Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ristorante Porto

“Imitation is at least 50 percent of the creative process” Jamie Buckingham
I first heard about Ristorante Porto almost a year ago, when "Christine" recommended it in the comments to my post about Osteria Da Clara.

She told me the Italian/Mediterranean restaurant in the up and coming Karlin neighborhood was very good, and she'd love to know what I think of the place.But I usually need more than one nudge.

More recently, I read a few positive reviews on, and they reminded me about the place. I didn't know these people personally, though I knew "Charlie" as a regular poster about food.

So I passed word to my friend, Hana Montanová, who works in Karlin. She had lunch there a couple of times and gave it a thumbs up. That was the tipping point. That, and the fact that Prague 8 is sorely underrepresented among my postings. Cloud 9 Sky Bar & Lounge was the only other place there I'd done.

Jersey Girl, the Englishman met V and I for dinner at Porto on a Saturday night. We walked in and were greeted by two musicians I'd seen many times before around town.Boro and Janis (Ioannis) play acoustic guitars and sing beautiful harmonies on everything from Elton John, Eric Clapton, and the Eagles to a wide variety of folk tunes. I wasn't expecting live music, especially since the restaurant is somewhat small, but it was a nice surprise.

The restaurant has a modern, artsy look with silver print wallpaper, stylish lighting accents, white tablecloths, and comfortable, cream-colored chairs.V looked over the evening's offerings.

"It looks like Mirellie's menu, but with fewer choices," she said.

True enough, like other Balkan-run Mediterranean restaurants in Prague such as Mirellie, Kogo, and Giardino, the menu covered many of the same styles of salads, pastas, seafoods, meats, and looked quite familiar. The most noticeable omission, compared with those other places, was the lack of pizza.

We started off with some excellent bread.The interior was warm and dense, while the crust was pleasantly crunchy. Plates were on the table for receiving their good olive oil for dipping.

We ordered some sparkling mineral water for the table and received .75 liter bottles of San Pellegrino (80 CZK each).We also shared .5 liter carafes of the house wine (110 CZK each). Jersey Girl said the Farnese Montepulciano d'Abruzzo had a nice berry undertone. I thought it was mildly tannic. We were all pleased with the quality of the wine for the price.

Jersey Girl started with a green salad (70 CZK).It was very simple, just rucola and one other type of lettuce. Jersey Girl said it was "naked" and she dressed it herself with oil and vinegar.

I had the bruschetta con caprino -- baked goat cheese on toast with salad (150 CZK). The warm, tangy cheese was perfectly browned.Despite its richness, it had a light, ethereal quality. The generic wheat toast was less than worthy of its topping, and the salad was almost more of a garnish than a true partner.

V got the octopus salad with celery, red onion, parsley, and olive oil (250 CZK). She considers herself a expert on this dish, ordering it whenever she sees it on a menu.She declared this version to be OK, but on the bland side and inferior to the others she's had around the city.

As a counterpoint, I thought the tenderness of these particular tentacles deserved a kind mention. But I'll counter my counterpoint by saying the serving was not particularly large. I looked up the octopus salad prices at other places we've been, and Porto's was the most expensive.

The service was mostly efficient and attentive throughout. Between courses, there was a little show. The waitress put something that looked like a big, white antacid tablet in a dish. Then, she poured water over it. It then expanded and turned into a moist cloth for cleaning your hands.Later, Jersey Girl got something stuck in her teeth. As she discreetly tried to remove it, the waiter was there in a flash with toothpicks.

For her main course, Jersey Girl ordered the Tagliatelle all Pescatore (250 CZK).She declared the clams, mussels and calamari to be great. It also had small shrimp and a nice mix of herbs. However, the pasta was slightly overcooked and in need of salt. She said the sauce begged for more flavor. She said that more chopped tomato would have helped.

I got the Risotto di Mare (220 CZK). I had all the same quality seafood in my rice that Jersey Girl had.I like my risotto al dente, but it was also overcooked and rather soupy. The flavor of the mussels dominated, and I found it rather one-dimensional. I asked for some lemon. A good squeeze of that certainly helped.

But I've also had many better versions recently, including the one I had a few weeks ago at Pepe Nero Ristorante & Pizzeria.

