Friday, May 20, 2011

Brewsta's Steaks 2011

"The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook." Julia Child
When it was suggested that I put together a list ranking my favorite steaks in Prague, I readily agreed.

Call it a meating of the minds.

Since the annual Brewsta's Burgers list always proves popular, why not extend the franchise? After hamburgers, steaks are definitely a top choice for me when dining out.

This list consists of steaks I've eaten over the last year. Whether the steaks would be prepared the same way a day later or a year later, I cannot say. I can only tell you that this is what I ate and what I thought about it.

Since I don't say these are the best, but rather my personal favorites, I will tell you my main biases up front: I greatly prefer more tender North or South American beef cooked over a flame. I tend to dislike the generally tougher and less marbled Czech beef. So, now you know.

Let's get it started:

21. Tapas Chorizo de la CambusaDid I say favorite steaks? The ones here were my least favorite. The crashing disappointment was heightened by the raves on Tripadvisor saying how good they are. I tried the "Bavette Ambassador". It neither looked nor tasted like the American flank steak it was purported to be. This steak was one of the toughest, hardest to chew pieces of meat I've had in a long time. I even tried the more expensive Argentinian entrecote and thought they were virtually identical. I had no desire to finish either of them.

20. Zelena ZahradaI liked a lot about this restaurant. The steak? Not so much. It looks pretty enough. There was good, beefy flavor, but it was not very tender. It had grill marks on it, but it didn't have much of a grill taste.

19. Na KopciNa Kopci is beloved by many, especially among Czechs. I'll probably take another beating for saying this again, but I didn't love the steak I had. It wasn't bad, but the meat was not tender and the flavor was unexceptional. The Cognac sauce was excellent, but there wasn't enough of it to make the meat more appealing.

18. Jáma SteakhouseYes, I only ate here a month after it opened. I haven't been back, though I've had people write to tell me it has gotten better. The New York strip loin I had was one of their better offerings. The Irish beef had a smoky flame-grilled flavor. Otherwise, it was surprisingly tough and hard to chew. It reminded me of many a Czech roštěná I've had. I liked the more tender rib eye much better, but it was one of the thinnest steaks I've ever had.

17. Céleste BistroI tried their entrecôte with strong red wine sauce. I don't mind fat on my beef, especially on an entrecôte or rib eye. But this one had an unacceptable amount of gristle. Significant portions of the steak were inedible. Sure, you can cut around it, but it was disappointing. The red wine sauce was pungent, savory, and terrific. With better quality beef, it would be a favorite.

16. Baang!The strip steak "Dijon" at this modest restaurant was high quality Uruguayan beef. It was tender. It was tasty. It would have ranked higher, but for one problem. They completely drowned the beef under the creamy Dijon sauce. I scraped it off as best I could, but it detracted a fair amount from my enjoyment.

15. CowboysCowboys is an American-styled steak restaurant has an excellent location just below Prague Castle. I had high expectations. They were not quite met. I ordered the 250 gram rib eye. On the plus side, it had a wonderful flavor from the flame grill. However, the meat itself did not make for easy cutting. The menu says the cut is "the most marbled for more flavor." But marbled meat should also be tender. This one wasn't, and there was also a vein of very tough gristle though the middle. The sauce on the side, which costs 25 CZK extra, was sweet and tasted like red wine barbecue sauce. I'd understand if that doesn't sound appealing, but I loved it.

14. GabrieleGabriele is a high-end Italian eatery, highly rated by others, and the chef, Gabriele Feliciani, has worked in many a Michelin-starred establishment. I went for a tasting portion of Apennine beef steak with Barolo sauce. The full portion would be one of the most expensive steaks I've seen at 725 CZK. Worth the money? I didn't think so. The meat itself was not particularly tender and the flavor rather plain and unimpressive. Adding salt helped, but I've enjoyed many lesser-priced steaks more than this one. The sauce was the star, with the alluring perfume of the wine maintaining my attraction. The syrupy glaze on the meat and was both acidic and sweet, though it might be too sweet for some.

