Monday, September 28, 2009

Restaurant Review: The Sushi Bar

I almost gave The Sushi Bar four spoons.

As my regular readers know, I don't give full marks very often. That's not because I'm trying to be difficult, or because I don't think this country has any great restaurants. I guess it's just that my standards are pretty high, and I haven't been met with a lot of perfect dining experiences lately.

Until, that is, I went to The Sushi Bar. Or so I thought. Then I looked at my receipt.

The Sushi Bar's been around since 1999, when it was, according to its website, the only sushi place in the Czech Republic. The little restaurant gets its most important ingredients from the partner shop next door called Seafood Shop, which also provides high-quality fresh fish to many local dining establishments.

The first, and still the best: that is The Sushi Bar's motto, and after eating their precisely crafted, unforgettable food – and comparing it to some of the more pathetic renditions of sushi available in this town – I can't argue otherwise. I would, however, add the qualifier that The Sushi Bar's sushi is not only The First and The Best, but also The Most Expensive. An eight-piece "exclusive" maki roll can run you as high as 1190 CZK, although you can also get a cucumber roll for 150 CZK or a salmon roll for 290 CZK. So if you're on a budget, order wisely.

But do order something here, at least once. They take the art of sushi-making seriously at The Sushi Bar. They're not doing it because it's trendy; they don't throw in a few maki rolls as an afterthought to a menu loaded with spaghetti and knedlík. They don't think, "most of our customers won't know the difference between good and bad sushi, so who cares if we use this borderline-rancid tuna fish?" And they don't offer Thai spring rolls and tom kha gai soups to appease people who aren't sushi-lovers – they do have a kimchi salad, but at least the menu makes it clear that the dish is Korean.

The menu, by the way, is a work of art in itself. An appetizing photograph of each dish is set against a background of matte white paper, next to loving descriptions typed in crisp fonts. Picking the right kind and amount of sushi can sometimes be tricky, but thanks to their carefully-compiled 'boat' sets and a clever graph system for the nigiri, it's easy to choose a well-rounded meal.

My table chose the nigiri sushi menu number 1 (990 CZK), a fairly straightforward six-piece combination that included salmon, tuna, and red snapper. But it also featured the less-common freshwater shrimp, as well as toro, or tuna belly, a highly-prized, fatty delicacy that melts upon contact with the tongue (only restaurants that order large whole tuna fish can offer toro, since the belly makes up such a small percentage of the flesh). Each piece of nigiri was just as it should be: small and easy to eat in one bite, with only a modest amount of vinegared rice covered by a cleanly-cut slice of raw fish. And it goes without saying that the fish was as fresh as fresh can be.

What's so exclusive about an 'exclusive maki,' besides the price? None of the sakana ura maki's (1190 CZK) ingredients – salmon, cucumber, seaweed, mango, and avocado – seemed especially luxurious. But bundled up together in a tight inside-out roll and draped with elegant slivers of salmon and cucumber, each bite was a gorgeous medley of tastes and textures: the cool, smooth salmon; the creamy avocado; the crunch of cucumber and the fragrant mango. The roll was not only sublime, but huge. I would order it again.

Throughout the meal, the service was fantastic – attentive, but unpretentious. Our table was wiped down after each course, and the waiters were happy to make suggestions. One of the fish that was supposed to be part of our nigiri set was unavailable that night, so it was replaced with two pieces of a different kind. We were also given full portions of tuna and avocado sashimi on the house, and each female customer got a red rose when she left. We felt like we were really being looked after.

I was especially impressed by what happened when my companion asked if they had any Czech beer. "We do," our waiter said, "but only bottled. If you like, though, I can bring you freshly-tapped beer from next door."

This was fabulous news. Next door, you see, is the gastropub Olympia, where they serve tanked Plzeň – that meant some first-rate beer to go with the first-rate sushi. The waiter promptly returned clutching a frosty mug of the good stuff, and set it down on a paper coaster in front of my friend.

