Thursday, July 19, 2012

Občanská plovárna

"The nicest thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from." Andres S. Tannenbaum
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I ultimately judge Thai restaurants by their Pad Thai.

When done right, it's one of my favorite dishes, but it requires the balancing of a lot of flavors. I've had plenty of bad ones and very few good ones.

My standard for excellent Pad Thai in Prague is the one served at Noi. In fact, it's among the best I've ever had. There's a lot going on in that dish.

I read a report that there was a really good one being served at the Thai restaurant, Občanská plovárna. I went to check it out.

The restaurant sits on the river below the main embankment road.
The nearest tram stop is Čechův most. Trams 1, 8, 12, and 17 go there.

I used come to this building in the late 90s when it was a high-end restaurant called Aqua. The 2002 floods wiped out the structure's interior. It's had a series of tenants afterward that didn't interest me. But it's a great location.

They've done up the interior with some Thai touches. There are great glass window walls that completely open up the dining room to the river.
Outside there are plenty of metal tables along the banks of the Vltava. Some had table cloths, which lent a more upscale feeling.
It was less pleasant to eat on bare black metal. Either way, there is a good view. The tables also have good cover in case of rain.

On my first visit, I had the Pad Thai. But I'm going to save my review of that for the end.

I started off with a beer. They serve Lobkowicz, which I quite like, in .3 liter glasses only (30 CZK). It's a nice alternative to Pilsner Urquell.
I do wish they had half-liter glasses. They also serve BonAqua sparkling water (45 CZK), which I really don't like.

First, the price is crazy. Second, the .25 liter bottles are too small to quench your water needs through a meal. And third, Mattoni is Czech, tastes better, and comes in more satisfying .33 liter bottle.

My date had a .2 liter glass of wine (50 CZK). It was fine.

We both ordered soups. They took a long time to arrive. I had the Tom Kha Kai (95 CZK), another classic Thai dish.
It was lightly sweet with the comforting aroma of galangal. The chicken was fresh and not overcooked, as is sometimes the case. There was also a good balance of lemongrass, fish sauce, and cilantro (coriander). The bowl was large.

My Italian companion had the Tom Yum Kung (105 CZK).
This roughly translates as hot and sour soup with shrimp. Indeed, I usually enjoy this soup at other restaurants because of its terrific tang.

Here, the broth was more salty than sour. The chef at this restaurant is Thai, but I've never had a version quite like this.

Dull, almost raw mushrooms floated at the top. Underneath, there were three, delicate, properly cooked shrimp. This was a similarly large serving of soup. I didn't like it much.

This meal, which included the Pad Thai with shrimp (285 CZK), some stir-fried spinach, and a long wait for both came to 815 CZK.

I returned on a warm evening with G-Man.
He started with the fried black tiger prawns (175 CZK). You get six medium-size crustaceans with plenty of bread crumbs on them. There was the standard sweet chili sauce on the side.

They were nice and crunchy, but it's not something I would have ordered to test the skills of the kitchen.

I had the Pra Neua or which the menu describes as marinated beef tenderloin with lemon grass, cilantro, and Thai herbs (185 CZK). This I loved.
The slices of beef were incredibly tender and tasty. All too often when I get beef salads in Prague, the beef is all too tough. Not here.

The dressing had the perfect balance of fish sauce, lime juice and, coriander, and mild, sweet onion. It was the right mix of sweet, savory, and sour. The portion was not large, but the quality level was high.

Inspired by my choice, G-Man ordered the Lab Kai (165 CZK). This is billed as a salad with fresh coriander, mint, onion, lime, and chicken.
It basically tasted the same as my dish, except with chicken. I didn't really detect the mint in there, and it was not as spicy as my Pra Neua. We both liked it anyway.

Then I got an order of panang curry with pork (185 CZK). Rice was included with this dish.
The mildly sweet sauce had the strong flavor of lime leaf I like. It also was thin and soup-like. I long for thicker curry sauces in this town.

The pork was fresh and not overcooked. Other than that, there was really only lightly cooked, chewy eggplant chunks. Not too exciting.

This meal, which included five beers and two glasses of wine came to 960 CZK. The service was a bit better this time.

