Monday, June 23, 2008

Prague Food Festival 2008

"Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Forrest Gump
Perhaps it's no surprise. I was very excited about my first Prague Food Festival.

I missed the event last year because I was out of town. Not this time.

I hustled out of work on Friday afternoon and took a tram to the river.The festival, with food from some of Prague's finest restaurants, was on Žofín Island. There was beautiful weather.

The ticket cost 350 CZK, but that includes 250 CZK worth of food tickets, called Grands. You get a pack of ten. I bought 1000 CZK more because I was hungry, curious, and I was coming back with V on Sunday. Any extras would be used later.It was good I bought the tickets in advance. There was as big line for non-ticket holders on Sunday. We breezed right in.I first went on a survey mission, noting and observing what was available. No sense wasting valuable stomach space on any of the more mundane offerings.

The first stand that really caught my eye belonged to Restaurace V Zátiší. This is a top-rated restaurant that I'd always wanted to try, but never got around to visiting.They had a few dishes, but I went for the lamb chops with a violet, mustard, and lavender crust, a basil and caponata foam, and sweet marinated peppers with pine nuts (150 CZK).It was delicious. I did not taste much in the crust besides butter and bread crumbs, but I liked it anyway. The meat was fabulous, and the basil came through subtly in the foam.

I was sorry there was not so much meat on the bones, but I got three pieces. I saw people with meatier chops, but they only got two.

I was pleased the chef showed such consideration. However, I had them again on Sunday with V, and we got two smaller chops.

The peppers were good, too. The acidic flavor was a really nice counterpoint to the salty, buttery meat.

On my way to my next stop, I came across Pavel Maurer doing a television interview.

He organized the festival and publishes Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide. As a fellow foodie, I have great respect for his promotion of all things culinary.

On the other hand, I have problems with the guide itself. Letting people sign up on the internet to rate the restaurants gives me the feeling that the ratings are subject to gross manipulation.

The guide's Top 10 lists are just nonsensical, and they get huge attention in the Czech media. The Top 10 by the Experts list is more rational.

Anyway, right behind where Maurer was standing was the stand for Allegro at the Four Seasons Hotel (which was ranked #9 by Maurer's "independent" assessors). This restaurant was awarded Prague's very first Michelin star.

We ate there years ago, right after the Four Seasons opened and before it ascended the culinary heights. These days, it is more than I want to spend.

Their main offering was white asparagus risotto, morels, and taleggio bergamasco cheese. It was a whopping 10 Grands or 250 CZK.It was a decent-sized portion. The risotto was cooked perfectly al dente. Very nice and chewy texture. The cheese, despite its fancy name, had rather ordinary flavor. And, unfortunately, the mushrooms and asparagus didn't ascend above the cheese.

I was pretty disappointed and didn't think it was worth the money. I expected an eye-opening experience, but it just didn't happen. I enjoyed many other restaurants' dishes much more.

In fact, the offering I enjoyed most came from the most unlikely of sources. I saw a stand with a sign for Makro, the wholesale market.It turns out, they were cooking lobsters from a seafood distributor. For 10 Grands (250 CZK), I got half a tail grilled with butter and pine nuts, two tortelloni stuffed with cheese and asparagus, and strawberry flavored whipped cream.This was fantastic. The best lobster I have ever eaten in Prague, without question. It was cooked perfectly. The tender, sweet meat melted in my mouth.

The idea of mixing it with the flavor of strawberries surprised me at first, but I immediately fell in love with it. The tortelloni were on the dry side, but had the clear flavor of asparagus.

One interesting note. This was the first place I took V when we returned on Sunday (OK, she made me stop for a flute of Bohemia Sekt Brut Imperial on the way). The price had gone up to 300 CZK. She asked them about it. The chef said the lobsters were bigger on Sunday.

In truth, I can say from first-hand experience that this was not true. On the other hand, even half the tail was quite large both days. It was cut into five or six really big chunks.

I thought the price was too good to be true on Friday. But even on Sunday, it was more than worth it.