V had what I thought was the best dish of the night: the tiger shrimp grilled in lemon (325 CZK).They were cooked in their shells and retained that flavor, along with the taste of the grill itself mixed with citrus. The balance was just right. The fresh crustaceans were on the heat just long enough to achieve the correct texture.

I loved them, and V agreed they were excellent. But she also lamented that the shrimp were on the small side.

The Englishman ordered the sea bass baked in salt (320 CZK). V recommended this cooking method over the grilled version, and he was very pleased.The fish was a moist, flaky, pristine white with the clear, clean flavor you hope for in a fine fish like this. A shot of lemon was all it needed. We all had a bite and everyone agreed it was excellent.

Joking he wanted to have "fish and chips," he also got a side order of fries (45 CZK). He liked that they were not greasy at all.I thought they weren't hot enough and had a dried-out texture. He took exception to my critique and declared them excellent. Who are ya gonna believe?

After she had sipped way some of the crema, Jersey Girl gave a good rating to the espresso (35 CZK).For dessert, I ordered the strawberries with sweet mascarpone (95 CZK).The simple combination was nice enough, but there's not too much more you can say about it.

The meal officially ended with complimentary shots of chilled limoncello and grappa. Nice finish. The bill for the four of us, without tip, was 2115 CZK.

Looking back at this meal, it's fair to say that Ristorante Porto imitates about 50 percent of the menu of other Mediterranean restaurants in Prague. As for what comes out of the kitchen, I'd only rate it at about 50 percent successful.

I've talked to some other people who work in Karlin, and one person called it "too expensive." But a couple said that, whatever its faults, Porto is still one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood. And based on the limited time I've spent around there, I'd guess they're probably right.

The Porto staff seemed like nice people. I hope they improve and find success.

But for now, for me, they're only half-way there.

Ristorante Porto
Urxova 10
Prague 8 - Karlín
Tel: (+420) 222 313 926

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Maitrea Vegetarian Restaurant

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I eat animals who are" Groucho Marx
Confession: I've never posted about a vegetarian restaurant before.

I have nothing against them. Vegetables, in the right hands, can be just as delicious as any meat dish.

And yet, somehow, I've never even been to Prague's much-loved vegetarian Valhalla, Lehka Hlava (Clear Head). I've eaten many times at Radost FX, but never had the urge to write about it for some reason.

I must have some kind of mental block. When pondering where to eat, vegetarian restaurants never pop into my head.

So when Mr. Big told me he really liked Maitrea, the sister restaurant of Lehka Hlava, I decided it was time to finally break new ground.I'd read about what a great looking space it was, and when I arrived it did not disappoint.Mr. Big suggested booking a table downstairs. It's even nicer down there. There's a golden fireplace and a sitting area with funky furniture in the back.There aren't too many Prague restaurants with this much style, especially in Maitrea's price range.

I found V and Mr. Big at a table with what appeared to be some new friends. Actually, the tables were so close together, we were basically sharing our space with another couple.We looked over the very international wine list with very reasonably priced bottles. We chose a French organic red. It was the most expensive wine they had, the Domaine de la Serre Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Cailloux Vielles Vignes (450 CZK).We all loved it. It was silky smooth. It wasn't so complex, but as I enjoyed it, the word "delicate" came to mind.

For appetizers, we decided to get the "Maitrea" of starters (155 CZK). It included hummus, red beet tartare, chive dip, roasted peppers, and warm onion and red beet cakes.Mr. Big thought the hummus was just OK, but V and I disagreed. I felt the tangy, smooth chickpea puree was above average.

The red pepper was more tart than most and full of flavor. The "tartare" was like chopped, pickled beets, and we found it refreshing.

I didn't like the earthy beet cakes as much, and the doughy onion cakes were boring and bland. The chive dip tasted basically like yogurt and was unremarkable. All in all, I had mixed feelings about the mix of starters.

I'm a big guacamole fan, so I couldn't resist trying their version with citrus tip and a garlic brioche (70 CZK).The small amount of guacamole on the plate was dominated by chopped tomato. It was freshly made, and included diced onion. The flavor was better than most versions you'll find in town. But it would have been better with less tomato and more avocado.

