Friday, October 29, 2010

Ristorante Sapori

"If life were predictable, it would cease to be life and be without flavor." Eleanor Roosevelt
I love Italian food and Prague has plenty of Italian restaurants.

Not long after I checked out the new Mirellie in Vinohrady, I stumbled upon the even newer Ristorante Sapori near Náměstí Míru.I heard it was started by someone connected to Giardino con Enoteca -- an Italian/Mediterranean place not far away where I'd had some great dinners. I gave Sapori a few weeks to hopefully get things running smoothly, then I went for dinner and a chat with V.

I quite liked the look of dining area.The high ceilings with gold crown moldings, cream-colored walls, hard wood flooring, and white-clothed tables with big comfy chairs gave it a warm, yet classy feel. V thought it was a similar but somewhat lesser version of Aromi.Our efficient waiter started us off with a crudité plate of carrots, celery, and black and green olives.We really liked the dip, which we were told was made from pureed olive, eggplant, mixed with mustard. It was smooth, light, and a little sweet -- a nice change from butter or olive oil.

We also got decent white and seeded Italian bread.There was a single 30 CZK charge for the bread and spread.

They were temporarily out of large bottles of sparkling water, so we ordered smaller bottles of Rajec (35 CZK).We got three of those in the end.

For her starter, V got one her favorites, the grilled octopus (195 CZK).In this version, the tentacles were sandwiched between slices of grilled eggplant and mozzarella. It all sat on a bed of beans.

The fresh octopus was good. It didn't taste grilled, but the small portion was very tender. It was missing the crispy exterior we both like. The cheese was excellent.

The eggplant was plain and dull. The beans were OK, but on the oily side. Overall, it didn't compare favorably to better versions we've had at Mirellie and Giardino.

My starter was the stuffed mushroom caps (190 CZK). This was rather grim.First, it is listed as a warm appetizer and mine came out room temperature.

It was filled with good wilted spinach. But that was topped with overcooked, hard, cold bacon. On top of that, there was a small sprinkling of melted Pecorino that had cooled to the consistency of plastic.

I mentioned the temperature issue to our waiter. He immediately went to speak to the kitchen about it, but there was no other response.

For a main course, I ordered my regular favorite, the risotto frutti di mare (240 CZK).It's something of a benchmark for me, since I have a lot of other versions to compare it to.

This one did not have tomato or tomato sauce mixed in, unlike most others in Prague. But it was drowning in olive oil. The fresh calamari were good. The small shrimp were too salty. The clams were tiny. The mussels were small, not the freshest, and some were sandy. A crayfish yielded a small amount of flesh. There are much better versions of this risotto out there.

V hadn't had scallops for a long time, so she ordered the mixed plate of scallops and calamari (340 CZK).There were several whole, small squid and three good-size scallops. One was slightly overcooked, and two were perfectly seared, maintaining their delicate texture.

But there was one big fault with this dish. All the seafood was covered with very garlicky spinach. Sadly, that strong flavor leeched into the scallops and calamari and overwhelmed it. The dish would have been very good if they'd only have kept the spinach separate.

Neither of us drank, which helped keep the bill for this meal to 1100 CZK before tip. We agreed we did not like very much about the dinner. We didn't feel like having dessert.

This restaurant is still quite new, and I hope they get their act together.It's a nice looking place, with good service when we were there.

But there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Prague, and a quite a few of them are not far away. That means the competition is going to be tough.

If they want to succeed, they are going to have to think harder about the quality of Sapori and what it should mean.

And one of the meanings of "sapori" is Italian is "flavor."

Ristorante Sapori
Americká 20
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: (+420) 222 523 533

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Brewsta's Burgers 2010

** I try to write a survey of Prague's burgers every year. Here's a more recent list.

"It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement." Ray Kroc
Yes, I know the feeling. A very fine hamburger really gets my heart racing. In a good way.

With the build up in my archives, if not my arteries, I feel it's time again for another installment of my ad hoc, unscientific survey of the burgers of Prague.

The 2008 list had 10 burgers, the 2009 list had 16. This year's has 21.

I ate all these in the last year, and I'm still only nibbling at the surface. Prague has turned into a big burger town. There are plenty I've missed, some of them possibly even good.

