Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Dinner 2009

"There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can in the time that you have. Remember Scrooge, time is short, and suddenly, you're not here any more." The Ghost of Christmas Present in "Scrooge" (1970 musical version)
I'm not a big carp fan. I avoided it during our trip to Brno, though V likes it and had some.

To compensate, we made our own fish dinner when we got back to Prague on December 26th.

This is our very fresh Monkfish, cut into small pieces and marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. It was then lightly fried in cornstarch, egg, and rice noodles.On the side is sweet potato with brown sugar, salted butter, and fresh lemon juice.

For dipping, we had a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar that was boiled with chopped green onion and a few slices of potent bird chilies.We enjoyed it very much.

Then, we opened some wine and watched the 1970 musical version of "Scrooge" with Albert Finney, which we both have a soft spot for. A little ritual of ours.

Happy Holidays everyone!

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Prague Christmas Market Food - 2009

‘Twas the month before Christmas
And all throughout Prague
The tourists were swarming
Their eyes all agog

Their noses shone red
And sniffed at the air
Sweet smells drifted to them
From a packed Old Town SquareNo kitschy beer steins
No gloves for this dude
I didn’t need candles
I, too, wanted food

I walked the whole square
I looked high and low
The most popular item
Was the simple TrdloThis rolled sugar bread
Looked ever so nice
But at 50 Czech crowns
It ain’t worth the price

Some people just love it
I do not know why
It’s fire-cooked dough
That’s boring and dryNext was klobasa
Served on a baguette
The cost was the same
And a much better betIt could have been hotter
It could have been leaner
I still liked the taste
Of this smoky wienerPotato pancakes?
I’ll eat ‘em, just watch me
But I’ve often had better
Than these BramboráčkyDon’t bother with them
They’ll do you no favors
Just oil and garlic
And not enough flavorsI then saw my love
Under Týn Church’s spires
Slow turning meat
Riding spits over firesYou’ll sure pay a lot
For tasty Prague hams
It’s 89 crowns
For each hundred gramsI think it's worth it
There’s no better meat
So tender and juicy
A real winter treat

To wash down a meal
There’s plenty of beer
For 35 crowns
It adds to your cheerI paid a bit more
For something more fine
Czech’s call it “Svařák”
I call it mulled wineIt’s sweet and it’s sour
With spices like clove
It warmed me right up
Right down to my toesThe square grew quite cold
Which I took as a sign
It was time to head home
On the metro ‘A’ LineI was heard to exclaim
As I rolled out of sight
"Munich’s markets are better
if you’re out for a bite!"

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Il Primo

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." W. C. Fields
A very successful American businessman passed along the recommendation for Il Primo.The long-time Prague resident told V that the Old Town Mediterranean restaurant was "simple, but good." So she suggested we give it a try on Saturday.

It was fortunate I booked ahead. The small dining room has only eight tables or so, and we saw many people turned away over the course of the evening.From our spot, V enjoyed the view of the Spanish Synagogue across the street.

To start things off, our very friendly and helpful waiter brought us a basket of decent bread.Unfortunately, he also removed our plates, so we had nowhere to pour olive oil for dipping.

V and I felt like some wine. The house red was smooth, dry and pretty good for the price (80 CZK/glass).There were a few Italian and Spanish bottles on the wine list in the 400-500 crown range, but then prices went up quickly from there. We also got a 1 liter bottle of sparkling San Benedetto mineral water (110 CZK).

V began with the escargots à la bourguignonne (145 CZK). She enjoyed the six, plump, clean-tasting snails.On occasion, we've had escargots in the Czech Republic that tasted a little too much like a garden, but that was not the case here.

I only wished for a little more garlic flavor on these. I still used the bread to soak up what remained of the butter and parsley after the snails were gone.

I went for the grilled calamari (145 CZK). The flavor, with plenty of lemon and pesto, was excellent.However, the texture left much to be desired. They were overcooked and dried out. Flesh that should have been delicate and tender was bordering on tough. The larger but pricier grilled calamari at Luka Lu is much better.

For a main course, V stuck to the simple side of the menu and ordered the Beirut Kofta (240 CZK). She received a very generous portion of the minced lamb and beef.She liked it very much.

The overall flavor was quite good, but almost overwhelmed by cumin. In my opinion, it was too salty. The grilled eggplant, peppers, and potatoes were all excellent. V especially liked the raw red onions dusted with spices.

