Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Da Emanuel

“It is high time that the ideal of success should be replaced by the ideal of service.” Albert Einstein
I get tips on restaurants to try from a lot of different sources: word of mouth, the internet, email. I can't act on a lot of them.

But when Jersey Girl tells me to check out a place, I listen. She's not just a fellow foodie, but a killer cook as well.

On her advice, we went for Sunday lunch at Da Emanuel, an Italian eatery in Prague 6.The weather was running hot and cold, but we got a table outside in the small space in front of the restaurant. It's on a relatively quiet residential street.

As the sun moved in and out of the clouds, our sweaters were on and off several times during the meal.

The inside dining area was also quite small, but looked nice and intimate, with a vaulted brick ceiling. Maybe too intimate. The tables were quite close together.The waiter brought a bread basket with a variety of nice slices, including good focaccia. There were tasty green and black olives.We were given a bottle of olive oil.

But no plates. And no napkins. And no knives or forks. These all came much later, after we asked the waiter if we could have some.

We ordered a big bottle of mineral water. It was San Pellegrino (95 CZK each). I always find it strange that they ask you if you want it with bubbles or not, but you never know what brand you are going to get.

Later, we ordered a second bottle, but it did not come until V reminded the waiter.

V had a glass of prosecco (85 CZK each).

Later, she ordered a second glass, but it did not come until she reminded the waiter.

A familiar routine.

We put our food order in just before a table of regulars who got welcome kisses from the waiter. The kitchen was not moving too quickly, and V was really steamed when their food came out 10 minutes before ours.

For a starter, V got the grilled calamari (250 CZK). It was excellent.The small squid were super-fresh and cooked just right -- not too long -- so it was very tender.

It also had a light char from the grill that added to the flavor. It was great with just a little lemon and olive oil.

I ordered the Caprese salad (200 CZK). I was in the mood for it, but felt guilty I wasn't trying something more adventurous. However, I was surprised how much I liked it.The bufala mozzarella ball had an amazingly creamy interior, with a fresh, clean tang to it. The tomatoes, which in Prague are often a watery, flavorless disaster, actually tasted like tomatoes.

I added only the smallest splash of balsamic on the side, but it really didn't need it.

For a main course, I had a dish that I try at almost every Italian-Mediterranean restaurant: risotto frutti di mare (280 CZK). It included chunks of quality shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams. Very fresh.I thought it was OK but on the bland side. I added salt and asked for extra lemon to get it closer to where I wanted it to be.

V had the linguine with shrimp and zucchini (250 CZK). She declared it to be the best version of this dish in Prague. And she's had many.Why so good? The flavor of the large shrimp was perfect. It tasted like it had just come out of its shell, not a freezer bag.

In addition to the big crustacean on top, there were good-sized chunks mixed into the pasta along with tomatoes. The pasta itself had also absorbed plenty of the shrimp flavor.

We debated whether the shrimp were overcooked. I found them a little on the tough side and said yes. V thought they were just right and said no.

End of debate.

For dessert, I had the house-made tiramisu (110 CZK).It hit all the right tiramisu notes, and I liked it, but I wouldn't use any superlatives to describe it. V had an espresso with milk (45 CZK).

We thought the food was great, and we definitely plan to return for more. I saw a tagliatelle dish with Italian sausage go by to another table that I really want to try.

The bill for our lunch was 1495 CZK. Expensive, but not bad for top notch food and considering how many things we ordered. And there was a small savings. I didn't tip as much as I usually do.We were annoyed with our waiter and his forgetfulness, but for some reason, we also felt a little sorry for him. He seemed like a nice guy, but he wasn't firing on all cylinders.

I suspect the high times of a Saturday night gave way to the lows of a Sunday afternoon.

If there was just a higher ideal of service in addition to the good cooking and fresh ingredients, I'd consider Da Emanuel the ideal of success.

Da Emanuel
Charlese de Gaulla 4
Prague 6
Tel. (+420) 224 312 934

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Le Cornichon (Closed)

"Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food." William Hazlitt
I'd been thinking about trying Le Cornichon since I first heard about it more than a year ago. We finally got around to having dinner at this French restaurant in Old Town.

The interior is a modern art piece. Lots of acute angles, funky fixtures, and clashing colors.Brown and beige walls stand in stark contrast to red chairs and white table cloths.And then there are the light fixtures. The shades are made from steel wool. We sat down in the back. Just a few tables were occupied. Immediately, we noticed the music.

V calls it "Doots! Doots! Doots!" music (That's as close as I can get to her verbalization of the techno style tracks).

We receive a bread basket filled with fresh baguette slices.Then came an amuse bouche. It was a partially cooked cucumber topped with something like cream cheese, and a few caviar eggs.Both of us found the texture of the soft, watery cucumber rather unpleasant. There wasn't much flavor to it, either.

