Thursday, March 20, 2008

Food news: Prague gets its first Michelin star

As has been widely reported in the local press, the Czech Republic can now claim its first Michelin star. The winner of the coveted French honor is Prague Four Seasons Hotel's Allegro, helmed by Italian chef Andrea Accordi. Michelin's lesser prize, the Bib Gourmand ("good food at good prices") was re-awarded to last years' honorees, Aromi, Brasserie M, and Le Terroir. For those who read Czech, my op-ed piece for Lidové Noviny about Michelin and its significance (or lack therof) for Czech gastronomy can be found here. The 2008 Michelin Red Guide: Main cities of Europe will be published in May.

Speaking of Michelin favorites, both Allegro and Brasserie M will have special Easter menus prepared for the holiday. Meanwhile, CzecHouse is to hold their lavish annual Easter brunch on Sunday, and Oliva will be serving up spring lamb specialties all weekend, starting today.

Jiří Štift has announced that he'll be leaving his executive chef position at the Radisson SAS (home of Alcron and La Rotonde) to open a restaurant of his own. La Rotonde will be running a fresh fish and seafood special until the end of the month.

And after months of rumors about its closure, Dinitz has indeed closed -- and reopened as Metropol Music Club / Oriental Restaurant, with a full kitchen running every night until 1 a.m. More on that once I check it out for myself.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Restaurant Review: Alexander's

If Alexander's was to remain in business for any longer than a year or so, I'd be surprised.

On a recent Saturday night, the newish Vinohrady restaurant was nearly empty. When my companions and I walked inside, the waitress looked a little confused to see us there. The space felt quiet, almost sterile. Only a block away, Aromi was packed as usual. Some of its customers were seated at the bar for lack of tables, but they didn't seem to mind.

Alexander's has only been open for about six weeks. Still, there's something so bland, so completely nondescript about the place that I can't see the atmosphere being much better even if every seat was full.

Just thinking about the decor makes me want to take a nap. It's kind of bright, with white walls and lots of pinewood. There are a couple of gilt-framed mirrors. A purpose-built wall separates the kitchen from the dining room, but you can see into the cooking area from most of the tables anyway. The whole thing feels unimaginative, poorly conceived, and not especially welcoming.

With an atmosphere this miserable, it's going to be hard for Alexander's to draw people in. And that's a real shame, because the food is very good. Alexander Hüllen, the head chef and proprietor, has worked in a few Michelin-starred kitchens, and his past experience is evident in his well-executed, refreshingly unpretentious cooking.

The roast chicken breast with honey-lemon sauce and tagliatelle (330 CZK) tasted both sophisticated and homey, like upscale comfort food. The meat was moist and tender, its skin crisp and lightly charred. A handful of lightly cooked broccoli was tossed in with the noodles and the thin, buttery lemon sauce. It's a simple, memorable dish.

Then there was the slightly racy carrot soup with ginger (90 CZK) (I'm going to assume they meant to say "spicy"), which was so good that it prompted one of my more superlative-prone companions to declare that "you can search the world over, but you're not going to find a better carrot soup than this one." And he may even be right. The Alexander's version is sweet and slightly creamy, with a sharp, gingery bite. Best of all, there are a few orange slices in each bowl, which provide a great tangy touch.
I'd have liked to have tasted some of that acidity on the grilled pikeperch with dill sauce (340 CZK), but I enjoyed the dish nonetheless. The mashed potatoes and creamy dill sauce were very good with the flaky freshwater fish, and the lightly pickled cucumber slices were pleasantly crunchy.

Since the menu changed almost completely between my first and second visits, some of the dishes I sampled are no longer relevant for me to discuss here. Those included a very tasty fried goat cheese with beet carpaccio (pictured above) and a wonderful homemade ginger-coconut ice cream and fresh pineapple dessert. The dessert I tried on my second visit, a nut parfait with apple-fig chutney (140 CZK) wasn't nearly as good -- it was bland and overwhelmingly sweet.

I wish I could transplant Mr. Hüllen to a different space, one that would entice patrons rather than repel them. I'd also get him some new house staff (our server was nice, but she didn't speak a lick of English -- an odd choice for such an expat-heavy neighborhood) and a decent interior designer.

Unfortunately for Alexander's, it's probably too late to do all that. Still, you might want to give them a try, if only for the truly honest, truly tasty, almost-home-cooked cuisine.

