Thursday, December 15, 2011

Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide 2012

"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Theodore Roosevelt
I rarely attend "industry" events. I've turned down a number of invitations and the chance to eat free food over the years.

Every once in a while, I make an exception and slip inside to see what goes on. A couple of weeks ago was one of those times.

I went to Prague Castle for Pavel Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide party. Just arriving was pretty spectacular.It was a beautiful walk through the castle gardens to get to the event.

Maurer's guide, in book form and online, is something like Zagat's for the Czech Republic. The event honored voters' choices for the top 10 eateries in the country. Their chefs were there, cooking for the invited guests.

It was a unique opportunity to sample the food of many of Prague's best and brightest cooks, all in one place. I went as an invited guest's "plus one."

The party took place in the Míčovna or Ball Game Hall, which looked gorgeous all lit up at night.While the outside is richly decorated, the inside is plainer and less distinctive.More impressive were the tables with the 10 winning restaurants showing off their cooking skills.

That would have to wait. First came a ceremony to announce the winners. That's Pavel Maurer on the right with the glasses.He's also the founder and organizer of the annual Prague Food Festival. Back in 2007, Radio Prague called Maurer "arguably the Czech Republic’s best known and most influential gourmet." Since then, foodie culture has really taken off in this country, but I still wouldn't argue.

When the award-giving ended, the eating began. It was nothing less than heartbreaking to me that I would not have the stomach space or the time, because of lines, to sample even half of the offerings.

I'll now list the restaurants and the food I sampled from each restaurant in the order they were ranked by Grand Restaurant Guide voters.

10. Sansho
For the sake of efficiency, I planned to skip this table because I had already had the two dishes. I've been to Sansho five times, liked it a lot, and have the photos of everything I've tried.

The soft-shell crab sliders were a favorite.These are playfully called "sliders," basically mini-burgers, because they are served on a bao. It's a round Chinese-style bun. This one is served with a dash of wasabi. It's lighter than you might imagine and a clever concept for the delicately crispy crab.

The other dish was Sansho's mackerel ceviche taco.This had good and fresh flavors going on, including a lot of the cilantro that chef and owner Paul Day favors. But it's less appealing for me, mainly because I find mackerel too dense and oily.

9. Chateau Mcely, Piano Nobile
This restaurant served a terrine of game with a cherry chutney. It was dense and yes, gamey in a good way.I like sweet and salty combinations so the cherries worked for me. They also served chunks of venison that tasted to me and my friend like a fairly simple goulash. We weren't so impressed with that.

What I ate during my visit to the restaurant several months ago was much better. The lamb and foie gras dishes were particularly good. Still, the tab of close to 4000 CZK with no alcohol involved was hard to swallow.

I write from a personal perspective, and it is worth making my particular value system clear. Although I'm a well-known burger fanatic and appreciate greasy street food, I'm also someone who spends 1500 CZK for a meal on a fairly regular basis. If I spend over 2000 CZK, it's usually for a place I already know is good or comes with credible recommendations. When the bill is over 3000 CZK, I start to get skeptical about value for money.

8. Francouzská restaurace Art Nouveau, Obecní dům
A cook here excitedly told me about this next dish. It was a goose neck stuffed with goose, duck, pork, and foie gras served on French lentils.I'll be honest and say I was taken aback by the description. I'll also be honest and say the combination and texture of these meats wrapped in goose skin did not work for me.

Much better was the veal "gravlax" with celery root remoulade. My friend raved about that. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of it.

7. Le Terroir
We only got to one dish here, but it was a good one. They served a small plastic cup filled with veal tongue, fresh-water crayfish, and pumpkin.The salty chunks of meat, with the delicate shell fish and the sweet squash was quite a unique and enjoyable combination. It's fair to say the chef was more focused than my camera.

This restaurant received Michelin's Bib Gourmand for its "good value European cooking" and I suppose dishes like this. I was sorry I missed out on their beef ribs with chanterelle sauce.

