Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crazy Cow Steakhouse

"My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you're ugly too." Rodney Dangerfield
I love a good steak, but there aren't all that many I go chasing after in Prague.

Sure, I've had terrific steaks at La Casa Argentina, La Bodeguita del Medio, La Finestra in Cucina, and even Rocky O'Reilly's. But either the atmosphere, the service, or both at these places has put me off making regular visits.

In recent years, we've most often gone for the rib eye at El Barrio de Angel. The service can be spotty, but it's not a bad looking spot in a big, brick-walled cellar. Plus, the smoky, tender beef was reasonably priced.

To make it one of my favorites, the beef should be imported, preferably from South America. And it should have a good char on it, usually from a flame grill.

I'd heard reports over the years that Crazy Cow Steakhouse near Old Town Square did great steaks.I finally got around to checking it out for myself.

V and I trudged in on a snowy weekend afternoon. We sat in the small, brightly lit street-level dining area.There's a hodgepodge of North and South Americana kitsch on the walls, but it was still lacking, atmosphere-wise.

The restaurant has a bigger and more appealing dining room upstairs, but we didn't see that until later in the meal.I ordered a half-liter of Budvar (49 CZK). It tasted fine. V had a .2 liter glass of Moravian red wine (50 CZK).They served Bonaqua sparkling water in a tiny .25 liter bottle with a big price (39 CZK).

Aside from squeezing out extra profit, I've never understood why any restaurant would serve this boring stuff instead of Mattoni, which comes in .33 liter bottles.

V got the 300 gram rib eye with fried onions (360 CZK).You should note that the on-line menu prices were not up to date as I write this.

Side items were extra, but the onions with it were great -- sweet and crunchy. We didn't really care for the butter on top or the shredded, pickled cabbage on the side.

However, the meat was the star. The delicious beef was tender, juicy, and smoky.It just needed an extra shot of salt, and then everything was right with this beef.

V went so far as to say that she thought it was better than her favorite steak at El Barrio de Angel. I took a bite and thought they were at least equally good. They are close to the same price.

I decided to try the Crazy Cow burger. It's normally 139 CZK, but it was just 99 CZK as a lunch special.This burger had potential, but they killed it.

The quality of the meat itself was good. But it was salty, over-seasoned, and overcooked. I don't like raw red and green peppers on my burgers, but those were easily removed.

I'm not a big mustard on burgers fan, and unfortunately, that was not possible to take off. The top of the bun was soaked in a watery red sauce. The parts of the bread that weren't waterlogged were so dry that they cracked apart in my hands.

I wasn't in the mood for fries, so I ordered an appetizer of fried jalapenos filled with cheddar as a side dish.I was disappointed that I received only four of them for the price of 120 CZK. And these pickled peppers were surprisingly bland. They were not made in-house.

I've seen freezer bags of identical fried peppers at Makro, and you can get a plate of four of the same at a restaurant across the street for 90 CZK.

I decided to return a week later with my friend, Flash. We wanted to eat upstairs in the nicer room, but I was told it was completely booked for a party.On this visit, I got a half-liter bottle of Budvar dark beer (49 CZK). I actually preferred its rich caramel flavor to the draft lager.Flash got the Sante Fe chicken breast (165 CZK). On the side, he had the farmers potatoes, which were steak fries absolutely smothered in bacon, onion, and garlic (59 CZK).The problem here was that neither of us could figure out what made this chicken "Sante Fe."

There wasn't much discernable seasoning. It did pick up some nice flavor from the grill. But unfortunately, the meat dried out on there. It came with vegetables like broccoli, corn, and carrots that looked like they came from a freezer bag. They did not complement the chicken in any way.

I ordered the 200 gram Desperado steak (229 CZK). The Argentinian beef rested on a tangy mix of red beans, garlic, onions, chili peppers, and ketchup. It may look quite small, but the meat was dense and rich. It was quite filling. This beef was not as tender as the rib eye, but it was well-seasoned, the flavor was all there, and it was perfectly cooked.

The steak fries were hot and crunchy on the outside, while light and fluffy inside. They put a massive pile of them on the plate. I couldn't finish them all.

During our beef-centered discussion, Flash told me that the steaks at Kozička down the street are excellent. I had a bite of a friend's later in the evening.It was juicy and peppery, but the chewy, overcooked meat didn't thrill me. I wouldn't rate it so highly.

However, I can recommend Potrafena Husa's flank steak (247 CZK), which I had the other day. It is a new item on the menu at the Vinohradska restaurant.

Getting back to Crazy Cow, the bill for the first visit was 767 CZK. The tab for the second trip was 600 CZK.

For some reason, when the two Americans dined together, a stamp was added to the bottom of the receipt and a 10 percent service charge was added. This did not happen when one of the diners was Czech.

