Friday, February 29, 2008

Food news: Confusion over Kolkovna, chaos in Palladium, and more sushi for Prague

There's been some apparent confusion over the Kolkovna Group lately. All of its Pilsner Urquell Original Resturants (including Olympia and Celnice) are now called Kolkovna, presumably to differentiate these locations from other, similar-looking PUOR franchises around Prague (such as Deminka and U Vejvodů). In a broken-English statement posted on Expats.cz, a Kolkovna Group representative accused Deminka's owners of breaching copyright by using Kolkovna's logographer. It was also confirmed that the group will be launching a fourth Prague Pilsner Urquell restaurant, Sokolovna, in Vinohrady.

Prague's second and third Starbucks locations opened in Palladium on February 19th, just one day before the electrical fire that is now expected to shut down the shopping mall for at least the next three weeks. Meanwhile, Starbucks rival Coffee Heaven continues to expand, with a new branch about to set up shop on heavily touristed street Na Můstku.

In other openings, Ivan Havel and his wife, Dagmar, have debuted their new restaurant in the Lucerna pasáž. Monarchie's menu is inspired by cuisine from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and much of the meat and produce is to be delivered fresh from the Havels' personal farm outside of Prague.

Finally, karaoke box club BeKaraOk! is now serving Japanese delicacies in its upstairs Sushi Bistro, where the sushi and maki come pre-packaged in handy take-out containers. Note: the Bistro's opening hours are from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday only.

images: kolkovna.cz, coffeeheaven.eu, lucerna.cz, bekaraok.cz

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Prague Spoon Star Drink: Midnight espresso @ Bar & Books

It's not often that I use the word "orgasmic" as a descriptor. But in the case of the midnight espresso at Bar & Books, I just can't help myself.



How else could I express the lustful adoration I feel for this magical cocktail? I don't usually like mixed drinks that are too sweet, and the midnight espresso (145 CZK) is definitely on the sugary side. But the rich combo of Absolut Vanilia, Kahlúa, Frangelico, and Baileys is offset by a shot of ristretto that gives the cocktail a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. And there's a little fruitiness in there, too, courtesy of a whiff of Chambord and a physalis garnish.

It's so good that I have to insist you try it. Just remember to contain yourself when you do.

Bar and Books
Týnská 19
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: 224 808 250
map

Corner Bar and Bistro
Mánesova 64
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: 222 724 581
map

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Food news: I'll have the scallops. And hold the tobacco, please


At a recent dinner, an American friend of mine was surprised to find out that the "mussels St. Jacob" she had ordered actually weren't mussels, but scallops. The mistake was in the translation: in Czech, scallops are "mušle Svatého Jakuba," which, if translated literally, can mean "St. Jacob's mussels." On that note, Oliva is holding a scallop event this weekend. Have a look at the menu here.

If you've never tried Persian food before, now's your chance: the Hotel Praha, in conjunction with the Islamic Republic of Iran, is hosting a Festival of Persian Cuisine on February 20th and 21st from 19:00. Entry is only 400 CZK and includes Iranian cooking demonstrations and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Call 224 342 621 for reservations.

For a few days only, Italian chef Christian Bertogna is leaving his post at the Ristorante Imperiolino to cook at the Hotel Paris's Sarah Bernhardt restaurant. A four-course menu costs 850 CZK; the event runs through Sunday.

And if inhaling cigarette smoke with your food irritates you as much as it does me, take a look at this handy website. Sponsored by the Czech Anti-Tobacco Coalition, dokurte.cz maintains a list of restaurants that are smoke-free or have separate areas for smokers. Until the Czech Republic decides to wise up and follow the example of its European neighbors, it's the best we can do.

images: olivarestaurant.cz, insiderpages.com, usmlemd.wordpress.com

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Restaurant Review: Casa Andina





Over the past few years, Latin American cuisine has shown itself to be quite the crowd-pleaser here in Prague. Argentinian steakhouses, quasi-Mexican restaurants, and cocktail bars specializing in mojitos have popped up all over town, many of them packed nightly with starry-eyed, cigar-wielding patrons.
Now, another South American restaurant aims to capitalize on the trend. This one's a little different, at least: Casa Andina serves Peruvian food, a cuisine not as well-known internationally as those of Argentina or Mexico. Co-proprietors Alejandro Sanders and Martin Štefánek seemed excited to introduce their foreign specialties to local customers, demonstrating an eagerness to please so dogged that the attentive service occasionally bordered on annoying.

