Monday, February 1, 2010

Food news: Openings, closings, and goodbye Spoon

My new favorite lunch spot is Home Kitchen on Jungmannova. It's about the size of a large closet and only has a few seats, but it serves honest food made fresh several times a day. The menu changes frequently, with three different soups daily (I warmed myself up with a fantastic dill and potato version), a meat entree (like duck breast with rosehip sauce and gratinated potatoes), and a couple of vegetarian items (stuffed peppers or eggplant parmigiana with turnip purée). The cozy brick walls, pleasant service, and neat take-out packaging make Home Kitchen feel distinctly un-Prague-like (a more complete write-up can be found on Cuketka's blog).

I was very sad to hear that one of our best and most innovative restaurants, Sofia Smith's Asian-inspired Angel, has apparently closed. Celèste, Angel's sister restaurant, is still open, and I recently had a great meal there -- the desserts were particularly awesome -- but Angel will be sorely missed.

More predictable, perhaps, is the closing of Le Cornichon, which was resurrected with a new chef after a hiatus last summer, but never managed to regain its buzz. La Casa Blu, meanwhile, is still fighting to renew its lease; updates can be found on its homepage.

As many of you know, I left my position as Lidove Noviny's restaurant critic at the end of last year (their farewell interview with me can be read here). I'll be putting the blog on hold while I pursue other passions and things. Thank you to all my readers, even the more vicious ones, for your support. You kept it interesting -- and kept me in check occasionally, too.

And if you find anyplace good to eat in this town, be sure to let me know.

photographs: homekitchen.cz, Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny, lecornichon.cz, Prague Spoon

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Restaurant Review: Le Terroir





I'm being watched. Somebody is creeping up behind me, and although I can't see or hear him, my whole body has stiffened in anticipation. I try to relax – maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe the feeling will pass.

It doesn't. From over my left shoulder, a hand appears, brandishing a bottle of wine. My glass is filled. The hand leaves. No more than thirty seconds later, I get that same feeling again. Another hand comes into view, wearing a white glove this time, and sets down a fresh set of cutlery. A minute later, a third person is adding a splash of Vittel to our water glasses.

The next time I sense someone approaching, I turn around. It is another waiter, but he has apparently decided there isn't much left for him to do. He turns our water bottles so the labels are facing outwards, gives us a long look, and exits.

By this point, I've given up on trying to have any sort of meaningful conversation with my date; the parade of unnecessary intrusions has been going on since we first sat down. Because we would prefer not to be overheard by the wait staff, we've stopped talking whenever they've come by.

There was a time when hovering service was expected of a fancy restaurant – if you didn't have the waiter's armpit in your face for most of the evening, you weren't getting your money's worth. But times have changed, and Le Terroir doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. Have they been living in a cave for the past ten years?

Well, sort of, yes. Le Terroir is one of those below-ground restaurants with lots of bricked arches and no windows, another concept that was appealing at a certain point in history but now feels heavily outdated.

But an underground restaurant still has its cozy charms, and its advantages, too; at Le Terroir, a portion of the cellar is dedicated to its vast wine selection, and patrons can, through a glass door, glimpse the stacks of crates and bottles as they are shown to their seats. Wine is important here, as is implied by the name (there are even soil samples of various terroirs – the environment in which a wine is produced – laid into a section of the restaurant's floor). The list itself is a pretty hefty tome, with a wide spectrum of bottles ranging from the under-1000 CZK mark to a justifiably pricey 1949 Latour. For those intimidated by the amount of choice, the sommelier's selection at the front of the menu is a helpful place to start.

Considering the obvious care that has been put into the wines, it was a bit strange to be asked which bottle we wanted before we'd even had a chance to look at the dinner menu. Surely it was understood that we wanted to choose our wine according to our meal? The sommelier didn't seem to get it, though; when we said we'd like to see our food options first, he looked mildly bewildered.