The "citrus dip" was a sweet, tangy yogurt sprinkled with sesame seeds. I couldn't figure out which citrus fruit it was supposed to be. The taste was too indistinct. The brioche was an interesting addition instead of chips, but it was small and gone more quickly than its accompaniments.

The three of us went through the first bottle of wine all too quickly. We had a serious debate about getting the same again. But we decided to be brave and ordered the organic Emiliana Novas Cabernet Merlot from Chile (430 CZK).There was a spirited debate over this wine. Mr. Big was in heaven, declaring it fuller, rounder, and more complex. V liked it more as well. But I found it more tannic than the Cailloux and liked that wine better.

For a main course, V had the red bean chili baked with cheddar in a flour tortilla, rice, tomato salsa, sour cream and fresh coriander (145 CZK).The menu said it contained honey and I found it rather sweet.

It also warned it was mildly hot, but I didn't find that to be the case. The sauce with the beans inside the tortilla was on the thin side. V was satisfied, but I was expecting more from this dish.

I ordered the grilled goat cheese, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes and chive spread, served burger-style in a freshly baked focaccia (145 CZK).After a few bites, I wished I had gotten something else. This was a case where more was less. I felt the proportions were all wrong.

Calling this a "burger" was misleading. It was almost impossible to pick up. I tried, and it was a mess. I love goat cheese as much or more as the next person, but this was just too much. It overwhelmed the modest amount of eggplant strips and spinach underneath.

The creamy chive sauce poured over the top of the rich cheese was just overkill. At least halving the amount of goat cheese and losing the sauce would bring some balance.

Mr. Big had the winner of the main courses: pasta with shiitake, chanterelle and oyster mushrooms in a cream sauce with garlic, onions, parsley and parmesan (160 CZK). All the mushrooms varieties were delicious.I thought the sauce was on the milky side and perhaps too salty. But Mr. Big was enamored, and V agreed it was very good.

His only complaint, and not a small one, was that the pasta was barely warm when it reached our table and turned cool shortly after.

Our waiter was friendly, but he went missing in action a few times. He delivered our main courses without cutlery and then disappeared. I had to go hunt him down to get knives and forks.

Now comes the hard part. Literally. Mr. Big took a bite of one of the last bits of V's red bean chili.

"There's something hard in there," he said. He reached into his mouth, pulled something out, and when he cleared the food a way we saw them. Two tiny, brown, angular stones.I rubbed them together to be sure they were not hard vegetable matter. We showed them to the waiter. He expressed shocked and confusion and brought the manager.

She was deeply apologetic and said the stones must have gotten mixed in with the beans when they were packaged. She also looked upset and said, rather convincingly, that such a thing had never happened before.

We weren't angry or upset. We only felt it was important they know about it. She immediately offered to take the chili off the bill, which was the right thing to do. Then, she told us we could have free dessert, as well. I said that was unnecessary, but she insisted.

I ordered homemade brownie with walnuts and cranberries, served with strawberry-mint sauce (65 CZK).This brownie would have been amazing right after it came out of the oven.

But I'm sorry to report it was cold, dried out and rather hard to chew. Heating it would have helped. The strawberry sauce did have fresh mint and was excellent.

What to make of this experience? First of all, I was sorry to have to include the rocky ending, but I faithfully report what happens and can't censor unfortunate events, however unrepresentative they might or might not be.

Putting that aside, the composition of some dishes didn't impress me, while the pasta suffered from either poor preparation or late delivery.

Still, the staff knew how to do the right thing, there was a good vibe, and the prices were a bargain.

So I wouldn't rule out a return visit to Maitrea, if only to sample the black bean burrito from a previous visit that Mr. Big raved about. Or to have another bottle of the Cailloux.

But maybe the main reason I'll be back is that even though I'm not a vegetarian, I have friends who are.

Maitrea Vegetarian Restaurant
Týnská ulička 6
(Not on nearby Týnská)
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: (+420) 221 711 631

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pepe Nero Ristorante & Pizzeria

"Pizza is a lot like sex. When it's good, it's really good. When it's bad, it's still pretty good." Unknown
I've been hearing about Pepe Nero for a long time. A couple of years back, their pizza won The Prague Post's contest for the best in town. In a recent newspaper interview, Prima TV chef Emanuel Ridi of Da Emanuel ranked it among the best three pizzas in town, along with Pizza Nuova and Rugantino.