And what about that Pad Thai with shrimp?

First, it was certainly the nicest presentation I've seen. The huge portion came wrapped in a banana leaf.
It's really enough for two people. I took half of it home. There was a generous portion of butterflied, properly cooked shrimp. The tofu picked up a smoky flavor from the grill.

And yet the massive amount of rice noodles themselves were unforgivably bland. I squeezed out the one lime wedge, but it didn't help much. I'd probably need at least two or three more to get the flavor right. And though there were chili flakes on the side, the crushed peanuts were missing. As in not there.

In addition to more lime, I'd wish for another dash of fish sauce and a hint of sweetness. And I wouldn't forget the nuts. These are my tastes, but my date agreed with me completely. This Pad Thai didn't make the grade for either of us.

While I loved the beef and chicken salads, the noodles and curry left me disappointed. The view and the peaceful location are perhaps the biggest draws for Občanská plovárna.

The trams that go there are not the most convenient for me, but a better option for some, including me, is that they have their own parking lot. It's something I'd consider on a nice weekend day.

But given my standards, I'll probably still choose Noi when I'm in the mood for Thai.

Občanská plovárna
U Plovárny 8
Prague 1 - Mala Strana
Tel: (+420) 257 531 451

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

La Terrassa

"We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love." Mother Theresa
Ever since my trip to Barcelona last year, I've been dreaming about the tapas.

I had joyful, unforgettable meals at places like Tapas24, Bar Mut, and La Cova Fumada. I've tried tapas in Prague over the years, but I never found anything that kept me coming back for more.

When I got the tip that a real Spanish tapas place had opened, I got there as quick as I could. La Terrassa has a great location on the Vlatava, straddling the pointy end of Dětský ostrov (Children's Island).
The restaurant is opposite the Dancing House, also known as Fred and Ginger.

I took the tram 10 to Zborovska and walked about 10 minutes to get there. One could also take a tram to Arbesovo náměstí, which is about the same distance away.

There are several options on where to sit. One is an attractive indoor space with blond wood floors, rough stone walls and hanging hams that convey both a modern and rustic feeling.
Taking up one side of this room is the open kitchen. There you can watch chef de cuisine David Diaz at work.
He's got a serious CV, having worked at Michelin-starred and the Ferrán Adrià-connected Telaia Mar in Barcelona.

We ate here on the first visit and enjoyed watching the cooking show.

First off, we received bread (35 CZK).
It has a fresh and fluffy interior surrounded by a floury, crunchy crust. Great stuff.

One of our favorite bites in Barcelona was also one of the most simple: the pan con tomate -- bread with tomato. We ordered  that, hoping to be carried back to Catalonia (45 CZK).
There is more than one way to make this, but this was not my favorite way. This one was done with a tomato puree, olive oil, and garlic on small slices of toast. Unfortunately, bread was soaked through and soggy. We also thought it was too garlicky.

I much prefer the version we had many times in Barcelona. It was made on a special bread that looks like this. Pieces of tomato and garlic are lightly rubbed into the rough texture of one side and it was drizzled with olive oil. I had pan con tomate recently at Jaleo in Washington DC and they actually imported this bread from Barcelona. I wish they could do that here.

To drink, we ordered glasses N.V. Paul Cheneau Cava Rosé (95 CZK).
We liked its strawberry notes so much, we kept the whole freshly opened bottle (535 CZK). We also had a large bottle of Mattoni mineral water (65 CZK).

We got a plate of mussels (125 CZK).
They were fresh and meaty and coated with a lightly sweet, red peppery sauce that we both liked.

We tried the Galician octopus (235 CZK). With this preparation, the octopus is boiled and then seasoned with paprika, salt and olive oil.
The flesh was tender, but the flavor not so remarkable. What was remarkable was the big price for this small plate. We didn't think it was worth the splurge.

On the other hand, we both greatly enjoyed the Jamon Iberico de bellota (145 CZK).
It was freshly carved, tender, and not too salty.

My Italian companion eats grilled vegetables any chance she gets. We ordered two plates (65 CZK each).
Though small, the veggies were done just right, with a lovely char on them. There was zucchini, asparagus, mushrooms, aubergine, and tomato.

