Monday, July 28, 2008

Restaurant Review: Safir / Beas

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 07/06/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

With a surging interest in gourmet cuisine among its residents, Prague can now lay claim to plenty of upscale restaurants. But some of its best and most interesting food is also its least expensive – and doesn’t require table service. Here’s an overview of two great spots to get a satisfying meal for under 150 CZK.

When its original location on Havelská shut down, fans of Safir Grill’s reliable, low-cost Lebanese food found themselves without a place to go. Not long after, the restaurant re-emerged, this time simply as Safir, in the newly-built Nový Smíchov shopping mall.

This low-key Middle Eastern joint is a nice addition to the typical food court – not as greasy as the McDonald’s across the way, but not as time-demanding as some of the sit-down restaurants nearby. At lunchtime, the lines at Safir are long, but the wait is minimized by the efficient and friendly staff.

There’s a variety of classic Lebanese dishes here, both with and without meat: gyros, tabbouleh, dolmas, and falafel are among them. For a convenient to-go food, try the twister gyros, a tightly-wrapped sandwich of roasted chicken and cabbage in Lebanese bread. It’s something like KFC’s Twister sandwich, only better – and certainly healthier.

Safir’s tabbouleh is a little on the flavorless side, probably because they make theirs with curly parsley instead of the more tasty (and less common in these parts) flat Italian variety. But their hummus and baba ganoush are delicious, especially when paired with a plate of crispy, freshly-made falafel patties.

I also love their grape leaves and cabbage leaves, which come served with the refreshing yoghurt and cucumber sauce known as tzatziki. For dessert, they offer sticky-sweet pistachio or peanut baklava (pistachio is better) or the soft, spongy harisa cake, in either coconut or walnut versions. Everything can be wrapped up to go, so it’s a good option for a last-minute dinner when you don’t feel like cooking.

The atmosphere is a little lacking, but what can you expect from a shopping mall restaurant? Safir does their best under the circumstances, with mosaic tables, Arabic-style mirrors, and even shisha pipes offered on the menu – though I have yet to see anyone try them. Just watch out for your belongings; thieves occasionally lurk among the tables, looking for a stray purse to grab while its owner has her hands full of falafel.

Late last year, Safir opened up a second location in the DBK department store at Budějovická. I still wish they had a spot downtown, since there’s an unfortunate lack of good quality, low-budget Middle Eastern food in the city center. Maybe they’ll be back someday. For now, we’ll have to rely on shopping malls in order to get our Safir fix.

OC Nový Smíchov
Plzeňská 8 – Praha 5
Tel: 257 310 149

DBK Praha
Budějovická 1667/64 – Praha 4
Tel: 296 825 111

It almost seems too good to be true: two portions of vegetable stew, rice, salad, soup, yoghurt sauce, chutney, and dessert for only 98 CZK (pictured below). But at Beas, this is the standard menu (the large one, anyway; a smaller version, which comes minus the chutney and dessert, goes for 85 CZK).

The food here is not only plentiful and cheap, but is some of the better Indian you’ll find in town. Beas employs Indian chefs at both its locations, and isn’t afraid of being authentic; they even serve pickles, the super-spicy condiment made of pickled fruits and vegetables.

Meat-eaters might be disappointed that Beas is exclusively vegetarian, but the offerings here are so rich and filling that some of them may hardly even notice. The generous portions of rice (either white or flavored, depending on your preference), sabji (vegetable stew), and dhal (bean, chickpea, or lentil stew) are hearty enough alone to fill up the hungriest lunchtime patrons. The other menu elements are there to round out the experience – like the raita (yoghurt sauce with herbs), which acts as a cooling contrast to the spicy stews, or the chutney (a condiment made of dates, raisins, or other fruits), whose sweet, gooey texture is a natural complement to the savory vegetables.

The set menu is served to at the counter, cafeteria-style, but if you have a little more time, it’s worth waiting for the kitchen to whip up some of the Indian specialties they prepare to order. Among these are the excellent dosa, a thin, crispy pancake made of rice and flour and stuffed with either potatoes or spinach, and the parantha, a type of whole wheat flatbread filled with a spicy potato mixture (pictured below; on a recent visit to the Bělehradská Beas, however, only two of the six made-to-order options were in stock).

Both locations have pleasant courtyards to eat in, but the interiors are perfectly nice, too, with cream-colored walls and sleek wooden chairs. At the Týnská restaurant, each table carries a silver pitcher full of tap water, a quaint touch that adds to the homey surroundings. Unfortunately, the Bělehradská location has now replaced the pitchers with plastic water filters – more hygienic, perhaps, but a little less aesthetically pleasing.

If you’re curious about Indian desserts, be sure to try Beas’s halva. Unlike Arabic halvas, which are usually sesame-based, the Indian variety is made from semolina wheat and has a soft, couscous-like consistency. Served with a thick vanilla cream, it’s the perfect way to finish a meal at the dhaba. Or try a glass of the mango lassi – like most things at Beas, it’s delicious and healthy, and it won’t strain your wallet.

