Friday, September 24, 2010

Ristorante Carmelita

"The advice of their elders to young men is very apt to be as unreal as a list of the hundred best books.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
People love to rank stuff. Everyone wants to know what's the best, what's the worst, and everything in between.

Personally, I'm wary of top 10 or top 100 lists, even though I've made a few on occasion.

One website that has lists I've found useful is I use it a lot for making travel plans. I often check their hotel rankings. They are based on extensive user grading and feedback, and they've helped me find some real gems. I also volunteer advice on their Prague forum.

But I've been intrigued and bothered for a long time about their restaurant rankings. Right now, La Degustation is in first place. I've never been to this expensive epicurean eatery, but from what I've heard, it's deserved.

Artisan recently leapt up to the number two spot. Rankings change pretty regularly, based on member responses. There are other worthy, though expensive entrants, with V Zátiší and La Finestra in Cucina coming at six and seven, respectively.

But the current number three is an Italian place called Ristorante Carmelita on Ujezd."That place?" I thought. I've passed it hundreds of times on the tram but barely even noticed it. Given the location and the fact I'd never heard any mention of it I just assumed it was a typical tourist spot.

People wrote reviews using words like "fantastic" and "wonderful" and "fabulous." The restaurant is one of the most-reviewed on the list. And I don't think the writers are shills.

I had to see for myself. My schedule's been hectic lately and I've had trouble coordinating with friends, so I made three solo visits to Carmelita.

The dining areas do have a warm feeling, with worn wood flooring, brick walls, lots of browns and yellows, and Pottery Barn-style kitsch.An Italian crooner was on the sound system.

I belatedly discovered the upstairs section is for smokers when the people at the table next to me asked for an ash tray.I started with a .4 liter glass of Pilsner Urquell (43 CZK). It tasted fine.Perhaps some people aren't aware that it's not a half-liter glass. I'd prefer the larger size.

Three slices of bread arrived with soft, seasoned butter. They looked a little lonely in the big basket.The bread was good quality, but also chewy and not the freshest.

The short list of starters was pretty standard and basic: beef carpaccio, salmon tartare, bruschetta, and Parma ham with mozzarella.

I settled on the grilled goat cheese salad with grilled vegetables (169 CZK). Not good.The warm, tangy cheese itself was fine, but I don't award many points for selecting and heating cheese properly. Everything else was just sad.

Given the decent bread I had in the basket, I couldn't understand why they'd park the cheese on top of that cheap, white, supermarket toast. The "grilled vegetables" consisted of two dry, pan-blistered slices of eggplant and two slices of zucchini with no discernable seasoning.

Under that was water-soaked, undressed lettuce. There was oil and balsamic vinegar on the table for me to dress it up.

For a main course, I picked my regular favorite and what I had last week at Mirellie in Vinohrady: the risotto frutti di mare (169 CZK).The rice was cooked properly and al dente. It was a very generous and filling portion. There was also onion and leaf parsley. The low price is hard to beat.

But there were plenty of problems. There was an overabundance of tomato sauce mixed in that was really too sweet for me. The seafood itself wasn't good. The shrimp were small and overcooked, and most of the calamari was rubbery and fishy. Oddly, a few of the rings were more tender and tasted fresher. The mussels, without shells, also seemed past their prime.

This risotto may look like others I've had around town, but Mirellie's and Kogo's are far superior.

I paid 380 CZK without tip for this first trip. I didn't get quality, but I definitely got quantity. I couldn't even finish the risotto if I had wanted to.

On my second visit, I went downstairs.The warm design is the same as upstairs.

On one side of the room is their wood-burning pizza oven.One thing that many travelers take special note of is the fish tank.There are some large, colorful specimens in there.

I decided to see what they could do with the bruschetta (89 CZK).This time they used the good bread underneath. The fresh tomato and basil, with a touch of vinegar, was fine if uninspiring.

The other bruschetta really had no other flavor beside the most basic type of mushroom. It was totally bland and boring and needed salt.

