Friday, June 17, 2011

Zdenek's Oyster Bar

"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." Jonathan Swift
Personally, I think it was a very hungry man who ate that first one.

I didn't always love swallowing these strange-looking creatures. But over the years, I've acquired a growing appreciation for them.

However, it was the tempting tale of different delicacy that really got me interested in trying the new restaurant, Zdeněk's Oyster Bar. Two magic words stirred the heart of someone fortunate enough to have spent part of his youth in the state of Maine:

Lobster rolls.

The report of a sighting sucked me in and down the narrow street not far from Old Town Square.The outside tables occupy a small sliver of sidewalk a stone's throw from the stoners loitering outside Chapeau Rouge.But the evening was a little too cool for that.

Inside, you would hardly know that this was, not long ago, the Australian bar, Fat Boy's. It's been completely made over.

Now, if you squint a bit at the black and white tiled walls, you could imagine being in Paris or Brussels.Some might be put off by the disco ball on ceiling or the open door to the toilet, but for the most part it looks pretty good. The high chairs were not terribly comfortable. The music selection was jazzy and poppy, but played way too loud.

There's an actual oyster bar inside where you can pull up a stool and suck down bivalves and a variety of Champagnes.I considered sitting there, but a wave of heat from behind the bar sent me back to the few tables of the other dining areas.

We started off with bottled water -- Aquila and Mattoni. We also shared a half-liter carafe of house white wine.Our waitress delivered a selection of four breads. It was one of the nicest offerings I've seen.The best was the apricot-walnut. There was also pumpkin seed, dark bread, and a Tuscan-style white. For dipping, there was good olive oil with a few drops of sweet crema di balsamico.

Asked if we would also like olives, we responded positively and were positively pleased.In one compartment in the glass dish, six plump and juicy olives were lightly coated with a chili marmalade. In the other section, denser, meaty olives were mixed with rosemary covered with a honey mustard glaze. Delicious.

Appropriately, we first tried some oysters. Four types were on the menu -- all sourced from France: Marennes, Tsarskaya, Gillardeau, and Belon. I asked the waitress which were the freshest.

"All are equally fresh," she replied.

We had the Belon. We agreed they were terrific.The menu describes the meat as crisp, and that is a fair assessment. The oyster was pristine in its freshness, with the lightest, most delicate crunch as I bit into it.I closed my eyes and, as often happens when eating good oysters, was transported to the sea. They are served with three condiments: wasabi soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, and fresh horseradish.

There was fresh lemon, which is usually enough for me. But it wasn't bad with just a dot of the wasabi soy on it.

Next, we decided to share the Crustacea Platter. This is six large prawns, 12 smaller Atlantic shrimp, six langoustines, and a whole stone crab.It came with lemon wedges and what is described as "red island aioli."

The platter, filled with crushed ice, is huge and even with a stand, takes up a good part of the table. We also received finger bowls with lemon and a towelette.You will want to wash your hands well before you eat all this. We had to ask for extra plates for the discarded shells, which took up more space.

Taking the shells off all the shrimp wasn't so much fun, but there was a reward for all the work. Everything was as fresh as could be. The large prawns tasted perfect, with sweet meat and just the right amount of snap.

The langoustine tails were helpfully split by the kitchen, and the flesh was even sweeter than the shrimp. They did get a little waterlogged when they were in the ice for a while. The Atlantic shrimp had the saltier flavor you'd expect from the ocean.

The stone crab claws, pre-cracked by the kitchen, were small, but good.The main shell also was pre-opened, but I didn't see much inside I wanted to eat.

Although we received many different utensils, I was not up for the daunting task of cracking smaller and sharp limb sections for tiny amounts of meat.I really liked the "red island" aioli, which may be a corruption of mayo-based "Rhode Island" sauce. This one was rich, lightly yolky, and lightly sweet.

I was a bit baffled about getting the whole crab. I've been to Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, and there, they serve only the claws. The reason is that stone crabs regenerate their claws, so only one is removed and they are thrown back to the sea. This is discussed in a great episode of one of my favorite shows, "Man v. Food." The "claw only" rule is backed up on other websites.

Finally, I dug into the Maine attraction: the lobster roll. There was a huge, whole claw on top.Underneath, I'd guess there was the chopped meat of half a large tail. It was a generous portion, perfectly cooked, sweet and tender. I'd say it was better than the many of the mayo-slathered versions I've had in the USA.

