Thursday, September 27, 2012

Indian by Nature

"It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?'" Winnie the Pooh
The Pind became my favorite Indian restaurant shortly after it opened in 2010.

I wasn't alone. Many positive reviews and customers followed over the past couple of years. That's no small thing. Prague now has a fair number of respectable Indian restaurants.

One of the constants of a visit to The Pind was one of its owners, Jayant Sarkar. He was a regular and watchful presence in the dining room. He also got to know me as a regular customer.

Not long ago, Sarkar left the The Pind to start his own new restaurant in Karlín. It's called Indian by Nature. Less than a week after it opened, people working in the area told me the lunch buffet was something special. As much as I like The Pind, I wasn't thrilled with their lunch buffet a year earlier, so I had my doubts.

I stopped by one day before noon.
Indian by Nature's airy dining room with its big windows made a good first impression.
Indian music plays lightly over the sound system. This section is non-smoking.

There's a huge downstairs area which Sarkar told me will become a sports bar with lots of video screens that serves Indian food.
They will be showing much more than just cricket, but it's a novel concept.

There are two sections below and it is almost twice the size of the upstairs dining room. Smoking will be allowed down there.
Upstairs is where the lunch buffet is laid out. It's all-you-can-eat. I ate everything.

First, I tried the Chicken Tikka Masala on the right.
The tomato gravy had small bursts of fresh ginger. It was impressively spicy and tangy. The small pieces of chicken were tasty and tender. It's a classic dish, properly done.

On the left was kadai chicken. A kadai or karahi is a deep pot similar to a wok. I really loved this. Onions made it slightly sweeter than the chicken tikka masala. There was also capiscum and the clear flavor of coriander (cilantro). Overall, it had a richer flavor.

In the next tray, there was aloo gobi. The potatoes and cauliflower get their color and also pleasing flavor from tumeric.
On the other side was "Bombay noodles." Sarkar called this an experiment and not really an Indian dish. It was glass noodles with chicken, green beans, and coriander. It tasted mostly like salty noodles. For my taste, I'd say the experiment didn't work so well.

Under the third lid were vegetarian options. On the left was chana masala, made according the style found in northern India. The tomato gravy is a thinner, simpler version of what you'll find on the chicken tikka masala. But it is still quite flavorful, with hints of ginger.
Along with that is the sukhi cabbage, which is flavored with cumin seeds. It's quite light. I was told it's cooked with very little oil or ghee.

There is jeer pulao rice with cumin seeds, and garlic naan.
It's good to get the bread when it first comes out. It's not as nice if it sits around too long.

That's it for the heating trays, but the buffet continues. There are bowls filled with chopped salad and a nice, tangy raita.
You can choose three different condiments to go with your meal. They have mint sauce, tamarind sauce, and mango chutney.
They are similar to what was served at The Pind, and I like them all.

Finally, there is a tray of Indian rice pudding. This dessert is quite simple and only lightly sweet.
Browned flour is mixed with rice, a touch of milk, and almonds. When it hardens, it's sliced into small pieces.

The quantity and quality of this lunch amazed me.
I was told that it will not be the same every day. The different daily lunch offerings will be listed on the website.

My only serious complaint is that some dishes like the kadai chicken came out of the kitchen hot, temperature-wise, but others like the chicken tikka masala and aloo gobi were just barely warm. Perhaps the flames under the trays would change that in about 30 minutes.

When I saw the bill for this spread, I could hardly believe it. The price for all that food, as much as I wanted, was just 109 CZK. I asked if that was just an introductory price and was told that there are no plans to change it.

For my money, this lunch has to be the best value in the city. Let's hope the quality and the quantity stay at this level.

I came back for dinner the following week. I started off with a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (40 CZK).
It was fine. Pay no attention to the Staropramen logos on the awning and taps. Those belonged to the previous restaurant.

The menu has starters that many will find familiar, like vegetable samosas, but some are less common. I wanted something new and different, so I ordered the batata vada (70 CZK).
These are potato fritters with crunchy shells. Inside with the steaming mashed potato are chili flakes, mustard seeds, and curry leaves. There are also partially cooked red lentils that give it a crunch.

It's a deliciously spicy combination. It's even nicer when combined with the tamarind sauce on the side. The fritters are served inside a papadum that you can break up and dip in the sauce.

Another new option I didn't try but would like to someday is the masala mogo. That's fried casava or yucca chips mixed with masala tomato sauce, julienned ginger, tamarind and garlic.