As it turned out, we wouldn't just see our food options: we would hear them, too. Someone at Le Terroir has decided that it would be classy for the servers to spout off, from memory, the evening's offerings – exactly as they are written in the menu that they have just handed their guests.
This kind of thing works in a place where the waiters know the menu so well that they can rattle it off without a second's thought, and add some informative details along the way, but this was nothing short of torture. I felt like I was back in school, watching a completely unprepared student stumble her way through an oral exam. It didn't help, of course, that our poor waitress had to deliver the speech in English, blushing and stammering and awkwardly-pausing her way through a ten-course degustation menu. It was all I could do not to mouth her the answers: "scallops with… SAFFRON CONSOMME."

For all the cluelessness of the wait staff, the food mostly isn't bad. Chef Jan Punčochář prides himself on using high-quality ingredients. His concise menu changes often; the restaurant is even closed on Sundays and Mondays, when it's hard to find fresh produce. The style is French, and even if you don't order a degustation menu (ranging from 1190 CZK for three courses to 1690 CZK for six courses), you will still be pampered with various amuses-bouche between dishes.

My favorite amuse was a piece of crayfish served alongside a fennel salad and slices of orange – perfectly seasoned, simple, and light. I was less keen on the guinea fowl wrapped in bacon and topped with mashed potatoes; although it was good, it was very large, almost enough to be its own course.

My wild duck appetizer (450 CZK), too, was a hefty portion, one I could easily have handled as an entrée. But the seared pieces of duck breast were pleasantly gamey, and were well-complemented by the cubes of fresh pumpkin and spinach leaves served on the side. I quite liked my main course, too, a baked shoulder of wild pig served with chestnuts and Brussels sprouts (640 CZK).

Unfortunately, dessert – a chocolate and quark terrine with strawberry granité – was on the bland side, and my companion's fish of the day (890 CZK) was completely off. The turbot was fairly dry, and served (inexplicably) with pasta and some calamari that were well past their prime. The whole dish was so fishy, in fact, that we could smell it long before it reached our table.

We'd had about 8,000 close encounters with our waiters that evening, but at the end of the meal, there was no one to bring us our check. By the time we left, I was so exhausted that I couldn't even make a snide remark to my friend about the 265 CZK water bottle that appeared on the bill, or the fact that our coats hadn't been hung up on hangers even though there were plenty of empty ones to use. "Let's just get out of here," I said.

So we did.

Le Terroir
Vejvodova 1
Praha 1
map
Tel.: 222 220 260
Open Tues-Sat 11:00-23:00

photographs 2, 3, 5, 6 Ondřej Němec for Lidové Noviny; all others leterroir.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/19/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Restaurant Review: Století





Století is apparently a very popular restaurant. I discovered this as I was doing my research before writing this article: rave reviews were all over the internet, both from local critics and on tourist-oriented websites. On one of the most well-known travel sites, tripadvisor.com, Století ranks among the top restaurants in Prague, and reservations are a must on more or less any day of the week.

So, once again, I'm probably going to upset a few people. What is so great about Století? I just don't get it.

The restaurant is very reasonably priced, especially considering its location in Old Town, and its owner, Antonin Kinský (also the proprietor of Bar Bar, a pancake house across the river), has created a cozy little space. The brightly-lit front room has a small bar and a fireplace, atop which are various knickknacks. The more spacious back seating area is dominated by a black iron serpent hanging from the arched ceiling. Sketches of old building are framed on the walls, and (fake) potted plants sit on the window ledges. In the summer, there's outdoor seating with a view of the 11th-century Rotunda sv. Kříže (Rotunda of the Holy Rood) across the street. The overall effect is sort of rustic and homey.

You wouldn't be able to guess Století's theme from the interior design, but one look at the menu should clear that up instantly. Each of the dishes is named after a different notable person (usually some sort of artist) of the last century. There are dishes ascribed to Louis Armstrong and Fernand Léger. Ema Destinnová has a salad, and Agatha Christie her very own dessert.

It's actually a pretty charming concept. The only problem is that the famous people have little or nothing to do with their respective dishes. What does Lilli Palmer, the German actress, have in common with curried pork medallions and porcini mushrooms? Would her colleague, the American silent film star Gloria Swanson, really have tucked in to a hearty dinner of cheese nuggets in African tomato sauce?

