Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bohemia Bagel Express - Revisited (Closed)

** This Bohemia Bagel outlet closed down on October 10, 2008

"In terms of fast food and deep understanding of the culture of fast food, I'm your man." Bill Gates
I am always on the hunt for a quick takeout lunch near Wenceslas Square. I don't do fast food like McDonalds or KFC. But I do need my food fast.

I have a rather encyclopedic knowledge of the area's options and can tick off the pros and cons of a myriad of choices.

Recently, I've been going often again to Bohemia Bagel Express at Tylovo námestí, near I.P Pavlova tram and metro stops.I wrote a post more than a year ago about some of the bagel sandwich options from this unassuming little shack. My views on those still hold. They do a nice chicken salad with sun-dried tomato and red onion.

But in recent days, I've been going deeper into the menu and, with a few caveats, I've liked what I've found.

I've really gotten into their Philly cheese steak sandwich. They used good quality beef, fried on an electric grill, along with onions and green peppers and the cheese melted into the large, toasted roll.The only issues were that the bun is too spongy and chewy, and I'd like it more if the onions and peppers were cooked longer. The peppers had too much crunch for my taste. But if you want your food fast but also cooked to order, concessions must be made.

I thought it was a good deal at 85 CZK. They also offered a double meat version for 145 CZK. I tried that once, but really, the single was enough unless you are very hungry.

I also really liked their bacon cheeseburger. It was nothing super special, but it hit a lot of the right notes.The beef patty was not especially thick, but still substantial enough that one satisfied me for lunch. It gets some decent flavor from the grill. It had a big bun that held together well.

The price of 65 CZK made it taste even better, especially considering the skyrocketing prices of other burgers in Prague. They also had a burger without bacon or cheese for 55 CZK. Nice.

The negatives?

This may sound like a strange complaint, but I thought it had too many toppings. They were all appropriate -- lettuce, tomato, and onions. But I always got way to much lettuce, and even the number of tomato slices were over the top.

And sometimes they were on the bottom. Once, there were tomatoes on the top and the bottom of the patty.

The bun was also too chewy for me.

Now, a word about the service from the folks behind the window. Not so good.

Example #1:

I put the phone number for Bohemia Bagel Express into my phone so I could call ahead and save time. I called ahead for a burger. The woman asked me, in Czech, what kind of bagel I wanted it on. I said I didn't want a bagel, I wanted a hamburger bun. Conversation ends.

I get back to the office and, lo and behold, my burger was on a bagel.Perhaps I didn't understand every word she said. But I clearly said what kind of bread I wanted. At least she chose sesame for me. Not a bad choice.

Here's a look inside.There was a lot going on in there. Which was a particular problem when served with a bagel because everything shifted around and fell out more easily.

Example #2: I once asked for a little ketchup on my cheese steak (yes, it's true). When I unwrapped my sandwich at the office, there was no ketchup.

But that miscommunication pales in comparison to another one I had with them.

Which leads me to Example #3:

Again, I ordered a burger over the phone. I was in a big hurry to meet someone for a ride out of town. Plus, it was raining, and I had no umbrella. Plus, I was starving.

Warning: I'm dangerous when I am hungry, late, and wet.

I got to the window as the person ahead of me got his food and walked away. I asked for my order and by the look on the two faces in there, I knew immediately what had happened.

"You gave my burger to that guy!" I had murder in my eyes. "WHY DID YOU DO THAT!!!"

"He ordered the same thing! We didn't know it wasn't you." the woman said. "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!"

She said in Czech that he also called, indicating that was why they were confused. But I could see the grill. There was no other food cooking.

"Then why isn't there another hamburger cooking?!?" I was getting ready to lunge through the window and give them a non-verbal grilling.

"Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! I'll make another one very fast," The man said in English. I would have walked away and told them to forget it, but given my state of hunger and the prospect of hours in a car with no food, I decided swallow my anger and wait. The burger came out very rare, but still edible.

For one lunch, I tried the turkey club (99 CZK). It was fairly ordinary, processed smoked turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, and mustard.It was huge. Again, overstuffed with the toppings. It was not possible to eat without making a mess. I saw that the bacon came from a heating tray, rather than being fried on the grill. It was soft, not crunchy.

While doing some hard chewing on the roll, I had an epiphany. The roll had just about the same density and consistency of a bagel. It was just stretched into a different shape.

Since they make their own bagels, why not make their own rolls with the same dough? I could be wrong, but that's my theory. I didn't think it was a good thing. The size and shape were perfect, but I personally think bagels don't make great sandwich material.

That said, my colleague Major Dan liked the bagel sandwich he had for dinner one evening. He was headed off to KFC, and I talked him out of it. I sent him to Bohemia Bagel Express, fearing more for his arteries than he did.

