Monday, June 29, 2009

Restaurant Review: Grosseto

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 03/01/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

It had been a long time since I'd visited Pizzeria Grosseto.

I knew I had blacklisted the place a few years ago, but I couldn't remember why. A rude server, or overcooked pasta, perhaps – one of the usual Czech suspects. With so many bad restaurant experiences under my belt, it can get hard to keep track of what offense happened where.

On a recent Wednesday evening, I passed by Grosseto's original location near Vítězné náměstí. The pizzeria was overflowing with customers, as it has been since the day it opened back in 1996. At that time, the neighborhood had only a few restaurants; now, although Dejvice is still pitifully lacking in dining options compared to Vinohrady or Žižkov, there are plenty of other options. So why does everyone still flock to Grosseto?

For one thing, it's a pizzeria, and everyone likes pizza. And Grosseto really does make good pies; many credit the restaurant with being the first to bring Italian-style pizza to the Czech masses. As the story goes, two Czech would-be restaurant owners, on a visit to the town of Grosseto in Tuscany, approached a pizza chef named Gianfranco Turbanti and asked him to move to Prague. A few weeks later, Mr. Turbanti arrived in Dejvice, son in tow, and set about the laborious task of constructing a wood-burning pizza oven to his very exact specifications.

Before Grosseto, "pizza" largely meant poor-quality dough covered in Eidam, párek, and a ketchup-based sauce. A few real Italian pizzerias, such as Rugantino, were around, but they were largely patronized by expats and tourists, not locals. There were a couple of American-style pizza joints, too: Pizza Hut and New York Pizza, both now defunct, as well as Chicago's Famous Pizza, formerly located in a prime spot on Malé Náměstí but now downgraded to a delivery-only service based out of Pankrác.

True Italian pizza is almost a different dish entirely, and it's the type of pie that has turned out to be most appealing to local tastes – although it, too, varies from region to region and from one pizzeria to the next. Grosseto's crusts are thin but not quite crispy, and have the inimitable smokiness that comes from a good wood-burning oven like Gianfranco's. The selection of toppings is, to my taste, a little heavy on meats, cheeses, and cream (the signature Grosseto pie comes with chicken breast, mozzarella, gorgonzola, and Parmesan) and low on vegetables (they do, however, put arugula on some of their pizzas, as do lots of Italian restaurants nowadays, and they use fresh mushrooms, which many do not). And although their pizza sauce is not very interesting – it tastes as if the tomatoes were taken straight from the can with no added seasoning – the overall quality of the ingredients is good and the pizza is well-made and tasty.

So why is so much of the other food so bad? The pastas were dismal, thanks not to their being overcooked (all of the pasta dishes I tasted were surprisingly al dente), but because they had been boiled in unsalted water. I have written about this particular problems many times before, including, I believe, in my last review of an Italian restaurant. But I will repeat these words again: you must salt the pasta water. Unless a person has cirrhosis of the liver and is following a strict no-sodium diet, there is no reason why any of us should suffer unsalted pasta.

Which I did, when I ate the pappardelle ai funghi porcini (195 CZK) at Grosseto. The tasteless noodles were homemade, at least, but they stuck together in messy clumps; luckily, the unexciting cream sauce contained plenty of porcini mushrooms that partially offset the dish's general blandness. It was a similar story with the spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino (125 CZK), a dish so simple in flavor that it is almost unbearable to eat without salt.

According to the law of inept seasoning, of course, missing salt in one dish must be compensated by too much salt in another. And so it was with Grosseto's terrible tomato soup (48 CZK) and its otherwise good bruschette al pomodoro (69 CZK). The minestrone con verdure (45 CZK), meanwhile, was full of overcooked veggies and too-soft pasta shells; the tiramisu (79 CZK) might have been a winner if the ladyfingers had been soaked in espresso as they should be. Basically, everything other than the pizza was a just a little bit off.