After V grilled the chef about the grilled lobster, I also pointed that there was one less tortelloni on Sunday. He smiled. I was just playing. We didn't mind so much.

Under the same tent, Chef Jean-Paul Manzac, of Brasserie M was cooking.

He had grilled chicken with ratatouille and escargot en croute, but these dishes didn't appeal to me.

We drank a lot of wine over the course of the weekend.

There were several different wine stands. The biggest one featured Italian wines.

Most glasses were 25 or 50 CZK. I didn't keep track of everything we tried.

I did have a nice Italian red. It was a Tedeschi Valpolicella from 2005.

They even let me have a taste before I forked over my two Grands.

Next, I went inside the one big tent.

There was a good band playing Cuban music (the same band played my friend's wedding a few years back).I went to the stand for Mlynec, a top restaurant near the Charles Bridge that I've been to several times in the past.

I chose their rib eye steak with shallot sauce, chipotle salsa, and guacamole. This was a great deal for 125 CZK.The small steak was smoky and tender. I loved the shallot sauce. It was fairly sweet and sour and made with red wine. The salsa had a good spicy kick.

The guacamole was the only sour note. It was so sour, it tasted like it was made with pickles and the avocado was not ripe.

I took V here on Sunday for a repeat taste. The beef and salsa were just as good.

I was disappointed that the flavor of the sauce had been toned down significantly. But I was happy the flavor of the guacamole had been toned down significantly.

On Friday, I traveled to the far end of the island to the Cafe Savoy stand. This restaurant is one of my regular favorites in Prague, and apparently for many others. They drew a steady crowd.I sampled the homemade gnocchi with ricotta and baby spinach. I enjoyed the simplicity of this dish very much.I love ricotta, and it had a good, creamy tang. The spinach was cooked, but still had a bit of crunch to it.

I wandered back, doing a little people watching while appreciating the view of Prague Castle from the island.I was getting pretty full, and it was time for dessert. I went back to the V Zátiší stand.

I had the organic apple mille-feuille with organic yogurt sorbet (50 CZK). The layered apple was sliced impossibly thin and cut into tiny squares.By itself, the apple didn't taste so special. But when mixed on the fork with the acidic sorbet, pieces of walnut, and syrup, it took on a much more interesting character. Very refreshing.

I walked to the other end of the island.

There, I admired the suckling pigs roasting in a rotisserie.

But I was done with the main courses.

At the stand for the Hilton Hotel's CzecHouse Grill, I sampled a tiny chocolate crème brûlée (25 CZK).

Very chocolaty.

On Sunday, the third and final day of the festival, there were some restaurants that weren't represented on day one.

We headed to the stand for the Hotel Paříž and its Sarah Bernardt Restaurant. There, we tried their scallop with cauliflower puree, caper sauce, and cumin veloute (100 CZK).The one scallop was seared perfectly. Its pearly and delicate flesh was great. The caper sauce and puree were balanced well, with a touch of sourness. V said it reminded her of her favorite scallop dish in Prague at Little Whale.

We went to the stand run by Ambiente: The Living Restaurant, part of the same group that runs Cafe Savoy.

We had the Uruguayan strip loin with a mushroom sauce, french fries done in peanut oil, and grilled tomatoes. I believe it was (125 CZK).We thought the meat needed more salt. It was good, but not great. The five fries were tasty. The tomatoes were sweet and good. Nothing too special here.

We walked over to The Sushi Bar stand, which has a reputation as one of Prague's top raw fish joints. They had some basic maki that looked very dull and untempting.

V opted for three fresh oysters on ice with lime (150 CZK). Good oysters.

We decided to try some food from the Coda Restaurant in the Aria Hotel. We got the seared tiger prawns with sesame-sprinkled lettuce and a ginger dressing (100 CZK).The two shrimp were plump and hadn't lost their flavor after losing their shells. Cooked perfectly. The iceberg lettuce leaves were boring, but the strong presence of ginger did liven it up.

I needed a little dessert, so we had the handmade chocolate truffles from Auberge de Provence (50 CZK).

