Friday, December 17, 2010

Radost FX

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." Albert Einstein
Einstein was perhaps the greatest theoretical physicist who ever lived, and his views on a wide range of other subjects provide food for thought.

That doesn't mean he was right about everything. I mean, I wouldn't take relationship advice from the guy.

But if he's right about this vegetarian thing, we're in a lot of trouble. There are too many others like me -- too desperately in love with meat to even think about saving life on this planet.

In less gloomy and doomy news, I will say that I have appreciated some great and creative vegetarian dishes in my day. But vegetarian restaurants rarely pop into my mind when thinking about where to eat. I tried Maitrea and it was just OK. And yes, it's a glaring omission that I have never been to Lehka Hlava.

I also have been to Radost FX many times.But it had been a couple of years since I was there. Recently, G-Man invited me to share a weekend brunch there with him and his daughter.

I do like the wild, worn, and eclectic interior design, with its electric green walls, green chandeliers, busy patterned chairs and couches, and gold-framed mirrors.The back lounge area is a little more intense, with lots of red everywhere.Also dominating is the expat crowd. English is the language I've heard most often here, though patrons are certainly not all Americans and British. Some are also canines.These rooms can get quite smoky.

G-Man got the huevos rancheros (170 CZK). On the corn tortilla, there were refried beans, well-done scrambled eggs, cheese, a nice, chunky salsa, and sour cream. On the side there was a good potato hash and buttered toast.It's more standard to make huevos rancheros with fried eggs, but G-Man enjoyed it a lot. It's also quite filling.

I felt like something a little simpler, so I ordered the egg sandwich with mozzarella cheese and jalapenos (155 CZK). It was just as I like it, with crunch grilled bread, hot, non-runny eggs, and fully melted cheese with the peppers mixed into it.I like ketchup with my eggs, and the waitress gave me their huge bottle of Heinz.I put it next to my ginger lemonade for a size perspective. The drink had a large amount of fresh-grated, sharp ginger in it. The only issues were that the ginger kept clogging the straw, and I wished for more ice.

G-Man had a giant cup of black tea with ginger slices and lime.If you are not going with coffee, it definitely helps perk things up on a Sunday morning. It's a tasty beverage.

G-Man's daughter had the French toast with blueberry sauce (115 CZK).After daddy cut it up, she loved it. I thought the sliced and dipped baguette slices were a bit dry in the middle, and the egg mixture should have been allowed to soak in more.

I enjoyed the breakfast so much, I decided I should return and try the regular menu. Although I'd been to the restaurant a number of times, I don't think I'd sampled many of their regular offerings besides the quesadillas and nachos.

A few days later, I stopped by and sat in the non-smoking room at the front of the restaurant, looking out over the sidewalk.A couple of ladies sat down and lit up, and promptly were asked to move to the smoking area, which they apologetically and respectfully did.

I ordered a beer. They only had small Pilsner Urquell bottles (35 CZK).For food, I started with the baked peppers stuffed with cheddar and jalapeňos (135 CZK). The very soft pepper was nearly flavorless, but the creamy cheese and spicy jalapeňos were delicious. It had a very light texture.The warm Cheddar mixture was easy to spread on the focaccia-like grilled bread, which was also a wonderful surprise. The bread could have been an afterthought. But this warm, light, fluffy and crunchy stuff was a pleasure. The combination was great.

This dish was almost a meal in itself, but I wanted to try the "Salad in the City" (175 CZK). The big plate was filled with mixed greens, rice noodles, red peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cilantro.The salad was a mixed bag. I especially loved the four big chunks of sweet potato. They were very sweet, with a smooth texture. The peanut dressing was spicy, tangy, and very sweet. I liked it, but I can imagine some might find it cloying.

On the downside, the menu said it was topped with nuts, but I didn't see too many. The lettuce could have been crisper. But the biggest problem was those noodles. They were stale and tough to chew. It would have been much better without them.