It's pretty clear that Casa Andina's heart is in the right place. But that alone, of course, isn't always enough.

Three large flat-screen televisions line the small restaurant's back wall. Their purpose, apparently, is to screen such garbage as the Ricky Martin MTV Unplugged DVD. Watching the Puerto Rican pop star gyrate his hips and flex his muscles in triplicate for his adoring fans was distracting, even with the sound off. Neither the TVs nor the thumping techno soundtrack seemed to mesh well with the rows of books and reproductions of traditional Moche sex pots lining the walls.
I was also a little thrown by the presentation of my shrimp ceviche entrée (360 CZK): the seafood salad arrived in a whiskey glass stamped with the Havana Club rum logo, which wasn't especially appetizing. The ceviche itself was less of a salad than a cold tomato soup, something like a baby shrimp gazpacho. It tasted pleasantly of lime, but the fresh zestiness that is typical of a good ceviche was missing.

A skewer of beef hearts (anticuchos de corazón de res, 260 CZK, above) had been marinated in a tasty red chili pepper sauce, but the meat hadn't been cooked for long enough and ended up tough and chewy. The papas rellenas de carne (potatoes stuffed with pork meat, 195 CZK, below), on the other hand, were truly memorable. To make this dish, a mashed potato patty is filled with heavily seasoned ground pork, raisins, and hardboiled eggs; the patty is then dipped in batter and fried. The end result looks like a whole cooked potato with its skin intact.
Also worth trying are the yuquitas fritas (110 CZK), a sweeter spin on the French fry made with yucas instead of potatoes and served with a red pepper dipping sauce, and the dense, caramel-laced coconut flan (70 CZK).

Casa Andina has its flaws, but with a little more time and a few adjustments, it just might find a niche in the crowded Latin American-themed restaurant scene. The owners will be holding regular salsa-dancing nights in the club space downstairs; that should certainly help put Casa Andina on the map -- even if nothing else does.


Casa Andina
Dušní 15
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 224 815 996
map

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Food news: Seafood and sushi, as the Václavák sausage party rages on


There've been a fair amount of seafood events happening around town lately. Now, CzecHouse is doing one of their own: a special lobster and shellfish menu that runs from the 15th to the 24th of February. See the full menu (including suggested wine pairings) here.

Zahrada v Opeře recently welcomed a new executive chef, Martial Clement, to their funky-hip quarters in the Radio Free Europe building. They've also begun featuring weekly "Sushi Days"every Tuesday through Saturday; the Japanese delicacies are prepared by chef Tadayoshi Ebina.

Upscale Indian restaurant Khajuraho has moved from its original location in the Iron Gate Hotel to a new spot down the street on Michalská. The hotel plans to open a new restaurant, The Iron Gate, in the spring.

And for those of you who love your klobása, you can rest a little easier tonight: it's been announced that the Václavské náměstí sausage stands will remain in business after all. Prague City Hall backed down from its plan to shut down the outdoor vendors after 9000 people signed a petition in protest.

images: hiltonprague.cz, zahradavopere.cz

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Restaurant Review: U Lípy





Ever wonder what upscale restaurants in Prague were like, say, fifteen or twenty years ago, before there was competition from foreign chefs and sushi bars and shopping mall food courts?

You don't have to bother. Just pay a visit to U Lípy.

U Lípy (At the Linden Tree) was the first privately-owned restaurant in Communist Czechoslovakia, owing to a unique permit obtained from the government by proprietor Miroslav Růžička. When its doors first opened in early 1989, a hundred people queued outside, hoping to be allowed in.

Little has changed since, other than the number of patrons (lower) and the numbers on the menu (higher). The eclectic, pseudo-Art Nouveau decor remains untouched: dark wood antiques, family portraits, dusty fake plants, and an unconvincing mock fireplace have all found permanent homes here. "It feels like a museum," whispered one of my companions when we first sat down.

It did feel like a museum, or like an abandoned house -- cold, devoid of people, almost musty. Only the tinny sound of elevator music (at this particular moment, the Muzak version of "New York, New York") broke the eerie silence.