Týnská 19 (in the courtyard) – Praha 1
Open Mon-Sat 11:00-20:00, Sun 11:00-18:00

Bělehradská 90 – Praha 2
Open Mon-Fri 11:00-21:00, Sat 12:00-20:00, Sun 12:00-18:00
tel.+420 608 035 727



Monday, July 21, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Imperial

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/07/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

If you're looking for a fight, don't come to Café Imperial. Not if it's a doughnut fight you want, anyway.

This once-dingy local hangout – famous as much for its impromptu doughnut-throwing as for its awe-inspiring Art Nouveau mosaics – has dusted off the powdered sugar and reintroduced itself as a semi-swanky grand café in the style of the First Republic, sharply-dressed wait staff and all.

The unusual tradition is rooted in Zdeněk Jirotka's 1943 comic novel Saturnin, the first chapter of which describes all people as belonging in one of three categories: those who simply stare at a plate of doughnuts in a café, those who imagine throwing the doughnuts at another customer, and "people for whom the idea of a doughnut whistling through the air is such an enticement that they get up and actually make it happen."

So, in honor of Jirotka's mischievous butler, any sober customer over 21 years of age could (for the symbolically appropriate price of 1943 CZK) purchase the plate of stale doughnuts called "Saturnin's platter" set atop Café Imperial's bar and hurl the pastries at any customer or member of the staff he or she wished to target. The café would apparently cover the cost of any necessary dry cleaning. A gimmick, certainly, but a charming one at that.

But newly-installed executive chef and co-investor Zdeněk Pohlreich didn't find the prospect of greasy doughnuts flying across his shiny new interior very charming at all. When it reopened in September of last year, Imperial's well-known food-fighting tradition had faded quietly into history, the complimentary doughnuts served alongside orders of coffee the only reminder of this well-heeled café's more raucous past.

You can't really blame them for the change, I suppose. Airborne pastries don't really fit in with the new Imperial's pristine leather- and velvet-upholstered antique-style furniture and lush golden curtains. The updated look is designed to complement the majestically kitschy, Moor-inspired tile reliefs that blanket the walls and ceiling and make the café a popular destination for tourists.

With all the surrounding opulence, it's a suitable spot for some high-quality cuisine. No wonder, then, that local culinary darling Pohlreich – whose straightforward cooking style emphasizes fresh ingredients and simple combinations – was brought over to inject a certain level of class into Café Imperial's menu.

The end result is definitely a cut above the hemenex (ham and eggs) that used to be served here in the old days (though they do offer a fairly extensive all-day breakfast), but it's still mildly disappointing. Like so many restaurateurs who've invested heavily into a renovation, Imperial's owners have decided to play it safe, opting for a sprawling menu packed with tired favorites over any kind of consistency or originality.

Beef carpaccio, tuna tartare, and goat cheese salad all make an appearance, along with svíčková na smetaně (pictured above), crème brulée, and a cheeseburger. It's the usual Czech/French/a touch of American combination of dishes that we see in most mid-scale restaurants here.

That's not to say that some of them aren't very good. I loved the asparagus salad (195 CZK), a healthy pile of fresh mixed lettuce leaves and sun-dried tomatoes over a few stalks of crispy, lightly-buttered asparagus, dotted with sesame seeds for a little added flavor. One of the chef's specialties, a braised lamb shank with marjoram and creamed spinach (295 CZK), was excellent, too.

But the tuna steak with Mediterranean vinaigrette and Niçoise salad (350 CZK) is really a mystery. In fact, I'm confused by most of the tuna steaks in this country. Why do so many chefs – including Mr. Pohlreich, who has had some international experience and surely knows better – insist on overcooking their tuna? A tuna steak should only be cooked lightly on each side, leaving the inside of the fish pink, tender, and as raw as sushi; the grey cooked part should only be a thin strip around its edges. The tuna I was given at Imperial was dry and chewy and looked like it had come from a can, even though it obviously hadn't. What a waste of a perfectly good piece of fish.

Of course, chefs here tend to cook to the tastes of their customers, and I know that those who make their tuna correctly often find their plates sent back to the kitchen with a demand for a little more grill time. But shouldn't the default setting be to cook the fish properly? If the chefs aren't going to try to influence diners' tastes in the right direction, then who is?

And then there are those who push their influence a little too far. One of my waiters was obnoxiously pushy, insisting we order the lamb shank although we didn't want to (I tried it on a separate visit), pushing us to order beer instead of water, and suggesting a side of mashed potatoes to go with my companion's roast chicken (220 CZK, pictured above) – unnecessarily, it turned out, because the dish ended up coming with potatoes already on the plate.

The atmosphere is very nice at Imperial, but I can't help but think it was better back when things were a little crustier, when the chairs and tables were wooden and rickety, jazz bands used to hold impromptu jam sessions in the evenings, and the Art Nouveau details seemed almost incidental. Like so many things in Prague, Café Imperial has been stripped and sanitized, its character varnished for the benefit of older tourists with fat wallets who fear the seedier elements that used to make this city so unique and interesting.

