Thursday, May 28, 2009

Food news: the Food Fest sets up, Zinc debuts, and Kogo and Kolkovna make a baby

The weekend forecast doesn't look too promising, but I'm hoping the sun will come out for the third annual Prague Food Festival, organized by Maurer's Grand Restaurant Guide. This years' indulging will take place between Mánesův and Charles bridges on the Old Town side of the Vltava, with some booths located on land and others set up on waterside pontoons. Participating restaurants include Aromi, Café Imperial, and V Zátiší, among many others.

The Hilton Prague Old Town has officially opened the new version of its restaurant, following the departure of Gordon Ramsay's Michelin-starred venture Maze Prague earlier this year. The new concept, called Zinc, is headed up by Ari Munandar, former executive chef of Essensia at the Mandarin Oriental Prague. His menu is described as "modern European cooking with an Asian twist," and includes dishes like crab cake and sweet corn sorbet, miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, and baked pineapple with star anise and cinnamon.

Jean-François and Nadine Musso, formerly of Passion Chocolat in Vinohrady, are back to making their irresistible pastries and bonbons. This time, they're located in the U Nováků pasáž off Vodičkova, and their shop is called Pâtisserie St. Tropez. Meanwhile, Mama Coffee has opened up a new, roomier location on Korunní, and Aromi offshoot La Finestra is now in full, delicious swing.

Kogo Group's lackluster sister, L'Angolo, is being remade yet again -- this time with the help of Kolkovna Group, which is collaborating with Kogo to form a third local dining superpower, Koko Group. Under Koko's management, L'Angolo will be transformed into Fragola, a high-end combination sushi/Mediterranean restaurant/bar/club/"art cafe" that will have live DJs, serve food into the wee hours, and offer a Sunday brunch.

A little complicated, maybe, but it just might work.



Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Restaurant Review: Zlatý Anděl Fusion

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 16/05/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Here's a handy rule of thumb to use when choosing where to have your next meal: when a restaurant has its lunch menu written on its windows in green and orange marker, it's probably a good place not to go. The marker-on-the-window thing stinks so potently of desperation that I've heard a friend of mine refer to it as "the mark of death" – something akin to the symbol they used to draw in chalk on the doors of infected houses during the time of the bubonic plague.

This tacky practice has become so popular that it's pretty difficult nowadays to find a restaurant in the center that isn't covered in fluorescent cloud shapes and the price of roasted pork knuckles. So I was willing to give Zlatý Anděl Fusion a shot despite its copious use of war paint – particularly because its head chef, Martial Clement, had wowed me last year at his previous post, Zahrada v Opeře.

A fully-renovated Dům U Zlatého Anděla had sat empty for over a year before finding an occupant, a local outpost of the Spanish chain Barceló hotels. The hotel might be filling up, but its restaurant has been largely ignored by locals and visitors alike; the long main part of the dining room, packed with closely-set tables and chairs, was empty and almost dark when we arrived. We sat in the front café area instead, a somewhat livelier space with large windows facing the street that nonetheless feels very much like a part of the adjacent hotel lobby.

I tried to speak with the maitre d' in Czech, but he apparently did not speak a word of the local language. His English was only so-so – he sometimes appeared to have trouble understanding us and explaining himself. I wondered if this was a restaurant meant exclusively for Spanish speakers. A few of them appeared during our meal, and the waiter chatted with them at length while we waited for our soup spoons.

They never came, so I used a fork to eat my coconut velouté with crab ravioli (190 CZK). I didn't care all that much because the soup was completely tasteless, like I'd imagine coconut milk to be if it was watered down and thickened with flour. The ravioli was filled with a solid mass that didn't seem to have much to do with crab, and the calamari it came with were rubbery. My companion's mozzarella salad (270 CZK) was even worse: it was nothing more than a pile of dry mesclun, a soggy half-ciabatta covered in melted cheese, a strip of uncooked bacon, and a thin slice of zucchini.

This was not what I expected from Mr. Clement, whose carefully arranged, flavor-packed dishes at Záhrada stand out in my mind as some of the best I've tried since I started writing this column. I would even venture to say that the main course I had at Zlatý Anděl was one of the worst dishes I've ever had in a restaurant above the III. skupina.