I decided to get a special the waiter recommended -- T-bone steak served off the bone with Béarnaise sauce (440 CZK).It took considerable time for our mains to arrive, and as soon as my fork hit the hardened meat, I knew there was a problem. I had asked that it be cooked medium-rare. A slice of the knife confirmed it was cooked well-done all the way through.

Fearing that I'd have a long wait for a replacement, I considered eating the tough steak. But V encouraged me to send it back. The waiter was very apologetic and promised a new plate would be out shortly.

A fresh plate arrived back at the table in about 10 minutes. This one was cooked perfectly. And it tasted absolutely wonderful.The steak was tender in a way that steaks in Prague rarely are. There was a perfect balance of salt, and it picked up some nice flavor from the grill. It also came with those nice grilled veggies.

To top it all off, the Béarnaise sauce was eye-rollingly good. It was so rich and creamy, V compared it to a crème brûlée, but with a balanced tartness with taragon instead of sweetness.

She was even dipping her kofta into the generous portion they put on my plate.

I'd love to have this again and enjoyed it as much or more than my more expensive rib eye at La Finestra in Cucina.

I was full, but needed a chocolate fix. I ordered the profiteroles (130 CZK).The dark chocolate sauce was satisfying, but would have been better if it was heated. The small pastry balls filled with frozen cream were not bad, but had obviously been frozen for a while.

We finished the meal with a couple of very average cafe lattes (60 CZK each).The meal came to 1710 CZK without gratuity.

We felt like an after dinner drink, so we then walked about 100 meters over to Zapa Bar on Dušní. Consider this a small bonus tip in this post.

The reason I go to Zapa Bar is because it's not a bad looking spot, but more importantly, it has no scene, as far as I can tell. Few people seem to know about it and not many seek it out. What that means is I can almost always find a table and then have an audible conversation and a drink, even on a Saturday night.

So V had a pina colada (120 CZK). She liked it because it had very little cream and was more pineapple and coconut oriented.I had a Benedictine and Brandy (115 CZK). I was somewhat taken aback that it was served on the rocks. I've always had it straight up and never had to specify. I drank it with the ice, but I'll make sure they leave the ice out next time.

As we sat listening to Zapa Bar's DJ play "Riders on the Storm" we talked about our meal at Il Primo.

Certainly, the restaurant did not succeed at a few things. But given a chance to try again on the steak, they provided one of the best and most memorable dishes I've had in a while. One great plate can really make or break a place sometimes.

So we're not ready to quit yet on Il Primo. We both said we'd try it again if we were in the neighborhood. Maybe we'd go for some of their cheaper mezze if a table is available.

I just hope it's more consistently good and the chef has a lighter hand on the stove. Otherwise, I'll feel like a damn fool.

Il Primo
Elišky Krásnohorské 1
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 320 734

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Café Bar Wigwam

“While living I want to live well.” Geronimo
Every week for years, I've been going to the same restaurant/pub in Malá strana to meet a group of friends. While it is far from perfect, Café Bar Wigwam fills the most of my group's requirements of all the establishments in the area.It serves Budvar, which is 32 CZK for a half-liter of 10° and 35 CZK for 12°.This is acceptable and agreeable for those with prohibitions against Staropramen beers.

The place also keeps relatively late hours -- it is open until 1 a.m. every night but Sunday.And it has a non-standard pub menu, serving what I call Czech International Interpretative.

For a long time, the interior design was devoted to essentially Central and South American Indian culture or perhaps even African, rather than that which relates to the type of Indians who lived in actual wigwams.Quite amusing. But this changed after a recent interior update that saw the addition of some North American Indian photos, along with heavier chairs and tables. I like the way the place looks.Sometimes every table is taken. Sometimes the place is sparsely populated. I once asked the barman why it was so full on some weeks and not others.

"I have no idea," he said. "If you find out, let me know."

What is certain is that if the restaurant is full, smoke will get in your eyes. The place is not too well ventilated and the clouds really hang in the air, especially in winter. The eclectic classic rock/disco they always play can get a little tiresome after you've heard it a few times.

