Thursday, August 30, 2012

Katr Restaurant

"If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life." Frank Lloyd Wright
Prague is filled with history and beautiful architecture at every turn. But there is also a place for modern and contemporary design. When it comes to restaurants, I wish there was more of it in this town.

Mistral Cafe is a place I consider a success in this area. The dining room achieves a clean, concrete simplicity that gives it the feeling of a gallery. That alone doesn't keep it filled. The cooking is also generally good and the prices are moderate.

The eye-catching design and somewhat unusual concept of another new eatery caught my eye and made me want to try.

I'm talking about the recently opened Katr Restaurant in Old Town.
One glance inside and you'll see what I'm talking about. It's light, white, shiny and bright.
Some walls double as blackboards, chalked up with various items from the menu.

But the most interesting aspect of the design is the tables with built-in gas grills, each with its own silver ventilation system descending from the ceiling.
There were ashtrays on the tables and people were smoking in different parts of the restaurant.

We sat down at a table without a grill for lunch one day. It was much too warm a day to be anywhere near hot metal. We'd come back and cook another time.

The waiter delivered a basket.
There was fresh Czech bread as well as one with peanuts mixed in. A dish of creamy blue cheese spread sat on the side. There is a 20 CZK cover per person.

I had a half-liter of Kozel (39 CZK).
It could have been colder. I later had a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell.
This one was cold enough, but also quite foamy. Miss P had a .33 bottle of Mattoni (45 CZK).

She started off with a Katr Salad (170 CZK). This included young asparagus, avocado, mushrooms and a variety of lettuce.
She dressed it herself with oil and vinegar and pronounced it very good. Everything was fresh, the avocado was ripe and it mixed together well.

There is a section of the menu where you can order raw meat or fish to grill yourself. But I ordered from their list of meals fully prepared in the kitchen. I had the Uruguayan rib eye steak with a veal and sage sauce and roasted sweet potatoes (400 CZK).
The beef was very flavorful and beautifully tender. Although rib eyes can be fatty, this one was on the lean side.

There was still plenty of pink at the center, as requested.
The terrific sauce tasted like a top quality demi-glace. I wished there was more of it. The sweet potatoes were cut thick and had a light char on the edges. I liked it all.

The waiter told Miss P that the kitchen could prepare something from the grilling menu if she wanted, so she ordered the sea bass. They charge by weight, so she got the minimum, 200 grams (280 CZK).
The fish arrived cut into small pieces, which is how it is also given to guests for grilling. The sea bass was cooked to the point that a crisp, brown crust formed.

These fish nuggets were on the dry side, especially around the edges, and had little seasoning. We both found it very dull.

The potato puree with feta was quite salty and had the strong taste of fennel. They charge 70 CZK for sides that go with the grilled items. So the total price for the plate was 350 CZK. I liked the potatoes more than Miss P did.

With the grilled meat and fish, you can choose two of the three sauces. We had to remind the waiter about this, so they arrived later. The sauces are hoisin, tomato salsa, or homemade tartar.
Putting any two of these together are like culinary non sequiturs. They just don't work together.

The tartar and hoisin tasted generic, while the salsa was basically a combination of stewed tomatoes and tomato paste. I'd say they need a rethink.

I was pretty full, but when I saw the dessert menu, there was something I absolutely had to try. Churros!

There are a number of variations of this extruded, fried dough. I've had the ridged, cinnamon sugar covered sticks served alone in paper in Los Angeles and Barcelona. I've dipped them in hot chocolate in Madrid. I've had them Brazilian style, filled with dulce de leche, at London's Camden Market. Damn, that was good.

These churros appeared to be a non-ridged variety with the thinner dough common to southeastern Spain (90 CZK).
The plate was piled with plenty of them. In the middle was a rich, thick hot chocolate sauce. This was excellent.

