it did become soggy in the middle where the sour cream and salsa sat. It was good chunky salsa.The beef filling was better than I expected. It was well-cooked, nicely-spiced, and shredded easily on my fork.

I lamented the lack of beans or rice, but it was my own fault for ordering ahead blindly over the phone.

I cut it open and took a photo so you could get a better idea of how the beef was.As for the side items, this was really the disappointing part. Shredded red cabbage? A lettuce leaf? This was a little too much East meets West. I hoped was hoping for North meets South.

What kind of self-respecting Tex-Mex restaurant could serve these kinds of side items?

These were the same sides that stopped me from going to Buffalo Bill's when the management changed. I still have fond memories of the previous ownership's side items. I believe there were refried beans, fried rice, and pico de gallo.

Sides? That's what I'm talking about.

V joined us for beer just as the Dutch wedding party came in.

The restless, roaming spirit of Bill Cody took hold of us. Or perhaps it was there all along.

We decided to move on to a bar in Lucerna on Wenceslas Square. It unexpectedly turned into a long evening.

Buffalo Bill's
Vodičková 9
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 224 948 624

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Red Hot & Blues - Breakfast (Closed)

** This restaurant has closed (Oct. 2010)

"Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." -Ted Williams
Back in the day, I used to go to Denny's for breakfast.

By "back," I mean at college. By "in the day," I mean at night -- usually 3:00 a.m. after a session of serious... studying.

By "breakfast," I mean the Grand Slam®. That's two buttermilk pancakes, two pieces of bacon, two sausages, and two eggs, any style.

Back in the present, if you suddenly have a driving inner need for an American-style breakfast in Prague, Red Hot & Blues is an option.I found myself nearby the restaurant early one weekend morning, and on impulse, I went for it. I walked in the door at 8:53 a.m.

According to the website, the restaurant opens at 8:00 a.m., but the kitchen doesn't open until 9:00 a.m. So, I had 7 minutes to think about why that might be.There is a bar in the front room where I ate breakfast.

It reminded me of some other "back in the day" breakfast adventures.Many years ago at a down and out bar, we used to drink pitchers of beer with our scrambled eggs on Saturday mornings. I appreciated a sign on the wall at Paddy's Ale House: "No children or pets after 6:00 p.m."

A necessary sign.

At breakfast, kids were running around, while an elderly lady spilled a little Busch beer on the bar for her perched mini-poodle to lap up.

But in the front room at Red Hot & Blues, I was alone.

There is a larger dining room that was also empty. It has a glass ceiling that lets the daylight come in and is a bit more cheerful.

And next to that, is the dining area where there is live music in the evenings.

I once had an enjoyable night listening to the talented Jamie Marshall sing and play classic cover tunes on his acoustic guitar and verbally joust with the audience.

For breakfast, they have options like French toast, huevos rancheros, and omelettes.

I ordered their priciest offering, the "Homerun Special," as the clock struck nine. I did this purely out of a nostalgic weakness for baseball-themed breakfasts.

Was it a hit?

I'd say no. They did not hit this one out of the park. Not even close.

I got my eggs scrambled. They were as bland as the day they were laid. As far as I could tell, there was no seasoning, not even salt.

Strike one.There was a reasonable portion bacon, but it was overcooked. It was brittle and broke into small shards.

Strike two.

The two small pancakes were warm, but not hot. They were thin and a little dense, rather than fluffy. I don't think they were made with an American-style mix, such as Bisquick.

I'll mention here that they run a little food shop next door that sells hard-to-find American goods.

I'd call these pancakes low and close to the zone, but not a strike.The toast was cold. Spreading the cold butter on them was rather difficult.

Some foul tips, but with two strikes, "Homerun" was still alive at the plate.

The hash browns were the best part. The shredded potatoes were perfectly salted, and full of onions, fried up perfectly. They helped rescue the eggs when I got them together on the fork, along with some ketchup.

Then, there was the price: 289 CZK.

Strike three!

For scorekeepers at home, I'd note that a few years ago, a Grand Slam® could be had for $3.99. At today's exchange rates, the "Homerun Special" was something like $18.00.