He picked up a hot pastrami bagel (99 CZK). It comes with bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mustard, mayonnaise, melted Swiss cheese.They call it "pastrami," but it really was more of a processed deli meat. It didn't taste bad, but didn't resemble real pastrami like you'd find in New York.His one negative comment: Too much lettuce.

And then there is dessert. I'm hooked on their brownies (25 CZK). They are very, very fudgy and sweet.They can vary in size. Sometimes, they have been more cake-like than fudge-like. Whatever. I've been eating them for years.

And on the occasion when no brownies are available, I go for their chocolate chip cookies. The one I had the other day was just right -- a little crunch around the edges, and soft in the middle.Maybe it was on the thin side, but still a very satisfying end to a lunch at my desk.

I should mention that I rarely pass up the chance to pick up some cinnamon raison bagels (11 CZK each). I take them home, freeze them, then toast them in the oven as needed.It's nice now that Philedelphia brand creme cheese is available in Prague. But it's not cheap.

I found a decent, cheaper alternative. I think it is called Tesco Soft Cheese Natural. Something like that.

Being no billionaire, I always like to save a few crowns when I can. Bill Gates? Not so much.

He may have served billions and billions in his line of work. But when it comes to a deep understanding of where to get some decent and fast food around Wenceslas Square, I'm your man.

Bohemia Bagel Express
Tylovo námestí
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 603 196 636

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Amigos Restaurant - Revisited

"The finest plans have always been spoiled by the littleness of them that should carry them out." Bertold Brecht
I've been hearing a lot of debate lately. What's the best Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant in Prague?

Cantina? Fosil? Buffalo Bill's?

There was no consensus, I'm sorry to say. Amigos was a restaurant that got a few mentions.I'd been there a few times, wrote a post (not one of my best), and found it was not bad, but nothing special.

But the power of suggestion being what it is, I decided to try it again recently. I went with V for a late, mid-week dinner.

It's a pretty big place with many rooms, and it was packed.V had gotten there ahead of me and said she had to fight for a table.

What I noticed when I walked in was the thick, stale air. And not from smoke, either. It was the smell of too many humans in a confined space. The restaurant was in serious need of a good ventilation system.

We sat in the room in the back of the restaurant at the end of a long, red hallway.I ordered the beef tenderloin quesadilla.

It came with guacamole, a few jalapenos, salsa, and sour cream dolloped into the middle.I wish the toppings were on the side. Serving them this way always makes the middle of the quesadilla soggy.

As soon as I took a bite, I realized there was something a bit off about the beef. It was old.

Not rancid old. Just past its expiration date. It had a musty aftertaste that asserted itself more when I breathed out through my nose. Which is what I tend do when I am are eating.

I didn't mention it before V took a bite.

"The meat is old," she said.

"That's what I thought."

"Will you send it back?"

"I'm hungry. I don't want to wait for something else. I'm gonna eat it. It's unpleasant, but still edible."

So, I ate it. I didn't suffer any ill effects, but I kinda wish I did send it back. V told me later she felt bad, but it's hard to say what caused it since I was fine.

There was one other odd thing. On the menu, the price was listed at 225 CZK. But looking on the bill now, I see I was charged 127.50 CZK.

If there was a 50% off deal going on, no one told us. I really should read bills more carefully before I leave restaurants.

V had veggie fajitas. She was very disappointed.It came with dried out refried beans, and a lot of rice.It also had flour tortillas, salsa, guacamole, jalapenos, chopped tomatoes, and sour cream.What didn't she like? No red beans, for starters. Also, there were just a few onions but plenty of broccoli. She thought the broccoli was just wrong. Other places like Neklid do better veggie versions (even though theirs has zucchini).

And again, I see that it was 117.50 CZK on our bill and 235 CZK on the menu.

Service was pretty good, considering how busy the place was. In fact, the waiters seemed confused about who was handling our table, and two different servers kept trying to wait on us and asking us the same questions twice.

For drinks, we just had a couple of bottle of Mattoni sparkling water (23 CZK each). The final bill was a very reasonable 314 CZK.

But the good price did little to take away our bad feelings about Amigos.

No one plans to serve people bad dinners. But the aged beef, the broccoli-laden quesadillas, and the stuffy air certainly spoiled it for us.

I doubt we'll ever go back.

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

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Modrý Zub Noodle Bar - Revisited

"The greater your capacity to love, the greater your capacity to feel the pain." Jennifer Anniston

I love Thai food. A lot.

So, when Major Dan and the Michigan Man told me they were at Modrý Zub Noodle Bar, I hustled over there to meet them after work.I had them put my order in so it would be ready when I got there.

It's hard to believe that it was 18 months ago that I wrote my previous post about this spot.The menu changed quite a great deal since then, with many new additions and some subtractions. And they still offer a small sushi selection, which I've never tried.

