Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prague Food Festival 2012

"Did perpetual happiness in the Garden of Eden maybe get so boring that eating the apple was justified?" Chuck Palahniuk
People used to call the Czech Republic a culinary backwater. Some still do. Ten years ago, I'd agree with them.

While this country doesn't have the depth of the great world capitals, it does have world class quality. Assembling much of it in one place is something to behold.

That's what the Prague Food Festival does. It is the event of the year for foodies: a perpetual showcase for more and more inspiring restaurants.

I've only missed the fest once since it began. This year, it returned to the fairy tale-like setting of Prague Castle's Royal Garden.
It is the best of the locations they've used, and I hope it stays there.

The deal remained the same this year.

It cost 400 CZK to get in, which includes 250 CZK worth of food tickets called "Grands." You buy more books of 10 tickets for 250 CZK as needed. And you will need.

I attended with my Italian companion on Friday evening. We enjoyed good weather and almost no lines.
I was warned Saturday would be the busiest day, but several people told me Sunday was actually busier, with occasional 15 minute waits for the most popular offerings.

The festival tried to manage the crowds more efficiently this year by selling tickets with entry times. Mid-day slots were sold out in advance.

The event was founded by Pavel Maurer, who publishes the Grand Restaurant guide.

One welcome new addition this year was much more seating for diners.
My only criticism is that many dining areas were not close enough to where food was being served. I mostly ate while standing at the small tables near the food tents. You had to be lucky sometimes to find a free spot.

We started off in the lower garden.
The first place I hit was V Zátiší.
I've greatly enjoyed their offerings in previous years. This was no exception.

They served slow-roasted lamb, organic quinoa, lemon yogurt, and lamb jus (150 CZK).
I love lamb, and I loved this. The meat was rare and tender, if a little too salty. The jus caught the essence of the meat. A dab of that and the tangy yogurt sauce made for a lovely bite. I really dug the quinoa. I wish it would appear on more menus.

We moved up the narrow path to try Le Patio. Chef Sofia Smith has completely redone the restaurant's menu with an Asian theme. There were so many tempting options like slow-cooked Indonesian-style organic beef or calamari confit.

I settled on Singapore shrimp with black pepper, curry leaves, and green chili served with rice and banana leaf essence (125 CZK).
The three small shrimp were properly cooked and had a delicate crunch. The sauce certainly provided a peppery heat. I wished there was more of it to coat the rice. It was gone all too quickly.

The next stop was La Truffe. I've heard good things about this truffle-inspired restaurant. It's not cheap though, and their dishes carried the top price of 250 CZK.

I had the puff pastry filled with baked black truffle, a slice of foie gras, and pancetta on a sauce Bordelaise. I sliced it in half for further inspection.
There was a decent-sized chunk of the dear and subtle flavored mushroom inside. It was somewhat overwhelmed by the other ingredients. The foie gras didn't fare so well in the cooking process and didn't have the smoothest texture. The pastry was nice.

Surprisingly, the sauce, made with a rich demi-glace, was the best part. Thick and beefy, with a hint of wine, it was so damn good I licked the plate, even though I know this mortifies my more refined companion. The dish got a tongue lashing and so did I.

We walked back to the upper garden and went to Alcron at the Radisson Blu, which received a Michelin star this year. Here we purchased their dorade (sea bream) with candied eggplant purée (150 CZK).
The fish was simply done, and the Italian lady liked it very much. I thought one part of the fish had gotten a little dry. In any case, the quite sweet purée balanced well with the flavor of the fresh fish filet.

Le Grill Restaurant at the Kempinski had an interesting creation: barley risotto with beetroot juice, goat cream cheese, and rucola, topped with Pecorino (100 CZK).
My friend and I split on this. She loved the combinations of textures and flavors. I thought it could have been great, but I found it too salty. The Pecorino was quite intense by itself.

Not far away, we checked out U Zlaté Studně. This restaurant got the most diners' votes for best restaurant in Maurer's Grand Restaurant guide for 2012.