I'm talking about the veal tournedos (450 CZK), which were as tough as well-chewed chewing gum and completely unseasoned – unless you count the black charring that scarred both sides of the meat. The accompanying carrots, zucchini, and mushrooms had been burnt mercilessly, too. It was like eating a big lump of coal with little lumps of coal on the side.

Other culinary highlights included a freezer-burnt tuna steak (450 CZK) and a risotto "Arborio" (390 CZK) that was not made with Arborio rice. It did contain carrots, zucchini, and some waterlogged shiitake mushrooms, the same combo of vegetables that graced my dinner plate. The key ingredient to risotto besides rice, parmesan cheese, was missing entirely.

The one good dish we had all evening was the chocolate fondant (150 CZK), served with coconut ice cream, black currant foam, and mango sauce. Unfortunately for me, I had chosen the profiteroles for dessert. They were filled with a watery, unsatisfying vanilla ice cream. Because my companion's order of homemade gelato included a very different version of vanilla, I suspected the profiteroles hadn't been made in-house.

Along with these gastronomical atrocities came some almost comically incompetent service. When we asked for our Gavi to be chilled, the waiter put it in a bucket with a little bit of ice and no water, a method that ensured the wine would not have cooled had we sat there all night. He then proceeded to dole out the lukewarm wine, always first to the man and then to the women – a definite no-no in any half-decent restaurant.

The servers were pretty friendly, but seemed to lack any kind of common sense or courtesy. Two of us refused the slices of bread we were offered (it was just bone-dry Šumavský chleba, after all), only to find out a minute later that the bread was necessary in order to eat the amuse-bouche – a dish consisting of olive oil, two olives, and a slab of butter. When we started to get cold and tried to close the unwieldy French doors that were open right next to us, the waiter saw us struggling and didn't offer to help. And for a quarter of an hour I watched, fascinated, as he repeatedly walked around a customer's sweater that had fallen onto the floor from the back of his chair. At least he didn't walk through it, I guess.

You kind of expect these luxury hotel restaurants to be not all that great. But this bad? With that chef? Oh, Prague, dear Prague; the depths of your culinary hell never cease to surprise me.

Heed the window paint on this one: avoid it as you would the plague.

Zlatý Anděl Fusion Restaurant & Café
Barceló Old Town Praha Hotel
Celetná 29
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 337 807

Open Mon-Sun 12:00-15:00, 19:00-00:00

photographs Pavel Wellner for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, May 18, 2009

Restaurant Review: China Fusion

This review originally appeared in Czech translatio
n in the 02/05/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

The restaurant was empty. Except, that is, for a table in the far corner, occupied by two men and a woman who were evidently well on their way to being very drunk. As she tried to light a cigarette, the woman knocked a glass of red wine across the table; the other two shouted and jeered. Their profanities almost drowned out the waiter's inquiry as to whether he should take our coats.

I settled into my seat and took in the ambiance, or what little of it there was. With its stark energy-saving light bulbs and bare walls, the large room felt cold and gloomy, and a soundtrack of woozy ambient music didn't help, either. I wasn't sure if the atmosphere would have been better or worse if our sloshed co-patrons hadn't been there.

So this was China Fusion. I'd wondered about the restaurant for some time, but had never made it up the stairs in Světozor to check it out. Now I was close to regretting even coming here in the first place.

Still, I had to give the food a try. I'd heard it wasn’t bad, and I'd been looking for some good Chinese for a while now. I was intrigued by the energizing soup (140 CZK), which was described as including ten different Chinese herbs. Maybe it would help me get rid of the migraine I'd been nursing for the past few days.

Now, I'll admit that my palate probably isn't developed enough to distinguish ten different Chinese herbs in a broth, but I can definitely recognize when two dishes are almost exactly the same. My mother had ordered the chicken broth with ginseng (180 CZK), but it was more or less indistinguishable from my special energizing soup. Both were black in color, contained chicken and some unchewable herbs, and were basically flavorless. I did not feel particularly energized.

Or maybe I was just annoyed by our waitress, who every few minutes came over to commit one of the most egregious sins of Czech service: the refilling of Mattoni. Again and again, she came by to pick up our water bottles and fill up our glasses.

Can somebody please explain to me why so many waiters feel it necessary to do this? Why do they haunt my table, ready to pop in and interrupt my conversation every time I take a sip of water? Do I look incapable of picking up the Mattoni bottle and pouring it myself? Maybe it never occurred to any of them that I might want to keep my drink cold and my bubbles bubbly for as long as possible.

