Friday, January 21, 2011

Gabriele Ristorante

"If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of potential -- for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never." Soren Kierkegaard
I thought I knew all the top Italian restaurants in Prague. Recently, one snuck in under my radar.

I discovered this recently by reading The Prague Post's special section, The Best of Prague 2010. I was surprised to see that the editor's choice was a place I hadn't heard of before.

Gabriele Ristorante is a new place in Old Town that took over the location once occupied by Flambée. It opened in late September.

I did a little Googling on the owner and chef, Gabriele Feliciani. I discovered he has worked around the globe in many Michelin-starred establishments, running several himself.

This intrigued me. Chefs of this caliber are not so usual in Prague.

One night while on my way to try out a different restaurant, I found myself walking in front of Gabriele's.I decided to alter my plans. Since I was alone, I figured I could make my way through a five course tasting menu (1475 CZK) to get maximum exposure to the talents of the kitchen.

From the passage, I descended down the stairs into the subterranean restaurant.Only two tables were occupied in the main dining area. I was shown the slightly smaller but similar second dining room.The vaulted stone ceilings were brightly lit. There is the feeling of being in a wine cellar or even a cave. Personally, I thought the look was warm and stylish.

Ballads, light pop, and Sinatra played at a discreet volume over the sound system. It was still possible to hear the gurgling fountain in the next room.The cellar appearance is appropriate because the restaurant has quite an extensive and mostly expensive wine list. The cheapest I saw was the Centorame Trebbiano d'Abruzzo for 695 CZK, and there are a few bottles in the 900 CZK range.

But the list has much more high-end stuff, topping out with the 1934 Château Branaire Ducru at 156,000 CZK.

I didn't find wines by the glass on there, so I asked if it was possible to have just a glass of red. The server said he could recommend an Australian Cabernet Merlot from Cape Mentelle (290 CZK).I asked for that along with a .25 liter bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water (55 CZK).

This 2006 vintage was an excellent, dry, medium-bodied red with a wonderful bouquet. It had a hint of blackcurrant and very light tannins. I savored each sip throughout the meal.

Bread was delivered.I also received a plate of aromatic olive oil. The waiter milled some pepper into it.

The black sepia bread and the white slices, which my English-challenged waiter said were made with "ham," were a disappointment.

While there was squid ink coloring, I didn't detect any special flavor. Both were terribly dry. They crumbled and broke apart when I tore pieces off and disintegrated even more when I dipped pieces in the olive oil.

I then received a very generous amuse bouche, a foie gras brûlée, topped with frozen pear.The liver was creamy smooth and light. Very nice. The crust of burnt sugar and the fruit was a little too sweet for my taste, but I still enjoyed this offering.

My waiter told me my five courses would be smaller than those ordered à la carte, but I'll give the prices for the full portions to give a sense of the cost of a meal.

My first course was the beef carpaccio with warm goat cheese and Piedmonte truffles (395 CZK).The relatively thick-cut, fresh beef was the size of large coins. The buttery, silky meat was the perfect temperature, cool but not too cold, and surrounded by warm, liquefied goat cheese. It was a creative and successful complement.

What also set this apart from more pedestrian versions were the small bits of truffle.Mixed with the salt on the meat, it added a subtle, earthy dimension with a light, nutty undertone.

Next came the Truffle Cappuccino (365 CZK). The white ramekin was filled with a light potato foam, topped by an even lighter mozzarella foam, topped by more morsels of truffle.Served hot, the first froth had a mild tang that is the essence of good mozzarella. I savored each mushroom morsel on top and they were gone too soon. Then, I descended into the slightly denser but still airy potato zone.

Just as I was lamenting the paucity of truffles on top, I hit black gold at the bottom.There was a much richer portion of the pricey shrooms down there. I was pleased. This course was light in weight, but full of surprising and pleasurable flavors and textures.

Course number three was ravioli with liquid goat cheese, goat milk and pancetta (295 CZK).I was advised to eat each bite-sized piece of pasta whole to let the flavors explode in my mouth. This also keeps the liquid from spilling out into the serving pan. Forgetting myself for a moment, I tried one before snapping the photo.

