Monday, September 22, 2008

Restaurant Review: La Casa Argentina

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 13/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

During the years I've lived in Prague, a good amount of my precious time has been spent touring American visitors around the city. Those who are making their first trip outside the United States usually end up regaling me with some charmingly idiotic comments. When glimpsing Týn church or some other Gothic structure, for example, more than one has uttered something to the effect of, "Oh my God, that looks just like Disneyland!!!" Out comes the camera. Snap snap snap.

That's when I muster up as much of the patient schoolteacher in me as I can and explain that it isn't Týn that looks like Disneyland, but the other way around.

"Can you take a picture of me in front of the castle thingy??" Never mind.

What my culturally-challenged friends are referring to is the Sleeping Beauty Castle, the pastel-colored fairy tale structure built in 1955 at the heart of the Disneyland theme park in California that has become a Disney – and, by extension, American – icon. For them, this side of the pond is like a storybook come to life, the realization of a hundred childhood fantasies of old-world princesses, horse-drawn carriages, and ornate palaces.

Smug Europeans like to snicker at this American fetishization of their culture, but it would be unfair to say that we don't have a few exotic fixations of our own. Take, for example, our capital city's current mania for all things South and Central American: La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-themed bar on Kaprova, is packed nightly, a Peruvian restaurant and club just opened its doors in Old Town, and even after years as Prague's most popular cocktail, no one seems to have gotten sick of the mojito.

The simmering hub of all this Latin loving – the South American craze's local Disneyland – has to be La Casa Argentina. It's a large steak restaurant done up to be as stereotypically Argentinean as possible, with tango dancers, native fauna, and Maradona jerseys galore.

The mini-tour of Argentina starts in the Salon Caminito, a big room painted with murals meant to mimic the famous Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. That's followed by the winter garden, where water trickles down a rocky wall and iguanas live in a hollowed-out fake tree trunk. The back room features a wooden bar modeled after a ship and is nicknamed "the port." Finally, there's a hallway decorated with flat screen TVs and football memorabilia and, in the basement, the Bodega Mendoza, a sort of private salon / wine cellar.

For all the investment put into La Casa Argentina's interior, the food is pretty abysmal. Most of the dishes I tried were heinously over seasoned. The cream of corn soup with shrimp (110 CZK) accomplished the impressive feat of being both bland and sickeningly salty at the same time. Ditto the goulash soup (113 CZK), which the menu claimed would be served with Argentinean beef sirloin and homemade bread, but ended up including only a smidgen of the former and none of the latter. The ground beef and chicken-chorizo empanadas (178 CZK) were inoffensive, if a bit on the chewy side, but the salad served that came with it had been salted mercilessly, too.

At least Casa Argentina manages to get the important part right: the steaks. In both quality and preparation, they are unquestionably awesome, and must be some of the best in town. Ranging in price from 335 to 1305 CZK depending on the cut of meat and its size, all of the beef is imported directly from Argentina and is cooked on an open-fire grill (or parrilla) according to your desired temperature.

My tenderloin (468 CZK for 200g) was charred on the outside and succulently red and juicy on the inside; the beef on its own is so flavorful that it really doesn't need that spoonful of herbed butter slapped on top (the waiters also push customers to order additional dipping sauces, even though all of the steaks already come with chimichurri, a traditional spicy condiment).

A restaurant that takes its beef as seriously as this one does ought to make a pretty good burger. But the one my companion tried (the "Black Ranch burger," 355 CZK) was downright bad – the meat patty wouldn't stick together and kept falling apart in big chunks, and it was completely over salted besides. Even more baffling is the fact that the kitchen doesn't cook the burger to order; when my friend asked for it done medium, the waitress responded that the patties were pre-cooked and they didn't make them on the grill. Why on earth not, especially when they have that fancy parrilla going over there in the kitchen?

The service in general was pretty lousy, with surly waiters constantly jumping into our table to grab plates and empty Mattoni bottles but disappearing when it was time to pay the bill. And prepare yourself for a long wait between courses, too.

If this whole Latin craze gets you excited, I suppose you could give La Casa Argentina a shot. For the most part, though, it's a watered-down version of the real thing, a shoddily-made fairy tale castle that relies on its exotic appeal to lure customers.

And just like in the real Disneyland, the food is bad and overpriced. Except for the steaks, of course. Those are in a category of their own – although when they're surrounded by all that phoniness, they're almost forgettable.

But not quite.

La Casa Argentina
Dlouhá 35
Praha 1
Tel: 222 311 512

Open Mon – Sun 10:00 – 02:00



Monday, September 15, 2008

Restaurant Review: Kabul

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 06/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When a dish shows up in your dreams, you know it must really be something special.

