Monday, July 27, 2009

Restaurant Review: Vikárka

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the
18/07/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Vikárka is one of those restaurants that's been around since the beginning of time. Not literally, of course – but almost.

The establishment is well-known to local residents for its location within the walls of the Prague Castle, as well as for its rich history. Originally the site of church institutions, Charles IV's ascension to the Bohemian throne in 1347 gave the vicars there the right to brew beer. It ended up being a fairly lucrative business for the pious castle-dwellers, who under the late 16th and early 17th-century rule of Rudolph II served copious amounts of their homegrown brew to the patron king's various resident artists, alchemists, and foreign dignitaries.

Nowadays, the restaurant's chosen beer, Krušovice, is tapped for a less intriguing brand of foreigner and at what is surely a more unpalatable price, 60 CZK per 0.4l glass. On a recent Sunday afternoon visit, a group of older Japanese visitors who had a private dining room persuaded the waitress and then the waiter to pose with them in various configurations in front of their cameras (the staff here wear traditional-style costumes, so that might explain the fascination).

Catering to tourist groups seems to have been Vikárka's major source of income since the restaurant reopened in 2005 after extensive renovations and a seven-year closure. They certainly have more than enough room for them all: in addition to the 100-seat, multi-room restaurant space, the Vikárka complex includes a 60-person cellar (named after a famed literary character who used to drink here, Matěj Brouček, and home to the castle's oldest Romanesque wall), an upstairs series of private dining rooms with a 300-person capacity, a fast food eatery next door, and the 240-seat Rudolph's Foundry, which is designed to replicate an alchemist's workshop as it would have appeared during Rudolph II's time.

There are other souvenirs from past days, too. Ancient maps of the city and the castle grounds hang on Vikárka's arched walls, and an old weight-driven clock ticks and buzzes and whirs against the quiet classical music that emanates from tiny speakers in the ceiling. Although the prices might lead you to believe otherwise, Vikárka is not quite a tourist trap. It has a little more soul, and puts forth a lot more effort, than many of those dreaded establishments.

For one thing, the service is surprisingly great – as if they actually cared whether or not their customers come back. During both of my visits, the staff was cheerful and unobtrusive. They were perfectly willing to make small adjustments to the dishes (a companion wanted his salad without bacon) and even checked in during the meal to see if everything was all right. I really, really liked these people. They were just so… pleasant.

So it's with a heavy heart that I start to write about Vikárka's food. I very much wanted to enjoy it, if only for the sake of those wonderful waiters. But it just wasn't up to the standard set by the service. Some dishes were quite good: the boneless ham appetizer (95 CZK) came with a tangy shallot relish and a spicy horseradish and mustard-seed sauce that perfectly complemented the tender slices of meat. And a simple green salad (120 CZK) had a nice balsamic dressing and was happily iceberg-free.

I even liked the beef and chicken broth (55 CZK), but only on my first visit when, as advertised in the menu, it came with thick homemade noodles. On my second trip, the tasty noodles had been replaced by something that resembled chopped-up spaghetti, and the broth was far too salty.

You'd think that a place like this would be able to manage the classic Czech dishes reasonably well. But the svíčková (195 CZK) had meat as tough as at any low-end pub, and its sauce was no better than one you'd get in powdered form at the supermarket. The meat of the roasted pork knee (245 CZK) didn't fall off the joint quite as easily as it should have. And while the veal schnitzel (245 CZK) came with some nice onion-laced mashed potatoes, the meat itself was thick and hard to chew.

For my second main course at Vikárka, I wanted to try something not Czech. The international dishes on their menu are a little suspect in general (the chicken nuggets with vegetables and spaghetti especially comes to mind), but I decided to go with something that seemed pretty safe: the grilled pork sirloin in a Parmesan crust with vegetable lasagna (285 CZK).

Pork and lasagna are not the most conventional combination, but it sounded like it might not be half bad. Unfortunately, thanks to the super-salty crust on the meat and a dried-out lasagna that required a steak knife to saw through its top layer, it was pretty bad indeed. The meal was somewhat redeemed by the švestkové knedlíky (plum dumplings, 85 CZK), which were sprinkled with poppy seeds and powdered sugar, and the "bomba Malakoff" (85 CZK), a small ladyfinger and chocolate mousse confection covered in a crisp layer of dark chocolate.