I wanted to sample as much as I could from their tandoor, so I had the IBN Platter (220 CZK). There's a lot on top of that iron, with its sizzling onions.
In the upper left is the adraki chicken tikka. It has more of a ginger flavor than The Pind version, which is made with pickle. Two of the pieces had more char and flavor from the oven, but one piece was blander.

In the middle top and bottom was the lamb seekh kabab. The ground meat, mixed with ginger, garlic, and coriander, was very salty, but dipping it in the sweet tamarind or the mint sauce balanced it out.

Chicken malai tikka sat on the lower left side. It was marinated in cream and cheese before being cooked in the tandoor. The tender meat tasted of fenugreek and cardamom. It was interesting and not something I'd tried before, but not my favorite.

What surprised me was the ajwani fish tikka on the right side of the platter. I loved that the most. The platter normally comes with butter fish. I don't eat that, so they substituted talapia instead. It was fresh, delicate, with the flavor of carom seeds and an incredibly smoky flavor from the tandoor.

Next, I had the lamb pasanda (205 CZK).
The creamy almond and cashew sauce had a very mild sweetness. Some of the lamb was very flavorful and tender. But at least one piece was tougher and somewhat dried out.

To go with this, I had the lemon rice (85 CZK).
It was my favorite rice at The Pind, and this one was equally good. Along with mustard seeds and curry leaves, it also has a subtle smokiness.

Finally, I tried the lamb biryani (220 CZK).
This lamb is cooked differently than that in the pasanda. It's boiled with ginger, bay leaves, and cloves.

It's served mixed with pulao rice in a clay pot. This was a great combination of flavors by itself, with ginger, mint, cardamom, and sweet fried bits of onion. The lamb also varied from tender to not so tender.

It comes with raita on the side. When it's all mixed together on the plate, it's a great dish.
I ate this meal for two (or maybe three) by myself. Well, not really. I took about two-thirds of it home and enjoyed it the next day. And the day after that.

The bill for the evening came to 880 CZK. I checked the prices and many comparable dishes at IBN are around 30 CZK cheaper than The Pind. I actually live closer to The Pind, so I'm sure I'll still be eating there, too.

But if you're in the mood for a curry lunch during the week, Indian by Nature is an easy choice that's hard to beat.

Indian by Nature
Pernerova 478/1
Prague 8 - Karlin
Tel. +420 601 200 198

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Il Mercato

"By the time I returned to Czechoslovakia, I had an understanding of the principles of the market." Vaclav Klaus
I first got a taste of Brno in 1995. Back then, one of the most popular "Italian" dining options was a slice of pizza with a squirt of ketchup, served through a tiny window on Česká street.

You can still get it there today.

Even so, eating out in the Czech Republic's second city has come a long way since my first visit. Fine dining establishments have slowly and sporadically sprouted up over the years.

Several years ago, I surveyed the scene and sampled Borgo Agnese, Ristorante Rialto, Noem Arch and many others, a few of which have disappeared. But a new crop of restaurants have been making names for themselves.

There's Pavillon, a modern-looking eatery by the much-lauded team behind U Kastelána. And the sushi restaurant Koishi was voted the sixth best restaurant in the country in Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide for 2012.

Now Riccardo Lucque, Prague's purveyor of top Italian fare and the creator of Aromi and La Finestra in Cucina has opened a restaurant in Brno.

It is Il Mercato, located on the Zelný Trh (Vegetable Market) in the center of town.
It's in a historic building that also houses the Grandezza Hotel. Dining outside is an option in the warmer months.

But the inside may also give you a warm feeling. The dining room is light and long. Large windows let the sun stream in during the day.
Exposed brick, beautiful wood flooring, and ceiling beams, give the new restaurant a comfortable, lived in feeling.
There's also an open kitchen.
Like Aromi, there's a table with cheeses, olives, hams, and a wide selection of grappas.
The restaurant is dog-friendly. A golden retriever slept peacefully under another table.

We stopped in for a late lunch. Hearing lively tunes by Mina playing over the sound system quickly brought smiles to our faces.

Our waiter quickly brought us basket with light and dark bread, bread sticks, and crunchy, spicy chickpeas.
The bread is good, but the slices they serve at Lucque's Prague restaurants are better.

What we really loved was the Giachi primolio extra virgin olive oil. The olives are picked in the first ten days of November, the oil has low acidity and really presents the essence of the fruit.

To go with that we had a large bottle of Mattoni mineral water (90 CZK) and a glass of Ruggieri Prosecco (110 CZK).
Then, Miss P had the starter portion of the porcini mushroom risotto (295 CZK). This was a daily special.
Although looser, with more liquid than some versions, it was an absolutely creamy, delicious delight. It burst with porcini flavor with undertones of white wine, the rice was cooked perfectly, and the fresh leaf parsley accented it at just the right moments.