I'd read a review by one traveler who raved about the steak, so I ordered the beefsteak, green pepper sauce, and roasted potatoes (369 CZK).At last, I found something to agree on with the tourists. It was great.

The meat was amazingly tender. I could easily cut the most beautiful slices with the less than sharp steak knife. The beef was cooked perfectly medium-rare as requested, which brought up its excellent flavor.I loved the crispy, buttery potatoes underneath.

The only fault I found was with the creamy pepper sauce. Initially, it tasted too salty, but I got used to it after a few bites. In the end, I cleaned my plate.

As full as I was, I still decided I needed to eat a dessert. I ordered the ricotta cheesecake (79 CZK).For some reason, I imagined I'd get a dainty little slice, but it was a huge piece, covered with a dark berry syrup-compote.

This cheesecake was fantastic. The waiter assured it me it was homemade. The dessert was light, creamy, not overly sweet, and had the clear texture of ricotta I was hoping for. I wish there were more ricotta-based desserts in this town.

The bill for this visit was 580 CZK without tip.

I went back one more time, and since the weather was fine, I sat out in front.It's pretty noisy with all the cars and trams going by, but also a good spot for people watching.

I asked for a .33 liter bottle of Mattoni mineral water.It was room temperature, not chilled. I hate that.

I had to check out one last item that got a lot of positive mentions: the pizza. I ordered the "Messicana" which comes with onions, pepperoni, jalapenos and I asked them to leave off the egg on top (152 CZK).These toppings are rather overwhelming, flavor-wise. So I made sure to get a good taste of the tomato sauce by itself. It tasted of tomato and salt and not much else. Just OK.

The cheese was unremarkable. The crust was a serious weak point. It was thin, chewy, boring, and the kind you'd find at dozens of other generic pizza places around town.

I had a couple of good dishes, but my overall assessment is that Ristorante Carmelita is nowhere close to deserving even a top ten ranking among Prague restaurants.

Yes, their prices are very good for a prime tourist area. They don't skimp on portions. Service was efficient enough. It's not a bad looking spot. I can understand tourists being relieved at finding such a place, after all they've heard about rip-off restaurants in Prague. And of course, they don't know the many better quality places that aren't in the tourist zone.

Still, I'm left mystified. Why is it that Carmelita has 95 user reviews on Tripadvisor, and its next-door neighbor, Luka Lu, only has one review and is ranked 409th out of 964 restaurants?

By my reckoning, Luka Lu is clearly a better restaurant overall. The food is much more consistent and tasty, the prices are similar, and the outside seating in its back garden is better.

Lists can be useful at times, but this type of disparity makes this ranking rather unreal for me.

My advice: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Ristorante Carmelita
Ujezd 31
Prague - Malá Strana
Tel: (+420) 257 312 564

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Mirellie in Vinohrady (Closed)

** This restaurant closed around the beginning of 2012 

"All who would win joy, must share it; happiness was born a twin." Lord Byron
Almost 10 years ago, I used to go regularly to Kogo for my fix of Italian/Mediterranean food.

But it got too expensive.

A couple of years ago, I discovered, Mirellie in Dejvice. Founded by Kogo castaways, it boasted essentially the same menu and almost the same quality for almost half Kogo's prices.

But it was too far away to go regularly. I live on the other side of town.

So I was quite pleased when I saw that Mirellie Vinohrady opened recently, not far from Náměstí Míru.The immediate question: would the second outlet maintain the quality of the first?

I went solo on my first visit. The larger of the two dining areas is for smokers.It's a smart-looking space, with a beautiful stained-wood floor, modern, comfortable furniture, and big, round light fixtures. It's essentially the same design as in Dejvice.

The non-smoking area has lighter colors and feels cozier.Sometimes non-smokers get second class treatment in this country, but I liked this smaller room better, and it is completely separate from the smoking area.

The music was at a good level, with some soulful ballads and brassy R&B.

