Monday, November 24, 2008

Food news: Where to have Thanksgiving in Prague

Fear not, turkey-loving Americans: Prague has plenty of places where you can get your fill of Thanksgiving this Thursday.

If you want to eat your holiday dinner at home (but don't want to cook it yourself), Bakeshop will be selling Thanksgiving to go. They'll be making fresh turkey caramelized with dark beer, Italian sausage and bread stuffing, parmesan roasted butternut squash and more, all for 800 CZK per kilo. Pick up a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau while you're there, too.

Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice will be having an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving buffet for 490 CZK per person starting at 7 pm, and Jáma is celebrating their 15th annual turkey day this year, followed by American football on TV. Other restaurants making special arrangements include Brasserie M (on Friday), Buffalo Bill's, Fraktal, the Globe, Banditos, Vermeer, and Red Hot & Blues.

For those who want to get all fancy-like, Allegro will be serving something along the lines of Thanksgiving dinner, and Hilton's CzecHouse and the Mandarin Oriental's Essensia will have holiday menus as well.

Reservations are strongly recommended for all of the above restaurants. Happy gobbling!

images: countryliving.com

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Food news: Slowdown at Savoy, new bakeries, Burger King, and more

Over the summer, Café Savoy closed its doors for a little while to do some renovating, the most notable change being a much-needed improvement to the toilet situation (the restrooms are now located in a new downstairs area and have multiple stalls). But it looks like they might have forgotten a few basics in the meantime.

I've had issues with Savoy's service before, but I've never had to deal with a server as surly, impatient, and incompetent as the woman in charge of our table during brunch last Sunday. She huffed and puffed and rolled her eyes as we were giving our orders, then forgot to bring half of what we'd asked for. And on a recent dinner visit, every step (ordering food, asking for another beer, getting the check) took several attempts, and our wine list didn't come until we'd ordered the first course.

A VIP sitting at the table next to ours seemed to be getting more than enough attention. Well, at least someone was happy...

Whopper fans rejoice: the Czech Republic's first Burger King will open next week in Metropole Zličín shopping mall. The franchise is owned by AmRest, the Polish company that also brought us KFC and Starbucks.

In pastry shop / bakery news, scrumptious French patisserie Passion Chocolat has left its spot in Vinohrady and will soon be reopening in Pasáž U Nováků (on Vodičkova, connected to Lucerna Pasáž). I'm a little skeptical that the new location will give them the kind of foot traffic they need, but let's hope for the best. French chain bakery Paul has opened in Palác Flora, of all places. And Bakeshop is promising great things for Thanksgiving, but more on that next week. For now, stop in and try a slice of their awesome pumpkin pie.

Finally, for those who understand Czech and might want to find out a little more about me and the Prague Spoon, Lidovky's Pátek magazine published an interview with me last week, written by the positively lovely chef and food writer Hanka Michopulu.

images ambi.cz, burgerking.com, Prague Spoon, paul.fr

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Restaurant Review: Radost FX





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 25/10/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When winter time comes around, most of us do our best to keep ourselves from getting sick. We wear scarves. We take extra vitamins. We may even go to the doctor's office to get flu vaccinations.

I am just as diligent about avoiding the restaurant at Radost FX. I don't often lie, but when it comes to that particular spot, I am not above fabricating an aunt's 60th birthday party or a sudden attack of the shingles. Believe me, if there was an anti-Radost shot, I'd be the first in line.

But just as some of us will still come down with the flu despite our best efforts, I sometimes end up getting dragged to Radost.

My friends, you see, will not heed the sound advice of the restaurant critic ("That place SUCKS"), because they always have a very special reason to go there. Somebody doesn't eat meat. ("It's not the only vegetarian place in town," I argue.) They serve brunch. ("Are you out of your mind? Have you SEEN the French toast?") It's late and we're hungry. ("Oh… all right." There really isn't anywhere else to have a sit-down meal in this city after midnight.)

The fact that I am something of a food snob is not the only reason I refuse to eat at Radost. I'm also trying to protect my and my friends' health and general well-being.

It could just be hearsay, but Radost's food does have a reputation for making people ill. Besides the various discussions of this topic on the internet, I personally know several people who have gotten sick after eating there. Even just this past week, a friend who accompanied me on one of my visits said she felt not very good at all after eating one of the restaurant's beloved Popeye burgers (the "burger" part is made out of spinach, hazelnuts, garlic, and cheese, in case you were wondering).