I had the scallops with smoked aubergines and Bernaise sauce (295 CZK). The photo does not give the proper perspective -- these three scallops were the largest and plumpest I've seen in a long time.
They were lightly seared, with light brown crusts on top and the most delicate, almost gelatinous interior. The sweet aubergine had just a hint of smoke. The egg yolk, clarified butter and herbs of the sauce sent it into the realm of decadence. Amazing.

There was a noticeably long pause between courses. Only three other tables were occupied in the late afternoon, so I'm not sure what caused the delay. Miss P had a glass of Nino Franco brut rosé "Faive" (130 CZK).
This was fine, but not as complex and enjoyable as the Berlucchi '61 Franciacorta rosé we enjoyed at Aromi.

From the secondi, Miss P had the grilled octopus (395 CZK).
These were the best tentacles I've tasted since the great ones I had at Divinis Wine Bar a couple of years ago. But this version was even better. The lovely char on the outside gave it a smoky, crunchy exterior that gave way to an almost impossibly tender interior.

The close up shot makes it look small, but it was a generous portion. The octopus sat atop a caponata of red pepper, zucchini, green beans, and fresh apricot slices. The juices from the ripe fruit combined enticingly with the reduced red wine underneath.

I got a starter-size risotto as my main course -- the risotto alla Milanese (225 CZK).
Each bite of the al dente rice was a saffron-infused pleasure. Crispy slices of beef bone marrow lay on top. Each piece melted in the mouth. There was added tang from the freshly grated Parmesan on top.

I wanted that dish to last forever, but there was some consolation when it was time for dessert. I went for the profiteroles filled with hazelnut crème Chantilly (175 CZK).
The Chantilly inside the pastry balls tasted like the best hazelnut gelato I've had. But what made this extra special was that the balls were covered with sweet, creamy mascarpone drizzled with apricot syrup. I was told everything was made on the premises.

Miss P ordered the lemon sorbetto.
This is a favorite at Aromi, but this version had more Prosecco and lacked the tartness she was looking for.

We finished with two cappuccinos (55 CZK each).
It's top quality coffee and comes with a dish of cremina, the mix of sugar and a few drops coffee that dissolve more easily in the cup.

The tab for this meal was 1920 CZK before tip.

We only had one day to spend in Brno so we walked around town, shopped, and had more coffee. And then we went back to Il Mercato for dinner.

Unlike lunch, we received an amuse bouche. It was tangy Gorgonzola topped with honey on crispy pane carasau.
The combination of flavors was so simple and yet such a great combination to start off with. My bouche was amused.

We decided to try a Czech wine, so we had two glasses of rosé Merlot (80 CZK).
It was not bad, but nothing special.

Given the short time between meals, we weren't so hungry. Miss P had the seared tuna and artichoke salad (195 CZK).
It included radicchio and Romaine lettuce with a light oil and vinegar dressings.

She asked if the tuna could be extra rare, but was told the tuna was served rare and already cooked. It was a little more done than she liked, but she still really liked it. But what she loved was the raw, thinly sliced artichoke hearts. The chewy, crunchy, earthy flavor was a taste of her Tuscan youth.

"This is the best salad ever," she declared. "Can I have it again?"

"Yes, you can."

So she had another one. I'm not sure if they seared another tuna based on her previous request, but this one was much more rare.
You can also see how these special artichoke hearts looked.

I had a hard time deciding what to order because so many dishes sounded good to me. After much deliberation, I choose the grilled organic chicken "diavola" (295 CZK).
I picked this because I'd had almost the exact same dish at Lucque's La Bottega di Finestra in Prague. I wanted to compare.

The chicken, with most of the bones removed, had the same beautifully crispy skin and moist flesh underneath. However, the sauce was lacking the zing in the version I'd had before.  The roasted potatoes in the Brno dish were done right, but I preferred the vinegared potato salad it came with in Prague.

We also had Mattoni with the meal and finished with cappuccinos. This dinner cost 990 CZK before tip.

The service was generally efficient and friendly, with only a couple of lapses when our servers left us unattended for too long.

The big question is whether it is worth it to pay Prague prices in Brno. My answer is yes, absolutely. The quality and standards are the same. It was a lovely experience.

Shortly after opening, Il Mercato has to be one of the best restaurants in the city. I really hope I'll get a chance to return to this market.

Il Mercato
Zelný trh 2
Tel. (+420) 542 212 156

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