Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant Review: Maitrea

There are no right angles at Maitrea. The solid-wood tables and chairs all have rounded edges, the doorways are arched, and the lamps are elongated and ethereal, like jellyfish in mid-swim. Even the point where the walls meet the ceiling has been softened with a tube-like rim and a neat row of colored stones.

Maitrea happens to be a vegetarian restaurant, but it is, first and foremost, beautiful. This has to be emphasized, because when a lot of people (myself included) think of vegetarian restaurants, we conjure up images of either unembellished, harshly lit cafeteria-style eateries or the kind of place where hippies sit on grotty carpets with their dogs and talk about marijuana marches.

Neither of these categories applies to Maitrea, which is creative but uncluttered, cozy but not dirty. It's actually spotlessly clean and, it has to be said, expensive-looking. All of the details – the sculptural fountains and custom-made furniture and mosaic tiles – couldn't have been cheap to put together.

And it didn't come quickly, either. The reconstruction of the restaurant and the building in which it is located was done in accordance with feng shui principles and took nearly three years to complete. The whole of the building is called Maitrea, too (a Sanskrit term that can be translated as "loving kindness") and is referred to by its proprietors as a "house of personal development." It hosts tons of vaguely Buddhistic gatherings: meditation seminars, spiritually-oriented lectures, and free-form dance classes. So it only seems appropriate to have a vegetarian-friendly eatery on the premises.

The Maitrea restaurant is run by Václav Stanislav and Martin Dobeš, who founded the veg hideaway Lehká Hlava three years ago. For fans of the original restaurant – which is fully booked on most evenings – the opening of Maitrea just off Old Town Square comes as a welcome expansion. The new place has two floors and seats ninety people, almost double the capacity of Lehká Hlava. Its upstairs space is airy, with high ceilings and large windows; the downstairs section is more intimate and features a couple of couches on a raised platform next to a modern-style fireplace.

Maitrea's menu is similar to that of its sister restaurant: a jumble of veggie-only dishes, from pasta and stir-fries to burgers and burritos. There's even a Czech option, a version of vepřo knedlo zelo (pork with dumplings and sauerkraut) – dumplings with sauerkraut and tofu pork. Sounds fascinating, but somehow I haven't felt the urge to try it.

I'm not crazy about meat substitutions, all those seitans and soy bacons; I generally find them weird and not particularly tasty. I'd rather just have a bunch of vegetables, with some beans or something to make up for the lack of protein. So I'm not sure why I ordered an okara burger (125 CZK), really (okara is a type of soybean pulp common in traditional Asian cooking). For a regular eater of real cow burgers like me, I could have expected that the non-cow version wasn't going to impress me much.

But for a veggie burger, it wasn't too bad. The bun was homemade, fluffy and dotted with sesame seeds. The toppings were decent – a nice slice of tomato, crunchy lettuce, and a garlic yogurt sauce. Turns out (surprise, surprise) it was the soy part that bothered me most. The patty was fried to crispiness on the outside, but kind of runny on the inside, like mashed potatoes that have too much cream in them. Coupled with the drippy yogurt sauce, the patty made the burger incredibly messy to eat. It actually did taste good, but because most of the dish was running down my arms and dropping onto my plate, I had to put it down pretty quickly.

The Mexican dishes seem to be better. I had a red bean chili (130 CZK) that came wrapped up with cheddar cheese in a cone-shaped tortilla. This wasn't especially authentic Mexican food – the chili was a little too sweet and lacked any sort of spicy seasoning – but it was beautifully presented and made with fresh ingredients. On the side was a scoop each of sour cream and red pepper salsa, along with a leafy mesclun salad. The guacamole (70 CZK) is listed as an appetizer and comes with a homemade brioche, but I ordered it as an accompaniment to my chili. It was tangy and made with real avocados, not from the bottle. Yay!

They're big on the homemade stuff at Maitrea, which is one reason why I like it so much. They have their own fizzy lemonade (mint or ginger flavor, 45 CZK) and bake their own chocolate chip cookies to go with mashed-up strawberries as a dessert (the cookies were a little on the tough side, actually, but you have to appreciate the effort).