This practice is especially obnoxious when done with bottled beer, as it becomes warm and flat much more quickly in the glass. One of my companions had to request that the waitress refrain from pouring his Plzeň for him (the beer is bottled only; one of the choices is Asahi, a Japanese beer that our waitress claimed was from China).
At least the food came promptly. My main course was the Cantonese duck (1/4 duck for 370 CZK), which came with the traditional chopped spring onions and cucumbers, hoi sin sauce, and Chinese pancakes (ordered separately for 50 CZK). The meat could have been a little more tender and its skin more flavorful, but it still tasted great rolled up in the pancake with the other ingredients.

Another successful dish was the chicken steak fried in almonds with lime sauce (310 CZK). The sauce was a bright, radioactive-looking yellow, so I was a little skeptical of it – but combined with the slightly sweet, crispy chicken battered in almonds, its sharp flavor was surprisingly delicious.

The same couldn't be said for the marinated octopus (130 CZK), which was super-rubbery, or the spring rolls (110 CZK), which were nicely crunchy but were filled with a negligible amount of vegetables and came with a boring dipping sauce (when will Asian restaurants stop using that same bottled sweet chili sauce already? If anyone finds a restaurant that makes their own dipping sauce for spring rolls, I want to hear about it). Then there was the udon noodle soup with vegetables (148 CZK), whose veggies bore a very close resemblance to the familiar supermarket mixture of frozen peas, corn, and diced carrots.

Udon noodles are Japanese, anyway, as is sushi, which China Fusion also has on its menu. Is that what the "fusion" part is supposed to be, or have they just added sushi as a kind of afterthought, as so many restaurants seem to be doing nowadays? I didn't manage to find out because I don't really like ordering sushi when it's just a sidebar on the menu and the restaurant isn't very popular. I always worry that the fish isn't going to be fresh.

I have mixed feelings about China Fusion. Some of the food is good, quite authentic, and different from the regular kuřecí kung pao you'll find at the cheaper Chinese restaurants around town. But the menu seems to be a little too large for them to handle, so some dishes end up getting carbon-copied (like the soups) or faked a little (like the udon). And with its lack of windows, charmless décor, and drab setting in the Světozor pasáž, I wouldn’t want to be sitting there again anytime soon. Do they do takeout, perhaps?

As we waited for our check, a waiter uncorked the rowdy trio's third bottle of red wine since we'd gotten there. It didn't seem entirely necessary; one of the men had already fallen asleep with his chin resting on his chest in a drunken stupor, his forehead dangerously close to slamming itself down on top of his espresso cup.

Looks like the guy could have used some of that energizing soup.

China Fusion
Pasáž Světozor
Vodičkova 41
Praha 1 - New Town
Tel: 224 946 268

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

photographs Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: V Zátiší

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 25/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I didn't expect much of V Zátiší. A tired restaurant that's been around for almost two decades? In this city, longevity is often less an indicator of consistent quality than a sign of stubbornness, of a refusal to either pack it in or move along with the times. Sure, V Zátiší was great back when it was pretty much the only nice restaurant around, but I doubted that it could compete with Prague's younger dining elite.

I should have known better. At the very least, I could have been tipped off by V Zátiší's radically remodeled aesthetic. Its outdated, colorful décor was stripped away last September by interior designer Barbara Hamplová and replaced with fanciful brown-on-slate wallpaper and comfy crushed velved armchairs. Sleek vases by local glasswear designer Rony Plesl are stuffed with feathers, cotton buds, and spotted eggs; framed botanical sketches and the carved birds perched on the drinks tables next to the bar complete the still life theme. The new interior is modern without being minimalist (many people would say anyway that done-to-death minimalism is no longer modern).

Any restaurant that undertakes such a bold shift after so many years must be making an effort. And V Zátiší really does make an effort: the staff was willing and cheerful from the moment my companion and I stepped in the door. The hostess who greeted us waited calmly while I spent a couple of minutes digging my mobile phone from out of my coat pocket before she carried our jackets away from our sight, and an equally patient waiter dispelled my confusion about the menu system.

"It's all very simple," he said, although it wasn't really as simple as he claimed. The menu's prices are listed like a regular à la carte, but if a customer selects two or more courses, he has composed for himself a "Deluxe Menu" with a set price ranging from 840 CZK (two courses) to 1390 CZK (five courses). Each of those can come with an optional wine tasting menu at additional price. But then doesn't everyone end up having a "Deluxe Menu" unless they only want one course? What's the point?

