Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hard Rock Cafe - Prague

"Any problem you can't solve with a good guitar is either unsolvable or isn't a problem." Unknown
Perhaps it will hurt my expat street cred, but I confess my interest was immediately tweaked when I heard a Hard Rock Cafe was opening in Prague.After all, I am an American guitar player with a penchant for good hamburgers. I fall into a very specific demographic niche.

Just days after Prague's Hard Rock started doing business, I went to the restaurant on Malé náměstí, just off Old Town Square. They converted the old V.J.Rott building, with its neo-Renaissance façade, into the familiar, music-themed restaurant.Within the establishment's 1900 square meters are three levels and two bars. The platform behind the downstairs bar can be turned into a stage for live acts.This location is considered the largest Hard Rock Cafe in Europe.

When I arrived, I was directed up the stairs, past old wood paneling and a painting from the building's past life.V was not interested in joining me, so I was dining solo. Sometimes, when you eat by yourself, you get the feeling you aren't a valued customer.Unfortunately, this was one of those times. The place was barely half full, and they directed me to one of the worst tables in the house.

It was next to the swinging doors of the kitchen. So, I can report they have white-tiled walls in there. This area also turned out to be a rather hectic meeting spot for the many servers.

In the opposite direction, the table did have a good view of the five meter-long guitar-shaped chandelier and the bar on the floor below."Are you eating alone?" the smiling waitress asked.

"Yes, just me."

"Awww." She made a sad face. "Really?"

"Just me. You can join me if you want," I said. So, she did. Cute.

We talked for a minute about where I was from and whether I was enjoying Prague.

"So far, it's been pretty good," I said.

Her name was Tereza, and I was her first customer. She was very nice and not in a scripted, corporate way. Refreshing.

It's understandable she thought I was a visitor. After a good look at the prices, I realized tourists are probably the target customer rather than long-term expats. I'd also note that I couldn't find a Czech language version of the restaurant's website.

Our enjoyable tête-à-tête concluded after I ordered a bacon cheeseburger (280 CZK) and a chocolate shake (120 CZK).

Now, I've studied the burgers all over Prague. This one was excellent.I'd call it the second best in the city (I'll tell you my favorite in a moment).

The top-quality meat was flame-grilled. This is key in my book. There was American-style bacon and cheese, plus lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion. The bun was perfectly toasted.

The fries came with a little skin on them. But they were just barely warm.

For the record, I'd say the best bacon cheeseburger in Prague is at Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice. It is very large, flame-grilled, with more bacon and a slightly better bun. It edges out the win for my affections even before you add the fact that it is only 155 CZK, fries included.

Then, it's no contest.

The Hard Rock's chocolate shake, topped with whipped cream, was extremely thick.The generous amount of chocolate ice cream was nice, but it wasn't mixed well. It was too thick to drink.

You can quote me on this: I sucked really hard. The flimsy straw failed to maintain structural integrity and collapsed. I had to wait a while for the ice cream to melt before I could partake.

Over the loud music, Tereza told me that ice water was free. I like the bubbly stuff, so I ordered soda water, thinking for some reason that would be free, too.My mistake, but it cost 60 CZK. That's more than a half-liter of Staropramen, which is only 50 CZK.

So, the bill for this trip was 460 CZK. It was a good, classic American meal, with a fun and fast waitress. I was quite full. But I considered it a steep price to pay for a burger, shake, fries, and water.

My curiosity levels about other offerings was still high, so I went back the next night. By myself. And they tried to give me the exact same table again. Which I refused.

It felt like that scene from "Animal House," where the rich fraternity boys repeatedly direct the two misfit pledges, the hapless Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman, to the room for social outcasts.

On this second visit, I ordered their famous Hickory-smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich (250 CZK).It came with fries, baked beans, and coleslaw.

I had a pretty young-looking guy as a waiter this time. He told me the pulled pork came with a choice of barbecue or a vinegar sauce. The latter sounded more unusual and intriguing. I asked for that.

When I took the first bite, two things happened.

First, half the pork fell out of the bun onto the plate. It was a huge amount of meat. Plan on using a knife and fork at some point.

Second, the super sour vinegar and slaw hit the back of my throat, and I had to stifle a serious cough.

Man, that was strong stuff. I made sure there was much less of it in each bite.

The pork itself was shredded and tender. I love smoked meat, but I couldn't detect much in the way of smoke flavor.