We decided to sample the larger meat and fish dishes. I had the Galician beef (450 CZK).
The thick, tender piece of quality meat was served rare. It was simply prepared with salt and olive oil. It didn't pick up much flavor from the grill.

My date got the sea bass with fennel sauce (390 CZK).
This was a great piece of fish, with a crispy skin on top and moist, delicate flesh below. The sauce worked well, even though the fennel flavor did not come through clearly.

I noticed the sea bass was not on the Internet menu as I was writing this and some of the prices have changed. They did tell me on one visit that the restaurant is new and the menu is still evolving.

For dessert, I was in the mood for chocolate, but there was no chocolate on the menu. I mentioned this to the server and was told they did have chocolate cake (75 CZK).
This one was fudgey, spongy and rich, with fresh but somewhat sour strawberries between the layers and on the side. I liked it.

Our server was really nice and always smiling, though sometimes confused by the many different plates coming and going. We did see our veggies under the heat lamp for much too long. Also, it's normal to see chefs sample their work, but we were a little surprised to see several chefs eating what looked like full meals as they cooked.

The tab for this outing, which included a bottle of cava, came to 2185 CZK before tip. While there were some misfires, we liked enough of what we tried, plus the vibrant atmosphere, to look forward to a second visit.

We returned a few days later and sat in the second dining area, which looks and feels like the inside of a wooden ship.
The blue and cream cloth between the beams in the ceiling, the wooden floors, the many windows, and the white tables give it a light, airy atmosphere.

The two dining rooms are non-smoking, but smoking is allowed on the outside terrace that covers the end of the island.
From here, you can get unobstructed views of the river and the National Theater.
We ordered another bottle of the cava we had on the first visit.
The waiter gave us a dish of seriously tiny olives.
Then, I had the Gazpacho Andaluz, which is served in a wine glass (90 CZK). I drank up and was cheered up.
The light, tangy soup had just the right balance of salt and vinegar, with a little meatiness from tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

Then came another tapas classic, the tortilla de patatas (65 CZK). This was perfectly executed.
The light mix of eggs, potatoes, and onions was served steaming hot and it tasted freshly made.

We had to taste the baked tiger prawns with garlic and chili (145 CZK). Delicately delicious.
They varied in size from medium to small. After peeling off they shells, they quickly disappeared. I ended up sucking on the heads and mopping up every drop of the sauce with their nice bread.

For a main course, I had the lamb chops (295 CZK).
I told the waiter I wanted them medium rare, and he duly wrote it down, though I'm not sure why. These were the thinnest lamb chops I've ever had. They were cooked through and I couldn't imagine them otherwise.

That said, I enjoyed them. There wasn't a large amount of meat, but it was very lamby and tasty. As I consumed it, fat and all, I thought of it as something akin to lamb bacon. The aubergine puree, made with apples and wine grapes was a complement deserving of the highest compliments. It raised the plate to a higher level.

To go with it, I had the baked potatoes (45 CZK).
We both loved these golden, starchy little spuds.

My date had the dorade or sea bream (360 CZK).
The fish was fresh, but incredibly bony. We couldn't pick them out easily and half the bites yielded an unpleasant mouthful. Perhaps it was bad luck, but it turned us both off this dish.

She had the Mediterranean salad on the side (90 CZK).
Although it had a nice mix of leaves, it was very simple, underdressed, and overpriced.

For dessert, I went for the Crema Catalana Cremada (85 CZK).
It looks similar, but it's quite different from crème brûlée. This version had a hint of cinnamon. The cream was not smooth, but had a texture I'd say was similar to apple sauce. The top layer was burnt, but not hard.

The bill for this meal was 1950 CZK before tip.

Did we like everything we tried? No.

Would I go back to La Terrassa. Yes. There a number of dishes I'd have again. And again.

The style, look, and location also left us with a good feeling. The service, though not flawless, was friendly and accommodating.

I didn't consider all things great, but enough of the small plates were done with great love.

La Terrassa
Janáčkovo nábřeží - Dětský ostrov
Prague 5 - Smíchov
Tel: (+420) 604 300 300

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