I'll repeat what I've said in the past: This is not a list of the "best" burgers. It is a purely subjective survey of the ones I either liked or disliked the most. As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

I always take value for money very seriously. But in the case of this study, I put more emphasis on flavor and classic construction. After all, when the price of your vice goes up, what do you do? You complain about it. Then you pay the price.

21. El Barrio de ÁngelOh, how the mighty have fallen! Last year, This South American steakhouse's burger (179 CZK) was flying high at #4. Now it's dead last. What happened?

First, of all, they ditched the standard bun for one that seemed to be made of rubber used from a dog's chew toy. They sliced it into three sections.

Top level was filled with overcooked, dense meat with no grill flavor, along with onions, and lettuce. The bottom level was devoted exclusively to cucumber and tomato. I just ate the top layer, and it was an unpleasant experience. Fries were not included.

20. HootersThe regular burger was 195 CZK, but bacon and cheese are an extra 15 CZK each. Instead, I had Hooters BBQ burger, which comes with both (229 CZK).

There was a huge patty, but it had a rubbery texture that didn't taste like pure ground beef. It had a perfectly circular shape and smoothness. It appeared to be machine-formed and then frozen at some point. With the BBQ sauce and raw white onion, the burger had a familiar flavor I couldn't place at first.

Finally, after much memory searching, it came to me. It tasted exactly like the long-discontinued "McRib" pork sandwich from McDonalds! One would think it was discontinued for a reason. Burgers come with either coleslaw, baked beans or potato salad, but fries cost extra.

19. Cafe Bar WigwamI spend a lot of time at the Wigwam, and I used to get the Jalapeno Burger a lot (145CZK). But I just can't take it anymore. The over salted, overcooked, crumbly beef sits on small, dry bun that is slathered in mayo. It usually breaks apart in your hands. The bacon is soft, English-style.

The jalapenos help make it bearable, but just barely. The large steak fries that come with it are oddly chewy.

18. Crazy Cow SteakhouseThe Crazy Cow Sirloin burger (139 CZK) did not come with bacon, cheese or fries. 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. Fries were not included.

17. BaterkaThe Maxiburger (159 CZK) is an oddity. It's the only burger I've ever seen that is delivered to the table sliced in half. That in itself is not a problem. It's otherwise well-constructed. It's even one of the few burgers to be served medium-rare.

However, it has one major fault: despite the good meat and all the toppings, it was unforgivably bland. It tasted like nothing. There was no grill flavor at all. There was a desperate need for salt in the meat. The included fries were good, hot, and crunchy.

16. Dock HouseI had high hopes for this pricey steakhouse's Dock Burger (193 CZK). But it seemed like a cheap cast-off. This was the smallest patty I've seen in Prague outside of McDonald's. It was tough and cooked all the way through, despite my request for medium. The flavor was not bad, but there was only the smallest hint of the grill.

The bun was loaded with toppings - onion, pickle, lettuce, and tomato, along with rather indistinct bacon. Real Cheddar cost extra (25 CZK). But the mass of toppings drowned out the ground beef. It came with good-quality steak fries.

15. The GateThe meat of the "York Bacon Burger" was overcooked and bland (165 CZK). I never did a full write-up on the restaurant, but I checked my notes, and they said "burger very average."

The bacon was soft, English-style without much smoky flavor. There was an indistinct white cheese. Grilled onions were a nice touch. They use the big chewy bun that is increasingly common around town. It came with bad, limp fries.

14. Butch's BurgerThe Big Queen's burger (79 CZK) is the one that comes with bacon and cheese. This big burger certainly gets points for value. It also comes with lettuce, tomato, fried onion, cucumber, and a ketchup-mayo mixture on a big, chewy, sturdy bun. I'd always ask them to leave off the cucumber (though sometimes they'd forget).

When the place first opened, it wasn't half bad. But the last time I went, the meat was pre-cooked and then reheated to save time. Sure, Burger King does it, but it dries out the beef and hurts the quality.

13. Burger KingI included The Whopper last year as an amusing control for this experiment, and I do so again. I assume most of you know what this tastes like. I've always been a Whopper fan, but I will say that on recent, close consideration, the flame-broiled, then microwaved patty was very dried out. I don't mind mayo on it, but they always put too much. Great fries sold separately.