My assessment: Crazy Cow Steakhouse serves great steaks at good prices.

It's a decent option if you are in the tourist center and craving quality beef, fried potatoes, and a beer.

If you want a second opinion, I'll tell you it's pretty ugly if you want something else.

Crazy Cow Steakhouse
Dlouhá 8
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 222 310 018

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fragola Project (Closed)

Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees
John Keats
Walking near Old Town Square, I came upon the restaurant space where L'Angolo by Kogo used to be. In its place was the new restaurant, bar, and club: Fragola Project.I peered through a window with a tacky decal of a picture frame around it and saw that the interior was quite different.

Instead of L'Angolo's mostly white theme, the dining room was now a mix of white, brown, beige, and gold. It was filled with overstuffed couches, chairs, and even a bed.A glance at the menu showed that the food prices were surprisingly reasonable. I later learned the restaurant is no longer associated with the Kogo restaurants.

V and I returned for dinner on another evening with Jersey Girl and Mr. Big. Several things provoked comment right away. The ladies thought the special little chair to hold their bags was a nice touch.The soft couch on one side of our table was lower than the chairs.Aside from us, the room was populated by young blondes in black.And you have to like or be able to tune out techno music.

Fragola's chef stared down from an over-sized photo on the wall, gripping a kitchen knife and serving fork.With his manic smile, I thought he looked like a man who should not be allowed near sharp objects.

I then realized I'd seen him before. It was Roman Hadrbolec, the Czech Republic's self-described "first Celebrity Chef."

Almost two years ago, we ate at his restaurant in Brno, Noem Arch (Noah's Ark). Sadly, it was not a happy experience. In summary, I called it style over substance.

I also cited his comically narcissistic online biography, which breathlessly recounts his storied culinary career.

You have to wonder about a guy who, near the top of his CV, mentions that he personally waited on Vaclav Havel for a day during a conference in a small Austrian village in 1993. Or that he was first runner-up in a Dallas swimsuit competition in 2000.

We started off by ordering a round of drinks. V and Jersey Girl had Campari and orange juice (135 CZK each). A .25 liter bottle of Bonaqua water was a soul crushing 50 CZK.Mr. Big had Jack Daniel's with ice (85 CZK).

I went for a mojito (160 CZK).It was well-mixed. Though the cocktail was on the sweet side, I liked it. But with the glass filled to the brim with crushed ice, it was a pitifully small drink for the price.

I began to realize that while the food prices were reasonable, they really nail you on the drinks.

For an appetizer, Mr. Big and I both ordered Roman's Special Asian Steak Tartare (115 CZK). The two small circles of coarsely chopped beef were coated with crushed peanuts and mixed with ginger.I thought the Asian take on this dish worked surprisingly well.

But it was not perfection. We both thought the beef needed salt, which was fixed easily by adding soy sauce. The meat was not the finest quality, being slightly chewy. And there was the ubiquitous sweet Thai chili sauce on the side.

The menu also offers Moravian specialties, but we all stuck to Asian fare.

V got the unfried spring roll stuffed with crab salad (80 CZK).I warned her that for the price, it would be imitation crab, but she ordered it anyway. Unsurprisingly, she described it as an imitation crab salad roll with basil. The Thai chili sauce made a repeat appearance.

The good news was it was tightly rolled and held together, unlike the disastrous, over-sized and unraveling spring roll we had at Noem Arch.

Jersey Girl had the rucola, goat cheese, and pear salad (90 CZK).It came with a honey-mustard dressing and walnuts. The salad was insubstantial in size, but tasted fine.

I wanted to test the restaurant's sushi skills, so as a second appetizer, I ordered tuna maki (110 CZK) and one salmon nigiri (75 CZK).The rolls were well-made and the fish was fresh. I enjoyed the buttery salmon. However, its pillow of rice crumbled on me immediately after I picked it up with my chopsticks. Still, Mr. Big thought it looked good and ordered the same for himself.

V and Jersey Girl ordered glasses of red and white Moravian wine (70 and 80 CZK).Both said they were quite good for domestic.

Then, Mr. Big made the mistake of ordering a beer, a .3 liter glass of Lobkowicz.After he ordered, I mentioned that I'd heard the beer was very expensive. After it was delivered, he spoke to the waiter.

"Excuse me, how much is the beer?"

"It is 150 Czech crowns."

"What? That has to be against the law. Isn't there a law against charging that much for beer?"

The waiter was confused, so V explained the comment. He said he was sorry, but if it was any consolation, the two .75 liter bottles of Badoit mineral water were only 120 CZK each.

Not really. That was the most expensive beer I've seen in Prague.