The beans were quite sweet. I ended up pouring them on top of the pork. Maybe I'd have been happier with the barbecue sauce.

The fries were properly cooked and delivered much hotter than those on the first visit. The little ramekin of coleslaw was nothing special.

The Hard Rock Cafe has a cocktail menu with lots of pretty pictures. I decided to try a couple.

First, I had a Golden Rita, AKA a margarita (180 CZK). It was made with Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila, Triple Sec, and Hard Rock Margarita mix.It came in a classic margarita glass and was strong. However, for the money, I was expecting something a little more... impressive. I wished the glass was filled a little higher.

I prefer my margaritas on the sour side. This one was too bland for my taste, even after I squeezed in all the juice from a thick lime slice. I suppose it could appeal to more middle of the road tastes.

I asked the waiter for extra ice. It never came. In fact, he disappeared for a long time. When I wanted a second cocktail, a waitress noticed my forlorn look and took my order.

I went for the Mojito (130 CZK).Bartenders tell me this is the most popular cocktail in Prague, by far. And I've had more than my share for comparison.

I thought this one was just bad. It was intensely sweet, almost syrup-like.

I usually find mojitos refreshing, but this candy-like cocktail really dragged me down. I'd urge them to change their recipe.

Suffice it to say, I was in no mood for dessert.

The bill for this second visit totaled 560 CZK. The majority of the tab was for the two drinks.

I felt I had to return one more time. There was one more thing I wanted to try. I went for an early lunch right after they opened at 11:30 AM.

This time, the greeter asked me if I'd like to sit at the downstairs bar. I said no, so he then told me to pick any table I wanted.

I had a very earnest and friendly waiter named Kevin from Sweden. Then, I saw my old friend, Tereza, and we had a good chat about life in the restaurant business. Since there were few other customers, they both kept me company and made sure I had everything I needed.

I ordered the Hickory-Smoked Bar-B-Que Ribs (390 CZK). They came with fries, baked beans, and coleslaw.The rack had a number of positives going for it. The meat had some char to it along with the smoky flavor I'd been looking for. It was also quite lean. I liked their sauce. It was not too sweet and had a nice tang.

However, there is a downside to lean ribs. They were not as tender as I expected. The menu says the meat falls off the bone, but I had to use a knife and pull pretty hard to get them apart.

I also thought they should have been hotter. Like many restaurant ribs, these had to be cooked mostly in advance. That's how they can come out 10 minutes after you put in your order. It was a lot to eat and the ribs lost a lot of their warmth by the end of the meal.

Now, there is a strain of thought that restaurants shouldn't be reviewed until they've been opened a while. But I reject that.

I know the realities of new operations, but my feeling is that I'm paying the same prices that people will pay six months from now. They should be firing on all cylinders from the start.In the end, I concluded I did not really belong in the Hard Rock Cafe's target demographic.

On my way out, I browsed past the restaurant's guitar collection. Instruments used by REO Speedwagon, Seether, and Asia didn't do too much for me.

But I must admit I was awed by what is probably the most prized item. On the stairway was Bob Dylan's well-worn Gibson acoustic/electric guitar, along with a hand-written set list written by the man himself.I stared into the display case and, for a long moment, I forgot about my problems with issues like the prices, the mojito, and the waiter who forgot about me.

It's amazing what a good guitar can do.

Hard Rock Cafe
Dům U Rotta
Malé náměstí 3
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 224 229 529

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Céleste Restaurant and Bar

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Restaurace Zvonařka

That all-softening, overpowering knell
The tocsin of the soul - the dinner-bell
Lord Byron
It was a beautiful spring evening, and my boss asked me to suggest a place for a farewell drink for a departing colleague.

He had two conditions: We should be able to sit outside to enjoy the warm weather and it should be relatively close to Wenceslas Square.

A colleague had already called Restaurace Mušketýr, and it was booked. I knew Bredovský dvůr would be, as well. I thought Riegrovy sady beer garden wasn't appropriate.

In the end, I came up with Restaurace Zvonařka.The place is known for its large terrace, if not for its food. And I was correct in my assumption that the terrace would not be full. It's a nice spot, but often overlooked.In past summers, they fired up a grill outside, but it was too early in the season for that.

The word "zvonařka" is somewhat hard to define in modern usage. I was told by someone with a degree in Czech linguistics that it means something like "bell foundry" or a place for bells.