Until, that is, our servers came around, carrying silver appetizer platters loaded with hors d'oeuvres: half avocados stuffed with lobster mayonnaise salad (140 CZK, but made with imitation crab, not lobster), hard-boiled eggs topped with whipped butter and salmon roe and wrapped in ham (100 CZK), and thick slices of venison (110 CZK). We didn't learn the prices of the starters until after we'd polished them off -- only then did we get to look at the menu.

Back in the day, there must have been more than a few people willing to pay large sums of money for the grand experience of eating dinner at U Lípy. But times have changed, and Mr. Růžička (pictured below) hasn't changed with them. By today's standards, the restaurant is overpriced, stu
ffy, and not very good.

Like its decor, U Lípy's table service was straight out of post-revolution Czechoslovakia. One waiter made it his mission to keep our water and wine glasses full to the brim at all times, even interrupting my friend in the middle of her sentence to ask if she wanted another Mattoni. Two servers spent most of our meal hovering within a few feet of our table, quietly discussing us. When a companion asked, a little sheepishly, if she could please have mashed potatoes with her svíčková na smetaně instead of dumplings (she had admitted to us earlier that she wasn't a dumpling fan), the waiter did his best to convince her that she couldn't possibly like the dish if she ate it with potatoes.

The food, for its part, was almost completely unmemorable. A roast goose breast (440 CZK) was offensively over salted, as was a plate of escargots Provençale (six for 130 CZK). The roast suckling pig meat (250 CZK) was fine, but the accompanying potato dumplings were dry and the steamed cabbage lacked flavor, while the beef broth with liver dumplings (50 CZK) tasted as if it had been thoroughly diluted with hot water. The wild duck breast in rosehip sauce (400 CZK) was better -- the sweet, thick rosehip purée went well with the mildly gamey duck meat and soft bread dumplings.

Really, though, the only dish worth going out to Stodůlky for are the crêpes Suzette (250 CZK), prepared table-side by Mr. Růžička himself. After drowning the thin pancakes in a sticky sauce of fresh orange and lemon juice and caramelized sugar, he lit the pan aflame with a dimming of the lights and a flourish of Cointreau. The end result was sweet, sour, and ever-so-slightly boozy. Delicious.

But was it delicious enough to make U Lípy the best restaurant in the Czech Republic? Not a chance. Yet according to the voting public that decided the rankings for Pavel Maurer's 2008 Grand Restaurant Guide, it's the number one restaurant in the country.

A couple of decades ago, the accolade might have made sense. Today, it can only reflect a certain local nostalgia for a time when dining out was predictable and uncomplicated by foreign influence, a time when a meal at a restaurant was truly special.

No one's going to deny that U Lípy is still, in its own way, very special. But after my last couple of trips to Stodůlky, I've come away feeling very grateful that we now have a few other options, too.


U Lípy
Plzeňská 237
Praha 13 - Stodůlky
Tel: +420 251 620 009
map

images: ulipy.cz

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Valentine's Day Dinner

Looking for someplace to take your (potential) lover for Valentine's Day? On February 14th, Prague's restaurants will be awash with special menus, red roses, and in one case at least, complimentary condoms.

Here's a fairly exhaustive list of the kitschy goings-on to be held around town this Valentine's:

Alcron / La Rotonde - Each of the Radisson SAS restaurants will offer different four-course "his 'n' hers" menus. Highlights: At Alcron, raw oysters (for him) and scallops and crayfish in champagne soup (for her); at La Rotonde, beef tournedos Rossini with seared foie gras and truffle sauce (to share). Price per couple: 4000 CZK (Alcron) / 3400 CZK (La Rotonde).

Allegro - Choose between a four- and five- course Valentine's Day menu at this upscale Italian restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel. Price per person: 2500 CZK (four courses), 3600 CZK (four courses + wine pairing) / 2900 CZK (five courses), 4300 CZK (five courses + wine pairing).

Brasserie M - A special three-course menu for two. Highlights: An "aphrodisiac" duck fillet with ginger and Middle Eastern spices, chocolate fondant with passion fruit. Price per couple: 1750 CZK / 2250 CZK (with two glasses of champagne).

Chateau Mcely - The luxury castle retreat outside of Prague is offering a Valentine's Day package that includes a four-course dinner at their restaurant, Piano Nobile. Price per person: 1600 CZK, including dinner, welcome drink, chocolates and flowers, plus an invite to a screening of a romantic movie.