There are quite a few burgers below The Whopper line this year. If given a choice, I'd rather have a Whopper than any of those burgers listed above. Quality seems to be dropping, almost across the board.

12. Prague Beer Museum PubBecause this pub has no kitchen, the cheeseburger (150 CZK) at this pub actually comes from Fasty's, a Czech fast food place around the corner. On the large, toasted sesame seed bun, there was a dry, salty beef patty. Mixed together on top was lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, melted cheese, mayo, and barbecue sauce.

The bun was chewy, but held together well considering the large variety of toppings. It was big, filling, and relatively cheap. It was something like Burger King quality, but with no flame broiling. There was a massive amount of fries, but they lost heat and crispness during their travels in the Styrofoam.

11. Potrefená Husa on VinohradskáThis bacon cheeseburger (248 CZK) came in second last year. I still give this burger points for serving the lettuce, tomato, and onions on the side, away from the hot beef. The toppings were carefully cut and trimmed to fit on the toasted bun. That's very thoughtful and shows attention to detail.

The smoked bacon has great flavor, but was soft and almost like ham. The big issue was the beef. They used excellent quality meat, but it was actually too good. I believe they use the same very lean beef that is used for their beef tartare. Good hamburger meat should have about 20 percent fat, and this one's content is too low. It dries out when cooked. They also usually cook the thick patty all the way through.

Also there was an almost complete lack of seasoning. The bland meat desperately needed a shot of salt. The included fries were good, but they always have too many short, stubby ones.

10. TGI Friday'sThe Bacon Cheeseburger is 249 CZK at the Anděl location. At the Na Příkopě and Karlova locations, it is 295 CZK.

Given its American provenance, I always have high expectations for burgers from this chain. They flame-grill their big patty, which is a big plus for me. The bacon is crispy, American-style and very good. But one big mistake is putting the cold lettuce and tomatoes under the beef. The meat cooled off, and the toppings (or should I say bottomings) got warm.

For some reason, whenever I eat this burger, the big, standard sesame seed bun falls apart. A downfall of this burger, for me, is the liquidy, salty, Cheez Whiz-like stuff that seeps into every crevice and dominates the flavor. The great, partially-skinned fries were included in the price.

9. U Malého GlenaThis jazz club also does decent a good bacon cheeseburger (165 CZK). It was very similar to the burger of its sister restaurant, Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice. They use the same type of beef patty, and same toasted, buttered sesame seed bun. But there are a number of differences.

I credit them for putting the topping on the side. I take credit away for using soft, floppy, English-style bacon. Also, the beef lacked the flavor of grill smoke, but instead had a buttery, greasy taste. The McDonald's style fries were good. I actually liked them better than the homemade ones at Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice.

8. Rocky O'Reilly'sRocky O'Reilly's bacon cheeseburger (285 CZK) was pretty good. They used a generous amount of quality ground beef which is lightly salted and got some flavor from the grill. Their smoky bacon was English-style, but cooked enough to achieve some crunch.

However, there were a few negatives. The lettuce and tomato sat under the patty. The cheese didn't have much flavor beside salt. And the patty, while juicy on the outside, was cooked all the way though and a bit dry in the middle.

7. Jáma SteakhouseThe Jáma Steakhouse Burger is 165 CZK. Adding bacon cost a whopping 45 CZK, and adding real cheddar was another 45 CZK.

The patty was formed with good quality ground beef and was simply seasoned with salt. It was one of the only patties to have a fat, round shape like you'd get at a backyard barbecue. It'd didn't have char-grilled flavor though and tasted like it was cooked on a griddle.

I asked for the burger medium-rare, but it came medium-well. The bacon was too hard and crispy for me, and the tomatoes and onions were cut too thick for good placement on top. The steak fries were good and crispy.

6. Artisan Restaurant & CafeThe Artisan hickory burger (230 CZK) was a favorite. It comes with smoked bacon, red onions and cheddar on a sesame bun. The beef, with a nice char on the exterior, was a real star. The sesame bun was perfectly toasted.

What kept this particular burger from scoring even higher was that despite its outer char, it was much too rare on the interior. There was too much raw meat in the middle. The included sweet potato fries were greasy and rather flavorless.