It's not that the anachronisms matter so much, really. The idea just would have been more effective if the each celebrity were paired up with a classic dish from his or her era and geographical location. Gustav Klimt could have had something nice from Austro-Hungary, like a Tafelspitz or whatever. I don't know.

But that wouldn't correspond too well with Století's cooking style. Its website professes its cuisine to be "authentic Czech food in an international style." As far as I could tell, however, there's nothing "authentic Czech" or particularly "international" about it. The food is pretty much just a whole bunch of made-up nonsense.

I have nothing against a little culinary innovation, of course. But there are times when, no matter how good the intention behind the idea, certain pairings are just fundamentally wrong. Vegetable salad with frankfurters, for example. Or turkey breast stuffed with bryndza (sheep cheese) and sour cream. Even without having tasted these creations, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that they're probably pretty gross.

I can also make that judgment based on the dishes I did eat at Století, which were also based on some bizarre combinations. The "Lola Montez," or stuffed avocado with tomato escabache (98 CZK), sounded decent in theory. But the tomatoes had been folded into a cheese-based sauce – a drippier version of the bryndzová pomazánka (sheep cheese spread) you'd get at the deli – that didn't go well with the avocado at all. And the avocado was too unripe to be very flavorful. (As an aside, I'm not sure why the tomato mixture was called an "escabache"; that term usually refers to a Spanish-style marinated fish).

The dish's one redeeming quality was the accompanying green salad, a mesclun mix that was obviously very fresh. The same lettuce came with the Ema Destinnová salad (139 CZK), a completely random combo that included duck liver, pieces of toast, roasted apples, tomatoes, black and green olives, corn, peas, and whatever else they could find lurking in the back of the vegetable cooler. If I have to tell you why all those ingredients together (particularly the apples and tomatoes and olives) are a bad idea, then maybe you should earmark Století for your next evening on the town. You might actually like the place.

What I found most frustrating about Století were the occasional glimpses of good cooking – ruined, inevitably, by another strange concoction. The William Somerset Maugham (218 CZK) was a tender, well-seasoned piece of rump steak, covered in a creamy black peppercorn sauce. Sounds pretty good, right? It would have been if it wasn't for the bananas. Yup, that's right: bananas. On a steak. With pepper sauce. That's all I need to say about that dish, I think.

But W. Somerset Maugham was downright classic compared to Století's pièce de résistance, the Erich von Stroheim (139 CZK). I'm sure you're familiar with the sweet chili sauce that every Thai restaurant serves with spring rolls and shrimp chips. It comes from a bottle, which is why it always tastes the same. That's also how I knew that the sauce atop poor Mr. Stroheim's chicken breast, served with a couple slices of cooked pear, was from the bottle, too. Besides the fact that the flavor profile is heinous, it is also an incredibly lazy piece of cooking: grill chicken, dump pre-packaged Asian condiment on top, and serve. They didn't even bother to heat the sauce, even though it was so cold it had probably come from the fridge. Yuck.

The food is really a shame, because the ambiance at Století is very pleasant, and the service is good. Still, I would never consider it to be one of the top restaurants in town, even in its price range. But what do I know? The masses, after all, seem to think otherwise.

Století
Karolíny Světlé 21
Praha 1 - Staré Město
map
Tel: 222 220 008

Open Mon-Sun 12:00 - 24:00

photographs 1, 2, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others stoleti.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/12/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Restaurant Review: U Petrské Věže (CLOSED)





Note to readers: As of 30/11/09, U Petrské Věže is no longer in operation.


There's something old-fashioned about U Petrské Věže. You'd think I was talking about the 14th-century building in which it resides, with its vaulted ceilings and Gothic cellar, or the restaurant's crystal chandeliers and antique-style furniture. But the kind of history I have in mind is a little more recent: waiters suited up in ties, black vests, and tangerine-colored dress shirts; menus laminated and bound in padded faux leather. It's 1995 all over again.