6. Koishi Fish & Sushi
This was the one Brno restaurant that made it to the top tier. Here we tried their surprising interpretation of salmon and tuna nigiri.Instead of putting the fish on rice, here they put it on buffalo mozzarella with vinegar for dipping. You have to suspend expectations when you take the first bite, but we both gave it thumbs up.

We also had the salmon tartare with spring onion and cucumber with miso-mustard sauce and quail egg. This was fine, but made a more ordinary impression.

Due to our passion for fresh seafood, we tried a third offering: the oyster with vinaigrette, foie gras, and beet.The reaction here was mixed. My friend loved it and thought the combination was excellent. I didn't.

5. V Zátiší

While I'm not thrilled about paying this restaurant's prices, I think they often cook well. I was especially impressed with their dishes at the Prague Food Festival.

On this night, we liked their game pâté with homemade brioche and cranberry jelly.I thought it was more flavorful and moist than the game terrine from Chateau Mcely.

We didn't get a taste of the perch with beet, potato kasha, and Riesling sauce.

4. La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise
This is a restaurant that I've talked about going to for a long time. I've had a number of friends tell me it was an amazing experience. They also told me they spent more than 8000 CZK for two with the wine pairings that they considered a must. It's just me, but I'm not sure I can enjoy any meal at that price.

First, I had a parsley and pine dumpling topped with a mushroom purée.This restaurant is famous for its fun presentations and distillation of flavors. The ethereal and delicate green dumpling looked like a sponge. It was a nice little bite.

Also entertaining was the carrot wafer with sorrel, corn, and something I'd never heard of before (if I got the translation right): sea-buckthorn berry. It was intriguing, different, and I liked it.I might feel a little differently if I paid a princely sum for the single mouthful.

I also had the beef tartare, cutely sandwiched between thin, delicate wafers. This was much less creative and tasted relatively simple.If you want a better picture that someone else took of this at the restaurant, you can find it here.

3. Radisson Blu, La Rotonde
In the past, this restaurant's seafood-starring Sunday brunch has been an expensive favorite of mine. At this party, I tried their lobster bisque.It was sweet, creamy, lobstery, and I really enjoyed it. My friend was a little less excited about it.

The deer saddle with chestnut-truffle purée and rosehip sauce was something special.While I liked the rare meat, the lightly sweet purée with a hint of the expensive mushroom was just amazing.

2. Radisson Blu, Alcron
I ate in this restaurant many years ago and enjoyed it. It's tiny and felt like eating in rather exclusive club. I'm sure it has changed a lot since then, but their event offering showed they still have top talent.

We loved their expertly seared scallop with cuttlefish ragu, fregola, which is something like a large couscous, and saffron foam.Sorry the picture is not very good. I didn't drink any alcohol, but perhaps I was suffering from serious food intoxication at this point.

1. Terasa U Zlaté Studně
You'd expect this restaurant to wow people with one of the best dishes. And in my view, it lived up to that expectation. Their small block of duck liver dusted with Valhrona chocolate sat smartly next to Poire Williams-flavored jelly and a homemade brioche.The rich and creative plate inspired a big smile from me.

Because of long lines, I didn't get to try their veal cooked sous vide with homemade pasta and these amazing looking morels.They ran out before I got there at the end of the night.

I end pondering the question: Did the voters get it right? Certainly, many of the Czech Republic's biggest talents are in the top 10. The list seems to line up more with my views with each passing year. But there are still anomalies.

For example, on the voters' list, Sansho is ranked 10th, but SaSaZu, another Asian fusion spot that is one of my favorites, is 36th. However, on Maurer's list decided by 45 restaurant experts, Sansho is 5th and SaSaZu is 6th. That's closer to my thinking, but I'd rank SaSaZu even higher.