However, the dough was over-fried to hardness. A bigger issue was the cinnamon sugar. Large granules deeply caked the surface of the churros. I have a big sweet tooth, but I was trying to shake off sugar onto the plate. That didn't work too well.

These were the first churros I had ever seen in Prague, and I was disappointed. If they get better, I'd come regularly just for those.

There was a long wait for the bill. The meal, which included some of their more expensive dishes, added up to 1257 CZK.

I returned the following week to try their burger (199 CZK).
It is served on a dense, toasted, ciabatta-like roll. It comes with mustard, chive mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickle and red onion. Fries are included.

As for the meat, it was terribly dry, dense, and difficult to chew. The texture was unpleasant.
I asked for it to be prepared medium but it was cooked all the way through. This was the worst burger patty I've had since I began keeping records. I could only eat half of it and gave up due to fatigue.

To wash down the bungled burger, I asked for their homemade lemonade. The waitress told me they only had the elderberry version, so I said I'd take that. What I got looked and tasted like lime and nothing else.
It was sour, with a light sweetness. I liked it. It came in a small pitcher with no glass. When I mentioned this, I received a straw.

On the third visit, Miss P started with a vegetable salad with feta cheese, grilled artichokes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, and onion.
We had high hopes for the artichokes, but the whole thing was a rather dull affair.

After the salad, we were ready to do some cooking.
The waitress pulled down the exhaust vent, fired up the gas grill and set the flame to high. I got 200 grams of pork neck (200 CZK) with a side of potato puree with truffle oil (70 CZK).
I could taste the oil in the potatoes, but they were lukewarm and needed salt.

Miss P got the chicken (200 CZK) with a side of mixed vegetables for grilling (70 CZK).
The meat comes with almost no seasoning, so they give you some basics: salt, pepper, Tabasco, and olive oil.

The grill radiates a lot of heat, so perhaps it would be nice on a cold evening. It's something I'd avoid during hot weather.

With that high heat, the meat cooks the food super fast.
On the one hand, this is good because it puts a nice crust on the meat's exterior and saves you from spending too much time tending the grill. On the other hand, it's hard to keep up a conversation because if you don't pay attention and flip the little pieces at the right time, something will burn.

How was it?

It tasted like meat cooked on a hot pan with salt and pepper and perhaps some oil. In other words, it was fine, but nothing special. Sure, there was a novelty to it, but it's not something I'd do more than once. Maybe people with a deep love for grilling for friends and family will feel differently.

The service was average to poor. Although very friendly, sauces that come with grilled dishes were forgotten on both visits. The waiters would disappear for long stretches, and it was always hard to get the check at the end.

A lot was invested in this restaurant's design and concept, but most of the food just didn't do it for me. After three visits, I didn't feel the love.

There were too many disappointing dishes and the grilling just wasn't so thrilling.

Katr Restaurant
Vězeňská 9
Prague 1 - Old Town
tel. (+420 222 315 148)

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Zebra Asian Noodle Bar

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Chinatown (1974)
I can get obsessed with specific restaurants. It's a useful problem to have in this line of work.

If I like a place, I'll return again and again until I tire of it. In rare cases, the obsession doesn't end.

I still haven't lost my passion for La Bottega di Finestra, perhaps the finest cafe in the city. I've lost track of how many times I've been there.

Asian eateries are well-represented on my short list of regular favorites, so when I saw the new Zebra Asian Noodle Bar on Havelský trh, I quickly got curious.
For those not familiar with Prague geography, the restaurant is located between Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.

Both the menu and the interior reminded me of Coa.
I had high hopes for that place, but they didn't pan out. Zebra also has an open kitchen, a variety of table and seating choices, and a bright, modern feel.
Zebra is smaller inside, but it has quite a few al fresco tables under an arcade.
I'll tell you right from the start: I became obsessed with this restaurant. These passions usually fade after three or four visits. I've been to Zebra six times since it opened this summer.
Rather than break down each visit, I'm going to go through everything I tried on their menu in one straight shot.

