Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paul at Palác Flóra

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.” Dave Barry
These shining shrines to retail worship are spreading rapidly in the Czech Republic.To be honest, I don't like the malls here. There's no high principle involved. I like American malls just fine. It is just that Czech malls sell things I don't like for more money than I want to pay.

There are only two things that will draw me into a Czech mall:

Movies and food.

Which is why I dropped by the Palác Flóra mall recently.I'd heard that Paul, the cafe, patisserie, and bakery, had opened there.The company has a storied history that traces back more than 100 years ago to a town in northern France.

Now, they are all over Europe.The interior recreates a little bit of France inside the mall.It was empty late in the evening, but very full during the day.On my first visit, I had a forest berry tarte (55 CZK).A creamy, sweet, tart tarte. Good.

I was waiting for my friend, who was watching the IMAX film "U2 3D." So, I had a .33 liter can of Pilsner Urquell (45 CZK) to wash down my tarte.You might think it is an odd combination. And you'd be right.

I took home a pain au chocolate (19 CZK). It has two bars of chocolate inside. I wish there were three.It was good, but since I bought it at the end of the day, it was not the freshest. I think if I had popped it in the oven at home a few minutes, it would be great. I must try that.

They also have plain butter croissants (19 CZK). There were many varieties of bread (37-75 CZK), including baguettes (24-27 CZK).I also got a Moelleux Chocolat (44 CZK), a traditional dark chocolate cake. For some reason, it was placed upside down in the box. And I present it to you thus.

I zapped it for 30 seconds in the microwave in my kitchen. I recommend this. It brought up a wonderful aroma along with the rich flavor and texture.

I had a coffee cream eclair (45 CZK).They labeled it as a banánek or little banana. It was fine, but didn't rock my world.

On another visit, I tried one bread product -- a tomato and mozzarella sandwich on an olive ciabatta (69 CZK).It was a little too much bread and not enough stuff in between. The mozzarella was good quality. The tomatoes were bland, but covered with a sour dressing.It was filling, I'll say that.

There were other sandwiches with prosciutto, ham, and such. There were also salads (129-149 CZK).

I had a bottle of Bonaqua water with my meal. It was fairly priced for a mall (25 CZK).

I took a raspberry tarte (64 CZK) home after this visit. I'm something of a connoisseur.When I first met V, she was working in a French cafe and understood my passions all too well. She used to bring me the most incredible raspberry tartes from the shop. The best ever.

Paul's was OK, but I don't think I'd get it again. It had a lot of raspberries, but the fruit was surrounded by an intensely sweet gelatin that I didn't like. There was a thin layer of cream on top of the crust, but I wished for a bit more.

The last things I tried were the chocolate tarte (44 CZK) along with a mini-croissant (7 CZK).The tarte was my favorite of all Paul's offerings. There was an intense chocolate with the consistency of butter that melted smoothly in my mouth and caused my eyes to roll back in my head. It was a real chocolate high.

This chocolate rests inside a crust of mostly butter and sugar.

Sweet and also a little salty, it was the perfect, decadent match of flavors.

I don't see how I can avoid buying one of these on every time I'm there to see a movie. I loved it that much.

In fact, it was the closest I'll get to a religious experience in a Czech shopping mall.

Palác Flóra
Vinohradská 151
Prague 3

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vinárna Bokovka - Sideways Wine Bar

"Men are like a fine wine. They all start out like grapes, and it's our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you'd like to have dinner with." Kathleen Mifsud
A while back, we were in a wine bar mood. Just some talk, a light bite, and a bottle.

Or two.

V had been to Vinárna Bokovka a number of times and wanted to show it to me.It was founded by the members of a wine club who were inspired by the 2004 movie "Sideways."

It is on a side street, not far from the National Theater. Do not expect anything fancy.

In fact, expect something with a hint of semi-finished American basement, circa 1974.Fans of imitation wood paneling and uncomfortable chairs will feel right at home.

There weren't many tables, but almost all were taken. We were lucky to walk in and get one.Like the other patrons, we came for an evening of wine and conversation, not interior decorating inspiration.

There was an extensive wine list, covering two sides of a large paper sheet.The focus was on European labels, with plenty of Moravian wines.