And that included the service. When the waiter brought me the wrong pizza, he argued with me about what I had actually ordered. "You asked for number 27," he insisted. I told him that I had not ordered by number, but by name – I wanted the pizza Parma (185 CZK), which came with tomato sauce, Parma ham, fresh tomatoes and basil, not one with regular ham and a cream sauce. He had obviously guessed at the number and written it down incorrectly. Grudgingly, he took the pizza away, saying the replacement would come in ten or fifteen minutes. It came in 30 minutes, with no apology, long after the rest of my table had finished eating.

Mistakes happen, of course, but when they do, the waiter should be nice about it and try to accommodate the guest as soon as possible. That, however, would have involved him asking the pizza chef to rush the order and therefore acknowledging that he had done something wrong. But admitting to and apologizing for one's mistakes is not, I've noticed, the national forte.

Neither, apparently, is peripheral vision. As I tried to ask for the check, waiter after waiter walked by without a glance in our table's direction, like horses with blinders on. A few meters away, a bored-looking waitress stared off into space as she massaged lotion into her hands. Aha, I thought, so this was why I'd blacklisted Grosseto. Mystery solved.

Now if only they would let me leave.

Pizzeria Grosseto
Jugoslávských partyzánů 8
Prague 6 - Bubeneč
Open Mon-Sun 11:30 – 23:00
Tel.: 233 342 694

photographs: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, June 22, 2009

Restaurant Review: Shiso

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

When I visited Shiso, I didn't smell bad. I was well-dressed, and it was around two in the afternoon, well within the restaurant's published lunch hours. Still, I felt as if I had brought a rain cloud to a beach party – although this particular party consisted only of one waiter, the head chef, and the general manager.

"Can we have a table for two for lunch?" my friend asked.

The waiter looked hesitantly towards the manager and chef, who were seated at one end of the bar. From behind his laptop, the manager extended an open palm and gave a slow nod. Yes, we could enter. How very benevolent of him.

Then again, Shiso is a part of LS Club – billed as Prague's very first private members' club – which carries the tagline "Exclusive. Sophisticated. LS." Those deigned worthy enough of membership (by invitation only and "limited strictly to Europe's business and social elite") pay an annual fee, currently in the ballpark of 18,000 CZK. In return, they are entitled to various perks, including concierge services; the use of LS's lounge, library, and conference rooms; and a smug sense of superiority over the general population.

Members also receive discounts at the restaurant, which is open to regular folk, too. But not many people, members or otherwise, seem to be going to Shiso at the moment. On both of my visits, one of which was on a Saturday night (albeit on a holiday weekend), there was only one other couple in the fairly vast dining room. And almost nobody I've talked to has heard of the place. When I tell them it is on U Milosrdných, at the former location of the Italian restaurant La Scena and, before that, the French restaurant La Scène, some bells start to ring. But even then, no one really seems to care.

Too bad, because the food at Shiso is definitely worth a visit. Their executive chef is Paul Day, an Englishman who has lots of experience in upper-crust Asian restaurants, including branches of the celebrated Japanese chain NOBU in London and Milan. For Shiso, he has created a menu of small dishes from across Asia that are meant to be shared.

Many of these are familiar, but have been amped up with a few unusual touches. The two small chicken satay skewers (210 CZK) were covered in a classic spicy-sweet peanut sauce, along with some fried spring onions that added a nice crispy texture to the dish. And the beef massaman curry (490 CZK) that I had as a main course was better than any massaman I've ever tried: tender clumps of shredded beef in a sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce, served in a rustic clay bowl. Both in flavor and presentation, Mr. Day's dishes are meticulously rendered.

But it's unfortunate that so many of them are so similar. During my dinner visit, my companion and I ordered eight different dishes, most of them the "small plates," in order to sample as many as we could. We had the crispy squid (220 CZK), the black pepper baby back ribs (210 CZK), the duck watermelon salad (440 CZK), the beef fillet with umeshu sauce (650 CZK), and more. Each of these was very good on its own – the ribs, with their sticky crust of crushed black pepper, were particularly outstanding – but in combination, they were far too sweet.

I'd been hoping that the duck salad would provide a refreshing reprieve from all the sugariness, but it, too, was coated in a sweet brown sauce. Nonetheless, the combination of Thai basil and fresh watermelon with the crispy bits of duck and buttery cashew nuts was electric. It certainly didn't need the fried spring onion topping, which was a pleasant surprise on the chicken satay but grew old very quickly after it appeared on dish after dish. A little more creativity with the garnishes would definitely have helped.