The first thing I went for was the Zebra wings.
They were fried with a crunchy coating and covered with a sweet and savory orange glaze. Some could find it too sweet. They appealed to my sweet tooth, reminding me of the guilty pleasures of Chinese fast food in the USA.

One unappetizing aspect was that they revised the menu recently. Some tasty dishes were dropped, a few others were added, and they raised the prices.

When they first opened, they charged 89 CZK for six Zebra wings. Now they've soared to 139 CZK for eight. A number of offerings went up in cost by between 10 and 60 CZK.

We tried the vegetarian dim sum (99  CZK).
The five delicate dumplings were filled with tofu, bok choy, mint, leek, and Thai basil.
They come with a terrific, tangy dipping sauce. This was ordered on many visits.

They also have shrimp dim sum (119 CZK). These three dumplings filled with chopped shrimp also had the satisfyingly moist, thin skin.
The dipping sauce was the same. While not bad, we preferred the veggie dumplings.

I was curious about the Vietnamese roll (169 CZK). Of all the things I tried, this was the only one I considered a failure.
The waiter told me it was fried, but it was only lightly griddled. The menu says it is filled with shrimp, avocado, shallots, and mayo.
While I could see some of those things inside, all I could taste was a large amount of mayo and some celery. A sweet mustard sauce sat on the side.

We enjoyed the cool and refreshing soba salad (179 CZK).
The buckwheat noodles were combined with fresh spinach, mint, peanuts, and a light vinegar dressing. You will also feel some garlic.

An alternative is the green papaya salad (169 CZK).
This was a handful of crunchy papaya mixed with cherry tomatoes, spring onions, sprouts, and peanuts. The tart dressing included lime and fish sauce. Nice.

Two soups I really loved, the corn with coconut milk and the Five Treasures have dropped off the menu update. I won't tease you with the pictures.

They still have the tom-yam (179 CZK).
This type of hot and sour soup is not usually made with coconut milk. Some variations are made with a small amount, but this version was much more like a Tom Kha Goong.

Either way, the large bowl was loaded with glass noodles, calamari, shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms. The seafood was fresh and well-complemented by the lime leaf and fish sauce, plus with a slow-building heat. It was very filling by itself.

I sampled my Thai litmus test dish, the Pad Thai with shrimp (249 CZK). I'd rank this one second only to the version at Noi, which is still my favorite in the city.
The noodles had layers of flavor that ran from tangy to smoky to salty to nutty. There was a bounty of shrimp in there. I counted 12. Though not large, they were cooked just right to a delicate and still tender state.

Continuing with the Thai theme, there's the massaman curry with beef (249 CZK). Rice is included in the price.
In my recent story about Občanská plovárna, I was talking about my desire for thicker, creamier curries in Prague. This is exactly what I was talking about. It's my wish fulfilled.

Thai curries are usually thin and soup like. The exceptions are panang and massaman curries, which can be creamier and more Indian-like in their consistency.

In this one, chunks of beef were slow-cooked to softness. The meat was surrounded by eggplant, potato, white onion, green onion, and peanuts. The spiciness built up slowly. It was a little too salty for me, but otherwise great.

If you like that one, you might want to try their "Chang-Mai" noodles (249 CZK).
Their homemade egg noodles were covered in a thick, red curry coconut sauce. There was also tender chicken, coriander (cilantro), green onions, white onions, peanuts, mushrooms, and eggplant.

Continuing with the egg noodle theme, they have a Japanese dish they call Kuni salmon (249 CZK). This included shrimp, yams, leeks, and oyster sauce.
The shrimp were excellent again and the yams had a mild sweetness. Overall, it had a strong flavor of Thai basil supplemented by the large amount of fresh coriander on top. I did hear one complaint that there weren't enough of the small pieces of salmon.