The most ordered meal among all my friends is some variation of the hamburger. They recently started offering the jalapeno burger, which everyone gets (135 CZK). It comes with steak fries.Now if you read my review of the hamburgers I've eaten in in Prague, you'd know I have a love-hate relationship with this one. Currently, I'm in a hate phase. The meat is always cooked completely through, it is crumbly, it has an odd seasoning I can't quite place, and the bun is small and disintegrates.

The fries are large and look good, but they have a somewhat chewy rather than crispy texture. The jalapenos themselves are the best part -- whole sliced peppers across the top. Just keep in mind that all my friends keep ordering it every week and think I'm too hard on the poor burger.

Oddly, on a number of weeks, they have run out of them. They also do a chicken burger, which is just OK (125 CZK).But I suggest you avoid the pork neck burger (125 CZK). It comes with Niva cheese and Dijon dressing, a combination I find quite awful.

So, I've been trying a number of other dishes. Recently, I had the pork ribs (125 CZK).These were fairly tired and dried out, but not past the point of acceptability. There was a sweet, tangy sauce, and it came with a baguette. I'd rank them pretty low on my Prague rib scale. That said, I'd probably get them again over the burger.

One of the favorites among my group is the Mat Saman Curry (145 CZK).This is an approximation of red curry chicken. It's nothing like an authentic recipe, but it is one of the best things they do. The coconut milk sauce is very thick and on the sweet side. Green and red peppers are mixed in along with onions. The portion is large and comes with a big plate of rice.

Curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a recent addition to the menu, the chicken yakitori (145 CZK). I could see no evidence it was grilled over a fire.It was much more like a Czech version of Chicken Satay, served on popsicle sticks. The tender meat tasted of coconut and fresh ginger. The sauce was basically Thai chili sauce mixed with ketchup. So, yeah, it's not real ethnic cuisine, but then again, I prefer it over typical Czech pub grub. Once a week, anyway.

One of the biggest losers on the menu is the fried chicken in a tortilla (130 CZK).I suppose it resembles a KFC Twister, but those are much better. The chicken was overcooked, and all the fried coating fell off and mixed with the iceberg lettuce in the tortilla.It was a mess and did not taste good.

The penne with mushroom, olive, chicken, and Parmesan is a better choice (95 CZK).The sauce could be creamier, but it does have a nice mushroom flavor, and they are generous with the shaved Parmesan.

To sum up, Wigwam is a decent place to go for a generally young crowd, inconsistent, quirky, occasionally decent food, and quite good prices. The staff is very friendly -- once they get to know you.

And they serve my current drink of choice, hruškovice (45 CZK) or pear brandy, in chilled shot glasses.

When I'm out with my friends, I don't need much more to live well.

Café Bar Wigwam
Zborovská 54
Prague 5 - Malá strana
Tel. (+420) 257 311 707

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

La Finestra in Cucina

"May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." Dwight Eisenhower
For a lot of people, La Finestra in Cucina is the place to be.The Old Town Italian restaurant is a window on what's hot right now in Prague's restaurant scene.

It's gotten some rave reviews. The Prague Post awarded La Finestra three stars out of four, with critic Claire Compton describing the food as "heavenly" and "ethereal." The Prague Spoon's Laura Baranik, usually parsimonious with her praise, gave it her highest rating, four spoons. The soon-to-be defunct Gourmet magazine's Alexander Lobrano described a much loved lunch of succulent veal, delicious potatoes, and excellent wine.

I did find one mildly dissenting voice. It was that of Czech Business Weekly's Milan Ballik. Amidst many enjoyable dishes, he related his disappointing encounter with an overcooked, tough T-bone.

I went twice to La Finestra. It's not very large, but it is a beautiful space with brick walls, vaulted brick ceilings, and hardwood floors. On the first visit, I made the mistake of thinking I didn't need a reservation at 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The place was packed with diners, including a few families with small children.I really wanted to try the place, so we reserved a table and decided to come back in 30 minutes.

When we returned from a walk, our table still was not ready. We were directed to the "bar," a tight space by the window to the kitchen which gives the restaurant its name.We ordered a .1 liter glass of prosecco (130 CZK) and a small bottle of Aquila water (45 CZK). Watching the chefs work and the food flying by was fun.

Less enjoyable was the company at the bar. A portly, middle-aged man with a stinking cigar was showing off his flashy mobile phone to his young, blond girlfriend.