Now comes the part with the receipt. When we paid the bill, I noticed that it seemed a little high. But it was only after I got home that I took a closer look and realized that the two next-door Plzeňs – the very same ones that cost 39 CZK at Olympia – had cost us 150 CZK each.

What. The. Hell. This was truly an outrage. Yes, charging a little extra – maybe even double – for the additional trouble is understandable. But charging four times the original price? Without any warning at all? Who's ever even heard of a 150 CZK beer in this town?

I posed that last question to my beer-loving brother. He thought it over for some time. "Once," he said, slowly. "When I was at a stag party at this strip club, Goldfingers. They charged us 150 CZK there." He shook his head, apparently distressed by the memory.

And I shake my head, too. Because I really wanted to give The Sushi Bar four spoons. But see? I can't go around saying the service is perfect and then have you dip into your savings fund to pay for a glass of beer.

The sushi, on the other hand – that might be worth going bankrupt for.

The Sushi Bar
Zborovská 49
Prague 5 – Malá Strana
Tel.: 603 244 882

Open Mon-Sun 12:00-22:00

photographs 1, 3 Lidové Noviny; all others

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


Monday, September 14, 2009

Restaurant Review: Olympos

I don't know what it is about me and Greek places. On my last visit to a Greek joint (Kri-Kri, on Korunní), I was not only subjected to painfully slow service, but was told that I should expect it to be slow, because that's how things happen in Greece.

Now here I am, sitting at Taverna Olympos, and after waiting ages for a server to take our orders, I have spotted him making his way over to a table of about eight people to take their orders – before ours have been put in to the kitchen. Of course, the big table came after we did, and of course they will get their food first. And naturally, I am starving. I've unwittingly cast myself in One Greek Minute: The Sequel.

When our appetizers finally arrive, they come with a mixed salad we didn't order and one of our main courses. The other entrée comes way later, and it isn't what we wanted. Confusingly, the menu offers two codfish dishes, one fresh and priced by weight, and the other, described only as a "fillet," for 180 CZK. We didn't realize there were two options and weren't asked which of them we wanted, so we ended up with the battered and deep fried fillet.

Olympos has been around since 1997 – first as Tavernaki Olympos, a tiny operation in Pohořelec, then as a thirteen-table restaurant at their current location in Žižkov. They've since expanded to 103 tables, many of which are pleasantly situated in a large outdoor garden. In summertime, the outdoor seating is definitely the main draw, with its leafy trees, children's playground and kitschy murals depicting beach scenes and the Acropolis. So it's a bit of a shame that (although it is de rigeur in Greece to start dinner as late as 21:30) by 22:00, Olympos's guests have to be shuffled indoors or to the winter garden to satisfy noise restrictions. Better, then, to come a little early so you can enjoy the garden for longer.

For some reason, I'd been under the impression that Olympos is an inexpensive restaurant. It can be, I guess, but it depends on what you order. The main courses range from 160 to 800 CZK (for a two-person shrimp tagliatelle), and smaller dishes cost between 70 and 280 CZK. Not a crazy amount, but I didn't necessarily find the value to be all that good. On my second visit, I had the shrimp saganaki. For a fairly hefty 400 CZK, I got a ceramic bowlful (250 grams) of very small, overcooked shrimp, in an admittedly tasty feta, tomato, and green pepper sauce. But I liked Kri-Kri's shrimp saganaki a lot better, and that one cost only 105 CZK for 150 grams. And the Taverna salad (240 CZK) seemed pretty pricey too, considering it was nothing more than a plate of soggy lettuce with a couple of olives and sun-dried tomatoes.

As often seems to be the case in Greek restaurants (and, for that matter, in restaurants in general), the appetizers far outshone the main courses. The tyropites (125 CZK), or cheese-filled pastries, were hot and crispy and oozing with melted salty cheese. The dough was different than the filo dough I'm used to seeing these made with – it was thicker and more brittle, like a spring roll – but they were delicious, and there were lots of them. The peppers stuffed with cheese (120 CZK), on the other hand, only came with two small peppers floating in olive oil, but they had a nice spicy kick. I could have done with more bite in the tzatziki (95 CZK), which seemed a little low on garlic.