I've drunk my share of Moravian whites and been to many cellars. I must confess I've never loved a Moravian red.

Bokovka offered Burgundys (790-1990 CZK), Bordeaux (690-2290 CZK), Spanish (290-1490 CZK, Aregentinian (590-2590 CZK), Italian (290-1290 CZK) and much more.

When we were there, the weather was warmer. And one of our favorite warm weather drinks is a nice, chilled rosé.I can't give you the exact price. But I can tell you that it was light, very refreshing, not too sweet, and not too expensive.

We were both hungry, so we ordered one of their Tuscan cutting board specials (98 CZK).It was a a good quantity of prosciutto, salami, olives, pecorino, pepperoncini, and honey and berries in syrup. Baguette slices and Czech bread sat on the edges.

A sweet (and salty) deal.

Don't expect to eat a full meal. There were only snacks with nuts, sliced meats, and cheese.

Vinárna Bokovka is not a touristy spot or place you'd go to for chic ambiance.

However, it is the kind of place a woman might bring a man after he'd proven himself worthy of more than just dinner.

Vinárna Bokovka - Sideways Wine Bar
Pštrossova 8
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 721 262 503

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Borgo Agnese - Brno

“Men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they think laughable.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Fine dining in Brno?

The very idea was laughable when I first visited in 1995. I'm not laughing anymore.

With restaurants like Ristorante Rialto, two Brabander restaurants, and U Kastelána (which I have not tried), there are now some diverse and interesting options.

I recently got a recommendation to try Borgo Agnese -- a place that opened earlier this year on the street level of a building of new luxury flats.The dining room had a number of different sections. Ours had fairly bright lighting.It was next to an ancient section of a wall that had to be preserved as a condition for building the hotel.There were other, more intimate areas with lower lighting.There was a big party in one room that V said was filled with Czech celebrities, including the voice of the Czech language Bart Simpson (ironic since I mentioned the same person's photo was on the wall in my recent post about La Bodeguita del Medio).

The table was nicely set.The service was efficient and friendly, but not overbearing. The waiter even brought a small bucket of ice with our Mattoni mineral water (30 CZK).

We received a bread basket with a wide variety of relatively ordinary breads.There was whipped garlic butter on the side.

We both got an amuse bouche -- a spoon full of slightly smoky beef mixed with a creamy cheese.Pretty good.

For a starter, V got the seared scallop (169 CZK).It was large, but there was only one. It sat on a couple of slices of grilled mushroom -- nothing exotic, but flavorful. I liked it.

I had the shrimp trio with sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic confit (195 CZK).The shrimp were good, but small. I soaked up all the garlicky oil with some bread.

For a main course, V ordered the grilled venison sirloin with a plum tart, shallot confit, and a juniper berry and Port sauce (459 CZK).The meat was lean but tender. But the tart was cloyingly sweet -- not a good balance there. V liked the shallots.

I got the roasted beef ribs with red wine, mushrooms, pea pods, caramelized carrots, and risotto-like cake on top (290 CZK). We both liked this much better than the deer.My friend recommended this specific dish to me. It was good, but not up to the standard of the beef ribs I had at Maze by Gordon Ramsay. But these were half the cost, which made the dish feel like a good value.

One thing struck me as odd. The waiter asked how I'd like the ribs cooked. I didn't know what to say. I assumed they were braised -- and on arrival, that appeared to be the case. They were fork-tender and cooked all the way through.

V drank three .1 liter glasses of the house Riesling (30 CZK each). She said it was simple but good.

The total bill, including a cover charge of 25 CZK a person, was 1328 CZK.

We thought was a good meal, but not great. It's not a place we'll go out of our way to visit again. We really like the Brabanders a bit more.

It is also worth noting that as the quality levels and number of choices continue to climb, the prices in Brno restaurants are getting close to those in Prague.

And that, my fellow travelers, is not a laughing matter.

Borgo Agnese
Kopecná 43
Tel. (+420) 515 537 500
Closed Sundays

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Aromi Revisited

"Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts." Ernest Hemingway
Yeah, right.

I understand decadence all too well. You might say it is the moral concept of this blog.