I began with a half-liter of Stella Artois (45 CZK).I prefer other brands, but it was cold and fresh.

The waiter brought sliced bread in a basket.There is a 10 CZK charge for this. It's served cold, and not bad, but nothing special.

For a starter, I ordered the grilled octopus with beans and leek (185 CZK). Very good.There was a generous portion of tender, charred tentacles. I savored the smoky flavor and crunchy/soft texture.

Together with the salty, tangy, creamy beans, this is Mediterranean comfort food at its best. It's similar to the much-loved version served at Giardino Enoteca con Cucina.

For my main course, I had the risotto alla pescatore (190 CZK).It's a good point of comparison, I almost always ordered it at Kogo and also at Mirellie in Dejvice. When done well, it's one of my favorite dishes.

This one was perhaps slightly better than the one I had at the first Mirellie. The rice was al dente, as it should be. It was stocked with many small, fresh, but overcooked shrimp. There were also mussels, little clams, small, unsliced calamari, cooked cherry tomato, and leaf parsley.

I thought it could use some wine in there. I added salt and lemon to suit my own tastes. That said, I found it delicious and satisfying at a bargain price.

An interesting note. The dish was served with a bowl of Parmesan cheese on the side.Many Italians consider putting cheese on seafood to be heresy (and at least one Italian restaurateur told me so directly). They say it works against the delicate flavor of the seafood. But rules are meant to be broken, and I'll add it if I feel like having that flavor in there.

I asked the waiter which of the desserts were made in-house. He said there was only one, a homemade "chocolate cake" (75 CZK).He said it is a regional specialty of the former Yugoslavia. What I received certainly looked homemade.

Syrupy chocolate covered two layers. But it wasn't cake-like at all. It was very heavy, gooey, sugary and was studded with what tasted like chopped peanuts. The waiter told me it was also made with caramel.

I don't want to appear insensitive to the cuisines and tastes of other cultures, but I really didn't like it. It took my understanding of cloying to a new level. And I have a big sweet tooth.

I had a cappuccino to pull my taste buds back down to earth (50 CZK).Unusually for me, I didn't add sugar. But I found the coffee to be on the bitter side.

The service throughout the meal was excellent -- efficient and very professional. The bill for three courses, beer, and coffee was 555 CZK without tip. Great deal, I'd say.

I went back the very next evening with Jersey Girl and SS. I thought it appropriate because Jersey Girl was present for my review of Mirellie in Dejvice.

We sat in the same area I was in the night before.This time, the music was Tom Jones and what sounded like 80s pop. Later, it thankfully switched to Barry White.

The ladies were drinking Campari and orange juice (115 CZK each).I started with tuna tartare (180 CZK). The fresh, chopped fish was dressed with lemon, olive oil, and chopped capers.I'm not a big caper fan, but having a hint of it in the mix really worked for me.

SS had the rucola salad with cherry tomato and Parmesan (145 CZK).She said the rucola had a great, peppery flavor. She added that many leaves had thick, inedible stems that she had to remove. The shaved cheese was top quality. But this dish seemed too expensive for what you get.

Jersey Girl had the roasted red peppers with Feta cheese (125 CZK).The peppers were lightly vinegared and heavily olive oiled. I liked them, but Jersey Girl thought they were too sweet. We both agreed that the cheese was rather pedestrian and way too salty.

The restaurant has a nice wine list, with many fairly priced Italian and French labels.I've often enjoyed the Vranac from the Plantaže Winery (390 CZK)

But on this visit, Jersey Girl picked the Morellino di Scansano (460 CZK).We all liked this dry red. It smelled great.

We also shared a big bottle of Italian mineral water (85 CZK).I'll note here that I had the same brand and size of water at Restaurant U Emy Destinnové last week, and I was charged 150 CZK -- one of the few cases were the prices there were out of whack.