We tasted the pork loin cooked sous-vide, served with a sauce of smoked bones and mashed potatoes with truffle butter (175 CZK).
The meat was so tender. The vacuum bag cooking method gave it a wonderfully silky texture. The creamy potatoes, with the strong flavor of truffle, were fantastic.

My companion is not a big meat eater, and she actually went back for a second portion of this. It doesn't get much better than that.

We also tried their goat cheese mousse with marinated green asparagus and a spicy honey sauce (100 CZK).
The cheese was light and creamy and the tiny asparagus was surprisingly sweet, but with none of the expected sharpness. It was nice, but nothing to write home about.

We realized we needed something to drink. A bottle of Mattoni could be had for 25 CZK. For the same price, one could have a glass of Master beer, a premium brand by Pilsner Urquell. Unfortunately, when I tried, only one tap was working, and painfully slowly at that.
We waited in a line that didn't move for a while and gave up. A few others did as well.

We saw a restaurant I often recommend, U Emy Destinnové. First, I picked up the ceviche of Yellowfin tuna with coconut-ginger-lime vinaigrette with toasted sesame seeds (125 CZK).
The ruby red little cubes of fish were pristine and I liked the interplay of sesame, slivers of pepper, and the tangy dressing.

Then I tried their Maryland crab cakes with roasted corn sauce and chili (175 CZK).
I was amazed to find that this was the real deal, with big chunks of genuine crab meat. I'm very particular about crab cakes and these tasted very good. I prefer them with slightly less bread crumbs, but it is a real trick to get them to hold together.

I asked the American chef and owner, Steve Trumpfheller, where he got such precious seafood at an affordable price in this town. He told me his mother brought him something like 150 kilos. I've rarely seen this American dish served in Prague, so it was a rare opportunity for many to try it.

While resting, we stopped for a glass of wine. Many were at least 75 CZK for a tiny glass, so we went for the cheapest option -- a rosé Merlot for 25 CZK.
Neither of us liked it. That's what you get when you try to save money on wine. Bad idea.

I like Krystal Mozaika Bistro and I used to be a regular at its sister restaurant, Mozaika. I tried their boar shoulder cooked sous-vide with red wine, served with an herb dumpling (150 CZK).
The meat was tender and had good flavor. The sauce was OK, but was similar to the one served with the Beef Bourguignon at the bistro. You could taste the wine clearly, but it was too sweet for me.

Last but not least, we tried the food from Rickshaw, the restaurant at the Corinthia Towers Hotel. We had the tempura tuna and pickled radish roll with seaweed salad and wasabi cream (100 CZK).
My date liked it. Everything was fresh and tasted fine, but I've just never found anything exceptional about sushi in Prague.

Before I go, I should say something about the prices, as I heard a few complaints last year. We spent over 2000 CZK. That's not a cheap night out for most, but then again  you could spend that for an evening at just one of these restaurants. Some of them can run even double that.

For me, it's great to be able to sample them all in one place on one evening. I know I'd feel that way even if I wasn't writing about it. But I understand if not everyone feels the same.

I'd also add that there were plenty of restaurants we missed for lack further appetite. I was sorry I didn't taste the "culinary lab" offering from Essensia at the Mandarin Oriental.
It looked interesting, and everything was edible, except for the containers.

Top restaurants like Aromi, La Finestra, Bellvue, and Buddha Bar only served on Saturday and Sunday, so we missed those. But there's always next year.

I'm still far from bored with the festival, so I'm pretty sure I'll be back for another visit to this garden of eatin'.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tacos El Paisa

"Texas is a big taco right now. We want to follow that through. Florida is a big tamale." Dan Rather
Since 2009, Las Adelitas has been the only Mexican restaurant for me in Prague. It was the only one I knew of that was owned and operated by Mexicans.

Cantina, which I think of as Tex-Mex, has many fans, but it never thrilled me.