So there you have it -- lots of buzz for this pie. And I've read the restaurant is a favorite of Prague's Italian community. But you know me, ever the contrarian. I had to see about this myself.

I got Jersey Girl and the Englishman to brave the cold on, yes, another snowy day in Prague. The restaurant is just across from the InterContinental Hotel, where I had brunch not long ago.Pepe Nero's interior is light and bright, with blonde floors, blonde chairs, and semi-nude brunettes on the walls. Very Italian.We started off with drinks. The Englishman had a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (70 CZK). Jersey Girl had a .2 liter glass of Italian merlot (80 CZK). She said it was smooth and slightly sweet.I stuck with a bottle of Mattoni mineral water (40 CZK).

Jersey Girl had a small, mixed salad (50 CZK).She dressed it herself with balsamic vinegar and olive oil that was on the table.

The Englishman said he thought the best test of a restaurant's pizza-making ability is to order the classic Pizza Margherita, so that's what he got (165 CZK).Jersey Girl got the Bufalina (240 CZK). It's essentially the same as the Margherita, but with mozzarella di bufala instead of cheese made from cow's milk.The yeasty crust was crispy and relatively thick for a Neapolitan pizza. A recent review on Eat Drink Prague called the tomato sauce sweet. But perhaps that was an anomaly. Jersey Girl and I both thought the finely chopped tomato puree was on the tart side. She thought it was a little too much, but I felt it balanced out well with the other flavors. The sauces also had a hint of basil, but it was fairly muted.

The mozzarella di bufala had a better, clearer flavor, but I'm not sure it was worth an extra 75 CZK.

Of course, I had to sample a few other things on the menu, so I ordered one of my favorite dishes, risotto alla pescatora (270 CZK).The high-quality Carnaroli rice was perfectly al dente and studded with fresh pieces of calamari, clams, and mussels. Parsley was cooked up in the mix. Overall, the flavor was very good.

But there were also a couple of problems. First, one or two of the mussels were a little less than fresh, with a strong fishy flavor. Second, one of the clam shells had shattered during cooking. It wasn't visually obvious, but after a couple of bites, I was picking out shell shards from my mouth. Not pleasant.

I'd still say my favorite version was the more complex, more tomato-based version served at Kogo in Slovanský dům (295 CZK).That dish also contained shrimp and occasionally langoustine and benefited greatly from fresh-torn parsley, rather than cooked. But I haven't eaten there in a long time. Unfortunately, they became inconsistent in their preparation. On a good day, though, it was the best.

I wondered how they handled meat, so I ordered the grilled entrecote (390 CZK).The meat had a light, almost veal-like color, and it sat almost alone on the plate with just some tomato slices and lettuce. Even at this price point, side items were extra.

When I ordered, the waitress asked if I wanted it cooked to medium. I told her I'd like it medium-rare. Instead, it came out medium, or even a bit past that point.That was a shame because it was a high-quality, very tender cut of meat.

I was also disappointed with the seasoning. It was cooked in olive oil, which was nice, but the beef was bland and undersalted. I added salt myself, but it took me a few attempts to get the level right, and it would have been so much better if it was properly seasoned just before cooking.

I felt this steak had great potential, but it didn't live up to it because of inattentive preparation.

I thought I should sample a dessert and didn't feel like something as heavy as tiramisu, so I had the panna cotta (90 CZK).I was disappointed. The texture was very rubbery. The sweet, condensed milk was just too simple, and the chocolate lightly drizzled on top added almost nothing to the flavor.

Jersey Girl had an espresso (50 CZK).I had a latte macchiato (60 CZK). Both of us found the coffee to be very bitter.

Let's come full circle, so to speak, and consider the main question here: does Pepe Nero have the best pizza in Prague?

First of all, "the best" is such a subjective term, and I don't like to use it. I prefer to talk in terms of "favorite," which is less imposing.