For a general taste of the starters, I would recommend you try the Olympos salad (280 CZK). Because it has no explanation in the menu, and the waiter wasn't able to describe it either, I'm going to tell you what was in it: hummus, eggplant spread, potato salad, tzatziki, htipiti (feta cheese spread), gigante beans in tomato sauce, and marinated bell peppers. Not a bad selection. I wanted to get the dolmades as a starter, but they were only listed as a 350g main course. The waiter was flexible enough to give us a half portion; unfortunately, although they came served in a very tasty tomato sauce, they were a little on the bland side.

Best of all was the grilled haloumi (165 CZK), a rubbery Greek cheese that squeaks when you chew it. The thick slices were covered in grill marks, which added a nice smokiness – yum. But it was all downhill from there. The papoutsaki (265 CZK), or stuffed eggplant ("papoutsa" means shoe in Greek), was flavorless and didn't have much meat. The sutzukaki smirneika (ground meat sausages, 225 CZK) were better, but were surrounded by a very oily, thin tomato sauce. And the side dish of grilled vegetables (at an unjustifiable 185 CZK) was an unattractive, woefully greasy mess of random veggies.

Here's what you should do: go to Olympos with some friends, sit in the garden, watch the neighborhood cats tormenting the patrons' tied-up dogs. Let your kids play on the swings and slide. Order a whole bunch of starters to share, as if you were in a tapas joint, and fill up on those. Get some wine, which they serve in these cute colored aluminum carafes, and be careful with the water – in large bottles, they only seem to have some Greek brand that goes for 100 CZK apiece. Skip the main courses. Enjoy, pay, leave.

There you go – a simple, inexpensive meal in a nice Greek restaurant. And you say I never recommend anything…

Taverna Olympos
Kubelíkova 9
Praha 3 – Žižkov
Tel.: 222 722 239
Open Mon-Sun 11:30-24:00

photographs 1, 4, 6 František Vlček for Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 29/08/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Restaurant Review: Mirellie

It's not hard to see why the most-asked question about Mirellie is whether or not it's affiliated with the popular restaurant chain Kogo. All you have to do is open their menu.

Anyone familiar with Kogo's offerings will experience a little déjà vu at Mirellie. The divisions between dishes are the same and in the same order – starters, fish starters, soups, pastas, risottos, etc. – and many of the dishes themselves are word-for-word copies. Plus, just like at Kogo, the selection is enormous.

The difference is in the prices. At Kogo Slovanský Dům, the grilled roast beef with arugula and parmesan cheese goes for 310 CZK. The same dish at Mirellie costs 135 CZK. At Kogo, a simple plate of linguine with olive oil, garlic and shrimps will set you back 295 CZK. Mirellie charges 165 CZK. A fish soup at Kogo? 210 CZK. Mirellie's is priced at 90 CZK.

No, Mirellie is not affiliated with Kogo. At least some of its owners, however, are former Kogo employees, and it seems they've decided to beat their fellow countrymen-restaurateurs at their own game (both Kogo's and Mirellie's proprietors are from the former Yugoslavia): serving a large range of Mediterranean classics in a modestly upscale atmosphere.

Mirellie's location on a quiet Bubeneč street used to be home to the Asian fusion restaurant Monsoon, and not much has changed in terms of the décor. The dining area is separated into upstairs and downstairs sections, the walls and furniture various shades of brown, grey and beige. The upper space has a bar, a couple of leather couches, and a flat-screen TV; the tables down below are adjacent to the kitchen and toilets. Unfortunately, the non-smoking section is in the far less pleasant downstairs area – a decision that makes sense in terms of its proximity to the kitchen, but continues the city's depressing trend of giving priority to smokers.

Since it opened at the beginning of this year, Mirellie has gained quite a few regular customers. Some of them might be neighborhood diners looking for a decent place to eat – Bubeneč and Dejvice are still low on quality restaurants, and one of the few comparable upper-scale Italian options, Da Emanuel, is very much on the expensive side. Other patrons are former fans of Kogo who have become disillusioned with its constant price hikes and are willing to travel out of the center to get their Yugo-pasta fix.