Vikárka has recently tried to boost its profile by holding foodie events on its premises, the most recent of which was the Hot Food Festival, a tasting of some of the spiciest dishes from countries around the world. The idea was to introduce the joys of spiciness to more Czech people, whose traditional cuisine, of course, has no relationship with the chili pepper. On hand to assist in case of emergencies were unlimited amounts of milk, sweet syrups, and a registered nurse.

It's a nice idea, and one with some merit. But before Vikárka starts branching off into cuisines – Mexican, Indian, Szechuan, Thai – that have nothing to do with the food they serve every day, shouldn't they try to fix what's wrong on the Czech side of their kitchen? For a restaurant with this much history, it's the least that they could do.

Restaurant Vikárka
Vikářská 39
Praha 1 - Hradčany
Tel.: 233 311 962

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-21:00

photographs: 3, 4 Viktor Chlad for Lidové Noviny; all others


Friday, July 24, 2009

Ben & Jerry's to open in Prague (UPDATED)

American ice cream company Ben & Jerry's will be opening its first Czech store at the end of next week. The brand is known for its super-rich, unusual flavors, including Cherry Garcia (cherry ice cream with cherries and fudge flakes), Chunky Monkey (banana ice cream with fudge chunks & walnuts), and Chubby Hubby (fudge-covered peanut butter-filled pretzels in vanilla malt ice cream rippled with fudge and peanut butter). Frozen yogurts and sorbets are also available.

Ben & Jerry's will be located in the Koruna building at Václavské náměstí 1.

UPDATE: Looks like they're already serving cones, but the shop in back isn't open yet. The store is on the Na Příkopě side of the building.



Monday, July 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: U Koně

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 04/07/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

In Central Bohemia, between Prague and the Sazava river, is a so-called "micro-region" called Ladův Kraj. It was given the name after Hrusice-born painter, illustrator, and author Josef Lada, who used the area's rolling hills and picturesque villages as inspiration for his well-known children's books.

Four years ago, a pair of tourist trails was developed to honor the famous Czech personality and his homeland. The first, called "Pohádkové Hrusice" (Fairytale Hrusice) tours through Lada's hometown. The "Cesta kocoura Mikeše" (Tomcat Mikeš's Trail) is a considerably longer route and follows the supposed footsteps of one of Lada's most famous characters as he sets off on his worldly adventures with his dear friend, Pašík. At each of the twelve stops is a signpost with illustrations and an excerpt from "Mikeš."

The road from Hrusice to Říčany is 20 kilometers long, so if you decide to undertake the journey, you're probably going to make a few rest stops. Which brings me to this week's restaurant: Hostinec U Ko, located in Klokočná, the ninth stop on the Cesta kocoura Mikeše (titled on the signpost as "Mikeš straší," or "Scary Mikeš") and a very worthy place to fill your stomach, regardless of whether you've just trekked 15 kilometers or pulled up directly in front of it with your car.

U Koně has been around considerably longer than the Lada trails, or even Lada himself – the hotel and restaurant have been in operation since the 17th century. Currently helming U Koně's kitchen is Jaroslav Sapík, a former cook at the Prague Castle and, for a time, Václav Havel's personal chef. Sapík comes from a centuries-old family line of gastronomers, and at U Koně he has upheld his predecessors' commitment to serving high-quality Czech food made with fresh ingredients.

It's not a fancy place, but it attracts many of the well-heeled local families with cottages in the area. On a recent Sunday afternoon, U Koně was brimming with people; my companions and I were lucky to score a seat, even if we had to share the table with another party. We were in the front room, which is small and bedecked with antique kitchenware, faded family photographs, and old-fashioned radios.

Despite the clutter, the place felt clean and well-cared-for. A bouquet of fresh wallflowers in five different colors sat on a side table, and the scent of newly-cut jasmine blossoms graced the entranceway. Nearby was a family with several children, a rambunctious dog, and a human-sized teddy bear that required his own seat. Waiters bustled in from the kitchen, balancing plates headed for the much larger back room. Karel Gott and Hana Zagorová crooned in the background.