I also had a bottle of Mattoni mineral water for 45 CZK, which would be around $2.80.

Some people might cry foul and say it is unfair or even meaningless to look at Czech prices in dollar terms.

So, I'll compare it with another place in Prague, Cafe Savoy.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about my American Breakfast there, which cost 233 CZK (it is now 245 CZK).

Cafe Savoy is not so cheap, either. But it is a favorite because they serve quantity and quality:

*First, you get fried eggs, great bacon, and well-seasoned chicken breast on thick, quality toast.
*Second, the egg sandwich comes with homemade fries
*Third, there's fresh-squeezed orange juice and special Savoy hot chocolate.
*And bringing it all home, there's homemade jam and bread, fresh fruit, and a fiendishly good chocolate praline.

Now, that's what I'd call a grand slam.

Game over.

Red Hot & Blues
Jakubská 12
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 314 639

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Viniční Altán at Vila Grébovka (The Vineyard Gazebo at Gröbe’s Villa)

"It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend, one's present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason."
-Latin Proverb
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the sunny days of early May after the long, gray winter.

We took great advantage of the beautiful weather on the May 8th national holiday and walked over to Havlíčkovy Sady. For those not in the know, it's a hilly park between Vinohrady and Vršovice.

Central to the park is Vila Grébovka. Most people actually refer to the park as Grébovka. It sits atop its own working vineyard.The Neo-Renaissance villa was built as a summer home for industrialist Moritz Gröbe in the 1870s.It sat decaying for many years, but a complete renovation was completed in 2007. It is now the home of the non-profit Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI).

The institute organizes training for lawyers, judges, and others committed to law reform and democratization. The villa looks beautiful from the outside, but the house itself is not usually open to the public.

A friend who was inside recently for a conference said it is "amazing" and they did a very nice job restoring the interior.

Right underneath the villa is a reconstructed gazebo, Viniční Altán, where you can sit and drink the vineyard's wines and enjoy some light snacks.

Which we did.There aren't too many tables, maybe around 12 outside and a few inside.

It was a holiday, and many were empty. But that's unusual on nice spring and summer evenings. Often, none are open. Note: You have been warned.Above the terrace area, the top of the gazebo has a beautiful carved wood ceiling.

This area is not usually open to the public. But it is often used for weddings and other special events.The view of the Nusle Valley was lovely on a sunny day. Especially because the green, leafy trees obscure some of the less attractive parts of the Nusle Valley.Before I got to the wine, I started out with a non-wine-related beverage.

It was noon, and I really wanted a beer.

The choices available on tap are far from my favorites. They had only Staropramen and Stella Artois on tap.

Instead, I ordered a Hoegaarden. The weissbier came in a tiny .33 liter bottle (35 CZK). So, I had two.

It was refreshing start to the day.

V was in the mood for something wine-relate and had a glass of sekt or Czech "champagne" (60 CZK).

The small glass flute had a strawberry sitting across the top.

She also had some Mattoni sparkling water (25 CZK).

After these rounds, we decided to sample the wine.

They did have some international choices such as Jacob's Creek from Australia (120-360 CZK), Rutherford Ranch Vineyards from California (490 CZK), Italian wines (350-480 CZK), Argentinian (350 CZK) and more.

There was also a large selection of wines from all around the Czech Republic. Many were priced at 200-300 CZK for a .75 liter bottle.

V ordered a .25 liter carafe of the Rulandské šedé (70 CZK). She pronounced it "very nice." It was not anything special. Just light and drinkable.Oddly, looking at the menu on the Internet, I saw that only Rulandské modré costs 70 CZK, and the Rulandské šedé was 84 CZK. But the bill clearly says "GREB.RS 0.25L" and that it was 70 CZK.

On a previous visit, they were out of the Rulandské šedé. We tried something else from the Grébovka Vineyard. We didn't like it, but it was a while ago, and I can't remember what it was.

It being lunchtime, we also wanted some food. The menu was very limited. They mostly have desserts like ice cream, medovnik (honey cake), warm waffles with fruit, and a couple of other snacks. They have espresso, cappuccino, and such.

But they do have a couple of encased pork options.