But having been to Naples last spring, I think it is interesting to compare Neapolitan-style pizzas to the one I had at Da Michele.That simple pie was a revelation, with each humble ingredient singing like Pavarotti.

Da Michele's pizza did have a thinner crust, and there was much more of a char on it. It had a very smoky flavor. The sauce tasted more of basil. The San Marzano tomatoes distilled the very essence of the fruit.

In my opinion, Pepe Nero's pizza comes close to this standard, but not as close as the Pizza Margherita done by Ambiente's Pizza Nuova. This is the Diavola, but it looks similar to the Margherita, which I didn't have a picture of. Their pizzas are also certified "La Verace Pizza Napoletana," and it's the most similar to Da Michele's.

That said, I've had a lot of experience with Pizza Nuova, and while I've had a couple of great pizzas there, it can be inconsistent. Often, that restaurant's pies will get oily and soggy in the middle and turn into a mess.

That wasn't a problem with Pepe Nero's somewhat thicker crust. That pie had more and thicker cheese, but that also resulted in some of it not being melted all the way through and pulling off in strips with some bites.

While I wouldn't compare the pizzas from Pepe Nero or Pizza Nuova to good sex, both are really good.

Declaring a favorite is a tough call, and when I finally do a round up of all the pizzas I've tried in Prague, you'll hear my final answer.

So you could say that these are just tease pizzas. Like a few other things I can think of, you might enjoy my verdict more if you have to wait for it.

Pepe Nero Ristorante & Pizzeria
Bílkova 4
Prague 1
Tel: (+420) 222 315 543

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ichnusa Botega & Bistro

"Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." Yogi Berra
One day, Mr. Big comes and tells me he's scored a reservation at the hot new restaurant, Ichnusa Botega & Bistro, in Malá Strana."But you can't write about it," he adds. "It's supposed to be small, and I don't want you to make it impossible to get a reservation."

"It already got a rave, four-stars across the board review in The Prague Post," I told him. His shoulders sank, and I received dispensation to write it up. We brought along a colleague, Moscow Man.

The place is small, indeed. There are only five tables.I usually try my best to avoid invading other people's privacy with my pictures and, since it was such close quarters, I blurred the faces in the photos.

The chef acts as a waiter, flitting back and forth from the kitchen to take orders. There was no menu.He just told us in his terse, laconic style what was on offer. And it's not like he recited a long list. He just deadpans something like, "I can make a plate for the table with prosciutto. Cheese."

Then he stops. If you press him for more options, he might offer sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and mushrooms.

So that's how we started off. The varieties of rough-cut, dry-cured hams were delicious.The aged Pecorinos and goat cheese were also great.

These came with Sardinian flat bread called pane carasau.It tasted a bit like bread sticks. The bill wasn't itemized very specifically, but these starters added up to around 300 CZK for the three of us. We later ordered more cheese and regular bread for 100 CZK.

One of the very nice touches is we also received carafes of tap water, without having to get the expensive bottled stuff.

Speaking of bottled stuff, the wine list was very pleasurable reading. It wasn't a long document, but the Italian wines were priced in my sweet spot, the 400-600 CZK range. V said the wine list at Osteria da Clara is only a little bit better and cheaper.

We started off with two bottles of the Argiolas Perdera from Sardinia (349 CZK).It was simple and dry, but nothing special.

Then, we were offered either a ravioli with ricotta and spinach or an Italian specialty of dried, cured fish eggs, also known as bottarga. The chef sold it to us saying that we could get ravioli anywhere, but this was the only place to get such fish eggs.

The dish was very salty and naturally fishy.The sliced pieces were quite tasty when placed on the pane carasau and then drenched in lemon juice.

After this, we all had a salad with grilled calamari and a shrimp (130 CZK).The warm squid was fresh and tender, the shrimp was small and nothing special. The dressing was very basic.

After killing off the first two bottles of wine, we ordered two bottles of a Cannonau di Sardegna (313 CZK).There were several Cannonaus on the menu. Despite the cheaper price, we all enjoyed this smoother, less tannic wine more than the Argiolas Perdera.

Jersey Girl joined us at this point and since she's mostly vegetarian, the chef made her a simple pasta with olive oil, red peppers, and grated cheese (155 CZK).It was fresh and simple, but on the salty side so it didn't draw a rave. Jersey Girl doesn't impress easily.