Still, I liked both dishes enough that I decided I wanted to try more of the menu. I returned for a third and final time for a quick meal with the English Patient.I had the "Up in Smoke" sandwich (165 CZK). It is billed as "an FX Reuben sandwich that comes with smoked tofu, Swiss cheese, red onion, and Russian dressing with "crack slaw" on the side.It had no real connection to the name "Reuben" and was just OK. A lot of the flavors blended together and were lost. It tasted basically like a grilled onion and Swiss.

Much better was the English Patient's "McLentils Burger" (180 CZK). It was made with red lentils, leeks, tofu, ginger, cilantro and red pepper.I took a bite and was very pleased with the moist, flavorful patty and its crisp exterior. The crunchy slaw that came with both dishes was excellent.

The only faux pas here was someone in the kitchen drowned the "burger" in mayo before sending it out.

I'd been aware of and occasionally patronized Radost FX for many years without thinking too deeply about the place. But I'll confess surprise at how much I enjoyed the food at Radost FX.

Not everything was genius, but these meals brought about a relative evolution in my thinking about vegetarian restaurants. Or at least this one, anyway.

Radost FX
Bělehradská 234/120
120 00 Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 224 254 776

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Il Gattopardo

**This restaurant has moved to Vojtěšská 9 in Prague 1 - Old Town near the river. The old location in Prague 7 is closed.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Leonardo da Vinci
G-Man told me he would be drinking at Fraktal until 6 p.m., and then he'd be free for dinner. Of course, they do a good burger there, but I saw my opportunity to finally try an Italian place just down the street on Šmeralova.

"Let's go to Il Gattopardo," I said. "It's gotten some good reviews, and a lot of the pastas cost around 220 crowns so it doesn't have to get too expensive."

He said that sounded fine, so we met at Fraktal and walked over.The street-level entrance by the front door has a few tables, but I'd only eat there as a last resort.The downstairs is a much more eye-grabbing proposition, with gold and white table cloths, gold picture frames, and busy, patterned wallpaper.Some of those frames hold pictures of scenes from the 1963 film, "Il Gattopardo."In Italian, it means "The Leopard," It's the story of a prince and his efforts to preserve his family and position during the wild 1860's Sicily.

This is appropriate because Il Gattopardo is not just Italian. It is proudly Sicilian. And this is where most of their wines are from. And the most important red grape from the island is the Nero d'Avola.

We ordered a bottle made with them from Tarucco (370 CZK).The smooth, drinkable wine was a great buy. We also got a big bottle of Mattoni (80 CZK) to go with it.

For a starter, we split a Bruschettone Alfonsia (180 CZK). This was a toasted slice of Italian bread the size of a small pizza covered with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, and a "pistachio pâté."It sounded like a simple snack, but we were both surprised how much we loved it. The secret was the so-called pâté.

I asked our waiter what the creamy spread on top of the crunchy toast was made from. He told me it was mascarpone cheese. While I didn't taste a lot of pistachio, there was the hint of good olive oil.

Our waiter brought out a plate of pasta we could choose from and described each one in detail.
He was super helpful and patient throughout the meal. When we were talking about Sicily, he almost sounded apologetic that he was from Sorrento.

G-Man got a special pasta called "fazzoletti" (220 CZK) which translates as tissue paper. It is folded into pockets which our waiter said were filled with chopped king prawns, mussels, and clams.The filling was creamy like ricotta with only a slight seafood aftertaste. Or as our waiter described it, the "retrogusto."

Even though I expected more seafood flavor, we were both amazed both by the taste and texture of this fresh pasta. Also, the simple sauce was bursting with the essence of the best fresh tomatoes and basil.

I ordered the Pasta di Don Totucci (220 CZK) from the regular menu. The waiter told me the pasta type would be decided by the kitchen at the last moment. On this night, it was rigatoni.It came with excellent, anise-accented Italian sausage, diced eggplant, and mushrooms in tomato sauce. While very good, we both preferred G-Man's selection, hands down.

For dessert, I got the chocolate "soufflé" (120 CZK). It was really more of a fondant soaked with intense chocolate syrup.What really made it special was the topping of creamy, tangy mascarpone cheese and a sprinkling of pistachio. It was eye-rolling goodness.