That, after all, is the year U Petrské Věže opened, and there don't seem to have been too many updates since. The dishes are still mostly scaled-up, if not exactly modernized, Czech classics, in a style that used to be popular among a certain segment of locals. Nowadays, when people want a fancy meal, they go for Italian or French or Asian; the Petrské Věžes and Modrá Kachničkas have been left for the tourists, or the very occasional Czech who wants to take foreign visitors to a nice local restaurant that isn't a pub.

The fallout from this shift in tastes was obvious on my visit to U Petrské Věže. The only other guests all evening were four older British tourists, who seemed happy enough with their restaurant choice. The wild boar in rosehip sauce sounded "fabulous," and they puzzled good-naturedly over the fresh rye bread and bowlful of sádlo that the waiter placed on their table at the start of their meal. They might have been even more confused if they'd known that they were about to be charged 40 CZK each for that bread and lard, even if they didn't touch any of it.

I wasn't confused, though. This was Flashback 1995, and couverts were very trendy in 1995. Was it also trendy to heinously overcharge for beverages? It must have been, otherwise U Petrské Věže wouldn't be selling 0.5l bottles of Vittel for 140 CZK and beers for 70 CZK.

The beer, it must be said, is actually one of U Petrské Věže's strong points; it is from a small brewery, Rohozec, and is tapped into frosty mugs. It's nice to see a restaurant that has managed to resist Pilsner Urquell's strong-armed tactics, even if it has to charge a lot of money to make up for it (the restaurant also has a cellar full of Czech and Moravian wines, but I didn't get to try any of those).

So the beer at U Petrské Věže might be worth its price, but the food – at least for the most part – definitely isn't. As my starter, I had the beef broth with sherry and Celestine noodles (120 CZK), and it was so salty that I couldn't eat more than a few spoonfuls. The sherry flavor was pretty overpowering, too, although I did like the dill-flavored, pancake-like homemade noodles.

Then there was my main course, the wild duck breast with "old Bohemian black sauce" and potato pancakes (440 CZK). I actually liked the sauce, a thick and sticky (and indeed nearly black) stew, fragrant with prunes. The problem was the meat itself: it was brutally overcooked, to the point where there was no pink hue left in the center of the breast at all. It was just a fat, gray, incredibly tough lump of meat. I realize that cooking duck breast all the way through is sort of the local way of doing it (as opposed to the French, who like theirs pink and tender), but judging by this example, the local way is just not very good. This was a waste of a perfectly decent piece of meat.

Another part of the dish seemed a little bit off, too: the potato pancakes. They were very small and thick, which is fine, but they were also quite sweet, which was not fine. They tasted not as if they should be served next to a roast duck breast, but covered with jam and powdered sugar. Later, I would find out why.

Chefs often repeat elements from dish to dish – the same little salad here, the same celery puree there. It makes their lives easier, and most of the time, it doesn't really matter too much. But it's only happened to me once before that I ate the same thing for my main course and my dessert (at the Mexican restaurant Cantina, where I was given the same chocolate syrup over both chicken breast and chocolate cake).

You can see where this is going. I ordered the old-style Czech pancake (180 CZK) for dessert. When it arrived, it was not one pancake, but a few small ones – the exact same kind that had been served with my duck dish. They came drenched in a similar sauce to the duck's, also made of prunes, although this one tasted strongly of alcohol. Some crumbled gingerbread was sprinkled on top. The pancakes definitely made more sense in the sweet version, but by that point, I'd already had my fill.

Not everything was bad at U Petrské Věže. My companion ordered an unusual appetizer, a fruit salad with crayfish tails (280 CZK) in a light mayonnaise dressing, that was actually very fresh and tasty. The service was attentive, and I liked that all the food was served on pretty porcelain plates.

But meat is definitely not this restaurant's strong point – even if it makes up most of the menu. When I tried a bite of my friend's roasted pheasant breast (430 CZK), it was so dry and stringy that part of it instantly became lodged between two of my back teeth. Upon further mastication, I realized that the piece was full of tendon, or cartilage, or something. So I did the old unchewable meat trick: I retrieved a tissue from my purse and discreetly spat out the offending bite.