The restaurant sits on the edge of a hill. On one side, there is a view of the rich villas of Vinohrady.And on the other side, there is a view of the train tracks of Vršovice and the lesser environs of Nusle.When the leaves really come out, you see a lot less.

I had a half-liter of Gambrinus (29 CZK).Someone else drank Kozel dark (35 CZK).Pilsner Urquell is also available (35 CZK).

We ordered a round of cheese nachos (90 CZK) for the table. These were quite bad.The very ordinary chips were covered with melted cheese that quickly cooled and hardened. Trying to pick up one chip often resulted in picking up 13 others that were stuck together. You had to peel the chips apart from the cheese. Very awkward.

The salsa was some sweet stuff from a jar. Pretty standard in Prague.

We ordered a few rounds of the large plate of 16 chicken wings with Buffalo sauce (150 CZK). These were very good.They were large, cooked just right, and I liked the sauce. It was sweeter than a classic American Buffalo sauce, but still had a nice tang. I ate many of these.

Later, we ordered a round with barbecue sauce, but the sauce was exactly the same. We weren't sure if we had gotten the wrong sauce the first time or the second time.

We didn't bother to ask because the service was not very good on the terrace, and we had a hard enough time just getting an order in.

There are two large rooms inside. I had a big birthday party there a few years ago.

They were very cool about giving me one of the rooms, without guaranteed minimum charge for the house. I just ordered a modest amount of food in advance and brought a lot of thirsty people, and they were happy. I don't know whether that deal is still available.

On this visit, we also ordered a few spicy klobasy or sausages (75 CZK each).They were quite popular at the table, so I had a hard time getting a picture before they had succumbed to knives and forks. They came with bread, mustard and horseradish. I thought they were a bit on the dry side, but not too fatty and quite tasty.

So, if you are looking for a place to hang out in good weather, maybe have some good wings, and can't think of where to go, perhaps Zvonařka will ring a bell.

Restaurace Zvonařka
Šafaříkova 1
Praha 2 Vinohrady
Tel:224 251 990

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Czech Please on Expats.cz

A new Czech Please development to report. I've partnered up with the website, Expats.cz.

The deal is this: They get first-run of a blog post.

I get some support for my rather excessive food and drink habit.

That's it.

Otherwise, everything else is the same as before. I remain editorially independent. The blog follows my life and not vice versa. No one tells me where to go or what to do.

Posts that appear on Expats.cz will go up on this site a couple of days later. For a debut, we did something special. We tried out the new French place on top of the "Dancing House," Céleste Restaurant and Bar.

If you have any questions or comments, I'll do my best to answer them.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Pâtisserie St. Tropez

"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate." Charles Dickens
Passion Chocolat was like an old friend. And I missed it when it was gone.

The pâtisserie and cafe on Italska was on my way to work.I used to stop by at the stroke of 8:00 a.m. a couple of times a week and pick up a warm pain au chocolate, fresh from the oven. Or a croissant filled with vanilla cream. Or a chocolate cookie. Or all of them.

It was in a bright and modern store-front space in a beautifully constructed building.But as the sweet proprietor, Nadine Musso, told me, things weren't working out there.

Five months later, Nadine and her husband Jean-Francois have opened a new place, Pâtisserie St. Tropez.It is just off Wenceslas Square, in Lucerna's Dům U Nováků.The easiest way to find it is from the entrance on Vodičkova. From that side, you can see the cafe's Art Deco exterior.The good news is that all the French-style cakes and pastries are just the same as they were before.Personally, I'm partial for anything with chocolate. Or creams. Or custards.They have whole cakes, as well. They really are edible works of art.Things can get a little nutty - I've heard a few people raving about these sweets.Getting back to chocolate, they still make their own special bon bons.They also do special holiday chocolates -- I saw specially designed eggs for Easter. Some of the creations have plenty of kid appeal -- as if the chocolate alone is not enough.Speaking of kid appeal, M. Musso makes the chocolates on the premises and you can see him at work through the glass walls.He wasn't producing any while I was there, but I'm sure it's fun to watch.

I like these people, I like their desserts, and I like the look of their new shop.I think the new, central location, with a lot of foot traffic, will work out much better for them.

What I don't like is that it is not on my way to work anymore. But it's often worthwhile to go out of your way to see a friend. Especially a friend with chocolate.

Pâtisserie St. Tropez
Palac Lucerna - Dům U Nováků
Vodičkova 30
Tel. (+420) 222 524 333
Mobile (+420) 724 547 565

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