Far be it for me to know exactly what's going on. But I would like to point to the eyewitness account of a buddy of mine as a possible (partial) explanation. My friend was at Radost early in the day and saw the chef taking a batch of produce from the delivery man. The chef shook the hand of the delivery dude, brought the veggies into the kitchen (separated from the dining room by only a curtain, so it's possible to glimpse inside), and without washing his hands proceeded to chop up the tomatoes and put them on a plate for a customer's salad. And then, as an afterthought, he grabbed a slice of tomato from the plate and popped it in his mouth.

With standards like these, it's no wonder people are getting sick.

Of course, there are a lot of restaurants in this town with questionable hygiene practices – more, probably, than I'd care to know about. But even if the food at Radost isn't regularly groped by dirty hands, it's still presented as if it was. All of the dishes come out looking carelessly made and sloppy.

Take the Heaven's Garden dish (195 CZK), another supposed favorite of avid Radost-goers. It's basically a plate of mashed potatoes smothered in a dull cream sauce and topped with random vegetables: carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, red and green peppers, parsley, black olives (what?), and sun-dried tomatoes (why?). Some of the carrots were shredded, others were julienned. It's as if they just threw in whatever scraps they had lying around the kitchen.

The ratatouille (190 CZK) may be even worse. When I tried it, the vegetables were inexcusably overcooked, to the point where it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the eggplant and the zucchini because both were so mushy and brown. The zucchini had been lazily cut into five-centimeter-long cylinders. The couscous that came with the ratatouille was bone dry; it must have been made the day before and stored improperly afterwards. And spooned on top was a nonsensical serving of sour cream. As if that would make this pile of slop worth the money.

I guess laziness rules at Radost. On my first visit, the waitress took a drink order from my friend without asking the rest of us what we wanted, then brought the drink and still didn't ask. On my second visit, my brother, who has a serious peanut allergy, asked a different waitress if there would be peanuts or peanut products in his stir fry. She said she wasn't sure and she would find out. She didn't. My brother got sick.

What more can you expect from a restaurant where my friend (the same unlucky lady who ate the foul Popeye burger) once found a big piece of glass in her salad? That may have been a few years ago, but judging by my recent experiences there, I still wouldn't put that kind of insanity past this place.

What confuses me most is the fact that so many people continue to eat at Radost. Some even swear by it. A Hollywood actor once took me there on a miserable date because he refused to eat anywhere else the whole time he was shooting his movie in Prague. He even had Radost food delivered to the set every day.

Okay, so I guess the interior is kind of cool, with the brightly patterned couches and funky wallpaper and quasi-trendy dance music provided by live DJs on the weekends. The restaurant feels like an extension of the club downstairs – all the more so because of the cigarette smoke and the fact that customers have to use the dank and dirty club toilets.

But even if you're enticed by the shabby chic décor and the promising-looking menu, even if you're a vegetarian and you want brunch or it's late and you're hungry, don't do it. I, for one, plan on never getting dragged to Radost again.

And after this review is published, I won't even have to come up with an excuse.

Radost FX
Bělehradská 120
Praha 2 - Vinohrady
map
Tel: +420 224 254 776

images 1, 4, 5: Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; 3, 7: radostfx.cz; all others: Prague Spoon

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Restaurant Review: Potrefená Husa





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 11/10/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

As I'm tucking in to my řízek dinner at the newest branch of Potrefená Husa, I receive a text message from a friend. "At Husa," he writes. "Want to come by?"

I look around the restaurant. My friend is nowhere to be seen. "Which Husa?" I reply.

If that anecdote doesn't sound familiar to you yet, it will soon enough. I can't be the only one who's been getting the sense that it's impossible to walk five blocks in any direction in the center of Prague without coming across a Staropramen -branded restaurant.

The brewery's concept – a chain of modern franchised pubs that are pricier than your average hospoda but offer quality beer, good food, and friendly service – has proven to be an enormous success. The first Potrefená Husa (which opened in Vinohrady in 1999) was quickly followed by sister restaurants in Plzeň and Liberec. And over the past couple of years, new Husas have been appearing in cities across the Czech Republic with terrifying speed.

A well-run franchise operation guarantees its customers a certain level of consistency from location to location. A Big Mac is going to taste the same whether you're in Brno or San Francisco – in theory, anyway. Fast food lovers like to debate which parts of the world have the best-tasting McDonald's food (Asia, I've heard) and the worst (definitely America, at least in my limited experience).

