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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