I'll make an observation about the music. It is Sicilian and selected by the waiters. But to my ears, some of it sounded corny and odd, with one song sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The bill for this visit was 1360 CZK, before tip. Along with the wine, the price included a cover charge of 30 CZK each.

I was so impressed, I went back again with J a few days later.First, I wanted to try something the waiter said was very popular, so we shared the Bruschettone Don Sedara (180 CZK). This was topped with buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, anchovies, olives, and capers. It also had a creamy base.

It was much too salty for my taste. I couldn't conceive of eating the whole thing myself. I much preferred the bruschettone from the previous visit.

I was so curious about the menus many offerings that I went a little crazy ordered the Degustace Vévody z Palma or the tasting of the Duke of Palma (360 CZK per person/minimum two persons). It consists of six dishes. I'll list them in the order that I liked them.

First, there was the arancini or fried rice balls.They were beautifully crisp and filled with creamy rice. The filling was somewhat bland.But the risotto between the two balls was just amazing. I told the waiter I tasted lemon and wine.

"There's a little," he said. "But the recipe is a secret."

We had a plate of fresh Italian ham and sun-dried tomatoes with a pile of Lardo di Colonatta.Yes, the white stuff is pure pork fat all the way from the Apuan Alps. When you place it on your tongue, it dissolves almost instantly, leaving a wonderful nutty flavor in its place.

The eggplant parmesan included the very good tomato sauce and grated parmesan.The fried sardine filets, coated with bread crumbs and almond slices, were crunchy and tender.The chopped octopus was just OK, with the strong flavor of olives.The calamari in tomato sauce was slightly rubbery and had a very strong, fishy flavor I didn't really like.The last three dishes were barely warm. I wished they had a little more heat.

My curiosity was really out of control at the beginning of the meal. I also ordered the lamb chops (320 CZK).I had a long conversation with the waiter about how I liked my lamb medium-rare. But I had a feeling it would be for naught. The four, thin, but large chops came cooked all the way through.

They were coated with extremely buttery bread crumbs mixed with a little pistachio. They were tender and tasty, but I'd hoped for something a little better for the money. On the side were decent roasted potatoes, and excellent, delicate, corny polenta.

Of course, this was way too much food. I ended up taking half the bruschettone and two of the lamb chops home to eat for lunch the next day. The bill for this huge meal was 1265 CZK before tip.

While I enjoyed my second visit less than my first, I am still impressed some of Il Gattopardo's straightforward, authentic Sicilian dishes, its pleasant dining room, and charming waiter.

If you are looking for the taste of real Italian pasta, it's one of the best places in the city.

It's as simple as that.

Il Gattopardo - Taverna Siciliana
Šmeralova 15
Prague 7
Tel. (+420) 222 986 596 or 774 999 027

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Divinis Wine Bar

"Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you." Augustine of Hippo
We all know it's important to have good connections. But I'm not just thinking about the kind that help you get ahead in life.

I'm talking about the simple act of sharing good things with good people and feeling a connection. Good food is a big part of that for me.

Speaking of which, a childhood friend, Mr. Hollywood, passed through Prague last week. He was staying at the Hotel Josef. When he suggested dinner, very quickly, I knew where we should eat.

"Let's try an Italian place called Divinis," I said."I've always wanted to eat there, it's run by a famous TV chef, I've heard good things about the cooking, and it's a two minute walk from where you are staying."

The deal was sealed. I made my way there, walking through Old Town Square on a chilled, misty evening, enjoying, as always, the night view of the Týn Church.The star cook and owner, Zdeněk Pohlreich, recently changed and expanded the interior.Still, it's not a big restaurant.

I'd describe the interior as chaotic-eclectic-rustic. Along with the brightly colored butterflies and roosters, there are dark wood-planked floors, homey lampshades and bookcases with books, bottles of wine, and magazines.Some tables are quite cozy, but with something of a family dinner feeling.My friend, a dog lover, was pleasantly surprised to see that canines are welcome.But some tables are awkwardly placed near the kitchen or the front door. We were lucky and received one by a wall in the front room.