The pasta was perfectly done, the goat flavors pleasurable, but not transcendent. I did not enjoy it quite as much as a similar dish I had two years ago at Aromi. There I had ravioli filled with liquid Parmesan surrounding beef tartare. That was more memorable.

The fourth course was one that I asked for specifically from the menu -- the steak of Apennine beef with Barolo sauce (725 CZK).At first, I was told it would not be possible, but the waiter checked and the kitchen agreed to make me a small version.

The sauce was the star for me. The syrupy glaze on the meat and was both acidic and sweet, though it might be too sweet for some. The perfume of the wine came through. I did the best I could to clean the plate at the end with the crumbly bread.

I was less impressed by the beef. It was not particularly tender and the flavor was rather plain and average. Adding a touch of salt helped, but I've enjoyed many lesser-priced steaks more than this one. The similarly priced steak special I had at La Finestra is one that was memorably superior.

It came with a side of delightfully simple freshly wilted spinach.It was almost forgotten by the waiter and arrived a few minutes after the steak.

Finally, there was dessert. There were a number of intriguing offerings on the menu, but I was told I would receive the homemade tiramisu (195 CZK).This one was made with tired sponge cake, with just a small amount of mascarpone. I didn't really get any coffee flavor from it and, overall, it was too dry.

The only thing I found interesting was a pleasant, slow-building burn on my palate. I asked my Romanian waiter if there was some spice, but he was confused by the question in both English and Czech. The Italian manager came by and couldn't help either. Finally, the other waiter with better English joined the committee and told me there was a splash of Cognac in there. Mystery solved.

During the discussion, I mentioned I wasn't thrilled with the dessert. I was told that they actually made two kinds of tiramisu and that this was the last of one batch.

I was then offered a sample of the more classic version made with savoiardi biscuits.Indeed, it was much like many other versions I've had. It was certainly better, but there was nothing exceptional about it.

The service varied from warm, friendly, and efficient to slightly confused on a couple of occasions. I had three different servers plus a manager attending to me during the evening. They did tell me that Gabriele was not in the restaurant that night.

The final bill for my solo meal was 1820 CZK. I left a crisp 2000 CZK note. Was it worth it?

I confess it's a struggle to answer this question. I guess that partly depends on how much money you have.

It's certainly not the most expensive restaurant in Prague, but it is definitely in the high-end of the scale.

If you only had starters, pastas, and a glass of wine, you could get out the door for just 2000 CZK for two.

Still, for this kind of money, I personally expect something close to perfection, and it didn't quite meet my expectations. There should be no disappointments.

I wouldn't cross Gabriele Ristorante off my list for a big splurge. There are pleasures to be had there. But with potential competition from Aromi, Allegro, La Finestra, Divinis, and Da Emmanuel, to name a few, I think they need to do better.

There are just too many other possibilities out there.

Gabriele Ristorante
Husova 5
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 224 248 512

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Klášterní šenk

"My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk." John Keats

My friends and I gathered at Klášterní šenk for a big group lunch before New Year's Eve.The name Klášterní šenk basically means The Cloister's Tap Room. I'd never been there before, but I'd heard some good things.

The Czech restaurant is in the middle of the Břevnov Monastery complex.The interior of the restaurant is appropriately rustic, with stone walls and dried corn hanging from the rafters.There's working fireplace in the back.

The restaurant is often very busy. Reservations are a good idea.Most come for the food, but there is also good beer.They serve Klášter 11° lager (32 CZK).They have Černá Hora dark beer for the same price.Before the meal, we received round, floury loaves of Czech bread, along with butter and sádlo.For the uninitiated, it may look like pâté, but sádlo is actually pork fat. The bread was fresh, served cold.

The first dish I got to try was M's lamb shank (330 CZK). It was expensive, but it was very good.The large hunk of meat (300g) was cooked to impressive tenderness. It had rich lamb flavor. It sat on what they called a "vegetable ragout," which was mostly peas and carrots.

Her husband, Big B, got the meat skewer (260 CZK).It was pork, chicken, and vegetables. I didn't get a bite of this one.

The bramborak was very good (189 CZK).The large, thick potato pancake was filled with smoked pork and sauerkraut. The pork was a cut above in quality from many others I've seen.A few people ordered the pork ribs (189 CZK).They were both very meaty, very juicy, and very fatty. There was no smoke flavor. Some liked it, but it wasn't my style.