I'd note here that they were accommodating and prepared this once without salmon on request. Another time, my date asked if they would make a vegetable stir fry, which was not on the menu.
They were happy to do so, and she was happy with their creative effort.

From the Chinese portion of the menu, I ordered the Sichuan Beef (279 CZK).
The tender beef slices were mixed with a sweet and seriously spicy sauce. There was also bok choy, green and white onions, and what tasted like Thai basil. Rice came with it in the bowl.

The last of the main courses was the pork ribs (249 CZK).
These baby backs were not as tender as the American style ribs at Mood, but they were still easy to peel apart with fingers. Although the menu said they have a "sweet and spicy glaze," I found them more salty than sweet. And I thought they were great. The flavor brought me back to London's Gerrard Street and New York's Chinatown. It wasn't exactly the same, but close enough.

On the last visit, we tried the two new and most expensive items on the menu. My date had the Zebra maguro (570 CZK). It was sesame-crusted seared tuna over bok choi cooked with soy sauce.
We were guaranteed it would be served very rare. Although not quite as rare as we would have liked, it was still within our acceptable range. There was a sour yuzu sauce on the side.

My date liked the tuna. I thought it was OK, but I'd say it didn't satisfy my price to pleasure quotient.

I had their Thai-style sea bass (490 CZK). Although I'm a big tuna fan, I actually like this dish better.
The large, fresh filet rested on a very tart lime, coriander, and lime leaf sauce. There was also fried garlic and cherry tomatoes underneath. It might be too sour for some people, but I enjoyed the strong taste.

Rice came on the side for both dishes, but it went less well with the tuna, which had very little sauce with it.

To drink, I most often had the .3 liter glass of Merlin dark beer (45 CZK).
It was on the sweet side, with coffee and caramel notes. They also serve Lobkowicz Premium 12° beer, which I like as an alternative to Pilsner Urquell.

My date drank rosé (99 CZK) and a large bottle of Romerquelle sparkling water 85 CZK) on one visit.
Her favorite beverage was their super thick, creamy, homemade mango lassi (95 CZK).
As enjoyable as it was, the downside is that it is a very small bottle for a big price. They also have .25 liter bottles of BonAqua, which is not cheap either (55 CZK).

I did try one dessert: the marquise chocolate with ginger and orange (99 CZK).
This was something akin to a rich chocolate mousse with candied orange peel. I liked it very much.

What about the service? It was all over the place. There was a total melt down on one visit with two forgotten orders, incorrect charges on the bill and the like.
On a couple of visits, the service was terse and impersonal. On another two, it was stellar. Our hyper-efficient waiter was as friendly and as sweet as their wings.

I'd make some allowances for the restaurant being newly opened. The later visits did have better service.

The location, at a crossroads of Prague's tourist trails, can't be cheap. The rising prices did take away some of the feeling of value. I thought the price for water was ridiculous.

However, with many filling and delicious dishes going for around 250 CZK, it's still possible to eat at this restaurant and not go broke. My meals for two with at least two courses and drinks averaged 1000 CZK.

In the end, I became obsessed with Zebra because it presented flavors that were familiar to me and, at the same time, so unfamiliar in Prague.

It's clear the people behind this restaurant have an international perspective and did their homework. Although not gourmet or groundbreaking, Zebra brought back memories of simple, but satisfying meals in London, New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, and Thailand.

For me, food like that is hard to forget.

Zebra Asian Noodle Bar
Melantrichova 5
Prague 1
Tel. (+420) 777 873 333

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mood Restaurant

"The American mood, perhaps even the American character, has changed." Archibald MacLeish
If you're a native English speaker and you've lived in Prague for a long time, it can feel like a small village. If I don't know you, I bet I know someone you know.

This "One Degree of Separation" principle applies to expat American chef, Jeff Cohen. Our circles overlap slightly, and I've run into him a few times over the years.

Cohen was the opening chef and creator of the international menu at Artisan. It was well-regarded by many, including me. Then he worked in the kitchen at Kampa Group's Hergetova Cihelna. I had some very enjoyable meals there.