U Kanálky 14
Prague 2 - Vinohrady
Tel: 222 210 582



Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Food news: Cooking classes, paella, and rumors of noodles

I've gotten a few queries lately about whether or not any cooking classes are being held in Prague. There are actually lots of them -- but they're mostly in Czech, of course. Cooking schools seem to be popping up everywhere at the moment; the most notable is the Pražský kulinářský institut (Prague Culinary Institute), where a huge range of classes are taught almost daily by some of the city's most well-known chefs. Then there's Chef Parade in Žižkov, which offers (among other courses) a "Cookdating" class designated for singles only. Culinaria gives sporadic lessons in Indian and Italian cuisine in English. And there have also been some informal group cooking lessons occasionally put together by expats. If anyone knows of any other English-language cooking classes, give us a heads up by putting a note in the comments!

As for food events this week, Monsoon is preparing a Singaporean menu as part of their One night stand in Singapore this Thursday, while Oliva is going Spanish with a special paella weekend -- check it out here.

It looks like new Asian fusion restaurant Angel may be listening to its customers (or its reviewers): they've rounded out their meat- and fish- heavy menu with two additional vegetarian options. And another Asian-themed restaurant, The Noodle Bar, is apparently looking to open a second location in Vinohrady. More on that when it happens...


Monday, March 3, 2008

Restaurant Review: Aldente / Alforno

When an Italian restaurant decides to call itself "Aldente," it's probably not unreasonable to expect its pasta to be served, well, al dente.

But the tagliatelle (180 CZK) I ordered at the Aldente trattoria in Old Town one evening had definitely been in the pot for too long. The zucchini in the accompanying sauce were even mushier, their pulp greyish from overcooking. The saffron promised on the menu was indiscernable, and a few chunks of bacon fat didn't do much to help the dish's general blandness.

Another trip showed the tagliatelle in much better form, cooked perfectly al dente, smothered in a juicy fresh tomato sauce and sprinkled with salted ricotta cheese (180 CZK).

Owned and run by Italian expatriates, this is a cosy, pleasantly kitschy neighborhood joint. The larger half of the restaurant, Aldente, serves pasta and meat dishes; its adjoining side, Alforno, does pizza. Both are warm and well-lit, the yellow walls and red and white checked tablecloths creating a homey Italian atmosphere.
But it doesn't take many visits to figure out that Aldente, for all its singsong service and cutesy charm, is frustratingly inconsistent. Pizza could be ordered in the Aldente side one week, but not the next. A plate of lamb chops (380 CZK) was tender and tasty on first try, but fatty and unappetizing the second time around. Pasta dishes were made either carefully or carelessly, depending on your luck.

Then there's the fact that the lamb was accompanied only by a large lettuce leaf and some sliced raw tomatoes on the first visit; the next tasting saw the addition of a few extremely greasy slices of potato. There's nothing wrong with uncomplicated food, but this just feels lazy.

And that's really too bad, especially when some of the dishes here are truly impressive. The fried zucchini flowers (180 CZK) were doughy, crisp, and mildly sweet, and the desserts (120 CZK apiece), including an espresso-drenched tiramisú and a fragrant amaretto cake, are simple and delicious.

The pizzas are good, too: I sampled a vegetarian version (130 CZK) that came laden with chopped zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, and mozzarella. Its thin crust was nice and crisp, though I missed the earthy flavor characteristic to pizzas made in a wood-fired oven (Alforno doesn't have one).

So are these Italian conjoined-twin restaurants worth visiting? I'm not sure. The atmosphere, particularly in the Aldente half, is great. The service seems very decent -- until you take a closer look at your bill. Dishes and drinks aren't specifically itemized, so it can be hard to tell whether or not they've tacked anything extra on to your order.

On two of my visits, I had a mysterious charge on the receipt, labeled "ostatní" ("other"), that couldn't be accounted for. Together, they added up to 250 CZK. I've heard other diners make similar complaints, so I feel pretty safe in assuming that overcharging is done systematically at Aldente (they also charge a couvert of 45 CZK per person, so that free glass of prosecco they give you at the beginning isn't so free after all).

How stupid of them. I was just about to recommend that you risk the chance of overcooked pasta and bad cuts of lamb for the sake of the authentic Italian atmosphere. But if authentic Italian means cheating the customer, I don't want to have anything to do with Aldente.

And neither should you.

Aldente Trattoria Italiana / Alforno Pizzeria
Vězeňská 4
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 313 185