From my point of view, puffing on a cigar in the presence of fine food is like swearing in a church. So, our good mood soured a bit. We were there for 15 minutes. I partly blamed myself for poor planning.

I asked for a non-smoking table. I was not thrilled that those tables were isolated in a narrow space at the back of the restaurant.Meanwhile, Mr. Stogie got one of the best tables in the house, by the front window.

There was one benefit to our table. It was next to another window into the kitchen. It was great fun to watch the chefs at work through our meal.Unfortunately, our placement had a big drawback. The host seated all three non-smoking tables in the back at the same time. The same waiter had to take care of us all.

Triple seating a server is something that restaurants should try to avoid at all costs. It seemed that we were third in line for everything all afternoon, and it got quite irritating.

To start off, we got crusty, chewy bread. It came with good olive oil and fried chickpeas.We were starving, so we wolfed down several oil-laden slices.

For an appetizer, I ordered the fried salt cod in crispy potato pastella (345 CZK). The presentation wasn't so pretty. The dough was greasy, with a soaked napkin sitting underneath them.But looks aren't everything. The dish came with an excellent, sweet-salty-sour homemade garlic mayonnaise.

The delicate cod, mixed with the crunchy shell and the mayo, was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures.I often judge a restaurant on how they execute certain common dishes.

We ordered the "Classic Caesar salad with anchovies" (245 CZK).The dressing is critically important. The flavor was almost there, but the texture was not. It was too thin and watery.

I thought that the Romaine lettuce was slightly wilted, lacking crispness. I also considered it too small for the price.

La Finestra and its sister restaurant, Aromi, take pride in their wine lists. Most of the wines by the glass were 180-200 CZK and that was for just .15 liter.

We ordered the cheapest one they had, a Moravian white for 130 CZK. The waiter forgot about it and eventually had to be reminded to bring it. He was apologetic.For me, it was too fruity, sweet, and one-dimensional. I didn't like it at all. We shared a big bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water (95 CZK).

We tried the grilled octopus (425 CZK). It came with a Chianti wine reduction and a rucola salad.The meat was tender, but with some snap to it. There was a good balance of salt, with a slight smokiness. We liked the octopus by itself.

But we decided the wine reduction was not a good match for it. It was sweet, but not acidic enough. It would have gone perfectly with a red meat dish like lamb but seemed out of place with seafood. The dressed rucola leaves were too boring and ordinary.

I had the veal saltimbocca. It cost 425 CZK, but note that as of this writing, the menu on the website said it was 345 CZK.In Italian, "saltimbocca" means "jumps in the mouth." But with this particular dish, I'd say the white meat couldn't jump.

The veal had a number of problems. It was overcooked, and it was a tough cut. Perhaps that was because it was thicker than versions I'd had in the past. It had pounding marks on it, but the hammering didn't do enough to tenderize it. By itself, the meat was dry and bland.

The prosciutto, so delicate in its cured state, had been reduced to the texture of shoe leather. It was actually difficult to cut. Its saltiness did balance out the blandness of the meat, but my jaw grew weary from the chewing.

The other major ingredient in saltimbocca is sage. I love sage. But in this case, it was super intense and overwhelmed the sauce. I had to use it sparingly.

The one saving grace was the onion potatoes. The sweet, fried onions, mixed with the buttery potatoes were a pure joy. But it was not enough to relieve my unhappiness with everything else on the plate.

I was full, but I always have room for dessert. I was very curious about the vanilla souffle, but couldn't bear the thought of waiting for it to be cooked to order.

At times, our waiter could be very polite and solicitous, but then he'd go MIA. We were already at the two hour mark. Dishes needed to be cleared, and he was having a conversation with the big spending table next to us.

I decided to keep it simple and ordered the pistachio crème brûlée (175 CZK).This was quite perfect. It was smooth, creamy, and rich, with the special and specific taste of green pistachio paste.I got to see the chef through the window hit it with a blowtorch to seal the top. I loved every bite.

Getting the check required another waiting game, even though by this time, after 4 p.m., the restaurant was almost empty. The bill came to 2145 CZK, plus tip. I was rather annoyed at this point, so I left less than the usual amount.

We felt the restaurant was a mixed bag and left disappointed.

I understand that reading a lot of hype about a restaurant can lead to inflated expectations. I also considered that bad timing on a busy Sunday had led to perhaps unusual problems. So I had to try again.

