Friday, September 23, 2011

El Asador

"When I go out to a restaurant, I definitely order dishes that I know take either a long time to make or are difficult to source. Unless it's a really special steak, there's no reason for me to go out and eat that." Mario Batali
How far would you travel for a really special steak? I faced this question when I heard that a new South American steak house had opened in Prague.

But it is barely in Prague. El Asador is in a small village on the eastern outskirts, near Průhonice. Still, my quixotic quest for quality beef has few limits. I am always searching for cuts to add to my Prague steak list.

Getting there meant a drive of about 30 minutes from the center, unless you want to take the C line metro to Opatov and then bus 326 or 327 to the stop at Hrnčíře.

I drove, but even my GPS system sent me down two dead ends into the surrounding farmland before I found the restaurant.

In this tiny village, a shiny new building houses this steak house.There's a big patio around the back that must be fine for dining al fresco, weather permitting.On this rainy night, it did not permit. It could be fun to sit out there for their Sunday barbecue brunch. They have a special grill menu and buffet that day for 580 CZK per person.

My first glimpse of the interior impressed me. It might not be to everyone's taste, but thought it made a strong statement that this is a high-end place that takes its steaks seriously.It is furnished with heavy wooden and tiled tables, custom wrought iron work, and dark-stained hard wood flooring. At the back end is specially designed wood-fired grill with a chef cooking the meats in full view.It's all a little over the top, but not too far. I think it is certainly more appealing than the Disney-like setting at La Casa Argentina.

A climb up the staircase takes you to the bar area that occupies the entire upper level. The long bar itself stretches almost the length of the room.The wood-beamed ceiling stretches out above an inlaid wood floor and comfy-looking overstuffed chairs.I daresay it is even nicer than the restaurant downstairs.

This made it all the more heartbreaking that I had to drive my car to get to the restaurant. In solidarity, my friend joined me in ordering virgin mojitos (100 CZK).We also had a big bottle of Mattoni mineral water (90 CZK).

On this Saturday night, there was live music. A guitar player and singer, along with a percussionist, covered a variety of Latin classics.They performed them well, which added to the pleasant atmosphere.

We each ordered starters. My friend had the selection of seafood tapas (245 CZK). This sounded good on paper, but the reality brought some real regrets.The calamari was fresh, not frozen, and it was pretty good with lemon squeezed on it. That's the good news. Maybe it's an American thing, but I thought it could use a dipping sauce.

The menu said the tiger prawns were cooked "tempura" style. The medium-sized shrimp were fine, but this was not any tempura I am familiar with. The thick, cake-like batter made the prawns taste like they were encased in a dinner roll.

There was a bowl of fairly ordinary olives.

Finally, there was the gratinated scallop. While I expected some cheese, I didn't think there would be an orange sea of what looked like molten cheddar. It completely smothered the delicate scallop. Luckily, the cheese was easy to scrape away to reveal a perfectly seared mollusk that was much more enjoyable on its own.

I had the ceviche de pescado (170 CZK).The sea bream or dorade was marinated in lots of lime juice and mixed with cilantro and chilies. Then it was buried under a pile of chopped red onion. The chunks of clean-tasting fish were nice enough, but we thought the onion overwhelmed it. I scraped most of them to the side.

The waitress came by to clear the plates and asked how everything was. I mentioned that I thought there were too many onions in the ceviche. She said she was sorry, and shortly afterward, the manager came by.

"I've heard you had a problem with the onions in the ceviche," he said.

"It's really not a big deal. It was just too much for me."

"I can assure you, our chef is from South America and this is an authentic recipe," he informed me. "But if you like, we can prepare it with less onion."

I told him that would not be necessary, but I didn't necessarily accept the indirect word of his expert. Later, I consulted my own source, a man very familiar with this recipe, which is actually Peruvian, and who also tried this dish at this restaurant. He told me that while the manager was technically correct, the authentic version uses much milder and sweeter red onions, making them less dominating.

So we were both right. Except that the strong, sharp onions were, indeed, too strong and not right for the dish.

But enough of this pedantry over the preliminaries. It gets a lot better from here on out.