On the Czech Please Facebook page, some questioned whether the vote was free and fair or whether some restaurants stuffed the ballot box. I wondered about that myself. Pavel Maurer himself replied on the thread:

"1. Restaurants do not have to pay to be included. 2. Independent voters are all people who wants to participate and register on web. Not only Czechs. 3. Every year our security system excludes approximately 25% false votes."

Even if I don't agree with all the voter rankings, I do enjoy debating them. And I certainly appreciate that more and more people in this country are not only paying attention to good food and restaurants, they're also paying for it.

Restaurateurs who are aiming to be the best don't always win prizes. But they are doing worthy work because to me, a fine meal is one of life's great prizes.

I just wish I had room for one dessert at the end.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Brewsta's Burgers 2011

"Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger." Abbie Hoffman
It's that time of year again. Holiday decorations are everywhere. Shopping madness is underway. And I've got my list of hamburgers I've eaten in the past year.

Last year's list was huge and had too many sub-par burgers. The compilations from 2008 and 2009 are distant memories.

I must repeat my standard disclaimer: 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, based on my personal taste.

For example, I prefer flame-grilled beef seasoned only with salt, perhaps pepper, and classic, American-style construction and toppings. I tend to look down on excessively creative reinterpretations of time-honored standards.

I now present the 16 hamburgers I have consumed from my least favorite to the most enjoyable.

16. Greenz RestaurantSince they didn't have a straight up bacon cheeseburger, I had the "Ultimate Burger." The patty was like meatloaf, which is not acceptable in my book. It came topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayo and Burger King-like onion rings. It was an overloaded bomb to eat, priced at 179 CZK with fries. The "classic" with only lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mayo is 129 CZK. I do love the irony of "Prague's first salad restaurant" specializing in steaks and burgers.

15. Bohe(my)a Lounge and Grill BarThe best I can say here is that this burger was large, it had good grilled onions, and it was not too expensive. The patty was decidedly un-American. The ground beef was mixed with onions, herbs, and spices. It had what looked like parsley in there. The bun had tons of mayo. There was too much curly red lettuce. For what it was, the taste wasn't bad, but the burger was a total mess to eat. The steak fries were nice and crispy. The price was 148 CZK. On a sour note, the ketchup bottle said "Heinz." However, the watery red sauce that poured so freely out of it said "cheap Czech stuff." Thankfully the tapas there are much better than the burger. The restaurant is an outdoor rooftop, so the burger is only available in warm weather months on non-rainy days.

14. La RepublicaI was seduced from afar by this burger. But goods looks alone are not enough for a long-lasting relationship. Not for me, at least. The patty, topped with egg, was a rubbery meatloaf, mixed with all sorts of non-standard items. Not good. When it comes to classic burgers, less is more. Don't reinvent the burger wheel. This restaurant was open for a short period during the summer when I tried this. It reopened after a redo last week. I can only hope they have reconsidered their attempt at this too clever by half recipe. And that they shouldn't be so stingy with the ketchup. The only good things were the fresh, quality bun and that it was 155 CZK.

13. Mlsnej KocourThe dense, overcooked patty was no fun. It had a smoky flavor, but I think it was due to mixing with smoked meat rather than from the grill. There was lettuce, tomato, pickle, no ketchup, and too much mayo. Bad Czech ketchup was brought later, on request. It came with fries and the price was decent at 165 CZK.

12. Yes BurgerI like to champion the little guy (or burger joint) when I can. I just can't do it here. I've heard happier tales from others, but my one experience was lackluster. The patty was thin, dry, and overcooked. The bacon was undercooked. The cheese was melted into oblivion. The beef sat on a small bun with tomato, pickle, red onion, and too much lettuce. The patty warmed the toppings, or should I say "bottomings", to an unpleasant state. This burger was the best bargain of them all at 65 CZK plus fries for 20 CZK. But cheaper is not always better. I am in no hurry to go back.