For a main course, Jersey Girl got the grilled dorada (295 CZK). She loved it.And they did something she had never seen before. The whole, grilled fish was deboned before being brought to the table, and then put back together.She really appreciated that nice touch. She felt that the spinach on the side was too salty, but I thought it was acceptable.

SS had the mussels in white wine (195 CZK).The meat inside the shells was very tender. She liked them and thought they were fresh. They tasted slightly too fishy to me.

I ordered the linguine with lobster (285 CZK).When I order lobster and the price is this low, I don't expect much meat. But what I got was all shell and no meat. I stopped the waiter and showed him the empty shells.

He was profusely apologetic and promised a quick remedy. Within about five minutes, another waiter brought me a cooked piece of claw meat.Even so, the dish was just OK. The sauce was mostly salty, with a hint of the sea. Some mussels, shrimp, and clams were thrown in along with zucchini and fresh parsley.

The bill for this dinner for three, with wine, drinks, water, and two espressos was 2200 CZK. Again, I thought it a good price.

Not every dish succeeds But there are some real winners at excellent prices. There's definitely value for money, along with a good atmosphere.

So my verdict is that Mirellie in Vinohrady is virtually identical to Mirellie in Dejvice.

And that is something to be happy about.

Mirellie in Vinohrady
Korunní 23
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 222 521 814

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Restaurant U Emy Destinnové

"I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food." W.C. Fields
When I first visited Restaurant U Emy Destinnové almost three years ago, I liked it, but I wouldn't call it love.

The restaurant is in the building where the opera soprano, Emmy Destinn, was born.It is hidden away at the end of a side street near I.P. Pavlova metro station. Perhaps it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind," but I didn't go back for a repeat performance.

Until last week.

I was looking for a place to take a visiting Bavarian journalist. One look at U Emy Destinnové's online menu had me convinced. It's a good read. I saw at least six dishes I wanted to try based on their descriptions alone.

Perhaps the menu spoke to my inner food soul because the restaurant has an American chef, Steven Trumpfheller. We speak the same language, it seems.

The restaurant's interior was updated since my previous visit.The room has some atmosphere, with antique furniture pieces and piano that is played on some nights.

But I didn't love the coral couches and what looked, in low light, like a beige-pink color scheme for the walls.Music, when not live, is rather eclectic. It tends toward Muzak versions of Lionel Ritchie and mellow electronica.

There was one waiter, and since he was busy with another table, Chef Steven came over and took our drink orders.

We received some crusty, warm rolls in a basket along with butter.Be aware that there is a 25 CZK per person cover charge.

I started with a beer. They only have .3 liter glasses of Pilsner Urquell (45 CZK).It was as it should be.

We also had a .7 liter bottle of Italian sparkling water (150 CZK).The water was fine, but I would have preferred something cheaper, like Mattoni.

Chef Steven told us he had gotten some very good Portuguese wines, so we ordered a bottle of Defese rosé (650 CZK).We both thought it was excellent -- nicely chilled, not too sweet, and with just a slight tart note.

Chef Steven, who spends lots of time in the dining room, recommended his imported American scallops, so the Bavarian ordered those (275 CZK).She was so glad she got this special. They were fantastic.

I've never seen larger scallops in this country. They were fresh and perfectly seared, with a light, brown crust on the top and bottom. The interior was shimmering and delicate.

The three of them sat atop a fig marmalade that rightly countered the light saltiness of the scallops. And my pleasure with this base was increased by a pleasant, spicy zing. Yum.

I ordered the seared Argentinian steak salad with mixed greens, onions, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. It was advertised as being dressed with a lemon-lime chipotle honey vinaigrette.This dish was the only real disappointment from two visits. The steak had good flavor, but it was not tender. The salad underneath was not terribly exciting.

But my biggest issue was with the dressing. It sounded great, and that was one of the main reasons I ordered the salad. But it tasted mostly like oil and had almost no flavor.