5. CowboysThe Cowboys sirloin burger (345 CZK) comes with thick, crispy bacon, melted cheese, chopped pickles, tomato slices, and mixed, leafy lettuce. The salty meat had a good texture, wasn't over-seasoned, wasn't overcooked, and had the right charbroiled flavor. The great beef sat upon on a large, toasted, Burger King-style bun.

I gave them points for putting the toppings on the side. An American friend who tried it with me called it "a damn good burger." It came with excellent, crispy, homemade French fries. We liked just about everything about it except the price.

4. Belushi'sI had the barbecue bacon cheeseburger (195 CZK). It cost the same as the regular bacon cheeseburger, so I figured why not get the extra sauce? This burger was very well put together.

A few things stand out. The bun was excellent and different than most others. It was well-toasted and warm, with a lightly crispy exterior and a soft interior. It had good integrity and held up to the big patty.

The patty was also different than most. The meat was good, but quite peppery. It's not a classic taste, but I liked it. While it was juicy, I thought the patty was cooked too long, and didn't get much flavor from the grill.

The bacon was more English than American, but it was cooked long enough that it achieved some crunch. The long, thin McDonald's-style fries, included in the price, were excellent -- hot and crispy.

3. Jáma Bar and GrillThe Jáma Bar and Grill burger starts out cheap but gets to 210 CZK with bacon and cheese. It looks basic, but sometimes simple is better. The quality, real Cheddar is expensive, but it makes a big difference in the flavor. Most cheeses in this survey just taste like yellow, salty, goo.

The bacon was good. The quality patty, seasoned with salt, tasted pan-grilled. It still picked up some nice flavor in the cooking process. I'd fault them for putting the cool lettuce under the hot meat. Tomatoes and onions were sliced nicely and put on the side. Fries were not included in the price.

2. Bohemia Bagel in HolešoviceThis was last year's winner -- the Bohemia Burger with bacon and cheese (155 CZK). But the quality dropped. Due to its champion status, this was the only burger I gave a second chance to after a bad, overcooked one I had a few months ago. I tried it again last week, and it was much better.

This one had juicy, smoky ground beef, and a generous amount of crisp, smoky bacon. The good meat and the flavor of the grill help set this one apart.

Its faults were that the toppings, the lettuce, tomato, and onion, were under the hot patty, which makes them hot and wilted. There was too much lettuce. The salty, yellow cheese doesn't have much flavor. I asked for it to be cooked medium, and it was cooked all the way through.

The construction was sloppy, with the tomatoes and onions falling off to once side. I still take off points for inconsistency in preparation. The included fries are homemade, but small, oily, and not very crispy. Despite all this, it is the best value for money burger in town.

1. Hard Rock CafeI'll admit I didn't want to like the "Legendary 10 oz. Burger" (325 CZK). I certainly didn't like the price. If I have a bias, it is toward underdog burgers. But I couldn't deny it: to my mind, this burger hit every classic note.

I enjoyed every bite of the thick, char-grilled patty, cooked to a perfect medium as requested.On top was real, crisp, American-style bacon, two slices of cheddar cheese, and a thick, fried onion ring. Keeping cool on the side were lettuce, tomato, and pickles. Squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and French's mustard were on the table.

The buttered, toasted bun was the best I've tasted in town. It was rich and brioche-like, yet sturdy enough to handle the burger's heft. Burger buns in Prague usually fall into three camps -- light, wide Burger King-style, thick, chewy Bohemia Bagel-style, or dry crumbly Tesco-style. The Hard Rock's is in a class by itself. The thick, partially-skinned fries that come with it were also among the best I've had.

So, there you have it. What burgers have I missed? Which ones have you devoured that you would rank higher? I'd really love to know.

I can't hear enough about hamburgers, because like Mr. Kroc, my passion for hamburgers runs pretty hot.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Baang! Restaurant and Club

"There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it." Alfred Hitchcock
I hear things. Sometimes, I even listen.

Lots of tips come in, and I can't act on a lot of them. But when several regular readers told me Baang! is a favorite spot in Nusle, I put it on my list.Recently, I gave it a try.

The restaurant is not so hard to get to. The 11 tram, as well as the 139 and 124 buses, stop nearby.

