Friday, November 26, 2010

Curry House

"This curry was like a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that I'd once heard... especially the last movement, with everything screaming and banging 'Joy.' It stunned, it made one fear great art. My father could say nothing after the meal." Anthony Burgess
Yeah, Curry House has gotten good reviews by others and received a lot of positive comments on this website.

But what I wanted to know was this: What would I think? Is this Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant really, as one person said, up there with the best Britain has to offer? Is it "awesome?" Is it "excellent?" I had to find out.

I got familiar with the area during my many visits to Palmovka to review ThaiOishi, which is right next door. I got even more familiar after I went three times to Curry House.As many have said before, the interior isn't much to look at.There's a small front room for smokers, and a slightly larger room in back for nonsmokers. Paint is peeling off the walls in some places.On two visits, it wasn't completely full, but I was wise to book ahead, because on the third visit, I would have been shut out.

I met with V for a talk on my first visit. I wanted to try a bunch of starters, so we ordered the vegetarian thali (165 CZK).Recommended for two, this platter includes three small onion bhajees, two vegetable samosas, and vegetable pakora. In the middle was raita, seasoned yogurt sauce.

I loved the small, crispy, slightly greasy bhajees. The onions fried with lentil and chickpea flour were bursting with flavor. However, the samosas were mostly potato and mostly bland.The pakora, a wide variety of batter-fried vegetables, were limp and boring and needed generous spoonfuls of the raita.

For a main course. V got the lamb tikka masala (235 CZK), which was our favorite at the now defunct Taj Mahal ten years ago when its prices were still reasonable.She also got an order of pulao rice (50 CZK).The sauce was of the creamy coconut style rather than the tomato-based variety found at Masala. The waiter asked if V wanted the sauce sweet or savory, since many customers prefer it salty. She chose sweet, like Taj Mahal used to do.

The thick sauce was nice, but V said it had more flavor on a previous visit. I remarked that the tandoor-cooked lamb tasted very good and was relatively tender. V said that the lamb was actually better on this visit than her last. So consistency is an issue.

I had the rogan josh (225 CZK). The long-cooked lamb was fork tender.The gravy, which can include cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, cumin, and red chillies, among many other spices, was delicious. It was sprinkled with cilantro leaves, which added to the pleasure.

On the side, and also as a sort of dessert, we had Peshwari nan (60 CZK).The round bread was fluffy and hot, filled with coconut and sugar. I really like sweet-salty combinations, and it contrasted well with the rogan josh. But V also liked dipping it into the quite similar sauce of the lamb tikka masala.

I had a couple of half-liters of Gambrinus (32 CZK each).V had an Indian tea (35 CZK) and a bottle of Mattoni (25 CZK). The total bill was 859 CZK before tip. Not too bad.

A few days later, I found myself with no dinner plan and ended up back at Curry House by myself.On this visit, I started off with the meat samosas (75 CZK).I thought it might need something to complement it. I ordered the "green chutney" to go with it, something I'd never tried before.

Inside the samosa, the spiced ground beef with a few peas was a little dry, but more tasty and interesting than the veggie version.However, the chutney was not a good match. The intensely salty sauce did not go well with the salty samosa. The menu said it was fresh mint and coriander leaf with bangladeshi spices. I tasted the mint, but coriander element was missing.

For a main course, I tried the butter chicken (185 CZK) with pulao rice (50 CZK).Some have complained of small portions, but I counted 15 chunks of chicken in the pan. That said, you do get far fewer pieces when you order a lamb dish.

I really enjoyed it. The red gravy looked similar to the tikka masala sauce, but it was salty, buttery, and creamy. In a word, richer. Some oil did pool around the sides.

There was a hint of cilantro and it brought a pleasant, slow-building burn. That's how I like it, but if you like it spicier, it shouldn't be a problem. Many have complimented Curry House for making things seriously hot upon request.

The bill for this solo trip was 382 CZK before tip.For my last visit, I took along a British friend, Misty Potts, who knows a little something about Indian food. Her parents were born in India. When I invited her, Misty told me that, in her opinion, Curry House has the best tandoori in the city.

So we went straight to it and ordered the tandoori thali (330 CZK), a platter of various meats cooked in their tandoor. Later, the waiter walked in at a quick pace carrying a sizzling iron plate.Cooking on top was murgh tikka -- chunks of chicken breast, murgh tandoori -- a chicken leg with attached thigh, lamb tikka -- chunks of tandoori lamb, and shish kebab -- ground meat mixed with herbs and spices.