That's what happened after one of my recent trips to restaurant Kabul: just as I was drifting off to sleep, my belly still full to bursting from an enormous dinner, the memory of the Afghan-style kebab I'd devoured only a few hours before wafted into my mind. I recalled the ground beef patty's mildly charred, almost crispy exterior; its juicy deep pink center; the aromatic dollops of chutney – one tangy and sweet, the other bold and spicy – that so perfectly complemented the smoky grilled meat.
A little pool of saliva began to collect in my mouth. My stomach growled. Against all odds, I was hungry.

Since it opened on Karolíny Světlé a few years ago, Kabul and its fantastic kebabs have been a well-kept secret known only to a handful of devoted regulars. Afghan cuisine isn't exactly Italian or Chinese food, after all, and it can be a tough sell. When I informed a group of out-of-town visitors that we were going to be having dinner at a place called Kabul, they didn't look especially thrilled.

But by the time our table was loaded with fat kebabs, homemade bread, and colorful vegetable side dishes, they'd become believers – as has everyone else I've brought to the restaurant. It's a pleasant little family joint with unique and delicious food at reasonable prices. What's not to like about that?

Kabul is nice to visit both in the wintertime, when the tiny dining room lined with Afghan carpets becomes a cozy cold-weather hideaway, and in the summer, when the restaurant expands to include an outdoor courtyard. With its picturesque wrought-iron well and walls lined head to foot with wisteria, the garden has some enviable features.

Still, the atmosphere outside could use some improvement. The restaurant/ club/ drag queen cabaret next door likes to blast cheesy pop music over their neighbors' demure Afghan soundtrack. They also have menu-wielding employees standing at the shared garden entrance, doing their best to snatch away Kabul's potential customers. There's not too much owner Hasib Saleh can do about those things, but he might consider upgrading the plastic tables and chairs to something a little less crappy – they cheapen the image of his restaurant more than it deserves.

Of course, a certain crustiness is part of what makes restaurants like Kabul so endearing. The puffy, pleather-bound menus, quirky restrooms, and occasional chipped plate show a lack of pretentiousness that I find refreshing. As long as it doesn't go too far (cockroaches, dirty toilets, cockroaches on the dirty toilets), a little bit of the lived-in feeling is fine with me.

It's not all about the kebabs, either (though I do feel compelled to add that aside from the beef version, Kabul also has chicken and mutton kebabs that are very good as well, all for around 200 CZK). Ashak (150 CZK) is a tasty dish made up of pierogi-like dumplings filled with leek and topped by white yoghurt, dried mint, and ground beef with lentils. The al dente stickler in me would have preferred the dumplings to be a little less cooked, but for all I know, that could be the authentic way to serve them.

Vegetarians can fill up at Kabul, too, as can those who are dead against trying Afghan food; the menu also lists spaghetti, goulash, and pizza, although the Western-style additions hardly seem necessary. Vegetarian sides include bamya (140 CZK), or okra with onions and tomatoes; a garlicky steamed spinach dish called sabzih (70 CZK); and dal (60 CZK), a mildly spicy yellow lentil puree that's perfect for scooping up with Kabul's homemade flat bread (40 CZK). I'd also recommend the excellent kadu (140 CZK), a fried pumpkin dish topped with white yoghurt.

Celebratory Afghan dinners are typically served in the form of a spread, or dastarkhan, where the dining table is laden with various meats, vegetable dishes, breads, rices, nuts, and fruit. It's a good idea to mimic this tradition on a trip to Kabul with a small group so you get to try lots of different dishes. Or you might like to take your food to go and have a little dastarkhan of your own at home (or at your office – they apparently cater parties of up to 500 people).

I do find Kabul's food to be a little on the greasy side for my liking; it's not something I'd be able to eat every day. But if you try it and become a fan, you might want to take advantage of their new 85-CZK lunch special. It may not be the environment for a high-power business lunch, but your meal is certain to be cheap, filling, and tasty.

You'll probably be happy with the service, too. Mr. Saleh is usually on hand to oversee the restaurant and often serves customers himself with a big, friendly smile. No wonder so many people have adopted Kabul as one of their favorites. Just make sure that when you stop by, you don't get tricked into going to the Tingl Tangl drag queen show next door. Your dinner still might enter your dreams, but it'll probably be in a whole different kind of way.

Karolíny Světlé 14
Praha 1
Tel: 224 235 452
Open Mon – Sun 10.00 - 23.00


Monday, September 8, 2008

Restaurant Review: Piano Nobile @ Chateau Mcely

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 30/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Since its opening in May 2006, much has been written about Chateau Mcely in the Czech press – and for good reason. Many have deemed the transformation of this crumbling 17th-century chateau into a glamorous boutique hotel to be nothing short of a miracle, and a look through the before and after pictures of the renovation makes it easy to see why.