Not the most elegant thing to do in a nice restaurant, I know. But as it turned out, this restaurant wasn't all that nice, anyway.

U Petrské Věže
Petrská 12
Praha 1 - Nové Město
map
Tel.: 222 329 856

Open Mon-Fri 12:00-24:00, Sat-Sun 18:00-01:00

photographs Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others upetrskeveze.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 28/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Restaurant Review: Paprika





It was a rainy Friday night, and we were looking for a restaurant called Paprika. The streets behind the Pražská Tržnice were dark and abandoned. No people, and certainly no restaurants, in sight. I was beginning to think we were lost…

Well, not really. We were in a car, warm and dry, and we had a GPS navigation system to guide us to Jateční 39. But even after we'd reached our destination, I still couldn't quite believe we were in the right spot. The place was tiny and had Budvar signs on the outside, and its windows looked grimy. This looked more like a neighborhood herna than a Hungarian restaurant.

"Do you still want to go?" one of my companions asked when we had parked. He looked more than a little apprehensive.

"Of course!" I replied. My friend stepped out of the car with an audible sigh.

I had been looking forward to this for a while. I like Hungarian food; like many Slovaks, I'd been raised on chicken paprikáš and lečo. So when I heard there was a new, family-owned Hungarian restaurant in town, I was eager to give it a try.

I'd called the restaurant a few months ago, also on a weekend night, to make a reservation. Paprika's website had said it was hosting a talented chef from the homeland who would cook up some fabulous Hungarian specialties. When I first dialed the reservation number, there was no answer. Then, a little while later, I called again. A sleepy-sounding man picked up the phone.

"Hello. I would like to make a reservation for the special event this weekend."

"No, no," the voice said. "Closed. Sorry. Closed for weekend." He hung up.

That conversation was a little discouraging. But now I'd succeeded in making reservations, and it turned out that every Friday night is a special night – not necessarily because of a mythical guest chef, but because that’s when the kitchen cooks a Hungarian dish not on the menu.

The interior of Paprika wasn't nearly as sketchy as our initial impression had promised. There was a small room in the front, paneled in light-colored wood with matching tables and chairs. The tablecloths were red and white checkered, and a cheerful row of red peppers had been painted around the room's perimeter. Hungarian folk music played from the speakers. There was another seating area in the back of the restaurant, but it appeared to be closed. The lighting was a bit bright and the air a little smoky, but it was still quite cozy.

Besides, our host was so friendly that the place immediately felt welcoming. The special dish that night, he told us, was a traditional lamb goulash. They don't cook off the menu on Fridays, but they had a couple of other dishes ready in the kitchen, too.

The regular menu has a couple of soups on offer (goulash soup and bean goulash soup), but that night, the only appetizer available was brains. I am generally not a fan of offal, partly because I am a bit squeamish and partly because organ meat is a little too fatty and rich for my taste. But even I had to admit that the pig brains on toast at Paprika (90 CZK) were good. Served over grilled brown bread and mixed with paprika, the brain spread had the texture of warm babaganoush; it was especially tasty when topped with a smear of spicy red pepper paste (our waiter's own, as he proudly informed us).

Since I'd taken a risk for the first course, I felt justified in ordering an old favorite of mine as my entrée. The chicken paprikáš (140 CZK) came with a tender piece each of chicken leg and breast in a thin paprika sauce and a healthy portion of halušky (small dumplings). A large dollop of thick sour cream was placed on top – I chose to dip into it as I ate rather than mix it in with the sauce. The dumplings were slightly bland, but had obviously been freshly made, and the sauce was perfumed with the mild sweetness of the paprika spice.

Looking across the table, it would be easy to think that my dinner companions had ordered the same dish as I had; the heavy Hungarian use of paprika makes a lot of their national dishes look quite similar. But one of them had ordered the lamb goulash (159 CZK), also served with halušky, and the other the segedínsky goulash (120 CZK), a thick stew of sauerkraut mixed with tender chunks of pork and served with bread.