13. ČestrThe proprietors of this new restaurant make much of its aged Czech beef, which is butchered on the premises. I had the 125 gram entrecôte with Périgourdine sauce. It was lightly salted and the natural flavor was pretty good. There was a light external crust from the non-flame grill. I had one problem with it. It wasn't tender enough for me. Even when the steak is from the very best of Czech beef, and it is prepared with the highest standards, I still haven't found one that meets my standard for greatness. That said, the beef tenderloin, cooked rare, was more tender and a better choice.

12. Resto Cafe PatioThe Argentinian entrecote came with streaks of a rich, salty gravy across the plate. The beef was excellent quality and the knife went through it easily, though it was not the most tender I've sampled in town. It was correctly, simply seasoned with salt and had light charring from the grill. But I wish I could taste more of that grill flavor.

11. Dock HouseGetting to Dock House is a bit of a trip from the historic center of Prague, but it is a favorite of many Czechs. I had the 300 gram Charolais entrecôte with demi-glace sauce. The steak was very tender, and there was no question about its quality. It was not very thick, but was cooked as requested to medium-rare. The only issue, to my tastes, was the lack of salt. There were a few rock crystals on the top, but it needed a strong shot of salt. The demi-glace, a reduction of veal stock, vegetables, and browned bones, also needed salt. However, it was excellent after the saline levels were brought up.

10. Brasserie La GareLa Gare is probably the Frenchest restaurant in Prague. I went for the Bavette de Boeuf, which is a veal flank. 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, but it came medium-well. However, the light-colored beef was tasty and quite tender, except on its thinner edge. What really helped make 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 veal. I was soaking bread in it after the steak was gone.

9. IchnusaSteak is not always on the menu of this restaurant with no menu. But if the chef tells you it's on offer, I think it's worth a try. The Argentinean beef I had was thick and tender, with a slathering of balsamic vinegar syrup that gave it a tart-sweet coating. I did ask for it to be cooked medium rare, and it came out very rare, but I was not too bothered about that. The meat was so good, it was probably better that way.

8. Ristorante CarmelitaCarmelita in Malá Strana is a tourist favorite, with many fans on Tripadvisor. I think it's overrated. But the superlatives about the steak are, in this case, justified. The beefsteak with green pepper sauce really was great. The meat was amazingly tender. I could easily cut the most beautiful slices with the less-than-sharp steak knife. The beef was cooked perfectly medium-rare as requested, which brought up its excellent flavor. The creamy sauce seemed too salty at first, but I got used to it and ended up mopping it up off the plate.

7. La Bodeguita del MedioI don't go to this Cuban restaurant so often any more -- it's not cheap -- but I have fond memories of their mojitos and steaks. I loved the fillet mignon de solomillio a la parillia. The meat had great flavor from the grill. It was tender. The homemade sweet chili sauce tasted like it had an onion base. It was really delicious.

6. Chagall's ClubThe ever-changing menu listed an American flank steak. Having bought a few from Makro, I can say that this was the real deal. The beef was firm, yet all too easy to cut and consume. It was cooked perfectly medium rare with an excellent balance of salt and seasoning. There was a delectable pool of sauce Périgourdine. It had the rich, rendered drippings from the meat and a hint of peppery sweetness and wine for contrast. It seems the flank steak is no longer available, but if the Charolais entrecôte with green pepper sauce is anywhere near as good, it'll be worth a visit.

5. Bresto Café & Wine BarBresto, near Wenceslas Square, also serves a bavette or flank steak. The meat was clearly of a very high quality. It was expertly grilled, the amount of salt was just right, and it was as tender as it should be. To top it all off, the pepper sauce was among the creamiest and dreamiest I've had.