I count myself as one of the latter. I don't want to mislead anybody; I'm still a big fan of Kogo's, and for years, their restaurants have been some of the most consistently high-quality spots in town. But Kogo is now the kind of place I can't eat in very often without feeling guilty about the money I'm spending.

So on my first visit to Mirellie, naturally, I ordered my favorite Kogo dish: the tagliatelle with arugula and shrimp. At Kogo, this would have set me back 285 CZK; here, it was a mere 170 CZK. But the Mirellie version wasn't as good as Kogo's. The pasta seemed a little dry, as if there wasn't enough sauce or the sauce wasn't especially flavorful. The shrimp, however, were plentiful and perfectly cooked (on a recent Kogo Slovanský Dům visit, the shrimp had been way too soft), as was the pasta, so I was pretty happy overall.

And there were some real delights: a huge portion of bean soup (60 CZK), loaded with the musky aroma of smoked bacon; a small grilled sea bass (290 CZK), so fresh it still tasted of the ocean, served whole but deboned. One of the weekly specials, a lobster salad (260 CZK), could only be described as a fabulous deal. Almost anywhere else, you don't even get to smell a lobster for under 300 CZK. Here, there was a solid half-lobster, several shrimp, and a generous amount of garden salad in a creamy, Russian-style dressing (I didn't get to taste another intriguing special, the polenta with porcini mushrooms, because it wasn't available on either of my visits).

It's certainly not the quantity of food that Mirellie's saving its money on; my pizza Vegetariana (129 CZK) was so big it spilled over the edges of a large dinner plate. It had a thin, cripsy crust and was topped with marinated bell peppers, (undercooked) eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, and kalamata olives. I got half of it wrapped up to go. The grilled octopus with beans and leek (160 CZK) was another large dish, even for an appetizer, with lots of gently browned octopus. I suspected the beans had come out of the can, but they still tasted good. When you've got over two hundred dishes on the menu, I guess you have to cut corners somewhere.

I didn't have any dessert on either of my visits – I was too full, and besides, the dessert options seemed to be limited to the frozen Bindi cakes and profiteroles that so many other restaurants and cafés carry.

The service at Mirellie can be a little slow and forgetful sometimes (on one evening, two of us never got any napkins), and, at other times, a little too eager to clean up plates and pour out Mattoni bottles. I also didn't like that we were charged for bread (10 CZK each for a pizza dough-type roll) even if we didn't eat it. Were we expected to take it home?

Mirellie is destined to be compared to Kogo. People like me will come in and order their usual Kogo dish and will end up either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. But for all the similarities between the two restaurants, the newer one really is doing its own thing, and doing it well. Soon enough, perhaps, guests won't even think to ask about the connection. They'll just appreciate Mirellie for what it is.

V.P. Čkalova 14
Praha 6 – Bubeneč
Tel.: 222 959 999

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

photographs 1, 2, 4, 5, 6
Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 22/08/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Restaurant Review: Pálffy Palác

When Pálffy Palác was in its heyday, in the mid-90s, they used to serve whole roasted heads of garlic at the beginning of each meal. You'd pop a hot clove out of its shell and smear it on a crusty piece of bread, over a thick layer of butter. The garlic would dissolve into a soft puree at the gentlest touch of a knife.

I was only a kid when my family started going to Pálffy for dinner, but for some reason, the memory of the roasted garlic has stuck with me ever since. So upon returning to Pálffy Palác after what was perhaps a ten-year-long interlude, I was excited to see the waiter carrying the familiar plate of roasted garlic heads and slabs of butter over to our table.

But when I tried to spread the clove across the bread with my butter knife, it didn't melt the way I'd remembered. And it didn't taste very good, either. What had gone wrong?