What can I say? Good deal. Good chocolate. There were six different types, and each was a rich, pleasant surprise.

Like the plate chocolates, the whole Prague Food Festival was filled with happy discoveries.

I really didn't know what to expect from my first visit.

But we really loved walking around on a sunny day, drinking wine, and sampling some very good food.

I even saw tons of people photographing their food. Quite a hobby.

If your into food at all, I'd recommend giving the fest a try next year.

You never know what you're gonna get.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed report!

If you have big bucks to spend, fine. I found everything very overpriced-I think 100 Kc for 2 shrimps is ridiculous for example.

Most of us in Prague are not making a fortune. I am doing OK but for 2 or 3000 Kc one could get four very nice full meals in some excellent restaurants.

Too much hype on this one-if they are encouraging us to come they should have fair prices.

Best booth was Monarch, for 75 Kc you got a huge plate of cheese and meats.

Brewsta said...

I appreciate your view. I certainly allowed for a large budget to try whatever we wanted at this special event.

Food is getting crazy expensive, especially when, like me, you often think in dollar terms. $6.50 for two shrimp? I may be able spend more, but it also causes me some pain.

On the other hand, these are Prague's top dining establishments. In relative terms, these sample plates, in many case, seem like bargains.

For example, most starters at Coda are in the 300-400 CZK range. Sure, you get more, but it equals out. And the 250 CZK for half a lobster tail was a steal. I've had lobster dishes in Prague for twice the price, half the quality, and the same or less amount of meat.

So, if you can afford it, the fest is a good way to see what some kitchens are able (or not) to do.

The Lone Beader® said...

All the food looks great! :D

BlackGirl said...

Can't believe I missed it again! Thanks for the summary. (It seems one goes through the food tickets quickly...) I'll make sure to check it out next year--with plenty of tickets.

USWebPro said...

Thanks for taking the time to write such a nice report. The pictures really helped with the descriptions. Cheers!

Karen said...

What a delightful read. That scallop and lobster look amazing. May I link to your blog on mine? I enjoy reading yours.

Pivní Filosof said...

Great review.
I think the people at Allegro had a lot of pressure on their shoulders after the much hyped Michelin star. Everybody must have wanted nothing less than an orgasmic culinary experience. For what you say, that risotto fell short, or was it the really high expectations?
It's also a pity that between Friday and Saturday some prices got higher (either nominally or by giving smaller portions).
Overall, it seems you had a good time there...

Anonymous said...

"Letting people sign up on the internet to rate the restaurants gives me the feeling that the ratings are subject to gross manipulation."

I'd agree with this sentiment, but this seems to be the future of restaurant ratings on the internet. Yelp in the U.S. and Qype in Germany, among many others, and building entire businesses around user-submitted restaurant reviews. Despite the fact that all the reviews of lesser-known places are from the owner and his/her friends, users seem to want this kind of content.

For the time being, I'm only linking to professional reviews and reviews from trusted blogs like this one, but I may have to bite the bullet at some point and also run reviews from the general public.

Pivní Filosof said...

I think that is the case with pretty much anything these days, you've got and beeradvocate for beers, and there are also sites for wine, electronics, etc (not to mention the countless blogs on each subject).
Of course they can be manipulated, but only to a certain extent. You just have to shave off the best and worst reviews and you will see that most of the people reviewing are giving their honest opinion on something they might feel personal about.
In a way, these sites are somehow a reaction from normal people to specialists that seem too happy patronising consumers.
Anyway, most of us here know that popularity doesn't necessarily equal quality.

Anonymous said...

very detail report, even i got hungry after finished reading all posting..

Brewsta said...

On the Maurer rating system, the problem, as I see it, is that you just get a rating number in the guide book. That's all. This is pretty useless to me.

U Lipy is the best restaurant according to Maurer reviewers? Not even close according to The Prague Spoon:

I like user reviews on electronics-oriented sites because they often include a paragraph from the user explaining the rating. It makes it much easier to root out the pure raves and the bitter rants.

Brewsta said...

Glad to have the link, Karen. Good luck with your teaching in Prague.