4. Restaurant U Emy DestinnovéThis American-helmed restaurant's Argentinian beef tenderloin with a Chianti reduction is my favorite non-flame grilled steak. The exterior had a scrumptious, peppery and charred crust. The interior was tender and it hit the right beefy flavor points. The sauce was sublime. I only thought it needed a dash of salt. That addition brought perfect balance to the sweet notes of its balsamic and honey elements and the assertiveness of the wine. I loved it so much, I licked the plate after I ran out of bread.

3. Crazy Cow SteakhouseOn the whole, I don't like Crazy Cow restaurant all that much. Their hamburger was terrible. Some of the side items were not great. The service was spotty. But the steaks were excellent. The 300 gram rib eye was just beautiful. The beef sliced ever so nicely. It had gorgeous grill marks and the smoky char on the outside was just right. I even liked the fried onions underneath -- sweet and crunchy.

2. La Casa ArgentinaLa Casa Argentina really annoys me, and I've tried it many times. Like Crazy Cow, there's so much wrong here. I've always found the service to be inconsistent and even arrogant. Many dishes are over-priced and I didn't enjoy much of what I ate on my last visit. And yet the steaks are among the best I've found. The 200 gram Argentinian Aberdeen Angus rib eye was great. It was tender, smoky, juicy, and cooked medium-rare as requested. However, the pepper sauce I chose was surprisingly bland.

1. El Barrio de ÁngelWhile El Barrio restaurant is not perfect, it is a nice-looking restaurant that has the most of what I am looking for in a steak. The last time I had their 300 gram Argentinian rib eye, it was terrific -- tender and smoky, with a clear flavor I've never found in Czech beef. It only needed a shake of salt or two. A mild, unexceptional chimichurry sauce was included, but sides are extra. Still, I thought it a good value on top of the good taste.

And that's all he wrote. You got a beef with my list? Give us a taste of yours.

Given the health issues involved with consuming large quantities of red meat, I must, in closing, issue a general warning. The mastication was carried out by a self-trained professional diner on a controlled main course. Your meat may vary. Anything you eat can and will be fused against you in a court of food, so help me Ronald.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Java Restaurant & Café

"Authentic creation is a gift to the future." Albert Camus
My grandfather was born in Indonesia -- Java to be precise. His father was a Dutch engineer building railroads there in the early years of the 20th century.

Much later, my father was born in Amsterdam. It's a city I love for all the right reasons. I go there often to visit my cool cousins, soak up Old World atmosphere and architecture, and, of course, eat great food.

If, like me, you've explored that city's restaurant scene, you'll know that the Netherlands' earlier colonial interests are well-reflected in its many Indonesian restaurants. Love of this cuisine was certainly inherited by me through family tradition, if not genetics.

My favorite Indonesian restaurant, partly for personal reasons, is Sama Sebo. I wrote about it in my post on Amsterdam food favorites.

When I heard the Indonesian restaurant, Jáva Restaurant & Café, had opened late last year near Náměstí Míru, I was all kinds of excited.My Friend and I entered through the small upstairs section of the restaurant.This area is non-smoking and not much to look at.

The subterranean dining area is easier on the eyes, with Indonesian decorations.There are comfortable padded and wicker chairs.There are smoking and non-smoking sections, but it should be noted that they are quite close together.I started with a half-liter of the Rohozec Skalák Řezané 11° (35 CZK). It's a nice beer and was a nice break from the usual brands available in Prague.My Friend had a glass of white wine (82 CZK) and Bonaqua water (35 CZK).

I wanted to try some classics, so we started with sate ayam (149 CZK). This was OK, but nothing special by my standards.The chicken was tender and well-prepared. The peanut sauce was on the thin and salty side.

There was an awkward moment before it was delivered when the waiter brought me a spoon."What is this for?" I asked.

"For your soup."

"I didn't order soup."

"You ordered the soto ayam. (chicken soup)"

"No, I ordered the sate ayam."

"I heard you say soto ayam."

"Really, I didn't." The waiter looked very unhappy and took the spoon away. Of course, it was a simple misunderstanding, but the vibe felt tense, defensive, and awkward.