The plates looked similar enough, apparently, that even the restaurant staff was confused. When it came time for our entrees, my friend sitting next to me and I were presented with the paprikáš we had both ordered. Only the meat didn't seem very chicken-like – it turned out to be the lamb goulash belonging to the table next to us. The waitress swooped in five minutes later and transferred the dishes to the other guests. Luckily, we hadn't dug in with our forks yet, because we didn't have any; it took another five minutes after we had been given the correct dishes to get a set of cutlery.

So things at Paprika can sometimes be a little disorganized. We had ordered some sides of čalamáda (pickled cabbage), but they never arrived. For dessert, I had two pancakes rolled up with apricot jam and walnuts and sprinkled with powdered sugar (90 CZK), which would have been great if the nuts weren't stale and bitter.

Still, I can definitely recommend Paprika. The dishes are cheap, the portions are large, and we definitely don't get enough Hungarian food around here. And even if you don't have a thing for paprika, you can always have pig brains.

Paprika
Jateční 39
Praha 7 – Holešovice
map
Tel.: 772 064 214

Open Mon-Fri 11:00-22:00, Sat 15:00-22:00. Closed Sunday.

photographs 1, 2, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others paprika.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 21/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Restaurant Review: Lokál





The newest, best, most must-visit restaurant in the country doesn't have a celebrity chef. It doesn't have white tablecloths, amuses-bouche, or a sommelier. Instead of soufflés, there's smažený sýr (fried cheese); tlačenka (head cheese) takes the place of truffles.

This is Lokál, and it's the restaurant we've all been waiting for.

I probably don't have to tell you how miserable most Czech pub food is these days. The average inexpensive svíčková (beef in cream sauce) goes something like this: a rock-hard, dry piece of beef, smothered in a watery brown sauce, with a few stale knedlíky (bread dumplings) on the side. No wonder so many foreign visitors shudder at the memory of Czech food.

Those of us who didn't grow up weaned on the Maggi bottle, whose mothers and grandmothers cooked their national dishes with pride, know a different kind of local cuisine – one that lives on in our kitchens at home, but has all but disappeared from pubs and restaurants. Until now, anyway.

A plate of svíčková at Lokál costs 115 CZK, plus 28 CZK for the dumplings (all sides are served separately). For 100g of meat, it's more than you'd pay in most pubs, but the difference is startling. The beef was so tender it pulled apart easily under my fork. The dumplings were light and fluffy. And the sauce, tasting strongly of freshly pureed vegetables, was bright yellow and richly sweet. The dish was served with the traditional topping of whipped cream, cranberries, and a slice of lemon.

Tradition is a priority for Lokál, along with freshness, authenticity, and honesty. The inscription of the bottom of their (daily changing) menu explains their ideology best: "We want to cook Czech dishes differently than most pubs - places where hard work and fresh food are replaced with spices, flavorings, fats, ingredients that 'last forever,' and other cheap tricks used to make cooking faster, cheaper, and easier." What took them so long?

Lokál is the brainchild of Tomáš Karpíšek, the founder of the Ambiente Group and the Czech restaurant market's most brilliant innovator. He's achieved success with his chains of pasta restaurants (Pastacaffe, Ristorante Pasta Fresca) and all-you-can-eat gorgefests (Ambiente Brasileiro, Pizza Nuova). He's promoted Czech food before, too, with the First Republic-inspired Café Savoy and the upscale gourmet favorite La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise. But Lokál is set to be his biggest, most revolutionary, most important venture yet.

Housed in a massive space off of Dlouhá formerly occupied by Middle Eastern hideaway Dahab (since relocated to nearby Soukenická), Lokál is said to be the longest restaurant in Prague. It has been, despite its size, rammed to the rafters from the day it opened. That's no surprise, really. When was the last time anybody saw rýžový nákyp (Czech rice pudding) on a menu? Or šunkofleky (pasta with smoked ham)? Or škubánky s mákem (sweet noodles with poppy seeds)? Even if you've come across those long-neglected classics once in a while, I guarantee they've never been made this well.