The murgh tandoori and the lamb tikka were my favorites. The chicken breast was OK, but less flavorful. The shish kebab was a little dried out and crumbly under its coating of tasty seasoning.

On the side, we had an order of garlic nan (55 CZK).This was fresh and good, but be warned, it was well stocked with big slices of almost raw garlic.

To add a sweet note to it all, I got mango chutney on the side (35 CZK).But we weren't quite done with the sweets.

Misty was in the mood for some mango kulfi (65 CZK).I'd never had this frozen dessert before. She told me that she's had creamier versions. The texture of this one wasn't the best due to ice crystals. But once it melted in your mouth, it was creamy and pleasant.

This final bill was 577 CZK. Served was almost always friendly and quick.

So, what can I say after this meal? I wasn't stunned by Curry House, and I wouldn't call it great art, but I would say it's quite good.

I've had better Indian meals outside this country, but it's up there with the best I've found here.

The next time I want some Indian food, I'll consider Curry House for a repeat performance.

Curry House
Novákových 7
Prague 8 - Palmovka
Tel. (+420) 284 684 417 or 775 621 115

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Tapas Chorizo de la Cambusa

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Charles V
Every time I pick a restaurant to try out, I do so with the greatest of hopes. I'm always searching for something that will make me smile. I'd never knowingly pick a place to purposely have a poor experience.

I like eating at and writing about good places as much as people like reading about them. Almost always, I go to establishments that I've heard a few nice things about.

Recently, my most prolific tipster, Pivobud, wrote that he'd read a positive review on this site about Tapas Chorizo de la Cambusa. He said the menu looked pretty interesting. I then looked on, where almost all the reviews were flat out raves.

It had been a long time since I'd had tapas, so I thought it would be fun to give it a try. The restaurant is a 5 minute walk from the Nový Smíchov mall, with many tram lines and a metro stop nearby.The interior is rather unappealing. The harsh light from the sconces accentuated the starkness of the white-walled room and its cheap-looking floor tiles.There is a non-smoking room that has the benefit of some wood paneling and beige brick work.For the narcissists out there, one wall is covered with mirrors.

Still, I remained optimistic. A Czech newspaper review summed up the restaurant by saying, "Great food, lousy atmosphere." And I do care far more about food than atmosphere.

First came the drinks. My Friend had a .2 liter glass of white wine (78 CZK), which was pleasantly dry. I had a glass of sangria (50 CZK).It had been a long time since I'd had a decent glass of the stuff, and this was excellent. It was just lightly sweet, but not too much so, with a lovely tang from the abundant lemon, lime, and apple slices. The wine itself was decent quality. Very refreshing.

We ordered many rounds of tapas. I started with the recommended "Landlord's famous octopus" with garlic and chili (105 CZK).Served warm, it came in a delicious, spicy broth. The chopped tentacles themselves were bit overcooked and rubbery.

Next came the Tortilla de Jamón Serrano (55 CZK).The warm slice of potatoes mixed with egg was rather dry and bland, with very little ham.

I got the two empanadas (55 CZK). Varying fillings for these warm, light, flaky pastries are available and change on a regular basis.I had one with dry, ground beef that had a pleasant grilled flavor. But I preferred the moister empanada with mushroom filling.I would note that they were one-third the price of the empanadas at La Casa Argentina.

We had the "very popular" (according to the menu) lamb skewers (85 CZK).They had only a light, lamby flavor and were on the dry side. They were dry on my second visit, as well.

I decided to go for something that was not tapas, so I ordered the "American style flank steak" also called the "Bavette Ambassador" on the menu (285 CZK). It comes with potatoes on the side, and I chose the baked potato.I've ordered and/or cooked many bavettes and flank steaks in my day. This didn't look like one to me.

The cut was thick and almost rectangular. The beef was grilled medium-rare as requested.But it was one of the toughest, hard-to-chew steaks I've had in a long time. I ate about half and gave up. I just ran out of jaw power and interest.

It came with a sauce on the side, and I took the Madeira. I could taste a hint of the wine, but otherwise, I found it quite indistinct. A shot of salt helped.