V took one small taste and pushed it away. I ate it, but only because I was hungry. I know it was a gift, but still, it's hard to imagine who would appreciate such an offering.

For an appetizer, I wanted something I hadn't tried before. I ordered the oeufs en meurettes (190 CZK).That's a poached egg on bread, smothered in a wine sauce.

It was really delicious -- everything I hoped it would be. I enjoyed every bite of the tangy, buttery sauce.

When my fork broke the soft egg, the yolk ran into the sauce and made it even richer. There was bacon on top. I cleaned the plate with pieces of bread.

V ordered the Cornichon Salad with scallop and pleurotte mushrooms (260 CZK).It came with three good-sized scallops. They were fresh and properly cooked.

But V found the oily dressing boring and the whole thing fairly bland and uninspired.

We ordered a bottle of wine with our meal. I asked our waiter to recommend one of three possibilities from the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

They were all similarly priced, but I was impressed that he suggested the cheapest one - the Corbieres Domaine Castelmaure (460 CZK).It was an uncomplicated wine, but we liked it more and more with each pour.

We asked for a large bottle of water and got San Benedetto still water (160 CZK). I much prefer cheaper bottles of Mattoni, but that's me.

For a main course, V got the Corsican squid (295 CZK). The somewhat thick chunks of squid were fresh and tender, not overcooked or chewy.V loved the bed of mixed wild rice. But that was her favorite part. She said she liked it, but might not get it again.

The dish failed to inspire desire. It tasted of the sea -- of seafood and salt -- but not much else was going on with it. Simplicity can sometimes lead to greatness, but I thought this was just too simple.

I ordered the coq au vin with tagliatelle (295 CZK). It was a very ample portion.The meat had been cooked a long time and was tender, though not terribly moist.

I thought it was too salty and V agreed with me at first. She decided to mention it to the waiter.

He expressed dismay and insisted on going to the kitchen himself. He returned with a knowing look.

"It is not too much salt. Our chef uses very little salt. It is the dry wine he cooks with."

"Ah," V said. "And do you use chicken or do you really get roosters?" She thought ours was a rooster, but she wanted to be 100% sure.

"We regularly get old roosters delivered from Moravia," he replied. After the waiter left, she tried some more of my coq au vin.

"I don't think it's too salty," she said.

"There's your pro-Moravian bias again, I teased. "If it was a Bohemian rooster, you wouldn't be so forgiving."

"No, it's not too salty." I backed off. No need for a cockfight in the middle of dinner.

Mixing the sauce and meat well with the tagliatelle did make it better, cutting the salinity (or dry wine) level.

And there was so much meat, we took some home and made another light meal out of it the next day. I did enjoy it more at home for some reason.

For dessert, I ordered the fondant (160 CZK).This was not the liquid chocolate center cake that also goes by the same name.

Le Cornichon's version was intensely chocolately, but also intensely sweet. It was too sweet for me, and I am a chocolate fanatic with a sweet tooth.

We both felt the rustic-oriented cuisine clashed with the fashionable, modern interior. It's just a subjective feeling, but the food didn't feel like it belonged there.

The only choice that really grabbed me was the egg dish. V liked it, too, and she's not a big egg person. We'd both order it again.

For a stylish place in the center, the prices were not over the top. But our bill, in part because of the wine, was 1790 CZK before tip. Not a cheap country dinner.

Le Cornichon was not bad, but nothing special for either of us. I'd try it again if someone else suggested it, but won't be rushing back on my own account.

If forced to choose, I prefer wit over salt. So I enjoyed the conversation more than food.

Le Cornichon
Betlémská 9
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 211 766

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Beer Factory - Revisited

"Ah, beer. The cause of and the solution to all of life's problems." Homer Simpson
It was the weekend of the Prague Post Heavy Hitter's tournament. G-Man called me up saying he need a place to take 12 people -- players and families.

"Short notice on a Friday night? Could be tough." I said. Then it came to me. "Try Beer Factory."It's a subterranean restaurant on Wenceslas Square with beer taps on the table.

Now, if you read my post on Beer Factory from two years ago, you'd know I hated the place. So why recommend it?

First, I had a feeling (correct, it would turn out) that they'd have space for a big group at the last minute. Second, it was central. Third, some people get a kick out of pouring their own beer, even if they do it badly.I had to descend on their spiral glass staircase once again to check it out for myself.My original Beer Factory post got tons of hits from Google searches. At first, this mystified me. Then, it started making more sense as I read the blog comments. A number came from what I believe were 20-something male tourists telling me I was an idiot.