I also ordered the lontong gado-gado (159 CZK) as a starter for us to share.I'd had a variety of versions of this dish before and was curious how Java's would be. I wish I hadn't.

The ones I had enjoyed in the past had a thick, rich peanut sauce that sat on top. Most of the sauce on this one was thin and salty and filtered through to the bottom of the bowl. What stayed on top soaked the crispy fried onions, turning them soggy.

The bowl also contained cabbage, sprouts, and carrots cooked to a mushy state. It tasted rather unpleasant. The fried tofu on top was bland and virtually unseasoned. Neither I nor my guest had any interest in eating more than a few bites of this dish.

Of course, there may be different interpretations, but when I have had gado-gado in the past, it contained boiled egg and potato. Neither was present in this version. Wikipedia says that carrots are not consider part of an authentic recipe. Also, if you Google gado-gado for images, the vast majority of dishes look much better, with thicker sauce.

For a main course, I had the beef rendang (199 CZK).I had a great version of this dish recently at Sansho. Java's was far more pedestrian. The flavors of ginger-like galangal (or perhaps just ginger) and lemon grass dominated the thin, salty sauce. But what stands out most in my mind here was the quality of the beef, or the lack thereof.

The meat is supposed to be slow-cooked for many hours until it reaches a state of extreme tenderness. This beef was still tough and chewy. I didn't finish it. I also thought the lettuce on the side of the plate was a useless addition.

My friend had the semur (189 CZK).This was sweeter and the meat was more tender. It also had a ginger-like flavor. We agreed this was better than the rendang, but didn't really excite either of us.

The meal left us both disappointed. My Friend, an Indonesian cuisine novice, seriously disliked the dinner. I, far more seasoned, wasn't thrilled either. The bill was 965 CZK before tip.

I returned for a second solo visit a few days later. I ate in the upstairs section.Techno music played on the sound system.

I drank the Rohozec Skalák světlý ležák 12° (35 CZK).For a starter, I got the pastel (89 CZK).There were two flour turnovers filled with minced chicken, vegetables, and boiled egg.It was lacking in seasoning and boring. The very sweet chili sauce on the side masked the blandness, but made it rather generic.

My main course was the mie goreng ayam (139 CZK). This didn't work for me either.The chicken was decent quality, and the vegetables were not as overcooked as in the gado-gado.

But I really couldn't detect flavors that would qualify this dish as Indonesian or even Asian. What struck me about this version was the white noodles. With almost every version I'd seen before, including those on Google images, the noodles were brown, due to the addition of a sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. I didn't taste it here.

I didn't finish it, but took it home and added some Heinz Soja sauce. It made a big improvement. The bill for this meal was 263 CZK before tip.

I had already eaten my two meals at Java when I saw that The Prague Post had slammed and panned the restaurant.

I have to say I agree with that assessment. I had such high hopes for a real Indonesian place with high standards. Instead, the cuisine tasted "Czechonesian" and I was very disappointed.

I was also disappointed to see the restaurant's counter-attack against The Prague Post on the Java Restaurant Facebook page. They posted a comment suggesting some type of extortion scheme or protection racket where restaurants that don't advertise with the paper are more likely to get a bad review.

I understand that having your business and creative efforts heavily criticized in print has to hurt and would naturally provoke a defensive reaction -- perhaps as much as spending hard-earned money and an evening on a meal you don't enjoy. But serious accusations in absence of serious proof are over the line.

They also went on to say that they've cooked for the Dutch and Indonesian embassies and staffs and had many satisfied customers. That may or may not be the case.

I can only speak for myself. I've eaten at plenty of authentic Indonesian restaurants and this food did not come close to meeting my expectations.

The prices at Java may be reasonable, but I didn't like my meals, and I won't be making any future visits.

I'll have to be content with remembering some of my great Indonesian meals of the past.

Java Café & Restaurant
Římská 33
Prague 2
Tel. (+420) 296 236 343

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