It's a similar story with Potrefená Husa. Some Husas are better than others. And not all of the individual restaurants manage to keep up the level of quality their corporate overlords expect.

The recently-opened Husa on Platnéřská, for example, seems to have a higher standard of food service than most of its counterparts. Unfortunately, it lacks the atmosphere of the nearby branch on Bílkova – which, after an apparent change in management, has lately become home to some incompetent and surly staff. And unlike at McDonald's, the burger present on most (if not all) Husa menus is completely different from location to location.

So where does the latest incarnation of this Czech pub chain stand among its counterparts? For now, at least, I'd say it's somewhere near the top of the pack.

The Husa I'm referring to is on the corner of Hybernská and Dlážděná, just adjacent to the Masarykovo train station at a spot formerly occupied by a very sketchy Chinese bufet. It's the twenty-fifth Husa to date, and also the largest, seating around 200 people on three floors. Huge windows shine plenty of light on the by now familiar style of décor: a long bar at the front, raised wooden tables, and yellow linoleum floors. Upstairs is a kind of mezzanine with comfortable lounge chairs, and the basement houses a cozy beer cellar with room for 100 customers.

As far as I'm concerned, though, this Husa's claim to fame isn't its size, but its service. All of the servers (and there were lots of them – Husas tend to be well-staffed) I encountered during my visits were not only cordial, but downright enthusiastic. They went out of their way to greet us when we entered the restaurant, they moved with a sense of urgency, and they systematically stopped by our table to ask if everything was all right after we had gotten our food. That last gesture is standard practice in American restaurants and one that should be adopted here more often – a quick check-in allows the customer to ask for that missing fork or a second Mattoni or to have their steak thrown back on the grill.

And, crucially, they weren't annoying. We didn't have waiters hovering around our table or filling up my water glass every time I took a sip; they simply went about their business politely and efficiently. Even the waitress who had an "In training" badge pinned to her shirt was better than most servers I've come across lately. I wouldn't mind sending a few managers of high-end Prague restaurants to Potrefená Husa to see how proper staff training is done.

The news isn't all good in the food department: a chicken broth featured overcooked noodles and peas so hard you could break your teeth on them, the svíčková na smetaně's meat was pretty tough to swallow, and the hamburgers come with cucumbers instead of pickles. But as I've found with every Husa I've visited, there are always a couple of gems on the menu. You just need to figure out what they are.

So far, I've managed to unearth a few goodies at the Hybernská location. One of them is the chicken schnitzel with mashed potatoes and cucumber salad (129 CZK) – a simple dish cooked well, with the chicken freshly fried in clean oil and the mash fluffy and rich -- a great comfort food. The koprová omáčka (beef with dill sauce) I tried as a lunch special falls into that category, too. I'd also recommend the beef carpaccio with arugula, capers, olives, and parmesan (179 CZK), and the fresh strawberries marinated in Grand Marnier served with a scoop of creamy chocolate ice cream (89 CZK).

Old-school pub-goers have been known to grumble about the Husification of Czech pubs, and there is something to their complaints. It can be disheartening to see a classic neighborhood watering hole displaced by a corporate franchise outlet that will look and feel just about the same as twenty-four others (and counting).

But there's a plus side to Husa's presence in our restaurant market, too. When the world's first gastropub, The Eagle, was opened in London's Clerkenwell in 1991, its owners expressed a desire to promote good-quality food in places where ordinary people liked to hang out. At that time, English cuisine was widely considered to be inedible. Now, countless gastropubs and a handful of celebrity chefs later, the U.K. is at the forefront of high-end gastronomy.

We won't necessarily see the same kind of phenomenon happening in the Czech Republic, but there are already signs that all those Husas are having an influence. The food at the famed U Zlatého Tygra pub, for example, used to be absolutely inedible. Now, for 85 CZK, they serve some of the best roast beef in town. I can't vouch for the rest of their menu, but still – awesome beer and great beef? I'm not going to argue with that kind of change.

And neither should you.

Potrefená Husa
Dlážděná 1003/7
Praha 1 – Nové Město
map
Open Sun – Thurs 11.00 - 24.00, Fri – Sat 11.00 - 01.00
Tel.: 224 243 631

images: Staropramen.cz, Prague Spoon

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