There isn't much to describe about Lokál's food. The plates are kept clean, with garnishes and other unnecessary flourishes kept to a minimum. No wilted oblohy (garnishes) here – just simple, straightforward dishes. My plněný paprikový lusk (stuffed pepper) (99 CZK) was filled with a mix of lean ground beef and marjoram in a sweet tomato sauce. The tatarák (beef tartare) (178 CZK) was made with similarly high-quality meat, pre-mixed to tender perfection, and served alongside crispy topinky(fried toast) and raw cloves of garlic.

That may sound close to what you'd order in any pub, and it is. The difference is in the consistent freshness and quality of Lokál's ingredients – and in the little details, like the homemade, hand-cut noodles in the chicken noodle soup (38 CZK for a pleasantly large portion), or the fresh whipped cream decorating the rakvičky (little meringue "coffins") (28 CZK). Renowned regional companies provide much of the ingredients, and the hotové jídla (pre-prepared dishes) are made from scratch several times a day.

The simplicity of Lokál's food is reflected in its interior, which, with its stark lighting and long wooden benches, brings to mind a school cafeteria. The only decoration, appropriately enough, are childlike doodles made along the length of the wood-panelled walls, illuminated from behind to create a glowing modern display.

For a Prague 1 restaurant, Lokál is refreshingly and unapologetically Czech: there are no menus in English (or French, or German, or Russian), and there are no conciliatory dishes of spaghetti or hamburgers. All of the drinks, from the tea (black, fruit, or rosehip only) to the hard liquor (Tuzemský Rum, Pražská Vodka, Lokál's own slivovice) to the soft drinks (Kofola, homemade sodas) are from these parts. And the beer (36 CZK for 0.5l) is fantastic: ice-cold Prazdroj, tapped fresh from small tanks, and also available as "Šnit" (a mini beer, to be consumed in one or two gulps) or "Mlíko" (only foam).

The only detail that seemed a little off were the coasters – they were the regular green Pilsner Urquell kind. Shouldn't a Czech restaurant this concerned with tradition have its own coasters, emblazoned with its own logo, as all the pubs used to have in the old days?

I guess I can forgive Lokál that one oversight. They are, after all, the restaurant (and future chain of restaurants) that is single-handedly saving good Czech pub food from near-certain extinction. You might think I'm exaggerating, but try it for yourself. If you don't like it, they'll bring you Maggi to make your meal taste more familiar, and your waiter won't even give you a dirty look: the service is more traditional Ambiente than traditional Czech, and thank God for that.

As for me – and again, no exaggeration – Lokál is the only restaurant that I feel like visiting at the moment. Everyone else peddling Czech food in this country should pay attention – because only now, after so many years of greasy goulashes and salty soups and freezer-burnt knedlíky, is somebody finally doing it right.

Lokál

Dlouhá 33
Praha 1 - Old Town
map
Tel: 222 316 265

Open Mon-Fri 11:00-01:00, Sat 12:00-01:00, Sun 12:00-22:00

photographs 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others ambi.cz

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 05/12/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Restaurant Review: Hard Rock Café





Prague's Hard Rock Café may have opened just this year, but the American rock 'n' roll-themed restaurant chain had already had a presence here since the early 1990s. That's when tourist-oriented vendors began selling (next to those ubiquitous "Prague: Czech It Out" shirts) Hard Rock Café Prague T-shirts. The joke, of course, as that there was no Hard Rock Café, but that didn't prevent burger-craving tourists from pestering locals about where the Prague branch actually was.


Now, when a group of foreign teenagers asks me where the Hard Rock Café is (a surprisingly frequent request, surpassed only by inquiries about the metro, "The Clock," and – God only knows why – the Wax Museum), there's actually a direction in which I can point them. The Prague Hard Rock Café is located conveniently close to The Clock, on Malé Náměstí.