The lightly buttered roll was not the hot dog-style bun you get so often in the USA. It was quality bread, toasted and crunchy. On the side, there was a cup of an excellent Andalusian gazpacho.

There were also vinegary potato chips from a bag and sweet pickles. I tasted one or two of each and left the rest. In fact, I was so full at this point, I didn't eat most of the roll, and just dipped the lobster in the "red island" sauce.

Astute readers may notice that I usually put prices next to each item in an article, but have not done so here. I thought I'd leave it for the end to allow a little more unalloyed vicarious pleasure.I had a feeling when we were asked if we wanted olives that there would be a charge for it. They were 125 CZK.

There was also a charge for bread -- 65 CZK per person. No wonder it was so good.

The wine was 300 CZK for the half-liter, which seemed like a good price for a place like this. A small bottle of Aquila water was 50 CZK and a small bottle of Mattoni was 40 CZK.

The three Belon oysters cost 285 CZK. For the same number of Gillardeau, it was 255 CZK. For Tstarskaya it was 225 CZK. For Marennes, it was 195 CZK.

The Crustacea Platter cost 1250 CZK. The lobster roll was 395 CZK.

There's a saying that if you have to ask how much fresh seafood costs in Prague, you can't afford it. But I'll tell you. The final bill was 2615 CZK before tip.

That's more money than I've spent in a restaurant in a very long time. Was it worth it?

Well, the atmosphere is pretty casual, and it's not all that comfortable. It doesn't seem like a place where you are going to drop that kind of cash.

When it comes to what you are eating, you do feel like they've invested in top quality seafood and making sure everything, from bread to olives, tastes good and right.

I ate (and spent) much more than I usually would in order to experience as much as possible in one visit. The big question for me is: would I go back?

The answer is a qualified yes. I say yes to the lobster roll. It is both great and fairly priced. At The Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, you'd have a lesser lobster on a bun that would cost you more money ($27.95) than this one.

Times have changed since the days of Jonathan Swift. It not the bold, but very rich men and women who so easily eat the oysters these days. It is not for those with Liliputian budgets.

But I definitely see a day ahead when I'll be perched on a stool with a cold glass of white wine in one hand and a lobster roll in the other. I'll be feeling grateful and good that I found at least this perfect little pleasure during my culinary travels.

Zdeněk's Oyster Bar
Malá Štupartská 5
Praha 1, Staré Město
Tel. (+420) 725 946 250

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Prague Food Festival 2011

"Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths." The Bible
I've been attending the Prague Food Festival religiously for the past three years. It's a heavenly way to sample a wide array of offerings from many of Prague's best restaurants.

It's eater's paradise for endlessly searching grazers like me. The fest is also something of a moveable feast. This year, the extravaganza was in the Eden-like setting of Prague Castle's Royal Garden.The location has changed every year I've attended, and this was the best so far.

I liked it very much in 2010 when it was in lower gardens on the other side of the castle. The 2008 location on Slovanský ostrov was quite good. But all were much better than the cramped and divided areas on the Vltava used for the 2009 festival.

I was there on Saturday and Sunday which, for some, are days of rest. But there was no rest for the foodies.The deal was the same as previous years.

It cost 400 CZK to get in, but that includes 250 CZK worth of food tickets called "Grands."Each Grand is worth 25 CZK and they are sold in packs of 10. I bought 500 CZK extra on both days, so I spent 900 CZK a day. Not cheap, but I had a lot of eating to do.

There were cooking demonstrations in the beautiful Míčovna or Ball Game Hall.It was between shows when I looked in.Later, I tried to see one, but it was too full and I was shut out.

The weather was cool on Saturday with a few threatening clouds, and crowds were light. It was easy to move around.The first dish I tried was at the tent for the Mandarin Oriental's restaurant, Essensia.It was Sri Lankan pork belly in black current with lentil salad and basmati rice (150 CZK). A great start.The fatty meat was cooked into a melt-in-the-mouth state.

I didn't taste blackcurrant, but it was accompanied by a delectable salty, spicy curry sauce. The lentils were mixed with vibrant mint and cilantro. I scooped up the extra sauce with the papadum and rice.

Then I hit the Aromi-La Finestra stand -- two of the top-end Italian spots in town.I had the grilled Marchigiana beef with bean salad (150 CZK). Terrific.The beef, cooked to medium was ever so tender. There was beautiful seasoning along the edge of the meat, which was lightly glazed with an intense olive oil. Crunchy beans, mixed with mushrooms, were a great complement.