V got the lahůdkové párky (deli hot dogs) for 46 CZK. There was a nice snap to the skin and decent-quality meat product inside.V said it was what Czechs usually call Viennese-style. Not bad as hot dogs go.

I went for the klobása (56 CZK). It's red skin was also pretty snappy.It was studded with fat beneath the skin, but I've had worse. I'd call it average and certainly edible. My last sausage on Wenceslas Square did not meet that standard.

Both of our plates came with ketchup, two types of mustard, and horseradish from a jar.

We also got a basket of sliced Czech bread. It was OK, but not super fresh.

I'll underline the obvious here: You don't really go to Viniční Altán for the food.

However, there are a number of other reasons to visit.

First and foremost is to take in a nice view on a nice day, along with some nice, cheap wine.

The question is, do you need another reason?

Viniční Altán
Havlíčkovy sady 1369 - Grébovka Vila
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 222 516 887
GPS: 50°4'7.255"N, 14°26'39.607"E

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Zapa Bar

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
-Yogi Berra
When we are in Old Town and we want to talk and have a cocktail, we go to Zapa Bar.I don't think they have the best drinks or the best prices. But they've done a good job updating the former below-street-level digs of Alcohol Bar, and surprisingly enough, I've never seen it full.

That's what we really like about it.They mix some fine and expensive drinks nearby at Tretter's, but it is usually jam-packed with yammering yuppies, posturing poseurs, and meat market manipulators. Getting a seat or hearing a conversation in there is close to impossible.

The American Bar at Obecni Dum is beautiful and we once had some nice, big gin and tonics there. But the prices are through the Art Nouveau roof. It just felt touristy and dead.

At Zapa Bar, I saw the barman making some very fancy fruity drinks.I can only tell you they looked good because neither of us are likely to order an electric blue or hot pink cocktail.

I ordered a Cuba libre (120 CZK). An unimaginative selection, I know. But this is my drink of choice when I am dead tired and don't want to keel over off my stool.

This was the case on this evening. I needed a caffeine and sugar boost.

If you like the rum to dominate the Coke, then you'll enjoy it. There was a full measure of rum, but it was served in a relatively small glass.

So, there wasn't a lot of room for the cola. I wouldn't have minded a little bigger glass and a little more cola.

And I wanted more lime. Tretter's version was bigger and had plenty of citrus.

In fact, I was craving limes so much that after two Cuba libres, I switched over to a gin gimlet (115 CZK).

It was not too sweet, not too sour, but a little on the watery side. I prefer the more sour version at Hapu up in Žižkov.

What I really didn't like was how small it was. The gimlet was served in a tiny martini glass only partly full.

V surprised me (she does that a lot) and ordered a .2 liter glass of Lambrusco (100 CZK). I'd never seen her drink that before.

The chilled, sparkling red had a touch of sweetness and was quite refreshing. She enjoyed it so much, she had three glasses.

It was 10:30 pm, and I hadn't had dinner. I was absolutely starving, so I looked over the small food menu.

I chose the grilled sausages (150 CZK). That's a lot for a couple of sausages, but I didn't expect to get off cheaply when ordering food at a cocktail bar.

I did fondly recall the cheapness of the 49 CZK sausage I had recently at Mad Bar.

These two were good. I haven't seen sausage curls too often in Prague. They were well-seasoned inside, and properly cooked.The accompanying items underneath looked good, but unfortunately, they were really mostly for show.

The sausage sat on top of plain white toast. It came with fresh rucola and a few cherry tomatoes. But they were dry.

No dressing. No fun.

I was so hungry, I didn't think to ask for some oil and vinegar. The sausage also came with small servings of ordinary ketchup and mustard.

The final bill, which also included two bottles of Mattoni (35 CZK each) came to 875 CZK. A lot of money. Then again, we had more drinks than we planned because we were having such a nice conversation.

You can't put a price on that.

Will we return to Zapa Bar?

If we need a quiet spot to relax in the center, probably yes. It is comfortable, there's no attitude, and we always get a seat.

But if it ever gets too crowded, we ain't going there any more.

Zapa Bar
Dušní 6
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 315 899

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