Because the menu is divided into two sections – one called "Jídla ze selských dvorů dle rodinných receptů" ("Family recipes from the farmyard"), the other "Rodinné recepty ze zámecké kuchyně"("Family recipes from the castle kitchen") – both of which have appetizers, main courses, and desserts, picking what to order can be mildly confusing. But once you do, you probably won't go wrong.

On the fancier (castle recipe) side of the menu is the Czech crayfish cream soup (165 CZK), a thick, deep red bisque that brimmed with the flavor of crayfish and had lots of chunks of the freshwater lobster's flesh. This was better and less expensive than the crayfish bisque at Café Savoy, which is also very good, but a little heavy on the cream for my liking – U Koně's version of the soup seemed purer, more honest. They serve it with a piece of toast that is decorated with a slice each of lemon, tomato, and hard-boiled egg (its yolk removed and replaced with black caviar).

The most famous dish at U Koně is probably the roasted wild boar piglet (360 CZK), not least because it is also its oldest. As the menu explains, the dish is "a specialty first prepared, according to our ancestral grandmother's documentation, in 1784 during the hunt at the Rájec-Jestřabí castle." Good thing the recipe was handed down over so many years, because it's definitely a keeper. Served over a sauce of wild garlic, with spinach, sauteed mushrooms, and round potato dumplings, the tender young boar meat had been larded to keep it moist and flavorful.

Although the boar was a hearty-sized portion, the roast duck with potato dumplings and red cabbage (285 CZK) was so large that we had it wrapped up with us for dinner at home later. This, apparently, is standard procedure at U Koně; we witnessed a parade of people (mostly women) wielding styrofoam boxes of leftovers on their way out the door. So even if the prices are somewhat higher than at other restaurants in those parts, you can be sure you're getting your money's worth.

Dessert was another pleasure: hot plum-filled dumplings (125 CZK), smothered in chopped walnuts, powdered sugar, and homemade whipped cream. And while the service was a little brusque (and a little quick to take away plates), I appreciated the waiters' promptness and no-nonsense attitude.

Mr. Sapík is known to be a a die-hard defender of Czech cuisine; he has said in the past that it can rival even the gastronomy of the French. And although I'm skeptical of that particular point, his restaurant has distinguished itself as a key propagator of good, wholesome local food – whether it comes from the castle or the farm.

We need more restaurants like U Koně. If I had my way, I'd place a couple of them in the city where I live, but the charms of Klokočná add a lot to the experience: just in front of the restaurant is a placid square, where there is a pond, an old scale, and a pretty World War I memorial.

You might even see Mikeš scampering across the grass.

Restaurace a penzion U koně
Klokočná č.p. 8
Praha - Východ
Tel: 323 641 186

Open Wed – Fri 16:00 – 23:00, Sat 11:30 – 23:00, Sun 11:30 – 21:00. Closed Mon-Tues.

photographs: 1, 4, 5 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; 2; all others


Monday, July 13, 2009

Restaurant Review: Peking

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 27/06/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Stop what you're doing, everybody. Put your pencils down. Turn off your mobile phones. I have a very important announcement to make.

I have discovered a good Chinese restaurant. Here. In Prague. Isn't today a wonderful day?

I actually can't take credit for finding it myself. There has been some debate among local foodies lately about where to get good, reasonably authentic Chinese food – something other than the slop served at the endless slew of sleazy bufety around town. Then a reader of my blog recommended Peking.

Thanks to a carefully-composed email laden with tempting quotes pulled from Peking's website ("you will find comfortable surroundings and enjoy unbelievable gourmet feasts"), I managed to recruit eight people to join me on a culinary expedition to Pankrác. Peking, as it happens, is in the middle of a Prague 4 sidliště, right next to a clump of paneláky and a discount grocery store. By way of sheer contrast, the setting made our destination seem all the more impressive.

Flanking Peking's entrance way are two stone lions and a massive Chinese gate that leads to a flight of steps with a marble railing. Up top is a large dining room, ornately decorated with red tassels, a big Buddha statue, and a pool of goldfish. Behind the live lobster tank is a children's play room.