11. KobeSeveral people have raved about and recommended this burger to me over the years. I finally broke down and went for broke at this high-end steak and sushi joint. Their offering fell far short of expectations, according to my standards. On the positive side, it had an enjoyable smoky, grilled flavor and good grilled red onions. However, the puck-like beef patty had several negative issues for me. The meat's grind was too fine and the fat content too low. This made for an overly dense, chewy patty. A very lean burger is not a good burger. The bun was inundated, top and bottom, with an herbed mayo that overwhelmed the meat and cause it to slip and slide. The bacon was so thick it could be served separately as smoked pork belly. That's not a crime, but it's not the classic style I look for, either. The final insult here was the price. The burger by itself cost 320 CZK. A stingy serving of fries was an extra 50 CZK. And to add injury to insult, a small dish of ketchup was 20 CZK. That's a grand total of 390 CZK for the combo. Not worth it.

10. Burger KingEvery year, I include a sample from Burger King as a "control" of sorts. To my mind, this is not necessarily a low bar. I actually like BK in moderation and this limited edition, flame-broiled XXL Bacon Double Cheeseburger was a pleasure. Sure, the American cheese was a too processed, but the bacon was better than usual. It was a smoky, heavy beast that mainlined straight to my heart (and that's not all good). Yes, I would rather have this burger than all of the above.

9. Kofein RestaurantThis is one of the few burgers I like that falls outside the classic construction category. It was served on a grilled ciabatta. I've made them myself on this crunchy Italian bread and I like it. Overall, it has a homey taste and feel. The burger includes grilled onions, soft bacon, cheese, shredded lettuce, and a tomato-mayo mixture. There may be something extra mixed in the beef as it was a little more rubbery than it should be. But it had a lovely charred crust and it was quite juicy. The first time I tried it, it was overcooked. But the second time it was cooked medium on request. Either way, it had good flavor. The burger comes with great, homemade steak fries for just 125 CZK.

8. LokalBurgerThese burgermeisters don't have an actual address. You have to check their website to see where they'll turn up next. I caught them at Bukowski's cocktail bar and I'm glad I did. The well-put-together burger consisted of top-quality ground beef, a lovely homemade bun, lettuce, pickles, too much tomato, and special sauce. It reminded me vaguely of the In-N-Out Burger I had recently in California. It's the closest you'll find in Prague, anyway. This 95 CZK burger went down very nicely with my tasty Bukowski's beverage.

7. Bohemia Bagel in HolešoviceThe Bohemia Burger with bacon and cheese was once at the top of my list. I still think it is pretty good, but the mighty burger has fallen in my esteem. The big, thick 200 gram patty was made with good ground beef and had good flavor from the grill. There was a generous amount of smoky, properly cooked bacon. A bottle of Heinz is provided and they offered decent, but not crisp enough homemade fries, salad, or a combination of both. As for the negatives, the burger is served with all toppings already on it, including way too much lettuce. I don't like that. The bun was their sesame seed roll that held up well, but was much too chewy. Overall, it is the best value, with all of the above for 165 CZK.

6. Krystal Mozaika BistroThe meat was the star here. It was high-quality ground beef, cooked medium, very juicy, with no excessive seasoning beside salt. The bun was homemade and top notch. The bacon was cooked to a fine chewy crunch. The burger came fully assembled. It has pickles, which I like. But there was way, way too much mayo mixed with whole grain mustard that caused the bun to lose structural integrity. The thing fell apart in my hand before the last bite. Next time, I'd take the advice of a reader and ask for the mayo on the side. The 150 gram burger was 169 CZK, but the fries were an extra 39 CZK.

5. FraktalI hadn't had the Fraktal Burger in a couple of years. It was just as I remembered it, which is to say pretty good. There were, however, a few flaws. Though cooked over a fire, there isn't much grill flavor in the salty 150 gram patty. I asked for medium, but it was cooked all the way through. The cheese was bland. Some bacon was perfectly cooked, but some was fried to an improper hardness. They get extra points for putting the lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle on the side, along with a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Despite the issues, there was some burger synergy, it all worked well together, and I liked it. It comes with fine fries for 185 CZK.