The same goes for the desserts, which are nonexistent except for a tempura of deep-fried lychees, bananas, and pieces of chocolate (280 CZK). It was tasty, but on the boring side. If only from a strictly business standpoint: what is Shiso thinking? Everyone knows that desserts give the best profit margins; flour, sugar, and eggs cost practically nothing.

Instead, it seems, Shiso plays the game of hidden costs. The minuscule bowl of rice that came with my curry wasn't listed on the menu and wasn't offered by the waitress, but it came automatically and ended up costing 90 CZK. Then there is the fact that a ten-percent service charge is included in the bill – again, without being listed on the menu, as is customary if you're including tip in a country where that practice is almost nonexistent.

I don't care how exclusive you are, or if your doorman is dressed "in a designer suit," as LS Club's online pamphlet advertises. Because I didn't scrutinize the receipt on my fist visit, I ended up leaving a 22% tip – far more than the wait staff at Shiso deserved. They were friendly and timely, but didn't seem to know much about the menu and had a hard time describing the dishes. I would expect more from a place that has hyped itself up as much as this one has.

If you like nice Asian food, though, you should definitely try Shiso. I would especially recommend the weekday Bento Business Box lunch special (450 CZK including a glass of wine); the expensively-decorated space is truly beautiful, especially when the light streams in through the skylights during the day. Just stroll in like you belong there, ignore any snootiness, and remember to check your receipt, and you'll be just fine.

Shiso Restaurant
LS Club
U Milosrdných 6
Praha 1 – Old Town
Tel: 222 312 677

Open Tues-Sun 12:00-16:00 (lunch), 19:00-23:00 (dinner)

photographs: 1, 3, 4, 6 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, June 15, 2009

Restaurant Review: Céleste

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 30/05/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

The freshly-posted instructions on the outside of the Dancing House are very clear: if you want to get to the top of this icon of modern architecture, you'll have to pay a visit to Céleste first.

The Dancing House is a tricky sort of building. Its towers, nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" for their abstract resemblance to a pair of dancers, are oddly shaped – Ginger, the one made out of glass, is tapered to mimic a woman's form – and its windows are staggered in a wavelike pattern. But Frank O. Gehry's and Vlado Milunić's deconstructivist masterpiece is a risky restaurant location for a different reason: it doesn't get much foot traffic, and there's plenty of the other kind.

To get to the restaurant, you pass through Céleste's small ground-floor bar, where the bartender hits the elevator button and calls upstairs to announce your imminent arrival. And once you're up on the seventh floor, the view is wonderful: the river, the castle, the far-off greenery of Petřín. You'd even forget about the traffic jam downstairs, if you couldn't see a half-kilometer-long line of cars stretching up to Karlovo náměstí.

Céleste is sister to one of Prague's best restaurants, Angel. But here the cuisine is French, not Asian, and the mood is more upscale – white tablecloths, fussier waiters, and slightly higher prices. By all appearances, Céleste is not dissimilar to the previous tenant, La Perle de Prague, which closed recently after having operated since the Dancing House's completion in 1996.

Yet anyone who has visited both restaurants would surely agree that Céleste is a major step up from the overpriced, uninspired La Perle. The new head chef is Gwendal Le Ruyet, a Frenchman from Brittany who spent five years working under Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, among other prestigious international posts. His cooking – much like that of Sofia Smith, who helms Angel's kitchen – is bold and self-assured, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients.

One of the waiters recommended that I try the lettuce soup as an appetizer, but there was no need; I had been planning on ordering it anyway. I really like cold soups, and this one sounded especially intriguing: a velouté of spring lettuce with pan-seared escargots and tarragon foam (275 CZK). The soup itself turned out to be a rich spinach-green color, full of the snappy flavor of fresh lettuce but slightly under-salted – which didn't really matter because the escargots were very savory (they also, for some reason, seemed to taste mildly of bacon). Some fresh shredded lettuce leaves and a few crunchy miniature croutons added texture to this well-balanced dish.