The taste reminded me a lot of koleno, or pork knee. No one ordered that dish at the table, but I saw one going by and it was huge.

I made three separate orders to put my lunch together. I had the krkovice or pork neck (139 CZK), red cabbage (35 CZK), and three bramboraky or potato pancakes (35 CZK). I was very pleased with this combo.The pork was thick, tender, and full of flavor. I gave Big B a bit and he nodded with approval. The saltiness was balanced by the sweet and sour cabbage. The crunchy, garlicky potato pancakes were small and thin, but held up its end in this trio.

Someone raved about their zander or candát on onion ragout (350 CZK).It would never occur to me to order fish at such a restaurant, but good to know that fish eaters have options. A friend who used to live nearby highly recommended the rabbit.

What was not so good? The steak (230 CZK) was just OK, very average Czech beef, I'd say.A salad with chicken looked pretty anemic.Service was generally efficient and business like, with no attitude.

Klášterní šenk is not exactly cheap, and while its offerings are better than average, it's not necessarily a place to go out of your way for. But it right next to the tram 22 line, not terribly far from Prague Castle.

If you are out visiting the beautiful monastery complex, I imagine it is the best place for a meal, especially if they have a fire going in winter.

Klášterní šenk
Markétská 1/28
Prague 6
Tel. (+420) 220 406 294

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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Pind

"Nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds." Mark Twain
The positive member reviews on this site caught my eye. Lots of people said lots of nice things about The Pind (which means "The Village"), a new Indian restaurant in Vinohrady.

I'm a skeptical optimist. I was both excited and doubtful. While I was wishing and wanting it to be good, it's hard to trust what you read on the Internet. Ironic, I know.

So there's really only one way to find out. I had to go.

For now, the restaurant's exterior is disconcerting. There was scaffolding, and it was pretty torn up underneath. Hopefully the work will be done soon.The restaurant is close to the Jiřího z Poděbrad metro stop, and also the Vinohradská vodárna stop for Trams 10 and 16.

Anyway, it's what is inside that counts, and that is nicer. There's a small, upstairs space with benches.Here they serve lunches, an all-you-can-eat buffet, for a mere 109 CZK. It's also their smoking room.

It looks much better downstairs. The restaurant is in the space once occupied by Vermeer.There are few changes to the interior, but I was happy to find they fixed the heating problems that plagued that restaurant. It was pleasantly warm.

There are only about 10 tables downstairs, plus a separate room with a large table.One of the three Indian men who own the place, Jayant, was standing behind the bar.He welcomed me and let me pick out a table. It wasn't very busy during my visits.

I wanted to make some direct comparisons with Curry House, which many call the best Indian restaurant in Prague. So I ordered similar dishes to the ones I had there.

My meal began with the vegetable samosas (55 CZK).Filled mostly with potatoes and peas, this version had better seasoning than the blander ones at Curry House. They were crispy on the outside and almost too hot to pick up at first.The samosas also came with a small dish of sweet, sour, spicy tamarind sauce. Great stuff.

I got their mango chutney (20 CZK) to go with it. This was smoother than other versions I've had, with no chunks. But it had a lovely, aromatic taste.

For a main course, I ordered the chicken tikka masala (165 CZK).This one had a tomato-based sauce similar to that found at Masala. That's no accident since the chef, Sarkar, worked at that restaurant in Vinohrady. This dish was similar to what I had there three years ago.

But I don't remember it being as good as The Pind's version. This one was amazing. First, the flavor of the chicken was just terrific. You could tell the spices hadn't just been slapped on the meat before cooking. It had marinated for a long time, with the seasoning penetrating deep into the meat. Second, it was tender. And third, it had a wonderful, smoky char from the tandoor oven.

The sauce also sang with flavor, and the song was "Hot Stuff." It was full of fresh-grated ginger, coriander, capsicum, and more. The spice level was just at the edge of my limit. I told the waiter how much I liked it, but wondered it was too hot for Czech palates.

He confessed that they engage in a little profiling. They make it milder when they know a customer is Czech. Some might be offended by this, others pleased. But you've been warned -- if you have a heat preference either way, let them know.