For the men's main courses, we all had the wild boar with gnocchi (315 CZK).I didn't find the meat or the gnocchi to be particularly noteworthy. But the sauce was special.

The rich salty gravy also had a fruity sweetness that had me asking the chef what it was. After struggling a bit with the translation, it turned out to be myrtle. He even brought out some dried myrtle berries for us to try.

At the end of the meal, we all had a shot of Mirta, a liqueur made from the Myrtle berries (40 CZK). I liked it very much.

Because the service was partly handled by the chef, it did go in fits and starts. There were long stretches between courses. The whole thing took about three hours. But because the conversation was good and the wine flowed freely, we didn't really care. We were in no hurry.

We ended up paying about 1000 CZK each, which seemed like a lot, at first. But then I remembered I had had more than a bottle of wine just for myself, and considering the several courses, it seemed quite fair.

I went back with V a few weeks later. The chef took our orders, but we were also waited on by a nice Moravian boy (V usually loves Moravians), and an Italian man who appeared to be the owner.

We started again with the cutting board of cheeses and cured meats (300 CZK). I particularly liked the 12-month old, sharp and tangy Pecorino on this platter.It also came with silky pancetta and cinghiale or wild boar, which V liked the best. With the intense saltiness, it was a lot to eat for two people.

We ordered a bottle of the same Cannonau di Sardegna, which V said was fine, but she didn't love.For some reason, I remembered it tasting better on the previous visit. Also, when our Italian host poured the wine, he wiped drops from the top of the bottle with his index finger. Twice.

For a starter, I had the rucola ravioli.It was very fresh, but the flavor didn't grab me so much. The filling tasted more of flour than of rucola. The pasta sat in a sauce that tasted like pure, melted butter.

V had the fish soup. The broth tasted of the sea, but was rather thin.V said the best part was the dollops of fish roe. Otherwise, she said it was uninspired, and she recalled some better versions she's had in the past.

We ordered a second bottle of wine based on our Italian host's recommendation -- the 2004 Tanca Farra (583 CZK). He even let us try it before ordering.This wine cost more, but the more complex and satisfying wine was worth the extra money. Also, I saw it for €10.50 online, so the mark-up wasn't too bad.

The prices of the two starters were 130 CZK and 145 CZK, but I couldn't tell which was which. The main courses were 355 CZK and 395 CZK.

V went for the duck leg confit.After she ordered it, the chef came over, saying that he had very fresh duck breasts that he wanted to use, it she'd change her order. She stuck with her legs, but in retrospect, she should have switched.

She said the leg tasted like a very ordinary baked Czech duck. It was tender, but there was not much more to it than a strong, gamey flavor. Essentially, it was boring.

I had more luck with the Argentinean steak. It was thick and tender, with a slathering of balsamic vinegar syrup that gave it a tart-sweet coating.I did ask for it to be cooked medium rare and it came out very rare, but I was not too bothered about that. The simple salad and potato wedges drizzled with the balsamic were fine.

I had a coffee (42 CZK), but we didn't feel like dessert.

The meal was another three hour affair. The second trip was 2315 CZK for two, not including tip. But again, the wine boosted the price.

We talked about the dinner afterwards, and both of us felt the food was simple, fresh, but with a few exceptions, it didn't bring enough smiles or wishes for more. Sometimes it was a little too ordinary.

What we both liked more than the food itself was the overall experience. There's nothing quite like it in Prague. We felt like we were eating in someone's bright kitchen in Italy.It had a very personal feeling, and the good, decently-priced wines helped us warm up and feel a part of it.

Mr. Big liked Ichnusa more than us and said he'd be going back from time to time. For V and I, neither of us felt a big desire to make Ichnusa a regular part of our dining routine.However, we were both glad we tried it and would tell other foodie friends with three hours to spare to give it a shot.

But getting one of the few tables at Ichnusa was not so easy.

And despite my lack of a rave review, it might still be too crowded.

Ichnusa Botega & Bistro
Plaska 5
Prague 5 - Malá Strana
Tel. (+420) 605 525 748

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