But it's in the back of the restaurant that the real magic happens. There are ten numbered private salonky of varying sizes, all equipped with flat-screen TVs, WI-FI internet, individually controlled air-conditioning, buzzers for service and, naturally, karaoke machines. The largest room, simply labeled "VIP," seats twenty. A glimpse into a few of the salons revealed large groups of Chinese people. Apparently, Peking is where all the Chinese expats go when they want to have a nice meal that reminds them of home (several of my well-traveled friends confirmed, too, that the interior is very similar to that of a fancy restaurant in China).

So much so, in fact, that the restaurant even relegates non-Chinese customers to their own section. When I called to make a reservation, I was asked whether our group was Czech. On a second visit, my two friends and I were ushered past the main dining room, which was full of local Chinese, to an isolated, windowless room in the back. At first, we were alone, but the room slowly filled up with Czech, French, German people…

In Peking, segregation rules. But I was willing to accept it for the food. The menu, as at many Chinese restaurants, is extensive, and has helpful, true-to-life photographs. What is more unusual is that it includes dim sum, the variation of steamed and fried filled dumplings that is a staple of Cantonese cuisine.

In Guangdong, China's Cantonese province, dim sum (literally, "close to the heart") is typically served with tea for breakfast or lunch in special eateries. Up to several dozen different types are wheeled around the restaurants on trolleys for the patrons to pick and choose; most of the treats are savory, but there are sweet dessert versions, too. Peking serves both, although with an understandably more limited selection.

Among the dim sum varieties we tasted was cha siu baau (roast pork buns; 80 CZK for three pieces), a steamed bun, similar in appearance and texture to an ovocný knedlík (Czech fruit dumpling), filled with barbecued pork in a red sauce. Although their filling was moist and sweet, the buns themselves were disappointingly dry. But the guotie (potstickers; 70 CZK for five pieces) – a pan-fried dumpling stuffed with minced pork meat and chopped vegetables – had a perfect chewy exterior and a kick of ginger on the inside.

The har kau (shrimp dumpling; 90 CZK for four pieces) were a hit too, with their translucent rice wrapper and simple stuffing of a whole prawn and bamboo shoots. And I was happy to discover that the spring rolls (55 CZK for two pieces) were more like what is known in North America as egg rolls – larger, and with a fluffy, crunchy crust.

Peking's main courses are more typical of what you would find in a regular Chinese restaurant: stir-fried meats and vegetables in thick, sometimes gloopy sauces. But here, the quality of those meats and vegetables is higher, and the sauces aren't doused in toxic MSG. The prawns with mango (420 CZK) came with butterflied shrimp, fresh pieces of ripe mango, and lightly-cooked pieces of red bell pepper and cucumber. Beautiful to look at, and an unusual, sophisticated combination. I would have preferred the sweet and sour chicken (139 CZK) a little more crispy, but the fresh snow peas sauteed with garlic (159 CZK) were irresistibly green and crunchy.

Appropriately enough, Peking serves Peking duck, and does it very well. A single portion is a fairly pricey 599 CZK, but it comes with lots of fragrant duck meat lined with crisp, browned skin. Included in the price are paper-thin pancakes, hoi sin sauce, and raw spring onions and cucumbers, just as it is meant to be served. If you come in a big group, you can pre-order a whole duck, which they will carry out ceremoniously on a platter.

And come in a big group you should. That way, you get to try more dishes and spin them around on the Lazy Susans that sit on each of the large tables. You also get the added bonus of having your drinks brought to you on a special trolley (a fairly ingenious invention) and, if you have your own room, access to the many delights conferred by the karaoke machine.

Peking's original restaurant was closer to the city center, on Legerova in Prague 2, but they have made a grander home for themselves in Pankrác. Go and see it for yourself. I can't guarantee the best seat in the house, but you'll definitely have great food – and a lot of fun.

Čínská Restaurace Peking
Pujmanové 10
Praha 4 – Pankrác
Tel: 241 730 688

Open Mon-Sun 11:30-15:30, 17:30-23:00

photographs: Pavel Wellner for Lidové Noviny; all others