For example, "Aron Hungary" wrote to say, "Cold & good Pilsner, drinking contest, party from about 10.30 with 20 years old girls from all around the world... best place in Prague!"

The main drinking and dining area isn't much to look at. Very industrial. Concrete floors with exposed duct work exposed on the ceiling. The bar area has only a little more going on visually.I arrived late, joined the group, and poured myself a Pilsner Urquell. It was 45 CZK for a half-liter, which isn't a great price, but not over the top for the center of Prague.I still didn't think it tasted particularly good, but it was far better than the nasty tasting brew I had on my last visit.

A little meter on top of the tap keeps track of the amount you've poured.There is also a projection on the wall that tabulates how many beers each table has had. They also show sports.Thus, they combine our innate competitive drive with the acquired desire to drink ourselves senseless. Genius.

I got a look and a few tastes of what other people ordered. Everyone said they liked the onion rings (115 CZK). They were similar to those from Burger King.However, these rings were bigger and crunchier -- sort of like fried breadcrumb rings, with not too much onion flavor. I was sorry they decided to pour sweet chili sauce over the top instead of putting it on the side.

It wasn't a very large portion so I thought the price was high. I should also note now that, as if this writing, their internet menu prices were low by around 20 CZK.

A guy at the table got the Thai chicken salad (185 CZK).I didn't know him well enough to ask for a bite.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"It's pretty good."

"I don't know. That chicken looks pretty dried out." I said.

"Yeah, it's not so good," he confessed. A quick flip under light interrogation. He liked the dressing, but otherwise it looked pretty boring to me.

G-Man and another guy got the spicy beef fajitas (180 CZK).It was really a burrito, with a few red beans, onion, tomato, and even chopped zucchini inside.

Both described it with words like "dull" and "bland" and "mediocre."

Spicy? Not so much.

Another person had the chicken with Parma ham and goat cheese along with bacon onion potatoes (265 CZK)."Nice idea, poor execution," the guy told me. The flavor was lacking.

For myself, I decided to try their Argentinian beef steak. The 200 gram version is 310 CZK, but I got the 300 gram cut for 400 CZK.It was heavily seasoned with salt and pepper. I thought it tasted pretty good. G-Man tried it and liked it as well. There was a ratatouille-like side of eggplant, peppers, and onions. Pretty good.

However, they didn't asked me how I wanted it cooked, and it came out well done.It was a shame because it would have been so much better and more tender if had been cooked to medium or medium rare. Overcooking made it less juicy than it should have been.

The new potatoes on the side were not good. They were overcooked -- mushy and watery.

As for the general atmosphere, it was a very noisy place. A table of football fans rose up regularly for rounds of chanting and clapping.They looked like they were having a great time. I wasn't following their game, so it just served to shut down our conversation.

At the stroke of 10 p.m., all conversation ceased anyway. Thumping dance club music began. I've heard from commenters that it can be quite a party there sometimes. It just wasn't our thing, so we left soon after.

I still have big problems with Beer Factory. But what do I know?

G-Man's out-of-towners seemed happy enough at the end. They'd never seen beer taps on tables before. They really enjoyed that.

As Homer might say, "Woohoo!"

As for me, I'd say that on this particular night, Beer Factory was both the cause of and solution to everyone's problems.

Beer Factory
Václavské náměstí 58
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 234 101 117

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Prague Food Festival 2009

“Life is a festival only to the wise.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
This was my second year at the Prague Food Festival. It was in a new location, at the foot of the Charles Bridge and the embankment below on the Old Town side.I paid the 350 CZK entry fee. Included in the price were ten food coupons worth 25 CZK each.The coupons are called Grands because the festival is organized by Pavel Maurer, who produces the Grand Restaurant guide.

I entered near the bridge by the St. Salvator church and saw the tent for Le Terroir, which was awarded the Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide.I'd always been curious about this place, but to be honest, the high prices put me off.

For four Grands (100 CZK), I had the warm ham off the bone with Savoy cabbage and a potato dumpling. It was OK, but given the restaurant's reputation, I was not impressed.The ham was tender, but quite salty and not very distinctive in taste. The cabbage was relatively bland. So was the dumpling, which had a little chunk of ham in the middle. I've had more pedestrian pub versions of this dish that I've enjoyed more.

I wandered around and realized there weren't very many tents. I asked a staffer where the rest of the festival was.

"You have to take a boat further down the river. They leave regularly from below the Charles Bridge."

"Can't I walk? It's like 200 meters. I can't go out and and come in at the other entrance?"

"I'm afraid not."

Fearing the worst, I made my way down to the water. My fears were unjustified.It was very well organized. A sailor played an accordion to keep me entertained. They had many boats constantly moving through. I got right on and it was only a minute before we were underway.