CzecHouse - A romantic five-course meal will be available at the spacious Hilton restaurant. Highlights: A trio of Valentine desserts - chocolate parfait with orange cream, mini pear tatin with port wine ice cream, and marinated pomegranate on honey yoghurt. Price per couple: 2950 CZK.

Essensia - The Asian-inspired restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is putting together a five-course meal that includes a welcome cocktail (the "Valentini") and a small present for the lady. Highlights: Gratinated Fine de Claire oysters and caviar, crispy Peking duck and langoustine. Price per person: 1900 CZK.

Flambée - Two Valentine's menus will be offered from the 14th to the 17th of February: an afternoon dessert and champagne menu, and a six-course dinner. Highlights: Baked langoustine with truffle cream and caviar, and a selection of veal entrées. Price per person: 890 CZK (dessert and champagne) / 2990 CZK (dinner).

Kampa Park - Sit by the river and enjoy a candlelit three-course dinner. Highlight: Monkfish wrapped in bacon with celery-dill purée, leek confit, and salmon roe beurre blanc. Price per person: 1665 CZK.

La Provence - The French brasserie will serve a three-course Valentine's Day dinner. Highlight: Poached halibut with shrimp and asparagus risotto with vermouth sauce. Price per person: 1125 CZK.

maze - Gordon Ramsay's Prague outpost is preparing a seven-course menu for lovers' day. Highlights: Poached lobster with apple and fennel salad, pan-fried John Dory with crushed potatoes and white bean velouté. Price per person: 1700 CZK.

Monsoon - Three special courses will be available at the Dejvice fusion restaurant. Highlight: White chocolate Grand Marnier mousse in pistachio tuille cups. Price per person: 595 CZK.

U Emy Destinnové
- No set menu, but special Valentine's Day dishes, red roses for the ladies, and live music will lend this cozy below-ground restaurant an even more romantic tone than usual. Highlights: Grilled scallops wrapped in bacon with red currant wine sauce, fresh-grilled lobster, shrimp, and langoustines.

V Zátiší - The long-standing Prague restaurant is planning a four-course menu, including a "sweet surprise." Highlight: Roasted Barberie duck breast with foie gras and mashed potatoes in bresaola, spring onion, and lavender sauce. Price per person: 1295 CZK / 1995 CZK with wine pairing.

For romantic after-dinner drinks, look no further than Bar and Books: both locations will be holding Valentine's Day celebrations. Buy a bottle of champagne and the lady will receive a strawberry fondue and cigar on the house; her man gets a flavored Durex condom. Formal attire is required.

And if you're in the mood to just stay at home and cuddle or whatnot, Bakeshop will be making all of its well-loved cakes in heart shapes next week. Especially recommended are the perfectly pretty marzipan-and-raspberry princess cake and the frosted heart butter cookies (see picture above). Happy canoodling!


images: williamssonoma.com, chateaumcely.cz, mandarinoriental.com, flambee.cz, gordonramsay.com, vzatisi.cz, praguespoon

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Food news: Calamari, Chinese New Year, and culinary facelifts


Oliva is having a great squid special this weekend: all-you-can-eat calamari for 690 CZK. The offer is available during dinner this Thursday and Friday and lunch and dinner on Saturday. More info -- including a full menu -- can be found here.

New Asian fusion restaurant Angel is also hosting a couple of events this week. They'll be putting together a special dinner in honor of Chinese New Year on Thursday, and will be serving their very first brunch on Sunday (the menu should be posted soon).

For another Chinese New Year option, check out Monsoon's website. They'll also be featuring a special set menu on Thursday, priced at 545 CZK for five courses.

The area around Vězeňská street has seen a fair amount of restaurant refurbishment action lately. Pilsner Urquell chain pub Kolkovna has reopened, looking about the same as it always did on the main floor (although I didn't get a chance to check the basement). Albar café (formerly Blatouch) is now Alforno, an Italian pizza joint; the Aldente Trattoria next door has stayed intact. And across the street, winery Vino di Vino is set to transform into Luna di Notte, a "restaurant and live music lounge," with the official opening scheduled for next week.