The forks, knives, and spoons on the ceiling are an interesting design touch.In a rave review from last year in the now-defunct Prague Spoon, some commenters complained about the service.

We found it generally good, efficient and friendly. The only issue would be that our waiter had trouble answering my friend's questions in English about the menu. The one-page document is quite terse in its descriptions.

While we talked and caught up on life, I had a .33 liter bottle of Pilsner Urquell (65 CZK).Mr. Hollywood had a .15 liter glass of red wine from the Vertigo winery (130 CZK) that the waiter suggested and he was satisfied with.

For a starter, I went for the warm octopus salad (265 CZK). I wouldn't describe it as a salad, but I thought it was incredibly good.The tentacles were impossibly light and tender, almost scallop-like. Of all the octopuses I've had in my life, I've never had anything quite like it. I'd love to know the cooking method that achieved that texture.

It sat atop potatoes, terrifically intense tomatoes, and baked fennel that gave the dish a light anise flavor.

Mr. Hollywood got one of the specials, a pumpkin soup with lobster ravioli (190 CZK).He called it hearty, yet delicate. He was impressed with the flavor of the lobster in the pouches of pasta.

We wanted a bottle of wine with our meal. I selected the 2005 Sella & Mosca Tanca Farra Alghero from Sardinia (660 CZK).It was one of the less expensive wines on offer. I'd enjoyed a bottle of the 2004 from the same winery at Ichusa Botega & Bistro. That bottle was 77 CZK cheaper.

We also had a liter bottle of Lauretana mineral water (115 CZK).

For a main course, Mr. Hollywood ordered the veal tagliata with parmesan sauce and rucola (395 CZK).He was told it was normally cooked medium, but that was not to his taste, so he asked for it done medium-well.

When it was delivered, he felt it was still too pink for him and asked for it to be cooked a bit more. The dish was whisked away and returned quickly after a few more minutes on the stove.

Mr. Hollywood said the meat was tender, with a mildly sweet flavor that paired well with our wine.

I went for the braised veal cheeks with Marsala wine (395 CZK).The succulent, fork-tender meat had a seductive simplicity to it. Each buttery bite was a pleasure. It was served over fresh-wilted spinach. I only wished for a stronger shot of the Marsala in the juices underneath and more raisins and pine nuts.

The waiter suggested a side of mashed potatoes (80 CZK). It was super-rich, decadent and creamy.For comparison, I'd say that I only liked the mushroom-flecked mashed potatoes at La Gare slightly more.

Speaking of comparisons, I've occasionally come under criticism for always selecting chocolate desserts. My rationale for doing this has two components.

First, given my extensive experience in this area, I do consider myself perhaps the foremost expert on the chocolate fondants of Prague. Achieving this level of knowledge requires a singularity of focus and purpose. Second, there are few desserts I'd rather have.

So, at this dinner, I carefully scanned the menu and duly considered each dessert. Then I ordered the chocolate fondant (180 CZK).For those who care about such esoteric things, this was one of the best out there.

The fresh-baked, delicate little cake was topped with a dark berry compote. A poke with a fork released a torrent of some of the most intense, thick chocolate you'll find.

To add to the pleasure, there was an intense, sweet-sour mango sorbet on the side. It was frozen, and yet it was smooth and could be scooped up on the spoon like a pudding. Another miracle of texture from the kitchen.

We finished off the meal with a cafe latte (65 CZK) and a cappuccino (65 CZK).The bill totaled 2605 CZK before tip, which is by no means cheap. But there are far more expensive restaurants in Prague, and it was one of the more enjoyable meals I'd had in a long while.

Mr. Hollywood, a veteran of the LA dining scene, was also very pleased. He thought Divinis Wine Bar was a good value compared to restaurants back home.

I'm not going to spend that kind of money on a regular basis, but based on this experience, I'm adding this restaurant to the recommended list I keep in my head.

In the end, we both agreed: Divinis connects.

Divinis Wine Bar
Týnská 1053/21
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 325 440

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