Now, just beneath the walls of Vyšehrad, there's a new Mexican-run joint in town. It is Tacos El Paisa, which bills itself as Prague's first taqueria.
Las Adelitas has some tacos on their menu, but El Paisa is much more taco-centric. I spoke to one of the managers of El Paisa and he told me worked for a while with the guys at Las Adelitas.

The new restaurant is just one room, about six tables and a few stools at the bar area.
The walls are covered in bright pastel-like orange and blue. The dining room is small, but the high ceilings give it an airy, open feeling.
On my first visit, I started with guacamole and chips (99 CZK). There were chunks of avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro (coriander), and lime juice.
When I make it myself, I'm not shy with the salt or the lime juice. I like it to make its presence known on the chip.

But theirs was just over the salty/sour line for me. The tortilla chips were heavily salted, too. I had the guacamole again on another visit, and it was much better, so they need to work on consistency.

To wash this down, I ordered up a classic margarita on the rocks with no salt (99 CZK). Excelente!
It was not too sweet and the tartness of the fresh-squeezed lime juice was just right.

To go with that, I got the Tacos al Pastor (150 CZK).
It is sliced pork in a chili sauce topped with onion, cilantro, and fresh pineapple.Their corn tortillas are really top notch, and the meat was tender and tasty. I only wished for more pineapple and another lime wedge.

All tacos are served with frijoles charros, basically a bean soup with smoky chorizo mixed in.
They also come with salsa. I asked for roja and verde, though these tacos didn't really need much augmentation.
These are not the chunky salsas you may have experienced with bottled versions and are quite sharp.

I went to Las Adelitas the same week to compare Al Pastors.
They've had an issue for some time with their pork getting dried out. The blue corn tortillas are a nice touch and they've added a good chili sauce on the side.

They were more generous with the meat, pineapple and lime, though the price is higher (179 CZK). I prefer their refried black beans and fantastic coriander rice as side dishes.

Both versions of this taco have positives and negatives so I'll call this one a draw.

It's worth noting that after two margaritas on a beautiful late afternoon, I saw they make them to go.
I imagined a plastic-topped cup with a straw, but hey, it worked. I had a refreshing beverage for the long, hot trip up to Letna beer garden that evening.

On my second visit, I went for the Nachos Paisa with chicken (179 CZK).
The tortilla chips were covered with beans, sour cream, melted cheese, and jalapenos. I found this plate disappointing.

The chicken pieces were juicy and tender but bland. The beans were basic, and the cheese hardened and fused the chips together. I'm not a fan of the thick, salty chips they use.

The question about whether nachos are authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex is for another time and place. These didn't work for me.

To drink, I had a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (35 CZK).
It was perfectly fine.

I took my Italian companion on my third visit. She had the guacamole and liked it. She started with the Ensalada El Paisa con camarones (160 CZK).
This was lettuce, corn, tomato, avocado, and spring onion.

The six small shrimp were properly cooked, and I liked the garlic-lime dressing. The avocado was not particularly ripe. Overall, we both found the salad dull and uninspired. Perhaps a bit of cilantro would have jazzed it up.

I suggested we try a frozen mango margarita (99 CZK). This was a hit.
It had the clear flavor of the fruit and just enough sweetness. I only wished for more of a tart note for balance. If you order one, all conversation will grind to a halt for a minute while they noisily turn the ice into slush.
I got the Tacos de Arrachera (199 CZK). This is the taco with their top quality steak, the equivalent of rib eye.
The beef was tender and delicious, with not much detectable seasoning beyond salt. It rested on their great corn tortillas, along with chopped onion and cilantro.

There were the frijoles charros and red salsa roja on the side and that's all. If you want different flavors or heat levels, they have an array of bottles sauces to spice things up even more.
I liked the fruity Salsa Chamoy.

We could have stopped there, but decided to get one more round of food. We went for the Tacos de Camaron (199 CZK). It's the same basic arrangement as the beef, but you get four shrimp per taco.
Unfortunately, the little crustaceans were overcooked and tough.