Our waiter was super-friendly and efficient, moving quickly around the room with a smile. When he asked me how the food was, I told him of my disappointment with the steak. He said he was sorry I didn't enjoy it.

I was really full, but decided to have dessert. We got the tarte tatin (55 CZK).Served warm, it was a delicious combination of tart apples, a buttery crust, and pecans. I only wished for more of the nuts in there.

During the meal, a Saudi man at the next table struck up a conversation with us. I asked him how he'd liked the pan of paella (265 CZK) he'd shared with a friend. He said he'd eaten this dish many times around the world, and he rated this one as very good.

At the end of the meal, the waiter asked me if I was driving, and I said no. Shortly after, he brought me a cocktail called a Bramble, which he said was on the house.I asked why, and he just smiled and walked away.

A Bramble consists of lemon juice, sugar, and blackberry liqueur. I'd never heard of one before, but I'm now a fan. It was very good.

Our bill, which included 3 glasses of wine, was 956 CZK before tip. That's not bad, considering how much food we'd had. But I felt the quality was quite mixed. I felt I had sampled enough to review, but not to satisfy my curiosity.

I returned again a week later with My Good FriendThe waitress could not find my reservation, and we spent some time discussing it. But it was a rather unnecessary conversation since there were several free tables.

On this visit, the lighting started out lower, but it didn't do much for the style or atmosphere. Later, the waitress, made it brighter.

I told My Good Friend about the sangria and got a .5 liter pitcher.She was also wary after some bad sangria experiences, but after one taste, she agreed it was very good.

We put in our tapas requests. MGF ordered the mushrooms stuffed with peppers, onion and ham with cheese au gratin (55 CZK).This was great. It looks like kind of a mess, but I assure you, it was delicious. In fact, we ordered a second plate of it.

Less successful was one of this night's empanada, which was filled with ham and cheese (55 CZK).We both thought it too salty. We also had the beef, which was fine.

Also very salty were the batter-fried olives stuffed with marinated anchovies (49 CZK).That is to be expected, though the flavor of the olives was so strong, I could barely taste the little fish. The exterior was nicely crispy and crunchy.

I tried out the baby octopus in white wine and sepia sauce (65 CZK).The four little octopuses were fresh and tender. But the sauce also had too much salinity, which overwhelmed the flavor of the seafood and any hint of wine.

I had the grilled scallops in saffron sauce (155 CZK). The two modest molluscs were good quality and just lightly seared to preserve their delicate texture.There was a hint of saffron in the creamy sauce, but I found it otherwise bland.

We were both happy with the salad of avocado, peppers, tomatoes, apple, onions and "Mediterranean sauce." (65 CZK)It was a little burst of flavors and textures.

We shared the oven-baked marinated pork ribs (65 CZK). We both decided we liked them a lot.The finger-sized babyback style ribs had crispy exteriors, and juicy interiors. I enjoyed the tangy sauce on them so much I wiped up the last drops on the plate with the bones.

Finally, I had to try the steak again. But this time, I went for the most expensive one on the menu -- the Argentinian entrecôte (360 CZK). I was both disappointed and surprised.This steak was virtually identical with the one I'd had the previous week, with the same thick, rectangular shape.

The tough, dense steak lacked the fatty marbling usually present in entrecôtes and rib eyes. I'd asked for it cooked medium rare, and this one was medium well.The menu said the steak was prepared on a lava grill. This one had a uniform brown crust that looked like it was cooked in a pan, rather than black stripes from a grill. There was no smoky flavor.

I had about a third of it, and called the waitress over for a mini Spanish inquisition. I told her I didn't think I received the correct steak and that it appeared identical to the flank steak I'd had before.

She went back, talked to the chef, and assured me he said that I had the entrecôte. She offered to bring the him out to talk to me, but I declined.

I didn't eat any more of the steak, the decent crushed potatoes, or the fairly boring pepper sauce on the side. I'd had enough.

I'd add at this point that the rave reviews on seem odd to me. First, almost all are relentlessly hyper-enthusiastic and make the restaurant sound like the greatest in Prague, if not on the planet.

Second, two people wrote about how great the steak was, with one saying it was the "best steak ever." Of course, different people can have different experiences on different nights, but based on my experiences, those comments are not even close to reality.

The bill for the second meal came to 1246 CZK before tip. I felt that on both visits, there were a few very nice tapas plates, but also too many that I found just average or not appetizing. Both my guests felt the same way.