This great dish was made even greater by the lemon rice (95 CZK).I'd never had this before, and almost didn't get it because of the high price. It was worth it.

While not really lemony, the rice had its own light, smoked flavor to it. The fluffy grains were studded with mustard seed and mixed with dry curry leaves. Great.

At the end of the meal, you receive a dish of licorice-flavored aniseed mixed with sugar to cleanse your palate.The bill for this visit, which included a Pepsi (35 CZK) because I had my car and a take away box (10 CZK) for leftovers, came to 380 CZK without tip. I thought it a bargain.

I returned a few days later. On this solo visit, I started with the mushroom kurkure (75 CZK).The battered and fried mushroom caps were coated with a delicate, crispy, hot shell.

They were filled with melted cheese, khoya (similar to ricotta), chat masala spice, and cilantro (coriander). The dish had a mild kick, which was tempered by an excellent little dish of mint sauce on the side.

For my main course, I ordered another favorite, the lamb rogan josh (195 CZK).The six chunks of lamb, long-simmered in yogurt, were very tender. The sauce, flavored with coriander and ginger, was medium spicy.

It was good, but I preferred the thicker sauced versions at Curry House and The Pind's close neighbor, Dilli-Delhi. The Pind's sauce was thinner and liquidy. The Pind's website claims they cook according the authentic style of northern India and not the Westernized, commercial style found almost everywhere else. I am not expert enough to say if this is so.

I wasn't in the mood for rice, so I got the butter nan (45 CZK).The thin, crisp, glistening bread had a light char and was good for soaking up the sauce with my lamb.

This meal, with a bottle of Mattoni (35 CZK), came to 350 CZK without tip.

On my third visit, I brought A Friend.I had a couple of glasses of Krušovice (40 CZK each).We started with the vegetable pakora (55 CZK). The variety of veggies had a cake-like coating of fried gram flour or ground chickpeas.Even though it was too salty for me and not served hot enough, I preferred the taste to the Curry House version.

I ordered mango salsa and also raita (50 CZK) to go with it.The thin yogurt of the raita was spiked with red onion, coriander, tomato, and other spices. It required some stirring to get the flavors to blend properly.

For a main course, AF got the lamb biryani (210 CZK).I didn't realize it when we first ordered, but this also comes with raita on the side, so we had two. AF asked for it not to be spicy, but even so, there was a mild, building heat to it.

The lamb was tender and the pulao rice was good. It wasn't exactly bursting with flavor by itself, and the raita was a welcome addition.

We shared an order of their lamb kulcha (60 CZK).The bread was thin and crispy, but I did not detect much lamb.

I wanted to taste as many things as possible, so I ordered The Pind Platter (275 CZK).It came with fantastic achari chicken tikka. The boneless meat, was marinated in pickled spices and had tasty blackened edges.

Next best was the fresh, light, boneless fish filet the waiter told me was sole. It was covered with a nice yellow curry. I was surprised I liked the fish so much.

The chicken malai tikka was marinated with cheese and cream and grilled in the tandoor. For some reason, this was fairly bland.

Finally, there was the lamb seekh kebab. The minced meat is mixed with ginger, garlic, and coriander. This was my least favorite. It had an odd, buttery aftertaste.

The Pind Platter was served on an iron plate covered with onions. I'd seen other tables receiving them sizzling from the kitchen. Mine had no sizzle and the onions were barely cooked. The meat wasn't hot enough. A disappointment there.

Here's a quick rundown on, yes, my fourth visit, just before deadline. The deeply-fried onion bhaji 65 CZK) were dense and weighed upon me heavily.The tandoori murgh (175 CZK) was truly excellent, and it did, indeed, come out on properly hot iron with loudly sizzling onions.And I enjoyed the bangan bhara (165 CZK), made with creamy eggplant and tasting of coriander.My overall feeling about The Pind is very positive. Sure, there were a couple of dishes I didn't like or weren't heated properly. But I'd say anything from their tandoor is the best I've had in Prague.

In fact, I'm still dreaming of that chicken tikka masala. It is the most extraordinary I've found while making my rounds.

The Pind Indian Restaurant
Korunní 67
Prague 3 - Vinohrady
Tel. (+420) 222 516 085, Mobile: 724 206 020

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