On my next visit, I dined solo during a relative lull at 6 p.m. on a Monday. And despite the early quietude, I heard them fielding phone calls for reservations that evening and saying they were fully booked.

There was no awkwardness due to my solo status. The service was friendly, but too active. I was asked the same questions by two different waiters and a manager. My scanning of the menu was interrupted several times in quick succession.

I asked the waiter to recommend a glass of red wine to go with my meal. He suggested the Barbera d´Asti, Cá di Pian (200 CZK for .15 liter).It was as he described it -- medium-bodied, lightly acidic and tannic. The first taste wasn't as smooth as I'd hoped, but I warmed to it as the meal progressed.

I received an amuse bouche of beef tagliata with grilled polenta and cranberries.The cool, rare beef and cranberries were excellent together, but the polenta was unpleasantly cold.

I noticed that they do consider the seasons when putting their menu together. I ordered the pumpkin risotto with Parmesan cheese and aged balsamico (295 CZK/appetizer portion).The very al dente, creamy rice was a pure pleasure on each fork full, with the tart cheese and sweet vinegar. I liked it a lot, but one thing puzzled me. I tried and tried, but despite the orange color, I could not taste the pumpkin. A small disappointment in an otherwise delicious dish.

After this, there was another amuse bouche -- a small glass of creamy, very sweet lime sorbet.

I had one small taste, and then my main course arrived. This was clearly a service snafu. The waitress grabbed my sorbet and started moving quickly away.

"Hey, hey, hey! I'm not finished with that!"

"Yes, but it won't be so good now with your meal. I will bring you another one later." And she was gone. True, there was some sense in this. However, she never did bring me back another one, as promised. It was forgotten.

My main course was a 300 gram rib eye in mustard sauce with Italian zucchini and a small salad (595 CZK). I was told it was Italian beef cooked over a lava grill.I was confused when it arrived. On the beef was a reddish-brown sauce, so I called over the waitress.

"Just wondering, what kind of sauce is this?"

"That's a mustard sauce."

"I was curious because it doesn't look like mustard. Or just not what I expected."

"Yes, it is a demi-glass with mustard mixed in. Is there a problem?"

"No, not at all. I love demi-glace. I just found the description confusing." She looked concerned until I assured her that it really wasn't a problem.

The sauce was positively popping with peppercorns and rather salty. But it was rich, satisfying, and almost decadent on the meat.

The beef itself was quite different from an American rib eye. The thin cut, cooked medium-rare, was certainly tender, with a healthy marbling of fat in the middle. But the flesh had more of a firmness or denseness to it.It picked up a hint of smoke from the grill, and I enjoyed every bite. The lightly grilled zucchini also tasted of the grill and, along with the light, acidic salad, provided a great counterpoint. Potatoes would have been too much.

I couldn't finish it. I thought it would be a shame to finish it after my appetite diminished. I took the rest home.

As I said earlier, I always have room for dessert, and I really wanted to try the chocolate truffle cake (165 CZK).This cake is notable for having actual truffles in it. The kind you dig up from the ground. Other reviews have commented positively on it.

The chocolate in the cake was rich, intense, and very fudgy. It was surrounded by fresh whipped cream, strawberries, and vanilla ice cream that didn't impress me.

You don't exactly taste the fungus in the cake as much as you detect its subtle aroma in your nose. I did not like it at all.

It was just strange, and the jarring juxtaposition diverted my thoughts from the great chocolate with every bite. Try as I might, I couldn't get used to it.

I have one other small observation about the ends of meals. At the end of our last visit to Aromi, we received two complimentary glasses of limoncello. During my visits to La Finestra, I saw many tables receiving limoncello. Whether they paid for it, I do not know. But none was offered to me either time. It set my mind to wondering. So, if you go there and you do get free limoncello, I'd love to know how you qualify.

I liked at least half the dishes at La Finestra, but for these prices, I'd say they need to do better.

The service was always polite and occasionally good. But it also lacked focus and consistency. It felt like style over substance.

Does La Finestra deserve three stars? Four spoons? I don't give stars or spoons. But over the course of two meals, I did give them 3800 Czech crowns from my own pocket.

I may be in the dissenting minority, but I do think that was too generous for what I received in return.

La Finestra in Cucina
Platnéřská 13
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 325 325

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