I had to have a grilled steak. I got the 250 gram Aberdeen Angus rib eye from Argentina (300 CZK).I will state now and for the record that this was the best steak I have had in this country. Each bite of the tender, charred, smoky meat was pure pleasure. You have to like your rib eyes on the fatty side, and I do. It was better than many steaks I've had in the USA. I was amazed.

On the side, I ordered the Isleña sauce, a quite spicy, creamy, chili pepper mix (38 CZK).It was hardly necessary. It would be a shame to let much interfere with the fantastic flavor of the beef.

The chef also does excellent grilled vegetables (55 CZK).The zucchini, tomato, aubergine, and peppers picked up flavor from the grill as well as the particular perfume of fresh thyme.

My friend had the octopus cooked in Sauvignon Blanc (299 CZK). We found this highly enjoyable.The strong flavor of the wine came through the sauce sweetened with honey and seasoned with thyme. The sliced tentacles were fresh and tender. The gratinated mashed potatoes on the side had been placed under some kind of heat, which dried out its outer layer, but otherwise tasted fine.

We had gone from the sad to the sublime. We decided to try our luck with dessert. My friend ordered the Nube de los Andes (95 CZK).It was described as a "chilled mousse with forest berries and egg yolk cream." I'd describe it as an ethereal meringue sitting on top of uncaramelized crème brûlée with blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries.

We would both characterize it as an unusually delicious and different dessert. The spun sugar on top actually made it more like a crème brûlée but with some great added twists. Yum.

Predictably, I had the Chocolate Volcano, otherwise know as chocolate fondant (135 CZK).This takes time because it has to be baked to order. But it was worth waiting for. It was a particularly good version with an intense hit of cocoa.However, the vanilla ice cream tasted cheap and was not a worthy partner. A scoop of Häagen-Dazs would have done a far better job.

The bill for this three-course meal was 1667 CZK. I'm sure it would have gone past 2000 CZK had we been drinking alcohol. Despite the misfires with the appetizers, the main courses, desserts, and atmosphere were great. We had no real problems with the service

Someone spent super serious money building one of the Czech Republic's best South American steakhouses in a wealthy but sparsely populated suburb of Prague. Whether that was a wise move, I cannot say. But I seriously wish there was an El Asador in the center of of the city. I wish I didn't have to drive and forsake alcohol to partake.

But it is a special steak that is worth a special trip, so I will certainly drive out there again to go and eat it.

El Asador
149 00 Prague 4 - Hrnčíře
Tel. (+420) 246 067 600

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Czech Restaurants

"The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved. The pig is committed." Martina Navratilova
I’m on the record as not being the biggest fan of Czech cuisine. That doesn’t mean I dislike it. I enjoy a good svíčková na smetaně, vepřová krkovice or řízek s bramborovým salátem now and then. It’s just that I’ve lived here for a long time and have eaten plenty of the heavy stuff. So I don’t regularly seek it out.

When asked me to put together a list of Czech restaurants, I told them I’d just pass along what I tell my friends when they ask my opinions on the subject. And I always have plenty of opinions.

Here, then, is my list. It is not a “best” list or a “Top 10” list in any particular order. In fact, it’s just a survey of what I know after having lived here a long time. And it barely scratches the surface. If you know a place worth recommending, especially something beyond the usual suspects, feel free to share.

This is one of the most popular Czech restaurants in Prague. They do great řízek s bramborovým salátem (schnitzel and potato salad) and many other simple, classic, well-executed dishes with very reasonable prices for the center of the city. The Pilsner Urquell from tanks is great. I’ve often found the service to be friendly and efficient. But it’s a very long, often noisy and chaotic place and reservations are usually required in the evening. It’s not for everyone; I recommended it to an acquaintance who brought a group of guests there and he hated it.

Like Lokál, this place is run by the successful and well-managed Ambiente Group. The restaurant is all about the meat, with a particular focus on beef. Then even have whole sides of cows in a windowed fridge. There are a wide variety of steaks, cooked a wide variety of ways, all from Czech beef. It’s not as good as South American cuts, but still pretty good. They also have tank Pilsner.