I think it's possible you could have an enjoyable meal if you order the more successful dishes I mentioned, the sangria if you enjoy that beverage, and perhaps the paella.

As for me, I doubt I'll be returning Tapas Chorizo de la Cambusa.

On balance, it just didn't speak my language.

Tapas Chorizo de la Cambusa
Stroupežnického 9
Prague 5 - Andĕl
Tel. (+420) 257 317 949

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Friday, November 12, 2010

La Casa Argentina

"Price is what you pay. Value is what you get." Warren Buffett
A lot of people say they grill excellent South American steaks at La Casa Argentina. Even me.

I last went almost four years ago, wrote about it, but I had no desire to return to this bustling Old Town establishment.While I had fond memories of the beef, I didn't like the service or the prices. El Barrio de Ángel became my South American steakhouse of choice.

Given a few years, a lot can change in a restaurant, so I thought I'd give La Casa Argentina another try.

The interior is the same. You walk in and usually find the small bar area packed in the evening.The design is a Disneyesque conglomeration of cartoonish South American kitsch.There is a separate room called "Salon Iguazú" which feels like a misty jungle scene.For this report, I started using the camera on my new iPhone 4. It does pretty well in good light, but in low light, the pictures can get grainy, especially if you don't want to shoot a flash in people's faces. A point and shoot is still better in those situations.

We went past "Salon Iguazú" on the way to the back because My Friend is a militant smoker. There back dining area called "Salon Puerto La Boca."It is one of my favorite parts of the design, with parts from an old ship and swinging bar chairs that hang from ropes.As we were seated, we witnessed a large party having a heated dispute with a waiter and manager over whether they should be in the smoking area. They didn't want to be, but the restaurant was full and there was no other place available.

I started with a .4 liter glass of Pilsner Urquell (80 CZK). My Friend had a .1 liter glass of the house white wine (99 CZK).That's expensive, even for the center.

My Friend had tuna tartare avocado puree with lemon caramel and baguette chips (190 CZK).The tuna was fresh, with an almost creamy texture and mixed with a tangy sauce. It was a very small portion for the price.

I had the two Argentinian empanadas (178 CZK).One pastry was filled with chicken and chorizo, and one had small chunks of beef and chimichurri. The empanadas were golden and crispy on the outside and moist inside.The meat was a little chewy. I preferred the chicken empanada with its stronger, smoky flavor. But each was gone in two bites, and I thought it rather shameless to charge as much as they do for these tiny tastes.

There was a long wait before the next round of food came. During this time, I ordered a mojito (159 CZK). It was one of the worst I've had in a long time.The glass was small, it was jam-packed and overflowing with ice, and it was poorly mixed. There was very little lime and the sugar was almost all at the bottom. It tasted like lightly sweet soda water. It was a crime against sobriety.

Also while we were waiting, we watched two professional dancers spinning around the restaurant, but only briefly.The CD started skipping, so they had to stop.

For a main course, My Friend went for the tuna fillet with red wine sauce, tomato concassé, green beans, and mashed potatoes in sesame paste (415 CZK). The tuna was properly rare in the middle, but unnaturally red.Since it was such a thick chunk, it was dense and dry on the outside. The sauce was nice, but there was too little of it.

The potatoes were a disaster. The arid, crumbly spuds were encased in a dry crispy shell. We both hated it.

I ordered the 200 gram Argentinian Aberdeen Angus rib eye steak (280 CZK). The waiter warned me that it was small, but I said that was OK, I wasn't so hungry.Indeed, it was not large, but the steak was excellent. It was tender, smoky, juicy, and cooked medium rare as requested.

I chose the pepper sauce to go with the beef. It was surprisingly bland. On the side, I ordered the "BBQ crinkle wedges." (65 CZK) Adding a spicy, salty seasoning was what made them "BBQ." They were hot and crunchy reconstituted, shaped potatoes. Good, but not a cheap addition.

I more or less end where I began. The service was somewhat better than I remembered, but still not great. It was sporadic, hurried, and impersonal. The steak was very good, but the prices for what you get really made my head spin.

In general, La Casa Argentina is not a place to go if you are looking for value. I was hoping I'd find it, but I paid the price.

La Casa Argentina
Dlouhá 35
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 311 512 or 602 360 060

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