It was a charming little trip with spectacular views of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. We came ashore, and I was attracted to the Corinthia Hotel's tent by the water.They were doing Asian fare.

I had the seared, pepper-crusted tuna with banana chutney and wasabi mayo (100 CZK). I loved this.Tuna, which can be bland on its own, was well-boosted by the crust. The chutney was very sweet and mixed with a little cilantro. Yum! The tangy mayo had a nice kick. I didn't even need the lemon.

I'll jump ahead and tell you I went back at the end to try their dessert. It was fried vanilla and aloe vera ice cream with a mango chili coulis (75 CZK).This invention was interesting but less successful than their tuna. It deep fried to order. The crunchy shell was the best part. The coulis -- let's call it sauce -- was good, but I could hardly detect any chili, let alone heat.I couldn't really taste vanilla. The aloe gave the ice cream a fruity flavor. The biggest problem was it was more like a sorbet -- ice crystals all the way through and not creamy at all. Too bad.

I walked up to the main festival area. It was super crowded.It seemed there was less space than the previous year. I also wrote about the 2008 festival on what is known to many as Žofín Island, close to the National Theater. I don't know how the attendance compares -- I was there during Sunday lunch both times -- but the pathways were certainly wider.

This year, the lines were longer, though they usually moved along relatively well.But it was really hard to move without getting stuck behind masses of people. It did thin out somewhat after 4 p.m.

I went to Aromi's tent and got their potato gnocchi with shellfish (175 CZK). It was a reasonable portion, but one of the more expensive dishes.There were clams, calamari, and part of an overcooked shrimp in mine.

The gnocchi were delicate, but some bordered on mushy. They put bread crumbs on top that were extremely salty and upset the balance for me.The sauce tasted of the sea, but the long-stewed seafood was more about texture than flavor. I hate to say it, but my favorite part was the fresh parsley.

It warmed me up on a cool, gray day, but that's about it.

Next, I went to the tent representing V Zátiší and Bellevue. Zátiší was one of my favorites last year and so it was again this year.

I had the crispy scallop with barley risotto and garlic sauce. (100 CZK).The scallop was huge, and I had the pleasure of watching it cooked in a pan. The flesh was extremely delicate and just the right level of salt.

The barley was pleasantly chewy, a very unique accompaniment with the aroma of shiitake mushroom in the mix. There was one tell-tale slice visible. The man eating the same thing next to me clearly enjoyed it as well.

Next up was the Švejk Restaurant Malostranská Pivnice.I saw lots of people with their little smoked pork ribs and wanted to try them.

They were small, but I got six bones for just 50 CZK, perhaps the best bargain of the day. It came with Czech-style sweet barbecue sauce and horseradish.Unfortunately, they were disappointing. One set of three bones was way too salty. The salinity level of the other set was fine, but those were dry.

Going to Cloud 9 cocktail bar at the Hilton Hotel is on my "to do" list. At their tent, I watched them roughly mixing cocktails in plastic cups with spoons, but felt no thirst. I need it in a glass.

I ordered one of their peppered beef satay skewers (50 CZK). It was served in a little paper cone.The beef was marinated in soy sauce and had sesame mayo. It was probably much better when it was fresh off the grill, but by the time it got to me, it was barely warm and a little dry.

I was running out of stomach space -- fast. But I almost always seem to have room for dessert. Especially free dessert.

Apetit magazine was giving away really good mini chocolate desserts.There's probably a fancy French name for it -- I didn't ask. I will call it a cupcake. It had a lovely, tart, berry... uh... sauce in the center.

There was lots of wine and champagne available. But I had beer. I stood on the long line and had a .3 liter glass of Pilsner Urquell (25 CZK).

I also had .4 liter glass of Master 18° dark beer (50 CZK) from the same brewery.It's pretty strong, but I like it. It has a slight coffee flavor to it.

Overall, I'd say I didn't enjoy the festival as much this year as last year. The weather was certainly a factor -- there were beautiful spring days in 2008. And V wasn't with me this time.

I didn't like this year's food as much. I did want to try the offerings from the Radisson SAS Alcron and Alchymist hotels, but I was too full.

Some good restaurants didn't participate on Sunday. Maybe I made some poor choices and missed some good stuff. I'm sure others may have eaten better than I did.

What was positive? The scallop and the tuna, certainly. The boat ride was fun and the views were better.In total, I paid 850 CZK and got to sample the cuisine of several high-end establishments without having to spend much more than that at each place.

I know more and more people have been discovering this festival. That could mean greater demand for good quality restaurants, and that's a good thing. However, I really have to underline this: the crowds, lines, and tight confines seriously got on my nerves.

If the festival organizers are lucky, the weather will be better next year. And if they are wise, they'll move it to a place with more space.

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