Along with this, they gave diners a gift of hand-carved prosciutto on toast with olive oil and a basil-infused tomato sauce.A sweet (and salty) deal.

Then I walked down to the lower garden level, next to the garden's very modern-looking greenhouses.I found the stand for Chagall's Club, which was one of my favorite restaurants in recent months.I got the cod with coriander, parsley crème, and marinated onions (100 CZK). Loved it.The fish was just lightly seared, giving it a light firmness on the outside and a pristine, clean flavor and texture inside.

The crème leaned toward the sweet side and had an interesting texture, almost like hummus. I asked the chef what else was in it, but he wouldn't say. The sweetness was balanced by the sourness of the vinegary onions. I thought this dish was perhaps the best of show -- and a bargain to boot.

Then I went meditate on the offerings from the Buddha Bar. I had trouble deciding, so I got two dishes.

First, I tasted the grilled pork belly marinated in garlic and lime with a caramel glaze (150 CZK).It sat on a salad of carrot, cilantro, and mint. The pork portion was half the size of Essensia's. The sweet glaze had a teriyaki tang and a light char flavor.

This porcine cube was meatier and less fatty than Essensia's and was on the chewier side. I mentioned my preference for one from the Mandarin Oriental to a food journalist I ran into. She told me her preference was the opposite. When she had Essensia's, that one was meatier and less fatty.

It just goes to show -- cuts of meat and critics can vary widely. So take it all with a grain of salt. However, we both agreed that the pork belly at Sansho beat them both.

The other dish I sampled there was the crab cake. The fried ball was filled with a shredded crab mixture that had a creamy texture and a red peppery flavor.I thought it was OK. My friend Mr. T thought it didn't taste crabby enough. The sour salsa underneath didn't really work for me either.

Of course, with all this food, there must be drink. Wine was available, but I went for beer. This year, Pilsner Urquell products were available.They had regular Pilsner, but I went for the richer and more complex Master 13° amber and the Master 18° dark. At 25 CZK per .3 liter glass, I spent more than a few Grands here.

I returned on Sunday and it was a gorgeous day.As wonderful as that sounds and as fantastic as it looked, it also brought out the crowds.The lines for some restaurants like Kobe and Krystal-Mozaika were so long I didn't have the patience to try them.There was a line, though shorter, for another restaurant favorite, U Emy Destinnové.

There I had the wasabi-crusted scallops with julienne garden vegetables, honey soy vinaigrette, and sesame seeds (100 CZ).The small scallops were seared perfectly, with a delicate texture. I didn't taste wasabi. Instead, there was the strong, sharp flavor of peppercorns.

U Emy's American chef and owner, Steve Trumpfheller, was on hand to make sure everything went according to plan.He was very excited about a new menu he had just put together for his restaurant.

The crowds did cause some bottlenecks in the narrower sections of the garden. But there was no line at all for Kampa Park, one of Prague's most expensive restaurants.

There, I tried the halibut with cauliflower, raisins, and dill beurre blanc with capers (175 CZK).It certainly looked pretty. However, the fish was sadly overcooked. Halibut is known for its dense, firm texture, but this one had become mushy.

It was a real shame because the sauce was fantastic. It had a buttery tang along with the sweetness of the raisin and salty, browned cauliflower. It was so good, I picked up the plate and licked it clean like a lollipop at the end.

The last place I tried was Mlynec, which is now focusing on high-end Czech cuisine. I ordered the grilled fallow deer medallions with a vegetable cream sauce and blackcurrant jam (175 CZK).It was a happy ending. The gamy meat was super tender and easy to slice with my plastic knife.The thick, sweet, fruity sauce was divine. Again, I went into plate-licking mode.

As I made my way out, I picked up my parting gift. Everyone who attended the festival received a case with three types of Pilsner Urquell's Master beer.Since I went twice and had a friend who didn't want them, I ended up with three sets. Nice.

Of course, Czechs are the biggest beer consumers in the world and someone should have considered whether such elaborate cardboard cases were really necessary. Large numbers of people drank their Masters on the spot. Unwanted, unneeded boxes were strewn all over the place outside the gates.

I spent the Sabbaths judging the food and drink . Now I'll pass judgement on the festival.

Yes, the prices do seem to be creeping higher. But overall, I'd say this was the best fest yet.

The garden was just gorgeous, the weather was perfect on Sunday, the crowds light on Saturday, and I think I enjoyed more dishes from more places than ever before.

I pray that next year's fest will be as good or better as this one was. Even though my expectations have risen to an ever higher plane, I have faith it will be.

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