This is modern French cooking at its best. Le Ruyet has preserved the classic culinary techniques and rich sauces of his predecessors, but the dishes are lighter, more pared-down. He often does away with carbohydrates completely: the preparation of a pan-seared cod fillet (450 CZK as part of a two-course lunch menu; 550 CZK for three courses) cleverly evoked a classic beef Bourguignon, with its thick red wine sauce, pearl onions, and button mushrooms, but there were no potatoes to weigh the meal down.

Another fish dish, the sturgeon fillet (625 CZK) was similarly fresh-tasting and very appropriate for the spring season. It was served with pink grapefruit and fresh radishes, along with a green pea puree that was a nice homage to mushy peas (typically found next to fish and chips in English pubs). The sturgeon was perfectly cooked, but the citrus sauce it came with had an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste, as if some lemon rind had gotten in there by accident.
If you are a die-hard carbohydrate lover, don't worry: Céleste makes their own bread, and it is excellent. We were offered a choice of rosemary, white sesame with onion, black sesame, and rye flavors. Finally, an upscale restaurant that doesn't get its bread from the Mansson bakery like everybody else.

Céleste seems determined to do things differently, and better. Their dessert menu is full of unusual surprises, like the heavenly purple pears with red wine granita, mascarpone, and salted Brittany biscuit (195 CZK). My dinner companion said his roasted lamb with daikon radish and artichokes (595 CZK) was the best he'd ever had in this country, and the server proudly explained that it was organic Moravian lamb, not meat that had been shipped in from New Zealand or elsewhere. And they even offer Mattoni and Bonaqua along with the pricier imported waters.

On both my visits, the service was very good, if a little over-eager. Because I was recognized by a waiter who knew me from my frequent visits to Angel, I can't say for sure that it would be the same for other customers. But I have no doubt that the servers at Céleste will be professional and friendly to everyone who walks into their refined purple and gray-themed dining room.

When you do visit, ask to sit in the "Ginger" section of the restaurant, which is surrounded by glass and has a clearer view. Or, better yet, arrange an evening in their private dining room upstairs, which is absolutely stunning and can seat anywhere from two to twenty people. From there, you can walk out onto the circular terrace that crowns the Fred tower and look out across the city in the fresh air.

When you leave, of course, you'll be walking back into that big intersection. Not the most inspiring setting for a post-dinner walk – but by then, you'll be so drunk on lovely food and magical views that you won't even care.

Céleste Restaurant & Bar
Tančící dům
Rašínovo nábřeží 80
Praha 2 – Nove Mesto
Tel: 221 98 41 60

Open Mon-Sat 12:00-14:30, 18:30-22:30. Closed Sunday.

photographs: 1, 3, 4 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, June 8, 2009

Restaurant Review: Kri-Kri

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 23/05/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

I'm sitting in Kri-Kri, a small Greek restaurant in Vinohrady, and my companion and I are very hungry. We've been waiting what feels like forever for our appetizers – dishes that are cold and should already be pre-made, so we can't imagine what the hold-up is. Finally, the server approaches us with three plates. Ah, the relief!

But no. We hadn't ordered the grilled feta cheese or the spinach pie. We watch as the food is redirected to the people sitting next to us, who definitely arrived after we did, because we had almost sat at their table when we first came in.

Our food does come, eventually, after our neighbors have already cleaned their plates. One of our dishes, an eggplant spread (65 CZK), requires pita bread to be eaten, but we had forgotten to order it and weren't asked if we wanted any. We order it now, but it takes so long to arrive that by the time it does, we have finished off the eggplant entirely.

The other table also gets their entrées before we do. As we wait, a waitress comes by and asks if everything is all right. "Yes," my companion says, "but it would be better if we had our food."

"Come on now, we're in Greece!" the waitress laughs. "Everything's chill! You know, one Greek minute." She strolls off, shaking her blond curls as she goes.

Now, I don't know what "one Greek minute" is supposed to mean exactly, but I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that things move more slowly down in the Mediterranean. So by my estimation, a minute in Greece would translate roughly to a half hour in the Czech Republic. In that case, it took four Greek minutes for us to eat two courses at Kri-Kri. I was not willing to wait around for dessert.