Finally, Polish casual dining chain Sphinx has opened its first Czech location on Na Příkopě, in the spot previously held by concept restaurant 120 Days. It's something along the lines of T.G.I. Friday's, but with a Middle Eastern twist: the menu lists kebabs and shawarma alongside steaks, onion rings, garlic bread, and pizza. Let's just hope Sphinx is a little less overpriced than its neighbor.


images: fishfanatics.co.uk, monsoon-restaurant.cz, aldentetrattoria.cz, sphinx.cz

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Restaurant Review: Angel





Finally, something different.

Angel is far from perfect. But in a city flooded with copycat recipes and careful menus, this latest Old Town restaurant venture is a much-needed departure from the Prague norm.

There isn't a tuna tartare or a chocolate fondant in sight at Angel, and you won't find any caprese or crème brûlée, either. Instead, head chef Sofia Smith, well-known for her monthly culinary events at Oliva and Atelier, treats us to an intriguing medley of Southeast Asian and European flavors.

Much of the time, the fusion works. A subtly spicy Borneo-style seabass ceviche (275 CZK), pickled in
lime juice, chili and ginger, was accompanied by Japanese-inspired nori rolls filled with toasted coconut; the dense, crunchy spirals of rice were a good match for the slippery-smooth cold fish.

The spices in the five-spice duck confit wrapped in rice paper (210 CZK) were hard to discern, but a stuffing of fresh mint and coriander leaves made up for the duck's mildness, while a miniature salad of baby beet greens in plum sauce added a welcome sweetness to the dish. Also on the sweet side was the honey- and ginger-lacquered duck breast (395 CZK), but the entrée was well-tempered by an earthy celeriac and onion mash and a few tart pickled kumquats.

Some flavoring proved to be disappointingly out of balance. The seared tuna with tamarind and chili sauce (490 CZK) was rather bland, though the tuna was capably cooked (oddly, the waiter felt it necessary to warn me that Angel serve their tuna "very rare" -- i.e., cooked properly). The tuna's accompaniment, a gingered sweet potato purée sprinkled with crispy bits of confetti-like dried seaweed, outshone the main attraction. In the case of the pan-fried scallops in nyonya coconut laksa (525 CZK), the scallops' delicate flavor didn't have a fighting chance against the spicy, complex curry sauce.

But even when Smith's efforts fall short, Angel is a very pleasant place to visit. The restaurant is outfitted in clean beige and gray, with the sprawling, intricate branches of a gold chandelier providing a striking centerpiece. The level and quality of the lighting is well-judged, and the staff is courteous and helpful.

Some words of warning, however: the progression of meals can be quite slow (especially on busy nights, of which Angel is sure to see many in the months ahead), and there's not much available for vegetarians -- the only meat-free dish on the current menu is a single appetizer. If you know you're going to have a vegetarian in your party, call ahead and let them know; the kitchen will prepare a veg entrée in advance.
It's surprising that Angel hasn't thought to cater to vegetarians. After all, even Gordon Ramsay, a notorious carnivore, included a veggie risotto on his menu at Prague's maze. But Angel is an unusual restaurant with an unusual chef, with a few of the usual early kinks to work through. I'm excited to see what Angel does next. And that's more than I can say for almost everyplace else.

Angel
V Kolkovně 7
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 773 222 422
map

images: angelrestaurant.cz

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Chocolat au Gourmand

Does Prague need another chocolate bonbon store?

Not really. But when its candy is as good as Chocolat au Gourmand's, a new confectionery is very welcome indeed.


This pretty shoebox sweet shop is an offshoot of local patisserie chain Au Gourmand, which sells baguettes, sandwiches, and various French pastries at locations around the city. With Chocolat, they've expanded their wares to include a selection of fancy chocolates imported from France (for the moment, only the truffles are handmade in Prague).

The bonbon options here are plentiful: pistachio white nougat, raspberry truffle, jasmine, and a powerful passion fruit cream are among them. All chocolates cost 190 CZK per 100 grams.

Chocolat au Gourmand is also the first in Prague to sell Kusmi teas, a brand renowned for its Russian blends and flavored black and green leaf varieties -- and the packaging is lovely, too.

A little box of Gourmand goodies and a tin of Kusmi Spicy Chocolate tea might be just the thing to warm your loved one's heart on Valentine's Day.

Though you might get lucky faster with a nice bottle of champagne.


Chocolat au Gourmand
Dlouhá 10
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: 723 065 248
map

All images property of The Prague Spoon.

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