On one of Chef Steven's visits, I told him what I thought. He said that the dressing used to be more assertive, but he had to tone it down to adjust for Czech tastes. Whatever the reason, this version went to far the wrong way.

For a main course, the Bavarian had black risotto with grilled octopus and calamari (215 czk).The calamari was sliced into very thin rings and it was incredibly tender. The risotto was properly al dente, and provided a creamy foundation of flavor. I didn't see so much octopus and wished for more.

I ordered the stuffed calamari with shrimp, crab and mushrooms over a tomato-butter reduction (290 CZK). This was a small, but decadent dish.I didn't detect so much, shrimp, crab, or mushroom flavor. But still, it was a blissfully buttery stuffing. The calamari was fresh, but tougher than than the slices served with the risotto.

The reduction was delicious. It had the perfect acidic intensity to cut through all that butter. It wasn't a lot of food, but I did enjoy each small bite.

Then came dessert. I asked for the chocolate seduction rum cake (120 CZK).It was silky and rich, with only the mildest hint of rum. I really enjoyed it, but the beautifully patterned icing on top looked too perfect. I asked the waiter if it was made in-house, and he insisted it was.

The bill for this meal, which included a good bottle of wine and a Bailey's (80 CZK), came to 2005 CZK without tip. We were both very satisfied and thought it was a fair price for the quality.

There were many more dishes I wanted to try, so I returned alone and dined in the back room the following week.Chef Steven saw me come in and came by to say hello. He said he'd heard about me questioning the provenance of the desserts, and told me they had a lady coming in a few times a week to make them.

He also remembered and recited every dish we had on the previous visit and where my guest was from. Good memory on that guy (he also knows way more about baseball than me).

If you think I received some sort of special attention, know this: Chef Steven spends a lot of time conversing with every table. If you visit this restaurant, you'll likely get to know the master of this kitchen quite well. In another life, he should run for office.

His Czech partner, the equally friendly and efficient, Jiří Pešek, acted as my waiter on this second visit.

This time I started out with the wild French duck breast with a blackberry port wine demi-glace (175 CZK).While duck breast is often served rare, this one was cooked through.

All too often, when cooked like this, the meat becomes dry. Not in this case. Firm and lean, it was a peppery, juicy little duck steak.

The demi-glace complemented the flavor of the game. I sparingly used bits of the fresh blackberry on the plate with each bite. Very nice.

For my main course, I had to try the grilled Argentinian beef tenderloin with a Chianti reduction (330 CZK). I thought it was exceptionally good.The exterior had a scrumptious, peppery char.

The interior was tender and hit the right beefy flavor points. The only failure here was that I asked for it to be cooked medium-rare, and I'd call what I received at least medium.The Chianti reduction was sublime. I only thought it needed a dash of salt. That brought perfect balance to the sweet notes of its balsamic and honey elements and the assertiveness of the wine.

Confession: I ran out of bread and, since I was alone in the back room, I licked the plate.

On the side, I had wonderful snow peas with roasted shallots (60 CZK).With a meal this heavy, I wasn't in the mood for potatoes. I thought it was a great partner for the steak.

Finally, I had to try their real Philadelphia cheese cake (105 CZK). I was expecting a classic American slice, but this was something a little different.
This individual, lemon-zesty cake was far creamier than what you might find at Cheesecake Factory. Chef Steven told me he whips it to get it that way, and that he also imported boxes of graham crackers to get the crust just right.

With a couple of beers, the bill for this three-course trip was 785 CZK without tip. Eminently worth it.

On two visits, I enjoyed every dish but one. The dining room feels more like a living room with a dinner party going on, and you're almost definitely going to have a conversation with the host.

And the host told me that he plans changes to the menu soon. I do hope he holds over some dishes, but whatever he turns out, Chef Steven does know how to make food sing.

What stands out in my mind about his cooking is that he's a master of sauces. I really hope he keeps cooking the one with the Chianti. I'll be back for that, for sure.

U Emy Destinnové
Kateřinská 7
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 224 918 425

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