They layout of this mostly Thai restaurant is fairly unique. There is a cafe-style dining area up front, with big windows looking out on a street near Wenceslas Square.In the back, there is an open kitchen with counter and cash register where you can order food to go. There are a few seats where you can eat in a more fast food-style setting.Michigan Man ordered the Phad Thai with chicken (155 CZK).Phad Thai is probably my favorite Thai dish. But I didn't get it myself because I'd almost always been disappointed with the total blandness of Modrý Zub's version. Someone once told me it depended who was cooking, and I did once have a good version there.

Whatever the reason, the Phad Thai on this night was surprisingly good. I only had one bite, but it had just the right amount of citrus sourness and also the perfect hint of sweetness. It was a very generous portion. I was sorry I didn't order it myself.

Instead, I got the Lab Kai, a spicy chicken salad. It was chicken with red chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, red and green onions, and cilantro.

Seeing red

The last time I got this, I asked them to tone down the heat. But I didn't get a chance this time because I had ordered ahead and forgot to mention it.

It was very tasty. And it burned. A lot. At a certain point, I picked up a menu to see what the hotness rating was for the dish. But my vision was badly blurred by tears. I had a temporary case of Lab Kai blindness.

On the Internet menu, the dish was rated for spiciness with two exclamation points, with three being the maximum. After my blindness had cleared, I saw on the inhouse menu that the Lab Kai was rated with only one chili pepper symbol out of three. I thought it deserved three.

At this point, I'll digress. I went back another time by myself to try a non-spicy dish. I had the Phad Sen Mi (165 CZK). It was described as Chinese rice noodles with vegetables and beef.

The beef, though no fancy cut, was tender and had a great, almost smoky flavor from the wok. The bowl also had white onions, green onions, carrots, bean sprouts, and fried egg. It was very nice, but had one issue. Too salty. I noticed it on the first bite. Then, I got used to it. Then, it was a bit too much for me at the end.

In our group outing, Major Dan ordered a dish with the highest heat rating on the menu, the Phad Khi Mao with beef (185 CZK). It had glass noodles, bamboo shoots, onions, Thai basil, red and green chilies, cilantro, and bean sprouts.The menu said it had green beans, but I didn't see those. They must have meant the sprouts, which weren't mentioned.

I took one bite. It tasted good. The flavor of the Thai basil stood out. And then they hit me. Those chilies. It was so spicy, it instantly brought on several hiccups. And I never get hiccups.

The Major is no Thai food prude. He is a man who travels far and wide, to Thailand and beyond, seeking out the sharp thrill of spice. A Vasco Da Gama of the modern age.

And after a few bites of his dinner, he damn near cried. His eyes were rimmed with red. I actually thought he would like this.

"This is the spiciest Thai food I've ever had," he said. "I had this same dish here last June, and it was nothing compared to this."

"Wow," I thought. "He's impressed."

"I can't finish this. It's just too hot."

I was shocked. I'd thought nothing could be too spicy for him. He'd eaten less than half. And he was not happy about it. There were just way too many chilies in there. There were big slices, but it also had finely chopped red ones, seeds and all, well-mixed in. There was no avoiding them.

When the waitress came by, he handed her the nearly full bowl and told her it was too hot to eat. He wouldn't even take it home. She just shrugged her shoulders.

We did what we could to cool the fire with half-liters of Pilsner Urquell (45 CZK each). But they only offered temporary respite. The pain dissipated as long as I was sipping the stuff. But the moment I stopped, the pain came roaring back.

It was not subsiding. The roof of my mouth felt like it had burned off. I needed to take further palliative measures.

I looked over at the dessert case. There was a last, lonely slice of cheese cake. I tend not to order the last piece of a cake out of concern for its freshness.

There was something called a nougat cake, which intrigued me. It looked homemade.But, in the end, I got the Black Forest cake. It was a very fudgy version. In the first few bites, there was no cherry, but as I got deeper into it, there were a few under the thick, mousse-like filling. It was covered with quality chocolate shavings.Not a classic iteration, but pretty good.

And best of all, it was the perfect antidote to the chilies. The smooth chocolate and whipped cream quickly quelled the fire, and I could wipe away my tears.

Love hurts. Yet, we are all drawn into its flames.

When it all goes up in smoke, you need time before you can muster the courage to try again.

Whether you got burned by Brad Pitt or Lab Kai.

Modrý Zub Noodle Bar
Jindřišská 5
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 212 622

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Červená Tabulka

"Competition is a sin." John D. Rockefeller
We always have a little competition when we go out to eat. Whoever orders the best dish in each course, wins.