But the real driving force behind Chateau Mcely's success is much more tangible than a supposed miracle, although in the Czech Republic it is no less rare. The hotel is a bona fide labor of love, the result of years of careful planning and passionate dedication on the part of owners Inez and James Cusumano.

The Cusumanos' meticulous attention to detail is clear from the first glimpse of Mcely's immaculate front lawn dotted with a small flock of picturesque wooden sheep. This couple knows that in order to create a truly special experience, it's not enough to simply shower a business with money and hope it will sprout customers. A lot of crowns have been spent on this project, to be sure, but more important is the palpable amount of time and energy expended on making visitors to Mcely as comfortable as possible.

Aside from its status as one of only two European five star "green" hotels, meaning that it operates with maximum consideration for the environment, the 24-room Chateau Mcely has also earned the distinction of being named one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. It's a true boutique hotel, with intimate service (a personalized welcome letter awaited us in our room) and unusual amenities (dogs receive first-class treatment here; they receive a toy, blanket, and pillow upon arrival and even have their own menu).

It's this heartfelt attitude that allowed even an old cynic like me to overlook the occasional sickly-sweet detail during my one-night stay at Mcely, such as the repetition of the hotel's printed motto ("honey, silk, and pearls") at every turn, or the mildly cheesy quotes written alongside each dish listed on the menu ("Dover sole served with health, flavor, and real SOUL"). My heart was positively melted by Chateau Mcely's natural warmth and charm.

Unfortunately, it hardened again slightly during my main course at the hotel restaurant, Piano Nobile. The food was by no means terrible, but it didn't quite measure up to the standard set by the rest of the chateau. My entrée of pigeon roasted in wine (610 CZK and apparently made according to "an old castle recipe") was unexciting at best. The bird itself was bland and dry, and the sauce it came with was so over-seasoned that the chanterelle mushrooms couldn't be tasted at all.

The pigeon did come with a nice herbed potato puree – so nice, I suppose, that the chef felt compelled to serve the same potatoes alongside my companion's entrée, the Argentinian beef sirloin (810 CZK). With their dollops of mashed potatoes and brown gravies, the main courses ended up looking very similar to one another. In a restaurant at this price level (and at a hotel of this caliber), that sort of repetition shouldn't happen. The beef, for its part, was of good quality and – amazingly in a country where steaks are so often overdone – cooked medium-rare according to my friend's specification.

As seems to be the case in many restaurants I've eaten at lately, Piano Nobile's appetizers outshone its entrées. The soup of the day, a carrot-orange puree (250 CZK), had a beautiful saffron-yellow color and a flavor just as bright, thanks in part to the fact that it was made without cream. A chanterelle risotto (330 CZK, or 590 CZK as a main course) was rich and cheesy and tasted strongly of forest mushrooms. And a roasted red mullet served with cucumber relish and green salad (330 CZK) was light and delicious.

So it wasn't all bad, though the desserts could have been better, too. The lime crème brûlée (210 CZK) was pretty dismal; for once, the sugar crust on top was nicely browned, but the consistency of the cream was too mushy, and the lime flavor should have been infused into the milk (there were overpowering slivers of candied lime rind in the cream instead). I wasn't a big fan of the poached pear dessert (240 CZK), either, which with its caramel, cognac, and clove flavoring seemed far too Christmasy for a summertime menu.

Like the rest of Chateau Mcely, Piano Nobile has a memorable atmosphere. The style is both classic and contemporary, elegant and relaxed. A dresser lined with custom-made plates by designer Oto Bláha sits against one wall, and a grand piano, covered in photo albums, rests in a corner. Plush fabrics, candelabras, and gentle classical music make for a romantic atmosphere. The lighting was a little too dim for my taste, but of course I was there to examine the food, not gaze into the eyes of my lover – though if that's what you're into, Mcely is definitely the place to do it.

To my relief, the service wasn't pompous or overbearing, as can sometimes happen in noble-esque establishments. All of the staff I encountered during my stay were helpful, polite, and relaxed, and seemed willing to go the extra mile to accommodate their guests' needs. Nothing, it seemed, was a problem.

That sort of thing is why, in spite of the problems with the kitchen, I am sure I will visit Chateau Mcely again. It is a uniquely beautiful place, and we are lucky to have it in such close proximity to our capital city. If the restaurant could kick it up a notch, it would be a truly phenomenal destination.

I'm confident that Piano Nobile's weaknesses will be overcome, mostly because I get the feeling that this is one restaurant whose owners aren't averse to a little constructive criticism. When somebody cares as much about their customers' satisfaction as the Cusumanos and their staff obviously do, they are constantly looking for ways to improve.

And that – at least for me – is the true miracle of Chateau Mcely.

