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 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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Friday, October 8, 2010

Prague Beer Museum Pub

"Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder." Kinky Friedman
My phone starts vibrating. It's late afternoon. A series of desperate text messages arrive that go something like this:

"Called Lokál and they're booked solid tonight. Same story at Celnice, Kolkovna, and Malostranská beseda. Parents and friends visiting. Need a table for 13. Any ideas?"

It was my good friend, G-Man, pleading for help. The large size of his party gave me pause. Even if I could think of a good place, it could be tough to find a big table on short notice on Friday night.

Then, an idea popped into my head.

"Why don't you try The Prague Beer Museum Pub?""It's across the street from Lokál, it just opened, and they have 30 regional Czech beers on tap. I can't vouch for the food, but someone did tell me they had a hamburger there."

Miracle of miracles, he was able to book the table and was much relieved. I agreed to meet them there after work.

The interior of the pub has a warm, lived in feeling.There are worn wood floors, exposed wood beams, and lots of stools. The highlight is the bar, with its 30 taps in a line.When I got there, G-man and his party were all talking about the beers they'd tried and trading glasses back and forth for tastes.

One of the first beers I got to sample was the Starokladensky Medovy, a 14 degree amber honey lager (54 CZK).It was one of the more expensive half-liters. Unfortunately, I didn't like it.

The menu says it's a bottom-fermented lager that is double mash brewed with triple hops. What I picked up most of was the sweetness. The dominating flavor of honey was just too much for me.

Next, one of the ladies offered me a sip of the Skalák from Pivovar Rohozec (38 CZK). It's a 12 degree raspberry lager.Normally, I don't enjoy fruity beers, but I liked this one.

The raspberry flavor was there, but subtle. I thought the sweetness was more understated than the honey beer. But my palate may have been affected by the order I drank them.

This pub does serve food, and of course, I was interested in the hamburger. While I was heading there from work, I called ahead and had G-Man put my order in."Good thing you called ahead," he said later. "The waitress disappears a lot. The food takes a long time. And they're bringing it in from the outside."

Sure enough, shortly after my arrival, a guy came in carrying stacks of Styrofoam containers. A few minutes later I received my cheeseburger with fries (150 CZK).On the large, toasted sesame seed bun, there was a dry, salty beef patty, topped with 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, but nothing to write home about. It was something like Burger King quality, but with no flame broiling.

There was a massive amount of fries. But they had lost heat and crispness during their travels in the Styrofoam.

Someone else got the 10-piece order chicken wings (105 CZK).They had their tips, which I don't love, but they were still hot, crispy, and moist. A bit greasy.

The wings had a sweet-salty crust from a marinade. On top of that was barbecue sauce, and on the side was a plastic cup of sweet Thai chili sauce. The marinade and two sauces was overkill, but generally, we liked the wings.

G-Man ordered the chicken quesadilla (115 CZK).This was the biggest disappointment. He said the chicken had no flavor and it was mixed with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and barbecue sauce. Not a happy combination. Then, the waitress came by.

"You're getting food from another restaurant?" I asked.

"Uh, yes," she answered hesitantly.

"Which one?"

"I don't know. Ask the barman."

"Come on, you know. Where is it from?"

"I don't know. Ask the barman." She looked annoyed and walked away.

I didn't need to ask the barman. The answer came soon enough. The name of the place was on the delivery boy's bicycle: Fasty's.It's a simple, little fast food place around the corner.

A Czech friend asked the barman if they would ever have their own kitchen.

"No," he said. "But this place is about beer, not food." I looked through the door behind the bar and all I saw was a space the size of a closet. So perhaps there's not room for a kitchen even if they wanted to cook.Our thoughts soon turned to beer again. G-Man's friend from out of town was raving about the Kout Tmavý Ležák (60 CZK). This was the most expensive beer we had, but we all agreed it's well worth a try.It tasted of caramel, but it also had a pleasant bitter tang. And this 18 degree beer packs a serious punch.

I really wanted to try the Kocour EPA or the Raptor IPA recommended in The Prague Post's blog about the pub's opening night. Unfortunately, both were not available. As the blog post noted, to keep the beer fresh, they order small kegs and popular beers sell out.

Instead, I got a half-liter of the 12 degree Janáček Extra (37 CZK).One person really loved this light lager, which the menu said has the "full flavor characteristic of traditional Czech beer with a strong flavor."

However, I didn't like it. It had a powerful buttery note that put me off. Another person who tasted it agreed with me.

Finally, I had a half-liter of the 13 degree Baronka from Žatecký Pivovar (59 CZK).It was pricey, but very good. The light sweetness was cut by the equally light bitterness of the high-quality Žatec hops.

I always feel a little responsible when I make a personal recommendation. So I was pleased at the end of the evening when G-Man came over and thanked me for the recommendation.

"Yeah, the food and service weren't great, but everyone loved the beer."

The group was endlessly entertained with each round, passing glasses back and forth, comparing opinions, and debating what was best.

It didn't even matter that we didn't like every beer. There are plenty more to go back and try.

So we all agreed with the barman in the end. At Prague Beer Museum Pub, it's not about the food.

You go there for the beers. And those 30 taps are a beautiful thing to behold.

Prague Beer Museum Pub
Dlouha 46
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 774 771 085

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Brasserie La Gare

"Men give away nothing so liberally as their advice." François de la Rochefoucauld
It seems like everyone got to Brasserie La Gare before I did. Not only has it been critiqued by The Prague Post and Knedliky, Etc., but when I told colleagues I was going, two of them had already made several visits.

But every experience is different, so I thought I'd add to the voluminous body of knowledge on this topic.