Service was friendly, with plenty of smiles. It's hard to judge the efficiency because the restaurant, which is non-smoking, was mostly empty when I was there. There was one point where I had to get up to get a server's attention.

I didn't sample everything on the menu, but after three visits, I didn't feel there was much to pull me back on a regular basis unless I lived close by.

Perhaps it is telling that I was more impressed with the flavor of the soft corn tortillas than that of the meats. I also wished for more variety on the menu.

Tacos with just meat, onions, coriander and salsa are certainly authentic (though defining an authentic taco is like defining an authentic sandwich). But they may be too simple for some.

Given a choice, this gringo is going to go for the more complex dishes on offer at Las Adelitas.

Though there are many similarities, perhaps it's not a fair to compare Tacos El Paisa with my favorite Mexican restaurant. One is a seasoned veteran and the other just started up. It may evolve, and I hope it does.

But fairness does not enter into the equation when I decide where to eat. For me, Las Adelitas is still the big taco in this town.

Tacos El Paisa
Vratislavova 21
Prague 2 - Vyšehrad
Tel. (+420) 223 019 223

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Tavern

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern." Samuel Johnson
Once a year, I make a list of all the burgers I've had over the last 12 months. I'm near the half-way point on it now, taking copious notes for the big round-up.

But it's worth mentioning here and now that a noteworthy new player is on the scene.

I'm talking about The Tavern, a little burger and cocktail joint across from Riegrovy Sady on the border of Vinohrady and Žižkov.
It's a modest place in certain ways. There are only about 8 or 9 tables in the cramped dining area.
There are also a couple of seats at the bar (my favorite spot).
Outside seating is in the works for the summer.

As of now, they are only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening. They've had limited hours because the perfectionist owners, Dean Selby and Lori Wyant, want to make sure everything is just right.

They've been methodically building out the kitchen, testing recipes and suppliers, and getting staff in place. It's been a slow process. The restaurant has been open since the start of 2012, but it is still not clear when full-time operations will commence.

The couple was the force behind the popular LokalBurger, a traveling food stand that popped up anywhere from a farmer's market to a cocktail bar. I enjoyed their product when I tried it in Bukowski's last year.
Now with their own roof over their heads, they've kept the menu simple. It's really mostly burgers and variations of things you can put on a bun.

Since I'd already had the LokalBurger, I decided to try their LB Tower of Power. It's a LokalBurger with two patties instead of one.
I'll begin with their "butter buns.". They are custom-made, brioche-style masterpieces. The lightly sweet bread is steamed to a soft state, but they still manage to maintain strength and integrity.

The grass-fed, free-range beef is top quality, with a fine flavor brought up by just the right amount of salt.
The patties are cooked properly under lids, and remain beautifully tender.

On top there is lettuce, tomato, melted Gouda, and their "special sauce," which is a ketchup-mayo mixture. It reminded me of California's legendary In-N-Out Burger, which I had last September, only bigger and better. Seriously.

I thirsted for a cocktail to wash down this mighty beast. I ordered the Bourbon Sourball.
It's a mixture of Jim Beam, lemon-lime mix, and fresh orange. Yes, there was pulp in there. It was the strong punch to palate I was looking for.

This was a weighty meal already. And yet I ordered another round of food -- the Blue Smoke Burger.
This includes smoked ground beef, blue cheese, caramelized onions, sun-dried tomato mayo, and pickles (not mentioned on the menu) on a grilled bun.

Wow. I mean, wow.

I'm not a big blue cheese on a burger guy, but I loved it. The smoky, juicy 115 gram patty was something special. Maybe there was a tad too much onion and mayo. It was sloppy to eat and you will need extra napkins, but it was a rich, glorious mess.

I had only planned to eat part of it, thinking I wouldn't have room for it all. I really didn't, but I ate it all. It was that good.