Piano Nobile (Chateau Mcely)
Club Hotel and Forest Retreat
Mcely 61
Tel.: +420 325 600 000



Thursday, September 4, 2008

Food news returns, but some restaurants are gone for good

Prague has seen lots of restaurant closings recently, thanks in part to rising rents and a sharp drop in tourist traffic during the summer months. Among the departed: the tasty but unatmospheric Alexander's, health food spot Albio, Bombay Cafe's downstairs neighbor Rasoi, and Dejvice Asian fusion restaurant Monsoon. And not that anybody noticed or cared, but Josefov tourist trap Marco Polo and Russian club/restaurant/horseradish vodka bar Petrovič have shut down, too.

Still no official word on Kogo offshoot L'Angolo, which locked its doors after a kitchen fire a few months back. And rumor has it that Cremeria Milano on Pařížská will be closing in favor of a more profitable business venture -- a high-end clothing store.

Despite having shuttered 600 "underperforming" locations in the U.S., Starbucks has been popping up all over Prague. New coffeshops have opened in Ruzyně Airport, by the Zličín shopping center, and on Staroměstské náměstí at the former home of a Nordsee.

And everyone seems to be talking about Cloud 9, the new sky bar on the top floor of the Hilton. Besides mixing a mean cocktail, they have an interesting-looking bar menu of fancy little bites. I hear the view isn't bad, either. More on all that once I make it up there myself.



Monday, September 1, 2008

Restaurant Review: Cantina

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 23/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There's Tex-Mex. There's Cal-Mex. And then there's what I like to call Czech-Mex.

Unlike Californian or Texan Mexican, Czech-Mex isn't an interesting interpretation of a national cuisine. It's a crude and sometimes inedible bastardization of Mexican food typified by canned ingredients, sloppy presentation, and that old Czech standby, cabbage.

I didn't see any cabbage at Cantina, the Mala Strana Tex-Mex joint I decided to review this week. But there was something much, much worse: squeeze-bottle chocolate syrup. Over turkey breast, rice, and beans.

Mole poblano is a Mexican poultry sauce made with a wide range of ingredients – some recipes call for up to 30 different components – usually including crushed chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, various spices, and dark Mexican chocolate. Outside of Mexico, the mixture is known simply as mole, although in Spanish "mole" means "sauce" and can represent a variety of condiments (guacamole means "avocado sauce," for example).

A true mole uses only a small amount of chocolate or cocoa bean; the idea is for the chocolate flavor to enhance the sauce, but not overpower it. The result should be dark and have a complex flavor. It's often difficult to discern the taste of the chocolate at all.

Not so with Cantina's version. After the waiter had brought my very unappetizing-looking turkey mole poblano (205 CZK) – the lumpy chocolate gravy had been carelessly slopped over the turkey and accompanying refried beans and rice – I tentatively dipped a fork into the sauce. It was sweet and chocolate-y. Sickeningly sweet and chocolate-y. In fact, it reminded me of something.

"Chocolate syrup," my friend declared with a grimace as she tasted the offending dish. "Definitely." As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. Not only was the chocolate sweet instead of bitter, but it was chocolate at its very crappiest – straight from the bottle.

If there were any doubts about the mole's major ingredient, those were quickly extinguished when I received my dessert (a supposedly Mexican-style chocolate cake, 80 CZK) and found that – surprise! – it had the same chocolate sauce squirted all over it. Minus the spices and chili peppers, of course.

Yuck. I barely touched that mole, but Cantina's waitress didn't seem to notice. I suppose she was too busy running around the restaurant, trying to serve all the customers who were piling in on a Tuesday night. That's right; even with food this awful, Cantina is consistently full. Luckily, I'd made a reservation, because there were would-be customers lined up at the doorway, trying to fight their way to a seat.

Why is this place so popular? For one thing, it has atmosphere. The burlap sacks lining the ceiling, Mexican music, and ponchos hanging from clotheslines draped across the room give Cantina an authentic flavor. And having been in business for over ten years now, it's established itself as the place for locals to go for Mexican food.

But Cantina is nothing less than an insult to Mexican cuisine (or Tex-Mex, since that seems to be more the style they're going for). The guacamole must have come either partially or completely from a can, because I could barely taste any avocado in it at all. The pico de gallo, at least, was freshly made, but it didn't taste of much. And the tortilla chips served with the two dips were covered in too much salt, as were all of the meats on the dishes I tried. The tacos were soggy, the burrito was sloppy, and the margaritas were overly sweet.

If Mexican food isn't prepared carefully and with fresh ingredients, it can be pretty terrible. So spare yourselves the trip to Cantina and try out Fosil, a small, Mexican-run restaurant I recently discovered on Bělehradská. It's not Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex, but it's simple, good food, real Mexican-style.

If you're looking for Czech-Mex, though, you know where to go.

Újezd 38
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: +420 257 317 173
Open Mon-Sat 11:30-24:00