Despite its spaced-out service, Kri-Kri has quickly become a hopping little spot. It helps that the prices are reasonable and the food is mostly decent, and sometimes it is even very good. On a second visit, I fell in love with the shrimp saganaki (105 CZK), which were cooked in a light tomato sauce with feta cheese and green peppers and spiced with a little bit of the quintessential licorice-flavored Greek spirit, Ouzo. I was also pleasantly surprised by the dakos (60 CZK), a very dry, hard bread topped with tomatoes and goat cheese. The tzatziki (60 CZK) was great, too – packed with garlic and made with thick Greek yoghurt.

The server made a fairly big show of the kleftiko (210 CZK), a lamb dish cooked in baking paper with potatoes, vegetables, feta, and spices. In Greek, kleftiko means "stolen meat"; according to legend, the dish was invented by thieves who would steal a lamb from a grazing flock and slow-cook the meat in a hole in the ground, covered up with mud so the smoke wouldn't give them away. When he brought the kleftiko to the table, the waiter loosened the string holding the paper together so that my friend could "smell the aroma of the herbs inside" (this was accompanied by an instructive hand gesture). But for all the hubbub about its scent, the dish inside the paper was disappointingly bland and the lamb was as tough as beef jerky.

My stifado (185 CZK), on the other hand, had a dark, rich tomato sauce, tender morsels of beef, and some sweet pearl onions. It didn't come with a side, but I soaked up the thick stew with some toasted pita bread – which, on this visit, the waiter brought without my even asking for it. This was a really nice dish, especially considering its below-average price tag.

Another entrée, the chicken souvlaki (170 CZK) brought back some pleasant memories of New York City's late-night Greek diners. I often had the dish there as comfort food, and it was served similarly here – with pita bread, French fries, and tzatziki. The meat wasn't exactly bursting with flavor, but it was satisfying enough that I would order it again.

As a reminder of its central theme, Kri-Kri is decorated with various Greek knickknacks, including framed photographs of soaring cliffs and sandy beaches. The tables are made of dark wood, and the paper place mats, napkins, and menus are in bright primary colors, which is nice (though the menu printed in red is very hard to read in the restaurant's dim light, and I failed to understand why there was a pile of crunched-up used place mats displayed in one corner).

The overall mood in Kri-Kri is that of a Mediterranean hospoda, which I guess equates to the traditional Greek taverna; it's a little dark and a little dingy, but it still has a nice warmth. Oh, and the place has one more thing in common with the pub down the street – its toilets, at least when I saw them last, are less than spotless. That never bodes too well for the kitchen's hygiene standards, but sometimes you have to force yourself not to think unsavory thoughts.

It's worth mentioning that the house wine at Kri-Kri is cheap and surprisingly potable. You may end up ordering a lot of it, depending on how long you have to wait for your meal. Or maybe I was just unlucky – on my second visit, things seemed to go a lot more smoothly. Although when I checked my watch as we were leaving, I clocked the same time that I had a few nights before: two hours for two courses.

To me, that seems like a lot. But maybe I should start readjusting myself to run on Greek time. Apparently, the people down there are a lot more relaxed.

Korunní 48
Praha 2 – Vinohrady
Tel: 222 540 400

photographs: 1, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Monday, June 1, 2009

Restaurant Review: 7 Tacos

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

The first thing wrong with 7 Tacos is that they don't know how to make a taco.

From a mountain of iceberg lettuce and grated cheese, I excavated three rolled-up, deep-fried small corn tortillas. This sort of dish is generally known as taquitos, or flautas when they are made with wheat flour tortillas. It is a variation on the taco, yes, but a taco it is not.

I might have been more forgiving if "taco" wasn't the title dish of the restaurant. And it took me a little while to figure out where the number "7" came from. Was it the amount of tacos served on each plate? The fact that the restaurant is in Holešovice? As it turns out, the 7 comes from the number of taco variations available: you can have them filled with either vegetables, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, beans and bacon, or a dubious-sounding "caprese" mixture.