4. Potrefena Husa on VinohradskaThis burger was compact and well-built. It was not the largest one out there, but it's enough to get the job done. They use good ground beef, but often overcook it past medium. It was too lean and was not juicy enough. The bacon was smoky, but soft and more English style. They give you thick mayo on the site, but a tiny dish of ketchup costs extra. Do I use it on the burger or the fries? Do I order a second dish? These are questions I'd rather not contemplate. I like that they put the toppings on the side so you can build the burger as you want. I enjoy this burger and have it a few times a year. This is partly because I live near the restaurant. Unfortunately, it was also one of the most expensive at 250 CZK.

3. Resto Cafe Patio (AKA Le Patio)This restaurant on Narodni has a well-built, fine-looking burger. But the beauty is not just bun deep. The patty was thick and juicy and cooked to medium as requested. The bacon was just right and the cheese was above average. On the downside (for me at least), is the very fact that the burger comes pre-constructed with lettuce, tomato, vinegary red onions, ketchup and mayo. I personally prefer more control over the type and quantity of condiments and toppings. It comes with a cute wicker basket of good fries, but only small dishes of ketchup and mayo -- no Heinz bottle. Even so, it was a very tasty meal and friends who also ordered it also liked it very much.

2. Hard Rock CafeThis burger was my favorite last year. And it was still great this year. Yes, this is an international chain, but they hit the right American notes, with a giant, flame grilled 280 gram (10 ounce) patty. The brioche bun was actually too small for it. Toppings were lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and an onion ring. The price was also seriously hefty, weighing in at 320 CZK.

1. Restaurace JamaThis burger was truly excellent. Let me count the ways. The large thick patty was a perfect medium -- a hand-formed taste of home cooking. The fat content of the loosely packed, coarsely ground meat was just right, probably around 20 percent, giving just the right amount of juiciness. The generous portion of bacon was cooked in crispy American style, only slightly overdone. There was real cheddar and it was the best cheese I found. That is as it should be. The cheddar was an extra 39 CZK on top of the 175 CZK bacon burger. It also came with crunchy, skin-on potatoes along with a rack of condiments, including Heinz ketchup. As an overall package, including price, it just worked for me, hitting most, if not all of the right notes.

So that's my list. I'm sure there are some great burgers out there that I've missed. Feel free to let me know in the comments.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yakumo (Closed)

** This restaurant closed in early 2013

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Yogi Berra
I got a Twitter tip from a reader I trust to check out Yakumo. I read good things about it on the Czech foodie guide, Scuk. Hospodářské noviny called it "breathtaking."

So I went and I liked it. But you shouldn't go. Not because I'm selfish, but because you are not wanted. I'll explain later.

The bar and restaurant opened in August in the Hotel Belvedere.It's located at street level on Milady Horákové between the Kamenická and Strossmayerovo náměstí tram stops.Over the doorway, is a noren, a traditional fabric curtain.The dining area's design is sparse and simple and feels quite Japanese.The restaurant is quite small with only five or six tables, a long bar, and two semi-private rooms on the back with rice paper walls.The majority of the customers were Japanese. Everyone should be aware that smoking is allowed throughout the restaurant and it did get irritating at times.

Yakumo is an izakaya, which is a bar that serves food. The menu lists 14 kinds of sake from 90 to 4700 CZK. There is also Pilsner Urquell Kozel Dark at 50 CZK for a half-liter and Gambrinus for 40 CZK.

The restaurant serves yakitori, which are various types of grilled chicken including offal. But they also have pork and beef skewers. The chef cooks them on a grill behind the bar.The meat on sticks can be served with just salt or tare, which is a sweet teriyaki sauce made according to each chef's recipe.

Neither I nor my friend was drinking, so we both had .2 liter glasses of mineral water (20 CZK each). We received a gift of diced chicken, tofu, and cucumber marinated in a soy-flavored sauce.We got straight into ordering the grilled meats. They go for 60 CZK for two skewers. We had all of them with the tare sauce.