I returned after I heard they added a bacon cheeseburger to the menu (185 CZK). This one included English cheddar, pancetta, ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles and onion.
Combining their excellent beef and bun with a generous amount of quality pork strips and cheese was the marriage of my dreams. Although they call it pancetta, it was a close cousin of the lightly crisp yet still pliant and smoky American-style bacon I crave.

I'd give minor demerits for putting the cold toppings on the bottom and too many sauces. But if you are looking for perfection, you'll never find true love.

They were still experimenting with the fries on this visit. I had a mix of their curly fries, cross-cut fries, and regular fries. The first two were crispy, crunchy delights the likes of which I've rarely seen in this city.

The regular fries were not so crisp and didn't thrill me. I was told they were changing to a different style of fries.

I also tried their "Tav Sauce" (20 CZK), which is mix of mayo, barbecue sauce and garlic powder. It didn't sound too exciting, but when I tasted it, I was surprised how much I liked its smoky flavor.

I sampled the Tavern Wench cocktail (110 CZK). It's Absolut Vanilla, Kahlua and cream.
This is a very sweet drink and is suitable for dessert.

On my next visit, I went for the pulled pork sandwich. This was amazing.
They wood-smoke their own meat, cooking it for hours into a terrifically tender state. Then they put it on a butter bun with plum-brandy barbecue sauce and top it with red cabbage slaw.

This is one of the few places in this country that you can taste a real American version of such smoky tender greatness. The pork just melts in your mouth. I enjoyed this pulled pork much more than the version served at the Hard Rock Cafe.

My only critique here is I think they put too much coleslaw on the pork. For me, it distracted from the beautiful porcine flavor. Even if it goes against American barbecue tradition, I'm getting the slaw on the side next time.

I had a beer to go with this. They serve Ježek (36 CZK/.5 liter).
It was cold and crisp. They also have interesting-sounding bottled beers like Easy Rider Pale Ale (55 CZK), though I didn't try any.

I followed that with a margarita.
The Tavern does theirs with a mix of fresh lemon and lime, Cuervo Gold, and triple sec. Well done.

On my final visit, I had a hard time. I badly wanted to order one of the burgers mentioned above. Instead, for the sake of the vegetarians out there, I ordered the Urban Garden Burger (125 CZK).
The patty is made with lentils, brown rice, and mushrooms. It's topped with caramelized onions, grilled tomato, and sun-dried tomato mayo.

I was shocked. I liked it. I'd even say it was the best vegetarian burger I've ever had (although, to be honest, I've probably had three in my life).

The patty had serious heft and a meaty texture. Sure, it's mashed beans, but the important thing is it tasted good. I detected a slight crunch and was told there are also hazelnuts in there.

I enjoyed their sweet, fried onions, and it made for a substantial meal. Again, there was a little too much mayo for me, but my enjoyment was undiminished.

The last cocktail I tried was the Cranberry Brusinka Zinger (115 CZK).
This is ginger spice vodka, cranberry, fresh lime juice, homemade grapefruit mandarin syrup, triple sec and grenadine. Again, this was another sweetie.

I'd never met the owner, Lori, who works the bar and makes sure everyone is happy. She was super nice, friendly, and helpful. I didn't meet Dean. He was busy in the kitchen cooking. The food came out unbelievably fast and piping hot.

I believe critics can and should find something to criticize. There's always room for improvement.  But I'm finding it hard to come up with any big complaints.

The best (or worst) I can do is quote a couple of friends. One told me his burger patty was overcooked and hard in places. And a British friend had never had a steamed bun before and didn't like it, saying it was "soggy."

Maybe the cocktails were a little sweet for my taste, and they went a little heavy on the condiments. That's all I got on the downside.

On the upside, I can give you my highest recommendation. The Tavern is run by Americans doing perhaps the best burgers and pulled pork you'll find in this city.

As of now, they don't have a phone number and accept reservations via email at

You will need to book. With very little publicity, the place is perpetually packed on the evenings they are open.

I think that will continue. The Tavern is producing a lot of happiness.

The Tavern
Chopinova 1521/26
Prague 2

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