Pálffy Palác used to be a very sought-after place to go. Housed on the second floor of a 17th-century baroque palace in Malá Strana, it felt almost like a secret restaurant set up in somebody's grand, slightly run-down living room. For a long time, it was the only restaurant in town to serve fresh spinach. It was good and inexpensive, frequented mostly by expats and the likes of Karel Gott (a distinction that apparently elevates any old dive to must-visit status).

Then Prague became flooded with similarly-oriented restaurants, and although few of them had the natural charm of Pálffy, many served fresh spinach and were a lot easier to stumble across. Pálffy bumped up its prices significantly, too, making itself more of a high-end, special-occasion restaurant than an everyday stopover. And perhaps its owner, Roman Řezníček, was momentarily distracted by the opening up of his Holešovice dance club Mecca (since sold to new owners; Řezníček has now also owns longstanding local restaurant U Malířů). Pálffy Palác pretty much fell off the map.

That at least partially explains the stale garlic: a low turnover makes it hard to get the stuff piping hot from the oven for every customer. Nonetheless, Pálffy has a new chef, French-born Kevin Donneger, and it seems to be aiming for a comeback.

The restaurant is still stunning – even, in some aspects, better-looking than it used to be. Pálffy Palác's terrace is one of the most beautiful in the city, overlooking the castle gardens and now, having had some time to grow, lush with plant life. The tops of a set of vanilla trees have risen to eye level, their brown pods swinging in the breeze, while the terrace itself is covered in mismatched ivies and flowers, lending it the atmosphere of a wild garden.

Indoors, the small dining room is all antique furniture, elaborate candelabras, and pretty floral and fruit arrangements. It feels like just the right kind of place to warm up on a wintry evening with a glass of red wine and a newfound lover.

But that may be as far as you should take it. Pálffy is, for what it is, overpriced; main courses cost between 490 and 690 CZK, and I never quite felt I was getting my money's worth. The ravioli filled with goat's cheese and served with bacon cream (290 CZK) were not great: they reminded me of my grandmother's pirogies, only a lot worse, because the ravioli was undercooked and beyond al dente, leading me to suspect that the pasta wasn't especially fresh. I had been intrigued by the notion of "bacon cream," but it ended up being nothing more than regular cream sprinkled with bits of fatty bacon.

And although Mr. Donneger has professed his passion for using organic ingredients, he doesn't seem to put much stock into the seasonality of his menu. One of the two entrée options for lunch on a sweltering summer day was a venison steak in an oily brown gravy. The meat came with two little piles of green and yellow zucchini, but they tasted as if they had been doused in butter. My appetizer wasn't very summery, either: a clichéd combination of baked goat cheese on white toast over a pear compote, drizzled with balsamic reduction. I'm getting sweaty just thinking about it.

The glowing exception to all this nonsense was the perfect green bean soup (135 CZK), a snappy-tasting light cream that brought out all the flavor of its simple main ingredient. I also liked the rosemary crème brulee (250 CZK) that I had for dessert, although the vanilla millefeuille with red fruit coulis (290 CZK) was so frugal on the berries you almost had to squint to make out the little dots of sauce on the plate. For good measure, I guess, they also tossed in half a strawberry.

I was a little turned off when, on my way to the bathroom inside, I overheard the trio of waiters laughing loudly about the American family sitting on the terrace. Instead of exchanging ty voles, maybe they could have studied the menu. My companion ordered the seasonal sorbet selection (190 CZK), and the waiter wasn't able to tell him what flavors they had, even though the only ones available were strawberry and lemon.

It would be unfair to say that the service at Pálffy is bad; it was always friendly, to our faces, anyway. But we went through a whole meal without being given a napkin, and the weekday set lunch took almost two hours.

That probably doesn't sound too attractive to those of you who are in the market for a quick business lunch. If your inclinations are a little more romantic, however, Pálffy is a pretty good place for that kind of thing. Just don't set your expectations too high.

Pálffy Palác
Valdštejnská 14
Praha 1 - Malá Strana
Tel.: 257 530 522

Open Mon-Sun 11:00-23:00

photographs 1, 5, 6 Pavel Wellner for Lidové Noviny; all others

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