As I sipped my espresso in the café's majestic dining room, I did find myself wondering what it would be like to throw my doughnut at an unsuspecting customer. But I would never have done it. I guess I'm not that type of person. And, for better or worse, Café Imperial is no longer that type of place.

Café Imperial
Na poříčí 15
Prague 1 - New Town
Tel.: 246 011 600



Sunday, July 6, 2008

Restaurant Review: Le Cornichon

This review originally appeared in
Czech translation in the 28/06/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Sophisticated. Honest. Reasonably priced.

How many restaurants do you know of in Prague befitting that description? Not too many, huh? Me neither. That’s why I’m finding myself pretty tickled about Le Cornichon’s arrival on the local scene.
When I heard that yet another restaurant was about to open in the long-doomed corner space on Betlémská, I had to cringe a little. At least two locales have tried and failed there; I was sure that this one, however well-intentioned, would meet the same fate.

But despite its questionable location on a little-trafficked Old Town side street, Le Cornichon just might prove me wrong. It’s so necessary to our tired dining scene, so straightforward, so downright good that if everything goes well, this could become a destination restaurant – a spot that people don’t happen upon, but hear about and go out of their way to visit again and again.

Proprietor Vladimír Strnad cut his food industry teeth at the well-loved but ultimately unsuccessful Vršovice restaurant Atelier (along with Lubomír Mikuš, who currently runs another recently-opened Old Town hotspot, Angel). Now he’s brought his passion for French food and wine to a new venture, and in a city overpopulated with cluttered plates and too-busy interiors, Strnad’s sleek, unfussy aesthetic is a pleasure to behold.

Le Cornichon’s layout is close to ideal – a large, long room with huge windows and high ceilings, semi-divided into three sections. The interior is clean and modern, but warm, with chocolate-brown walls, bright red chairs, and white tablecloths. Above each table hang some ethereal-looking lamps that, upon closer inspection, are made with ordinary metal kitchen scrub pads. The overall effect is welcoming and a little whimsical; classy, but unpretentious.

The same could be said of both the service and the cooking style. Our waiter demonstrated a remarkable instinct for timing – he was there when we wanted him to be, and when we didn’t, he was gone. He moved quickly, with confidence and a slight air of urgency, and he was unfailingly polite without seeming servile.

Plus, he knew the basics. It should go without saying that the server should never take any plates away from the table until everybody is finished eating, but few restaurants in our country adhere to this rule. An extra trip from the waiter disturbs the guests unnecessarily; he should approach the table the minimum number of times required to keep his patrons happy.

I was impressed, too, by the way the restaurant dealt with a particular issue that crops up fairly often when dining out: what should be done when the main component of one of the dishes on the menu isn’t the freshest that day and the customer orders that very dish? Is it better to serve the less-fresh version or to tell the customer you’ve run out?

It’s better, of course, to tell the customer you don’t have the dish. He or she is much less likely to be upset by a dish’s absence than if they are served food that is sub-par. When my dining companion ordered the cod, the waiter hesitated and said he wasn’t sure if they had any left. He ran to the back to ask, and returned to say that the chef had one piece left, but that he “wouldn’t let it out of the kitchen.” So my friend ordered the sea bass instead. After we’d started on our main courses, the waiter swung by to ask if the substitute fish was all right. Perfect. I felt like giving the guy a medal.

My companion’s fish was more than all right; in fact, it was very good. Like all the food I sampled at Le Cornichon, the sea bass (375 CZK) was prepared simply and honestly. It was served whole, stuffed with a couple of orange slices and a sprig of thyme, and accompanied by a very flavorful ratatouille.

The ratatouille, a lively mixture of zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, and, in this case, fennel, also made an appearance in the snail casserole (150 CZK). It’s a nice little appetizer, with the vegetables a good match for the twelve chewy little slugs. Unfortunately, when I ordered them, the snails were quite grainy – I suppose they hadn’t been washed properly, and some dirt from the garden had made it onto my plate.

The escargots’ grittiness was quickly forgotten when I tasted my main course, a tender, slow-cooked hare à la royale in a luscious red wine sauce (325 CZK). Its only accompaniment was a handful of tagliatelle pasta, but the meat was rich and tasty enough to stand on its own.

Le Cornichon has a few things to work on – the unattractive brown-tiled bathrooms, for example, or an amuse-bouche that was rather large and sloppy and didn’t come with any plates.

But small, home-style places like this one serve to remind us of how good our restaurants can be with a little effort, a lot of heart, and a lack of laziness. Case in point: Le Cornichon’s dessert menu, which miraculously avoids all three French restaurant after-dinner clichés (crème brulee, chocolate mousse, and fondant au chocolat) and offers us something different.

Finally, somebody in this town is willing to take some risks and give their customers the honest treatment they deserve. Now let’s hope a few other restaurants decide to follow Le Cornichon’s lead.

Le Cornichon
Betlémská 9
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel.: 222 211 766

Open Mon – Sat 16:00 – 23:00

Note to readers: Le Cornichon will be closed for renovation during the months of July and August.