I can't be the only person who's walked past the new Hard Rock Café and felt a pang of nostalgia. For 150 years, the Dům U Rotta was home to one of the most well-known Czech department stores, a three-story family-owned hardware emporium that was famous for selling just about everything. In the height of the store's success in the 1930s, it carried 70,000 varieties of metal goods, along with electronic appliances, building materials, hockey equipment, and fishing gear. The interior was notable for its light-filled atrium, crowned by a glass and cement cupola – the first of its kind in Czechoslovakia.

The Rott building now has another, more dubious, achievement to add to its list: at 1900 square meters, it houses the largest Hard Rock Café in Europe. The décor is predictably rock-oriented, with rows of glass cases holding the memorabilia the Café is famous for – Bob Dylan's guitar and setlist, for example, or Jimi Hendrix's fringed leather vest, or (not as exciting) a hat and tambourine from local group Žlutý Pes. There are American-style booth seats and flat-screen televisions playing rock music videos, and in the middle of the famous atrium hangs a custom-made 5-meter-long crystal chandelier in the shape of an electric guitar, which sounds ghastly but is actually quite beautiful.

The energy at Hard Rock is kind of frenetic: the music is loud (deafeningly so when there's a live band playing), there are usually lots of customers, and the waiters rush around trying to keep everybody happy. I'm not sure exactly which drug they're giving the servers, by the way, but whatever it is, it seems to be working. Everyone is all smiles, all the time. The joy actually seems to be genuine; on my last visit, I saw a waitress, milkshake in hand, bounce her way down the steps, a big smile on her face as she danced to the thumping rock music.

That sort of thing may be bizarre for Prague, but it's normal for the Hard Rock Café, which prides itself on having replicated the very same menu, style of décor, and standard of service in 140 locations in 36 countries. The food is exactly what you'd expect of an American rock 'n' roll chain restaurant, which is to say it's low on greens and heavy on grease.

In short, don't come here if you're on a diet. You could always order the h
honey citrus grilled chicken salad (290 CZK), of course, but even that lone sort of low-fat dish on the menu comes with blue cheese on top – and besides, you wouldn't get to taste what Hard Rock is all about. The best way to accomplish that is to order the Jumbo Combo (420 CZK), which combines all of the appetizers onto one plate along with various sauces. There are deep-fried chicken tenders with a honey mustard sauce (good, crispy), potato skins with sour cream (dry and flavorless), chicken wings in a spicy "heavy metal" sauce and a blue cheese dip (nice and meaty), onion rings with barbecue sauce (huge), and Mexican-style spring rolls filled with spinach (totally gross). It's like the deep fryer's greatest hits, if you'll forgive the rock-themed pun.

I've written about the Hard Rock Café burger before, and it really is excellent, with ten different varieties and all the proper fixings. But on this visit, I decided to have something new. I went for the hickory-smoked barbecue ribs (390 CZK): 650 grams worth, served whole on the rack with a special knife for separating the ribs so you can pick them up with your fingers and suck off the meat. These were probably the best ribs I've had in Prague (if you don't count the ones made by my friend Steve from Alabama, which are unbeatable). The meat was tender and fell right off the bone, and had a nice smoky flavor. They were served with cole slaw and French fries, along with a side of ranch beans that were, unfortunately, cold.

I could have used an extra napkin or three after those ribs to wipe down my fingers – and my shirt, which had gotten splattered with barbecue sauce during the process. We'd gotten some wet napkins to go with our Jumbo Combo, but now there weren't any to be found, and I hadn't gotten a plate for my rib bones, either. On previous visits, I had found the service at Hard Rock to be stellar, but there were all kinds of problems now: we also waited ages for them to take our plates away, and they didn’t wipe down our table when it was covered in sauce and crumbs.

At least our waiter was super friendly. And besides, if you have a complaint about the service, you can go online to fill out a survey after your meal and get $5 off your next visit. How very American – and appropriately so.

Hard Rock Café
Dům U Rotta
Malé Náměstí 3
Praha 1 - Old Town
map
Tel.: 224 229 529

Open Mon-Sun 11:30AM - 01:00AM

photographs 1, 4, 5, 6 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové noviny; all others hardrock.com

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 14/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

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