The main restaurant is not large, with only about six or seven tables.There's also a small bar area.The photo is a bit blurry because I had to be fast and didn't use a flash. I didn't want the barman to catch me snapping the picture.

Next door, they've just opened what they call "the second door," a separate restaurant and coffee shop that operates Monday to Friday. It was closed both times I went, so I didn't get a picture. It's non-smoking, and they serve breakfast starting from 8 a.m.

On the first solo visit, I started off with a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (40 CZK).The first one was not as cold as I'd like. Perhaps it was because I was dining quite early. The second one was better.

I was in the mood for something decadent, so I ordered the dried plums wrapped in bacon (75 CZK).The fruit was marinated in port wine, and a walnut was included with each. The bacon was thick, meaty, fresh, and smoky. The plums were tender. It was a generous portion. I've had this dish a few places around town, and this was one of the best.

The only thing I didn't need was the sweet strawberry syrup or dressing that covered the salad in the middle. That was overkill.

For a main course, I went for the Royal Skewer or Špíz Royal (245 CZK).The hot iron skewer, with a mix of beef, chicken, and pork, was delivered to the table standing vertical. On the side were a cold tomato sauce, a cold garlic cream sauce, and a baked potato with sour cream.

All the meats were tender and freshly prepared.The beef picked up good flavor from the grill. The chicken had a tandoori paste coating, which I wasn't expecting, but was a nice surprise. And the pork was actually thick, smoky, soft, bacon-like pieces without too much fat, depending on how you define "too much." I have a high threshold.

The meat was separated by red, green, and yellow peppers and onions. The baked potato was also very good.

A word of warning: the skewer is quite hot, and when you take it out of the holder, the thin paper napkin at the top doesn't protect your fingers so well from the heat.

The service was always efficient and friendly. The bill for this filling meal was 400 CZK before tip.

V agreed to join me for a second visit.She liked that they have a fish tank built into one of the walls.I was driving, so I ordered a virgin mojito (75 CZK).It was excellent -- not too sweet, and well-mixed with just the right levels of lime and mint. Refreshing.

For a starter, I ordered the chicken wings (125 CZK).The ten pieces had a good, crispy, salty skin. They were piping hot, and only a bit oily.

The wings came with garlic cream sauce and, oddly, tomato sauce. The menu said they came with barbecue sauce, which I preferred. I asked the waiter/barman about it, but he said they come with tomato sauce now.

V tried the shrimp in coconut milk with fresh thyme (125 CZK).The shrimp were small, but cooked perfectly, with a delicate texture. She said she tasted shallots and shrimp paste, but could not detect the thyme.

There was also dried coconut mixed into the sauce. Both of us thought that should have been left out.

For a main course, V got the Penne Picante (125 CZK).The pasta is made with spicy Ventricina salami, red onion, and a cream sauce. The huge portion was properly cooked, and V said she liked it. The Italian salami was too salty for my taste. But she said she enjoyed it again the next day for lunch.

I went for the strip steak "Dijon" (275 CZK).The steak was thin, but large, and very tender. The menu said it was Uruguayan beef, and you can tell that it is a quality steak.

I asked for it medium-rare, and perhaps it was closer to rare, but I didn't mind.The creamy mustard sauce was OK, but I wished it was more to the side instead of drowning the beef. Also on top were four homemade onion rings. They were not completely crispy, and they were too salty.

The steak fries were good, but could have been hotter. Perhaps it was because the chef took the time to build them into a lattice structure on the plate.We found it amusing, but I also wondered how long it took to get them stacked up like that.

I was almost bursting at the seams from so much food, so I could not try a dessert. But they have tiramisu (65 CZK), chocolate "souffle" (75 CZK), and a few other desserts with fruit.

The positive comments about Baang! certainly raised my expectations. And though it's a modest place, I'd say it met them.

The little restaurant has big portions, low prices, good service, and usually tasty, freshly prepared, if not authentic interpretations of international dishes.

It does remind me of Neklid, a favorite place near my flat that I'd describe in almost exactly the same way. And like Neklid, I'd anticipate you'll also appreciate a meal there if you're in the area.

Baang! Restaurant & Club
Nuselská 46
Prague 4 - Nusle
Tel. (+420) 241 000 666

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