The prize is obvious, though we do end up sharing most dishes. Of course, there are bragging rights. Don't underestimate the importance of those.

V will readily admit, I usually win. I have a good eye for reading between the lines of menu descriptions, and a good sense for what a restaurant's strengths might be.

But not always.

The other night, we took our moveable contest to Červená Tabulka. After some debate with Czech speakers, I'll go with translating that as the Red Slate (if you have a better suggestion, feel free to let me know).

I'd heard a few recommendations for the restaurant over the years.It's at the end of a street between Náměstí Republky and Florence.

The restaurant has a cozy courtyard for outdoor dining.It was a warm summer evening, so we decided to eat out there. Only a couple of other tables were occupied.The restaurant's interior didn't grab me so much.The chrome-backed chairs and the murals on the walls were not so appealing. The design felt somewhat confused.We received a bread basket and butter mixed with leeks (they could have been chives). The bread was a bit hard, but the bread sticks were nice.The waiter brought out an amuse bouche -- a very small cup of lobster bisque.It was excellent. Very creamy, it was the most lobster-like version I can remember.

For the first course, I had the scallops marinated in red beet juice with a light field salad and orange-dill sauce (190 CZK).The very thinly-sliced, raw scallops with the red accents certainly were pretty on the plate. The salad had rucola and mache. The dressing, pooled at the bottom of the bowl, was sweet and tart and the dill was assertive.

I do wish the scallops made more of statement besides good looks. The texture and freshness were fine, yet they didn't add much flavor. Scallops are not cheap, but I judged it a rather expensive and insubstantial salad.

V ordered the "sea fruit" selection (220 CZK). It consisted of grilled octopus, a scallop, squid with fish sauce, and vegetables. The scallop was mentioned in the Czech menu, but not in the English version.The octopus and squid were very tender on the inside and just lightly chewy on the outside. They were very different from the tough, but tasty grilled ones we had recently in Greece. The scallop was fine.

There were carrots and celery root that had absorbed some wonderful flavors.

The sauce was amazing. Thick and creamy. I asked the waiter what was in it, but unfortunately, his description was more comical than useful. Something about seafood being cooked in the pan and saving the juices. That's about all I could understand.

But, no question, V won Round 1.

For drinks, I had a couple of Budvars (40 CZK each).

V had four glasses of Sauvignon (55 CZK). There aren't many wines by the glass and the wine list is on the expensive side. She had only planned on three glasses, but the waiter brought a fourth by mistake. He was going to take it back, but told him not to worry about it.

We also had three bottles of Mattoni sparkling water (35 CZK each).

There was a second amuse bouche between the courses.It was a sorbet made with mint, lemon, possibly lime, and mint. Very refreshing. A nice palate cleanser.

For a main course, I decided on the confit of beef sirloin with potato purée and baby carrot (420 CZK).The beef had been cooked long and slow, like a ragout. It was reminiscent of a hearty stew. The potatoes were just right, and the carrots had a nice little crunch.

It was OK. I'm sure a fair amount of effort went into making it. But the very filling dish did taste like rather ordinary comfort food, and I didn't feel it was worth the big price.

V went for the lamb saddle with smoked Grenaille potatoes, tomatoes, and capers with mustard sauce (420 CZK).It was terrific and a very generous serving, with six bones. At many top end restaurants these days, you'd get less lamb for the money. The meat was well-seasoned, very tender, and delicious.

The cream-based mustard sauce worked well. The small tomatoes were cooked to softness.

The potatoes had an intense, smoky flavor. They tasted quite similar to some hickory-smoked barbecue sauce I brought over from the USA (I'm not sure how they achieved that flavor).

The total bill was a fairly steep 1655 CZK. I'd go back for some of the dishes. Just not mine.

Which probably tells you how I did in Round 2.

No contest. I lost.

V had a very big smile. She is so competitive, it reminded me of what Lao Tzu once said about relationships:

"Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins."

Červená Tabulka
Lodecká 4
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 224 810 401

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kos, Greece

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung
Where grew the arts of war and peace
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet
But all, except their sun, is set.
Lord Byron
I was in the mood for some Greek food so we popped over to the island of Kos, off the coast of Turkey.

Our favorite place was a seafood spot called Plori on Tigaki Beach.Someone told us later that there were even better places with fresh fish a little further down the beach. Maybe next time.

V couldn't get enough of Plori's grilled octopus.We also had a memorable lunch at Markos Beach.There was only one simple place. I didn't catch the name. There was a lovely view, but the menu didn't look too good at first.But V saw that the one fresh seafood option they had was grilled shrimp. And they were terrific. And only 10 euros.Kos wasn't the most beautiful island we've seen. But the combination of the sea, the sandy beaches, the hot sun, and simple fun, made for a very nice holiday break.Alas, the sun has set.

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