For our main course, Mr. Big and I both had Roman's Signature Orange Beef with basmati rice (210 CZK).I very much enjoyed this sticky, sweet, sour, and salty dish. The two pieces of butter tender meat looked like more than the 150 grams promised on the menu.

Under the orange and oyster sauce reduction, the beef was rare to medium rare. That's how I like it, though the waiter didn't ask.I thought the sauce, itself, was quite similar to that found on the orange beef at a Panda Express in Atlanta's airport. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff. But it may not appeal to everyone.

V had the Miso Lamb Chops with Lime and Parsley Crust (260 CZK). The two pieces didn't look much like lamb chops I've seen before, with the meat flattened out at the ends of the two bones.The lamb was very tender, but quite salty and with only a hint of the expected gamey lamb flavor. The bread crumbs were very buttery, but I didn't taste the lime. It came with wasabi mashed potatoes, which were on the sweet side.

Jersey Girl had the prettiest dish, the Signature Sea Bass Marinated in Miso and Sake (175 CZK). It was surrounded by square pieces of red, green, and yellow peppers.V and I had little bites and both of us thought it tasted fine, though again, the seasoning didn't come through so well. However, Jersey Girl was unhappy with the flavor of the sweetish wasabi potatoes which stuck to the fish.

Oh, and she insisted that I register her complaint that a velcro strip along the bottom of her chair ripped her good stockings.

For dessert, I ordered the strawberry crème brûlée (120 CZK).This was not a particularly good version. It had a loose, slightly eggy texture that did not match my creamy dreams.

Now, the main attraction for many will be Fragola Project's downstairs club. To get there, you pass under a giant strawberry (which, in case you didn't know, is what fragola means in Italian).Since I'm not the biggest expert on this scene, I turned to my dark and dashing friend, Flash. He's a veteran clubber with a well-proven ability to successfully navigate these dancing dens of iniquity.

Flash told me he'd been to Fragola Project a number of times. The main reason: Lots of good-looking women.

His impression was that there were a lot of young ladies from former Soviet countries, along with "the type of men they attract, including expat men like myself, but also some scary dudes."

He said the club, with its advertising posters on the walls, felt very Russian. Which makes sense since one of the owners is Russian.There was muscle working security at the front door, and he thought they exercise "face control" at some points in the evening.

Flash said "a few handlers walk around making sure big spenders and VIPs are being taken care of." It's been very crowded on weekends, partly because it's a "new place to go for young Czech professionals."

The dance floor is quite small, and Flash told me the music has been house/techno with occasional hip-hop mixed in.For more on what it looks like, you can check out Fragola Project's Facebook page.

Upstairs in the restaurant, it started filling up with pre-club diners after 9:30 p.m. That's when we were leaving. For our part, we spent close to 1000 CZK each in the restaurant, including tip. We thought the service was polite, but occasionally awkward, and our waiter went missing a number of times.

If you cut back on extravagances like having more than one drink, you could have dinner for half what we spent. But if you aren't into this kind of lounge scene atmosphere, then this is not the place for you, no matter what it costs.

When it comes to quality and sophistication, the cooking at Fragola Project will probably never match the fame of its famous chef.

That's to be expected when you raise expectations too high.

But if you are a wayward girl or just in the market for one, then it's the place to be.

Fragola Project
V Kolkovně 1
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 602 195 948

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Zlatá Praha - InterContinental Hotel Brunch

"The quality of food is in inverse proportion to a dining room's altitude, especially atop bank and hotel buildings (airplanes are an extreme example)." Bryan Miller, former NY Times restaurant critic
Don't let this ugly exterior fool you.The InterContinental Hotel is much nicer inside.

Last week, V took me for brunch at the hotel's restaurant, Zlatá Praha (Golden Prague).Years ago, we used to be hotel brunch regulars, hitting all the big ones. But prices and times have changed, and we don't do it much anymore.

We always considered the best to be the one at what is now known as the Radisson Blu Alcron . I wrote about it almost two years ago. The price there is now 1099 CZK and includes unlimited wine, beer, and a welcome glass of sparkling wine. That brunch focused on excellent, freshly prepared seafood.

Our past experience with Zlatá Praha was that the food wasn't as good, but the atmosphere in the dining room was much better.And the view of Prague's Old Town could not be beat.A spot by one of the big picture windows is a front row seat for beautiful buildings like Old Town Square's Týn Church.Of course, Prague is known as the city of 100 spires (or 1000, depending on whom you ask).You can see quite a few from here.

We received mimosas on our arrival, and then the Bohemia Sekt started flowing. Zlatá Praha's Sunday brunch was 990 CZK per person. But free-flowing wine and sparkling wine was 350 CZK per person extra.

And that's for the cheap stuff, Bohemia Sekt. For better quality French champagne, it was 500 CZK extra per person.