Now he's the head chef at the new Mood Restaurant. It's in the richly renovated boutique Hotel Voyage in Žižkov.
The good-looking building and brightly colored signage stand out on the otherwise rather dingy Koněvova street.

The interior has a pop art feel, with spare, modern furniture, more bright colors, and odd, eye-catching photos of toothy smiles on the walls.
I particularly liked wide-planked hard wood flooring. There is a rear dining area that is a little more woody when it comes to the chairs and tables than the front.
On the way there, you can take a look through a window into the brand new, ultra modern kitchen.
When the weather was warm, my favorite spot was the back terrace. You take in the greenery and watch the bikers, rollerbladers, and strollers gliding through the park under the Vitkov National Memorial.
On my first visit, I sat in front.
I drove my car since there is plenty of free, white line parking in front on weekends. Buses run near the restaurant, but it's a 10 minute walk to the nearest tram.

Because of the car, I was drinking water. They serve .25 liter bottles of Bonaqua (39 CZK). I wish they'd carry Mattoni instead.

I'd heard talk that burgers would be a specialty of this restaurant and I'd enjoyed Cohen's burger at Artisan. So, I ordered the Mood Classic Burger (215 CZK).
The thick patty, formed from a custom grind, sits on red and green lettuce, tomato, and red onion. On top rested two long, crispy slices of bacon.

There was no cheese, although this is available on the Jalapeno Cheddar Burger (235 CZK). I found out the toasted buns are custom-made for Mood at Bakeshop Praha.

I'll be frank, I think this is one of the top burgers in the Czech Republic. The top quality ground beef patty is hefty, wonderfully smoky from a lava grill, and just juicy enough, even though it was cooked almost well done (I asked for medium). The bun holds it all together like a champ.
The burger comes with little dishes of ketchup, mustard, and mayo. It always bugs me not to get a bottle of ketchup on the table. These small dishes never supply enough for both the burger and the fries. I wished the cool lettuce, tomato, and onion were on the top or the side, rather than under the hot meat.

These small details didn't put my love asunder. I have a very high opinion of the burger. For second point of view, I talked to a friend who also tried the Mood Classic Burger. He gave it a full on rave. He even went so far as to say that Mood's is better than the much-beloved burgers at The Tavern.

Do I agree? I'm going to wait until my end of the year burger ranking list to reveal my final decision on that.

On my second trip, I was on the terrace.
I began with a glass of homemade ice tea (60 CZK). It was lightly sweet and quite tart, with plenty of lime as well as fresh mint leaves. It was refreshing.
I tried a bowl of gazpacho (45 CZK). The tomato stood out, and there was a balance of salty and sour.
I wished for more flavor from other vegetables like cucumber. I also prefer a thicker texture like the gazpacho I had recently at La Terrassa.

I realize there are many ways to make this cold soup. This one was on the thin side. I'd point out that the gazpacho photo on Mood's website shows a soup that appears quite thicker.

Then I had the pineapple-soy marinated rib eye (365 CZK). This was a quality, very tender piece of beef.
Rib eyes are usually so tasty and easy to cut because they are also relatively fatty, so be prepared for that. I did ask for medium-rare, and it was cooked past that point.
Although I never met Cohen in Atlanta, I found out he was a chef at my favorite steak house, Houston's, at the same time I lived there. He told me this steak is modeled on their "Hawaiian," which I ordered regularly.

That one had a charred, sweet-salty, teriyaki-like crust on it from the marinade. The Mood version is saltier and dominated by the soy sauce, rather than pineapple juice. I assumed this was something of a concession to local tastes.

The green beans were fine -- hot but still crunchy and topped with chopped bacon. The mashed potatoes were creamy, buttery, and lovely. The lightly sweet and salty demi-glace sauce on the side was truly excellent. It was plate-licking good.