Then there was the matter of the Fish of the Day, which was priced as "Pay as you wish." Could I really pay whatever I wanted for that day's salmon special?

"Yes," the waiter assured me. "If you want, you can pay 20 CZK." Really?

"Yes, really, though most people end up getting one of the multi-course menus anyway." Aha, so I wouldn't really end up paying 20 CZK then, right?

The waiter started to look nervous. "If you like, we can agree on a price."

There was no need; I didn't want the fish special anyway. I had my heart set on the svíčková na smetaně (beef sirloin in cream sauce) (695 CZK), off the 'Bohemian Specialties' section of the menu. That small list is obviously catered to tourists who want to try Czech food, but I found it a bit of a shame that the Czech classics weren't integrated into the menu as a whole.

The svíčková was certainly good enough to stand alongside the other dishes. For the price, of course, one would expect a little more than a hospoda-style hotové jídlo version, and it was. The cuts of beef were thick and juicy, their sweet sauce bright yellow and obviously packed with vegetables. On the side was an herb-laden homemade Karlovarský knedlík (bread dumplings), cranberries over a dollop of crème fraiche, and green beans wrapped in bacon. Here, finally, is some of the local cuisine that a tourist could eat without going home and declaring Czech food to be inedible.

V Zátiší does have many tourist customers, apparently because the restaurant has worked out a deal with some of the city's hotels. But it is by no means a tourist restaurant, and is certainly not a "tourist trap," as I have labeled one or two of Prague's other veteran upscale establishments.

V Zátiší's head chef, Milan Hořejš, has a weakness for sweet, fruity flavors. The appetizer sampler (395 CZK) included a pumpkin and autumn pear soup with cinnamon cream (I couldn't taste the pear at all, but the cappucino-like cinnamon froth was a nice touch) and a green asparagus salad with pine nuts and a black currant dressing that also came with fresh red currants. The third sample was the oddly-named "seared beef carpaccio" – since carpaccio is by definition raw, the meat more closely resembled roast beef.

All of the above dishes were good, if unexceptional. What bothered me about them was their lack of seasonality. When I visited V Zátiší (at the end of March), it was not quite asparagus season, it was definitely not the best time for currants, and we were still a long way away from harvesting pumpkins. A seasonally-oriented menu not only allows a restaurant's dishes to complement the weather outside, but also (hopefully) indicates that their ingredients have been reared closer to home and are therefore fresher.

I also felt at times that there was too much happening on my plate. My dessert, the warm caramel gingerbread (245 CZK), came with three sauces: caramel, raspberry, and chocolate, plus a scoop of walnut-flavored ice cream. Apparently, V Zátiší is on some kind of sauce kick; each of their daily specials and many of their regular dishes come with the choice of two different sauces (the waiter recommended trying them both at once). There was wasabi beurre blanc sauce, squid ink sauce, mint aioli sauce, and more. There was an endless stream of little serving pitchers and dipping bowls and rectangular plates.

Why not just pick one great sauce for each dish and stick to it? The problem was similar to the menu's – there were too many variations. Limiting your customer's options doesn't have to be a bad thing. But I still came away from V Zátiší feeling that I'd had a nice meal served by kind people in a beautiful setting. And sometimes, the last impression is what ends up counting the most.

V Zátiší
Liliová 1
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 221 155

Open Mon – Sun 12:00 - 15:00, 17:30 - 23:00

photographs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, May 4, 2009

Restaurant Review: Tlustá Kachna

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 18/04/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I had never been to Marco Polo IV., the international restaurant that was Tlustá Kachna's predecessor. Neither, it seemed, had many other people; the place was more or less consistently empty whenever I walked by it on my way to the Staroměstská metro stop. I had always assumed it was nothing more than a spot for the occasional hungry tourist to eat after having visited the Jewish cemetery across the street.

But when Marco Polo IV. was transformed by its new owners into Tlustá Kachna (The Fat Duck), people did start coming – and they were mostly locals. What had changed to suddenly make this formerly doomed location an attractive place to eat?