First up were the tori momo or chicken thighs.Juicier than breast meat, these hot, succulent morsels with sweet glaze and a slight char were a pleasure.

Then came the gekkikara tsukune, which is a spicy mince of pork, chicken and beef on a stick.It had plenty of kick and is not for the weak of tongue, but it'snot deadly hot, either.

Third, we had the mochi-bacon. These are sticky rice cakes wrapped in bacon and grilled.The lean pork remained soft and ham-like. This was interesting, but not as decadent as I imagined. I probably wouldn't get that again.

For the last round, we had the buta bara, or pork belly.I was expecting something fatty, but it was very meaty, though not too tender. I liked it, but I'd probably rate the chicken as the best we had.

There are also grilled chicken livers, hearts, and stomachs, but I wasn't in the mood for offal. Next time, I'd try the gyu hire or beef tenderloin skewer.

We were eager to try the grilled meats first, but then realized we wanted to sample sushi and appetizers.

From the nigiri menu, we ordered tuna (200 CZK), yellow tail (180 CZK), and salmon (140 CZK).The fish was fresh and buttery tender. There was only the slightest hint of wasabi between the fish and the loosely packed rice.

The rice was rather bland side, with almost no flavor of rice vinegar or wasabi. It was decent nigiri, but I didn't feel it was so special that I wanted to pay that much.

Each order is two pieces. For perspective, The Sushi Bar charges 298 CZK for two tuna nigiri, Miyabi's cost 180 CZK, and Sushi Tam Da's would be 76 CZK (according to their websites).

We tried the ika no yubiki or little squid (150 CZK). It was a small portion in a small bowl. But this was probably our favorite dish.The very fresh and tender tentacles and rings of flesh bathed in a vinegary soy with a clump of finely grated ginger that mixed in. Small, yes, but in this case, I thought it worth the big price.

We wanted a seaweed salad, but they didn't have the usual wakame. Instead, they offered a type I hadn't seen before called mozuku su, which is farmed in Okinawa (150 CZK).The small, teacup-sized bowl was filled with delicate, slimy brown tendrils of seaweed with vinegar and ginger. It was a unique flavor and texture that I enjoyed. I was glad I tried it. But I probably wouldn't pay that much again for so little.

My friend was in the mood for some maki. Their selection of rolls is limited and conservative by American standards. We had the tekka maki (220 CZK).They were a little larger than many places, but the tuna in the middle was small. It was very basic and not cheap.

During the course of the meal, we received a gift of tea.Finally, I wanted to try another hot dish. I briefly considered the full order of the gyu hire or beef tenderloin. Instead I got the ebi chili (220 CZK) and rice (40 CZK). This was a kind of basically sweet and sour shrimp.The small, delicate, snappy shrimp come in a thick, jelly-like sauce. It is not as sweet as it looks and was balanced with tart and savory flavors. It wasn't bad, but I'd try something else next time.

But what about you? Why shouldn't you go?

When Hospodářské noviny sent a photographer for their story on Yakumo, no photos were allowed. "We have enough people," they were told.

When I was there, the chef told me a "business man" complained about me taking pictures (thus the extra blurring of those shots). He asked me to stop. I told him I just wanted to take more pictures of the food for my friends on the Internet.

The chef said they didn't need more business and the menu is only in Czech and Japanese, so it wasn't good for English speakers like me. I told him in Czech I knew many people who understand Czech, and he finally relented.

What I liked most about Yakumo was the yakitori. I'd have that and some beers. I tried an assortment of other stuff on the menu to get an overview. That "other stuff" boosts the bill quite quickly. The final tab was 1640 CZK.

And things do move fast there. We were in an out in just over one hour.

Still, even if I am not wanted or needed, I'd go back again. I just hope it's not too crowded.

Milady Horákové 19
Prague 7
Tel. (+420) 233 931 698

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