Although full, I felt it my duty to try a dessert. I ordered the bread pudding (110 CZK). This is one of the most decadent sweets you'll find around these parts.
The warm eggy bread was studded with pieces of chocolate. Then it was coated with quality caramel sauce, not the nasty, artificial kind.

If that were not enough, there was a homemade toasted marshmallow on the side. It was briefly flambéed and tasted like it just came off a stick over a campfire. Amazing.

On the third visit, I finally had a beer. They serve Pilsner Urquell on tap, but only in .33 liter glasses (39 CZK).
They also have tapped Krušovice Černé and non-alcoholic Bernard. My Italian companion had a fruity, dry .2 liter glass of Sauvignon (88 CZK).

I had the buffalo wings (95 CZK). They had a crispy skin, with tender, juicy meat underneath.
One can choose mild, medium, or hot. I chose medium, but they were so mild, I wished I went for maximum heat. There was a cheesy blue cheese sauce on the side with celery sticks. I wished for carrot sticks in there, too.

My date had the mussels (195 CZK).
We both thought the mollusks were not of the highest quality, some with a rubbery texture, some tasting less fresh than others. Hopefully that was a one-time problem or a sourcing issue.

I hope that gets fixed, because the sauce that went with these mussels was crazy good. It was one of the most buttery I can remember, so if you're on a diet, forget it. Also it had an almost lemon-like tartness that comes from reducing the serious amounts of white wine. I was soaking it up with bread, but had to stop because it was too rich for me.

For myself, I had the club sandwich (195 CZK).
It looks nice, but it didn't work for me. Double-decked white toast was layered with tomato, rucola, avocado, red onion, smoked turkey, and mayo.

You don't see it in the photo, but there was an overwhelming amount of very strong, raw, sliced onion. I picked a lot out, but since it mixed with the mayo, it was hard to get it all without a majorly messy operation. That said, I'm sure they'll make it without onions on request.

That wasn't the only issue. The smoked turkey breast, although quite smoky, tasted like the rubbery and insubstantial supermarket variety.

Although there is no law saying a club sandwich should have bacon, I'm one of those people who think there should be.

Good curly fries, though.

I had to go back one more time for no other reason than there were still several items on the menu that piqued my curiosity.

I started off with the tomato tartare (145 CZK). This I liked.
It had a healthy hit of basil and lime juice, which worked well to bring up the flavor of the tomato. There was a hint of shallot. On top were crunchy green beans mixed with cream and vinegar.

Last but not least, I went for the barbecued ribs (185 CZK). These were real baby backs and they were cooked just right.
The tender, silky pork peels off the little bones. No knife or fork required. You do get a water bowl with lemon on the table for washing up.

The ribs were coated with a thick, sweet sauce. It's an imported variety that Cohen jazzes up with molasses, brown sugar, and sambal chili sauce for a mild kick. Some might find the sauce too sweet or too generously applied. I didn't.

These small but satisfying racks come with coleslaw that, unlike some American versions, was on the savory side. That's a good thing, given the sweetness of the meat.

Since Cohen knows me, I did my best to sneak into the restaurant unnoticed. He often walks the floor of the dining rooms, so he usually found me half-way through the meals. I did take the opportunity to ask him detailed questions about what went into many dishes.
I had different waiters on two of the four visits. Service was always quite good. I leave it to others to judge whether I had a different experiences than regular guests.

Burgers, ribs, club sandwiches, wings, and rib eyes are available in many places around Prague. But a lot of the "American" food tastes decidedly un-American. Mood has an American-style menu designed by an American chef. And it tastes like it.

Of course, I wish every dish was a home run, especially with offerings that remind me of home. But more than enough of the food hit me in my strike zone -- especially that burger.

I'm sure I'm going to be in the mood for Mood again soon.

Mood Cafe - Bar - Restaurant
Koněvova 28/29
Prague 3 - Žižkov
Tel. (+420) 222 517 615

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