Kolkovna, Celnice, Olympia, Demínka, Kulaťák, Bredovský dvůr
These are all Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant franchises. Yes, menus can vary slightly among these restaurants, but they pretty much look the same with brass fittings and brown furniture. I never found them to be exceptional, but I’ve also had some decent meals.

Café Mistral
This is perhaps the least typical of Czech restaurants, but it is one of my favorite spots for a good, relatively inexpensive meal in the center. Yes, they do some more international dishes like pumpkin and ginger soup. But they also do beef tartare, grilled duck breast, and schnitzels. They also have svíčková na smetaně, but I don’t recommend it here. I found it too sweet.

I didn’t really like the food here. But I would recommend it for one reason: I think their Budvar kroužkovaný ležák or yeast beer is delicious. I love its clean, crispy flavor and its lovely, delicate carbonation.

La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise
Probably the most expensive Czech restaurant on the planet. And yet everyone who’s eaten there says it is worth it and many feel it deserves a Michelin star. In my dreams, a wealthy cougar will wine and dine me there.

U Medvídků
I know a few people swear by this place for good, classic Czech food, decent prices for the center, and usually, but not always good service. They pull in a lot of tourists so it can get hectic. You can drink Czech Budweiser there (no relation to the American version), but the real highlight is the production from their microbrewery. I like the Old Gott Barique. Watch out for the X Beer 33 – it is 12.6% alcohol.

Plzeňská restaurace v Obecním domě
You don’t hear much about this restaurant, but I asked around and found a few people who have eaten there and they liked the food. The prices are definitely on the high side for basic Czech fare like goulash, pork medallions, and duck. But the main reason I put it on my list is I think it is one of the more unique-looking and historic Czech restaurants in the city. That’s because it is in the basement of Obecní dům or Municipal House and the style is in keeping with the Art Nouveau grandeur of the rest of the building.

Café Louvre
Speaking of history, this restaurant has it up to the rafters. It was a favorite hang for Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, and Karel Čapek. The dining rooms have also been nicely restored to capture the atmosphere of the early 20th century. The food can be basic to quite good, the prices are quite low, they do breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can shoot pool, spot Czech celebrities, journalists, and politicians, and the hot chocolate and desserts are amazing. This is one of my favorites.

Perpetuum - Prague Duck Restaurant (*CLOSED)
Czechs are usually great with duck, and my favorite place to find this fowl is at Perpetuum. These birds have style and their menu features a good number of creative cooking variations. There’s duck ragout, duck-stuffed crepes, duck stuffed with apple, drake with foie gras, soufflé, and blueberry foam. I feel like Bubba in “Forrest Gump” but with duck. I could go on and on. I haven’t tried all these preparations, but the last time I went, everyone loved it. (This restaurant closed in 2012)

Café Savoy
This great-looking and popular restaurant does a number of international dishes, but they also have my favorite versions of some Czech cuisine. First, I love their ham and cheese omelet made with beautiful chunks of real, top-quality Prague Ham. Second, I think the make the best řízek or schnitzel in town, either with veal or pork. I also like the little silver-domed dish with homemade cranberry compote. And if you eat there, don’t forget to look up and check out the beautiful ceiling.

Café Imperial
This restaurant is run by one of the country’s most famous TV chefs, Zdeněk Pohlreich. While I loved his other restaurant, Divins Wine Bar, I was never greatly impressed by the Czech menu at Imperial. I’ve heard others say nice things, so maybe I had bad luck during my visits. But I do think it is one of the most stylish and interesting dining rooms in the city. The tall walls and high ceilings are completely covered with Art Nouveau ceramic tiles and mosaics dating back to the Imperial Hotel's construction in 1914. Pretty spectacular.

U Vejvodů
U Vejvodů is usually packed, with crowds of tourists mixing in with locals. The Pilsner Urquell can be great and the beer price is decent for the center. It's a big, interesting-looking place. They cook the classic Czech menu, not always well. But check out many online reviews and read story after story about rude service, charges for the dry pretzels left on tables if you are uninformed and bite one, and waiters not returning returning change or tacking 15 to 20 percent service charges on bills. My overall impression from my last chaotic and smoky visit was of eating barely adequate Czech food in a big, busy, bus station.

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