I went with the bean filling (105 CZK) – kidney beans in some sort of sauce with a little bit of bacon thrown in. Along with the aforementioned mass of lettuce, the taquitos came with refried beans and a scoop of dry rice. It wasn't terrible, which is more than you could say for the burritos.

Before the most offensive dish even arrived at the table, I was already having a bit of a guilty conscience. I'd convinced three friends to come out to far-off Holešovice (and one of them to drive me there) based solely on my promise that we were about to eat some really good Mexican food. I felt pretty confident about it because I'd read a positive review of 7 Tacos written by an apparent Californian – and if anyone knows Mexican food outside of Mexico, it's the people from Cali.

As it happened, one of my friends who came along is a Californian herself and something of a Mexican food connoisseur. She called me from the restaurant as I was on my way there. "Are you sure you want to eat here?" Uh-oh.

It seemed that the tortilla chips she had ordered were not only from the bag, but were covered in a Dorito-like spice mix. This, according to the Laws of Mexican Food, is illegal (not that you will find homemade tortilla chips anywhere in Prague, but these were of exceptionally bad quality). Unlawful, too, is the use of prepackaged guacamole (35 CZK for a small dish). Now, I don't know for sure that the guac had come from a jar, but the kitchen would have had to perform some serious alchemy to make fresh guacamole so perfectly smooth, green, and tasteless.

The pico de gallo (35 CZK), on the other hand, was fresh – at least relatively speaking. It consisted of chopped-up onions and tomatoes that were pretty much identical in color and equally lacking in flavor; either they were on the old side or they had been sitting around, chopped up and ready to be served, for a very long time. Other dipping delights included runny cheese from the can and, inexplicably, barbecue sauce (also 35 CZK each). The only authentic condiment in the whole place was the bottle of Cholula hot sauce that graced our table, good for combating the food's general blandness.

If it's done right, of course, Mexican food should be anything but bland. Try telling that to whoever puts together 7 Tacos's burritos. I didn't order one, but two of my companions did, one chicken and the other beef (155 and 185 CZK), and both declared them the worst burritos they'd ever had in their lives.

Why were the burritos so bad? The beef version was low on meat; there were just a few specks of ground beef in a tortilla filled mostly with a flavorless combination of cooked onions and bell peppers. There was a little bit of crunchy rice and a couple of beans. And then there was some pickled cactus – too much, apparently, because it made the whole burrito taste sour, like it had been dipped into the dregs of a pickle jar. I shouldn't have expected anything less of a Mexican restaurant that has řízek on its menu.

7 Tacos is located in the lobby of the Plaza Alta Hotel. To enter the restaurant, you walk through what feels like a cheap hotel bar, with its flatscreen TV, low tables, and tan leather armchairs. The dining area itself is decorated with the standard-issue Mexican restaurant gear: ponchos, tequila ads, a sombrero. There's a small children's playroom, which is nice until you consider that it is directly adjacent to the restaurant's smoking area. In case you were wondering, it is not worth coming to 7 Tacos for the atmosphere alone.

Yet again, a Prague Mexican restaurant had brought disappointment, even disgust, to me and my taco-craving friends. So the next night, we decided to correct our mistake. We went to Fosil – a restaurant that has already been discussed on this page at some length, so I won't go too far into my dinner there. But I will say that they have a new menu and the meal was very good. And although it isn't perfect, Fosil is definitely worth a try, if only to taste Mexican food made by real flesh-and-blood Mexicans (I have heard that the delivery service Las Adelitas, also run by Mexicans, is tasty, but I haven't been able to get a hold of them yet).

From now on, I only want to go to authentic Mexican places like Fosil. There are just way too many Czexican chefs in this town who think they can cook up great Mexican food using jarred salsa and some Vitana-brand tortillas. If I was in Mexico, I wouldn't trust some guy named Pepe to make me a good Czech meal from a can of guláš. And I'm not going to trust Jirka at 7 Tacos with my burrito, either.

7 Tacos
Ortenovo náměstí 22
Praha 7 - Holešovice
Tel: 220 407 011

Open daily 06:30-23:00

photographs: 1, 3, 4 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others