A few things happened with the décor: Marco Polo had had a Venetian theme, and was decorated with gondola poles and a lion's head fountain, along with a few random Asian knickknacks. Now, the pebble mosaic decorating the walls and the bright red ceiling have been painted white, and a sculpture of a duck sits in a glass display (the lion's head fountain remains intact). The furniture is darker, and the restaurant feels more subdued.

And, as suggested by its name, Tlustá Kachna doesn't serve the Italian – Asian mélange favored by its former owners. Instead, it has plain and simple Czech food, like svíčková (beef in cream sauce), Moravský brabec (Moravian 'sparrow'), and tatarák (steak tartare); according to its website, the chefs make food using their grandmothers' recipes. The menu change might help explain why this place has quickly gained a local following.

Well, that, and the fact that the price is right, too. Most Czech restaurants in Prague 1 are geared towards tourists, serving expensive and often subpar meals. The other option is traditional hospodas, which have cheap Czech food that is also subpar.

The paradox of Tlustá Kachna is that while it looks nothing like a hospoda, its food bears a lot of resemblance to what might be cooked at the U Parlamentu pub down the street. In general, the food I had was heavy on grease and low on quality ingredients.

The pork schnitzel (159 CZK), for example, had an unpleasantly thick crust that tasted vaguely of burnt oil, while the meat itself was challenging to cut through, let alone chew. It was a large portion (two good-sized řízky and a lot of small new potatoes) but I would have taken a half-sized version if it had meant the meat would be better. Ditto the svíčková na smetaně (179 CZK), with its leathery-textured beef and sickly-sweet sauce. Everyone likes their svíčková a little different, of course, but if you tried the one at the cheap, smoky pub by my house, I'm sure you'd agree that it is a much better version.

I did like the beef broth (49 CZK) – it was refreshingly Maggi-free and came with some good liver dumplings – and the smoked tongue (79 CZK), with its side of horseradish and spicy kozí roh red peppers, was tender and tasty. It was nice, too, that the dishes were served on homey-style, flower-patterned plates. The roasting pan that came with the Czech duck (195 CZK for ¼ duck; 295 CZK for ½ duck) was less successful, as its small size and high sides made the dish difficult to eat properly.

Even without the unfortunate choice of tableware, Tlustá Kachna's titular dish was something of a disappointment. The duck was overly greasy ("Tlustá" indeed!), its skin was floppy instead of crispy, and the potato dumpling was rubbery. To make another comparison with a different restaurant, a few nights later I had the ½ roasted duck at U Sádlů, and it was far superior – thick, crispy skin, juicy meat, and plenty of flavor. And it only cost 225 CZK. Remembering my meal at Tlustá Kachna, I found myself thinking that if those were Babička's recipes, then Babička wasn't a very good cook.

But then again, what do I know? Maybe real Czech food is supposed to be full of fatty, tendon-laced cuts of meat. Lots of people do seem to like it that way. But if that's how you want it, why not go to a nice hospoda where the atmosphere – and maybe even the food – will be better?

You see, the ambience at Tlustá Kachna is pretty weak. There's something about the lighting in the non-smoking area that makes it seem more like a science laboratory than a restaurant. The light is a little better in the smokers' section, but all the tea candles waiting in their holders have never been lit. Why have them at all if you’re not going to use them? And the décor feels haphazard – rattan chairs, kitschy fake flowerpots on the tables, a massive iron lantern-like thing by the staircase.

Still, there's one thing about Tlustá Kachna that works: the service. A vegetarian dining companion ordered the spaghetti aglio e oglio (to much eye-rolling from yours truly – who orders pasta in a Czech restaurant? They have fried cheese, after all). When it arrived, he discovered that it was full of bacon and cream instead of aglio e oglio (garlic and olive oil).

Although the waitress insisted that these were indeed the spaghetti aglio e oglio my friend had requested, she and her colleague were very accommodating in changing the order. They immediately took away the meaty spaghetti and asked what my companion would like with his pasta instead. Some cheese perhaps? A cream sauce? Vegetables? He went for the vegetables, and the replacement arrived quickly, with zero grumbling and no additional cost.

It's probably safe to say that this particular scene would never happen in a Czech pub, at least not any that I've ever come across. You'd be lucky if they even listened to your request to change dishes.

So I guess I was wrong. Maybe there's a reason to skip the pub and check out Tlustá Kachna after all. You definitely wouldn't be the first.

Tlustá Kachna
Široká 4
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 224 819 668

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-24:00

photographs Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others