As for food, there was a gourmet à la carte menu to go along with the standard buffet service.I started at the buffet table with some amuse bouche-style items.

I had a large spoon with sliced roast beef with sliced chili pepper. The meat was good, with a tangy flavor we both thought was ketchup.There was a spoon with a cheese cube salad, which was OK. And there was small dish with a slice of smoked butterfish over undressed lettuce.

This was plain unpleasant. The fish had a desiccated, mealy texture.

Behind the plate, I had a lidded jar containing gazpacho. It tasted more like plain tomato juice, with only a hint of pepper. It was boring and bland.

There was a salad bar with mostly basic choices.You could mix your own lettuce, tomato, peppers, cucumbers and dressings, but not too much more.

I then went for the table with limited sushi offerings. I tried one of each type they had available -- tuna and salmon nigiri and maki.If this sushi were served to me anywhere, I'd consider it bad. But at a first class hotel, I considered it shockingly bad.

The chef cut the raw fish in ugly, jagged little pieces. Even worse, all the flesh was wrinkled from dryness. The rice under the nigiri was crunchy and freezing cold. The maki was even worse. Yet, the tuna and salmon did not taste old or spoiled.

My conclusion: The sushi had likely been made long before the brunch and then stored in an industrial-strength refrigerator. Talk about disrespecting the fish. Frankly, the mall sushi at Makakiko Asia and Sushi Restaurant in the Palladium is far superior.

In more positive buffet news, raw oysters were available.This is one of V's favorites, and she liked these. I think she had a dozen, making two trips to the table.

I moved on to the à la carte menu. You can order as much as you want from this. The first thing I had was the Eggs Benedict.I'd call it not bad, but still sub-par.

The egg, itself, was perfectly poached. The Hollandaise sauce was thin. The ham was a very ordinary, thin cold cut slice. And the English muffin was more like a round circle of bread.

From there, things improved. I tried the seared tuna with sesame sauce. It was a medium-size, very fresh tuna steak.I prefer it very red, so it was cooked a little more than I like. The exterior had a nice salt-sesame flavor. But there really was no sauce. Just sesame oil.

By itself, I found it too dull. I kicked myself as I was finishing it for not going over to the sushi table and picking up more soy sauce and wasabi.

Then, I got the beef tenderloin with grilled vegetables. Unlike the sushi, this warm meat was very red and rare from top to bottom.It could have been more tender, but the flavor was nice. I liked it. It came with a sauce that was remarkably like that which came with the Eggs Benedict.

The grilled vegetables were well-prepared. But I wished for less red and green peppers and more of the other stuff, like the mushrooms.

The last thing I ordered was the veal roast beef with what the menu, in Czech, called "chocolate salt."This was the winning dish of the day. The absolutely delicious, very tender meat came with a salty, chocolate-based sauce that was like a very rich gravy.

I think they meant "sauce" on the menu, rather than "salt," but no matter. I wished I had room for several portions.

However, it was time for dessert.They had impressive displays of a multitude of cakes and pastries, along with the usual warm chocolate fountain with fruit.

I picked up a small crème brûlée and a chocolate mousse. V got glasses with pistachio cream topped with baked apple, and also one with fruit and vanilla cream.The crème brûlée and a chocolate mousse were disasters. Both were old, tired, and dried out. The crème brûlée's sugar top had gone soft and merged with the sugar-gritty bottom. The mousse had a chalky texture and an off-taste that we, veteran mousse-makers, could not identify.

V's choices were better. The green cream had a very enjoyable, rich flavor that reminded me of the great pistachio crème brûlée at La Finestra in Cucina. The other was more like a standard crème brûlée, but fresh-tasting.

We finished our second bottle of Bohemia Sekt just to feel like we got value from the 700 CZK surcharge, and we were done.

My assessment was that if food is the first priority, I'd go to the Radisson Blu for brunch every time. The food was far superior, and their 1099 CZK price includes unlimited beer and wine.

At the InterContinental, for 1380 CZK a head, you get unlimited wine, fantastic views, and the serious possibility you are going to eat something unpleasant.Even so, you might be surprised to hear me say I'd still consider taking out-town-guests there. They'd most certainly be wowed by the scenery.I'd just have to steer them carefully away from the many disappointing dishes. I'm sure we could be happy with just oysters and the à la carte items.

So, it could be a memorable meal for a visitor, in spite of the problems.

But if I ever find myself going up the InterContinental hotel's elevator again, I'll be counting the floors, thinking of the Bryan Miller Rule.

And I'll be dreaming about the dining room at the Radisson Blu.

Which is on the ground floor, by the way.

Zlatá Praha - InterContinental Hotel
Pařížská 30
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel (+420) 296 631 111

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