Case in point: On a recent weekend, V and I dropped by Stonehouse Massage Studio in Vinohrady for a joint rubdown.

Feeling relaxed, and, okay, a little decadent, we glided a few meters down the street and stepped through the doors of Aromi, one of Prague's best Italian restaurants.We hadn't been there since last summer, but as I wrote in my post back then, we enjoyed it.

As we walked in, they were preparing long tables for a party.I've occasionally walked by and seen large groups here, and once saw the whole place taken over for a company event.

The interior has a warm, rustic feeling with dark wood floors, wooden cases filled with wine, tasteful funiture, and brickwork accents.A large table stood in the middle of the dining room. It was covered with various liqueurs, chilled champagne, and opened bottles of wine. Very tempting.The waiter dropped by and dropped of some wonderful bread. It had a crunchy crust and a medium-dense interior that tasted almost like sour dough.It went well with the strong olive oil and spiced nuts on the table. The late hour for lunch and our massages had sparked a serious hunger, so we consumed a good portion of these.There was an amuse bouche. A little bite of a cracker.The waiter asked us about drinks. We only wanted water -- sparkling for me, still for V. I was a bit annoyed when he came back with two large, open bottles of San Pellegrino and another pricey brand.

"We didn't want that much water. Don't you have small bottles of Mattoni?" I asked.


"We'll have that."

I got a lot of vitriol in comments about our last visit because I ordered beer with dinner and V ordered wine by the glass. Aromi has a nice wine list, but we were not in the mood for alcohol after our massages.

So, please, no grief about the sad, missed oenophilic opportunities.

For a starter, I had vitello tonnato con insalata di patate or veal tonné with potato salad (285 CZK).Confession: I did not know what this was before I ordered it. Contrary to the expectations of some readers, I do not possess comprehensive culinary awareness. I know what I like, and I like what I know.

I just figured I like veal, and I like potato salad. Why not?

The meat was moist and tender, if a little bland. The potato salad came with rucola and great cherry tomatoes. It was nicely dressed with a good balance of oil and vinegar.

What I didn't fully understand was that tonné meant tuna. I felt a little ignorant, so I read more about this dish later in someone else's blog post.

The tuna is mixed with mayo, anchovies, and capers. The combination had a strong, fishy flavor and, I'll admit, I didn't love it.

But hey -- my bad. Ignorance is not always bliss.

For a main course, I tried something that sounded very intriguing -- ravioli di parmigiano fondente e tartara di manzo (265 CZK).The pasta was filled with liquified parmagian cheese, and the center of the dish was filled with raw beef.

The waiter recommended eating each ravioli whole, along with some morsels of meat. I did and understood why. Each spoonful turned into a tart cheese explosion in my mouth.

I tried cutting one open, but this didn't work. The buttery, liquified parmagian ran out of the ravioli onto the plate.

The tartare was not typical. The beef, about room temperature, was coarsely chopped and dominated cracked pepper.

It was relatively bland compared with the strong cheese and added more texture than flavor when combined. I thought it could have used a dash of vinegar, a shot of lemon, or perhaps some salt. Something.

V ordered the coda di rospo ai due cavolfiori (475 CZK). That's seared monkfish with two kinds of cauliflower.She liked it very much, but felt the buttery coating on top was not necessary. I thought the fish was a good, but a little on the bland side.

We both liked the cauliflower puree underneath, and we both thought the fried iteration was a little too much like typical Czech fare.

We weren't in the mood for dessert, but we were treated to two complimentary glasses of chilled limoncello.

A sweet way to finish.

I know Aromi has become a big favorite among Prague foodies.

Phil Carmmichael, the chef at Maze by Gordon Ramsay, said recently that the restaurant impressed him.

So, if I didn't order the right dishes or drink the right beverage or demonstrate the right level of Italian cuisine expertise, please hold back with the terms of abuse.

I didn't love everything about our lunch, but I did enjoy it. And I saw many nice and interesting-looking dishes going by our table that I'd like to try.

So, we'll be going to Aromi again. That's all you critics need to understand.

Aromi - Enoteca con cucina
Mánesova 78
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 222 713 222

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