Curly and I went and sat outside on a tolerably cool evening.The restaurant is non-smoking inside, but they do provide ashtrays outside. Edith Piaf sang in the background.

We commenced by ordering a half-liter of the house white, an Alsatian Edelzwicker (158 CZK).We were both happy with this crisp, simple, but refreshing wine.

A big bottle of sparkling mineral water was Römerquelle from Austria (69 CZK).A bread basket arrived with several types of sliced baguettes, including a good cheesy one.On the side was salted butter. There is a 35 CZK cover charge per table.

Curly didn't want a starter, and I wasn't terribly hungry, so I ordered the French onion soup (95 CZK).The bowl was quite small, but it all looked right -- the dark broth covered with toasted bread and melted cheese.

First, let me warn you: it came out very hot and we both burnt our tongues. Second, let me warn you again, the soup was very sweet. In fact, Curly did not like it at all. One of my colleagues was also unhappy with it. He said it tasted like a bottle of wine was poured into the soup.

Me? After the first initial sweet surprise, I grew to like it, but my tastes run sweeter than most. It was fully stocked with caramelized onions, and the salty bread and cheese helped offset the sugars.

For a main course, I lobbied hard for Curly to choose the Coq au Vin (165 CZK). I'd heard good things about it. But she decided she wanted to Poulet de Bresse (195 CZK).The chicken was tender and competently cooked.

But the morel sauce was a bore. It really didn't bring out the flavor of the mushroom. It tasted mostly of chicken and salt. Curly was disappointed, and wished she'd taken my advice.

On the side, they offer a changing variety of three side dishes (85 CZK). On this night, it was super creamy mashed potatoes mixed with great, earthy mushrooms, pumpkin with goat cheese and parsley, and lightly cooked, crunchy Brussels sprouts with lardons.I loved all three of these. They're served in heavy little pots that help them retain their heat through the meal.

I went for the Bavette de Boeuf or flank steak (195 CZK).I like this cut, and it is also one of the cheaper steaks. The menu said it was sourced from France.

I asked for it medium-rare, which is not easy to do for such a thin steak. They failed.It was beyond medium, with little if any pink meat to be seen. However, the light-colored beef was tasty and mostly tender. Some of the thinner sections were tougher, though.

What really made it a winner for me was the shallot sauce. Made with liberal amounts of wine, the sauce was acidic, rather than sweet, and paired very well with the beef. I was soaking bread in it after the steak was gone.

I ordered pommes frites on the side (65 CZK).They were decent steak fries, but not too different from what you might find at many other restaurants.

There is a large selection of desserts which come from a retail section of the restaurant, Boutiques Gourmandes. There were some tempting choices, but I predictably went with a chocolate standard, the Sacher Torte (69 CZK).The cake was ice cold, and when I put the fork into it, the hard chocolate on top popped up like a lid. Once I got the icing stabilized, it was quite good. The cake was very moist and had soaked up a great deal of the jam between the layers.

The bill for this visit was 1001 CZK without tip.

I went back the next day for an earlier dinner with Miss Knedlikova of Knedliky, Etc. fame. Some wrongly think of us as rivals, when in fact, I was a supporter from the beginning. There's a measure of self interest in that. I have an insatiable hunger for info and photos about new and different places to eat.

We also sat outside to enjoy the weather, so I took a quick look around inside.The dining rooms are light and airy, with white brick walls, red banquettes, and simple dark wood chairs and tables.It felt French.

She had a glass or three of Chablis (89 CZK each), which she said was fine. I had two .33 liter glasses of Stella Artois (35 CZK each).For a starter, we shared the Duck Foie Gras (195 CZK).It is attractively presented in a glass jar with thick, crusty, toasted bread and an onion and fig compote on the side. After you dig down through a layer of fat, there's the cold liver.It's good, if a bit crumbly, but not as clean-tasting and silky as the foie gras at Na Kopci. The compote, also mixed with wine, was a great addition. We both liked it.

For a main, I mentioned again that I heard the coq au vin was good. But Miss K loved what she had during her own review visit and ordered the duck with honey and four spices (195 CZK).She gave me a bite. I was not impressed. The sweet, tangy sauce was nice, but the duck was tough and took a long time to chew. Miss K agreed the duck was disappointing and said it had been much better the last time she had it.

She also ordered the same three side items I had the previous night and enjoyed them very much. She was less of a fan of the Brussels sprouts and thought they should have been cooked more. But I liked them crisper. She also said that on her first visit, she had carrots and asparagus instead of pumpkin and Brussels sprouts.

Even I didn't take my own coq au vin suggestion. I was lusting after the Beef Bourguignon (165 CZK).The long-cooked meat was fork tender -- no knife required.The sauce, stocked with pork, mushrooms, carrots, pearl onions, wine, and beef drippings was delicious. The only problem I had was the temperature. It came out barely warm, and lost its remaining heat pretty quickly. Still, I liked it a lot.

The bill for the second trip was 1012 CZK without tip. Service was just average and fairly indifferent, with some small delays. But there were no major breakdowns like The Prague Post reported.

At the end, I took a look at their specialty shop.There were some beautiful fresh-baked loaves of bread.There was also a wonderful selection of cakes, tarts, and chocolates.They all looked terrific.

You want my advice? Give Brasserie La Gare a try.

Based on my experience and the collective opinion of everyone I've spoken to, you won't like everything. But you may really like something, and there's good value. The prices are quite reasonable.

One last piece of advice: Try the coq au vin. I've heard it's good. Then tell me how it was.

Brasserie La Gare a Boutiques Gourmandes
V Celnici 3
Prague 1
Tel.: (+420) 222 313 712
Mobile: (+420) 602 502 906

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