Another reason to like the restaurant is that it's super-affordable, especially considering its location. There's nothing nearby like it – well, there is Beas, the vegetarian dhaba around the corner, but since they decided to change their system to self-service, it isn't what it used to be. Maitrea charges a comparable price for a lunch menu, 105 CZK, which includes the soup of the day (on my visit, a simple carrot soup with dill and yogurt) and an entrée (chickpea and peanut "perkelt" with bulghur wheat and rice). If you happen to have devoted your life to the spiritual side of things, you can do one better: monks, ordained clergy members, and "enlightened people" eat at Maitrea for free.

The expressed goal of Maitrea is to be "a pleasant place to meet people who are open to inspiration." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I do find Maitrea to be a pretty inspiring place. Maybe next time I visit, I'll meet some inspiring people there, too.

Týnská ulička 6
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 221 711 631

photographs Tomáš Krist for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 07/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Restaurant Review: Lancia Café

Here's a riddle for you. It's lunchtime and you're hungry. Because you have a pretty distinguished palate, you don't want to eat just anything. It has to be decent. Up to international standards, even.

But there's a catch: you're in Bratislava. Besides hopping in the car and driving the 60 kilometers to Vienna, what can you possibly do?

You see, there isn't much going on in Slovakia's capital in terms of restaurants. They exist, but most of them are pretty pathetic, and not even very cheap. The situation is bad enough to make wishy-washy Prague look like a culinary Mecca. As a Czech businessman I once overheard on the Pendolino to Bratislava said (with admirable succinctness), "It's a hole. There's nothing there."

My parents would argue otherwise. They are Slovak and spend a lot of time in their homeland, testing out various second-rate eateries in the hope that they will find someplace worth revisiting. And after a while, they did find a place – three places, in fact.

It just so happens that all three of those restaurants are in the same building (the Erdödy Palác), owned by the same company, and presided over by a single chef. And it also happens that that chef is Czech. His name is Jaroslav Židek, and the restaurants are called Camouflage, Flowers, and Lancia Café.

I've been to all three establishments multiple times. Camouflage is the most expensive, with fancy French-inspired cuisine; I liked the food, but found it to be a little complicated for my taste – I vaguely recall a chocolate fondant that came with about ten different accessories. Flowers has upscale Italian food that is very tasty (try the saffron, shrimp, and asparagus risotto), but its best asset is its atmosphere: situated in an airy, glassed-over courtyard, its walls are plastered all the way up to the ceiling with original prints of Andy Warhol's "Flowers" series.

So why did I choose to write about Lancia Café, which is the least fancy of the three and a bit more of a bar and café than a real restaurant? I'm going to blame this one on my mom and dad, who are regulars there, and who swore up and down that I was going to absolutely love it. "Best restaurant in Bratislava," they insisted. "And there's nothing like it in Prague." Well, that was true at least. I can't think of a Prague restaurant that serves both crêpes and yaki soba noodles – a combination that I didn't necessarily find appealing, but I was going to try the place anyway.

When I visited, it was still warm enough to sit outside on Lancia Café's wood-plank terrace. The setup is great for checking out the hordes of people as they stroll up and down Bratislava's main pedestrian thoroughfare. The café is less appealing on the inside, where stark lighting, flat-screen TVs and black plastic chairs make the place feel vaguely futuristic and very cold.

The menu consists of a few Asian-inspired bar snacks and entrees, some soups and sandwiches, and the aforementioned crêpes and their savory buckwheat flour counterpart, the galette. My galette came with shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, leek, and crème fraiche (€8.80). It was also cold.

Maybe it was because I was sitting outside, but by the time it got to me, my galette was no longer fresh off the pan. It was the same story on a subsequent visit, when my companion ordered the spinach and mushroom galette (€8.13). It probably would have helped if the plates had been heated. Otherwise, the galettes were all right, but the dough was a little bland, as if it needed to be salted more. These were far inferior – and a lot more expensive – to the galettes at La Crêperie in Holešovice. So far, I was unimpressed.

I was happier with the tom yum gai soup (€3.82), which was both warm enough and had a sweet-spicy kick. Still, my mother claimed she'd had better versions of the soup there before, and after some thought, she admitted that the food was often inconsistent. Depending on who was cooking that night, it seemed, the dishes were always a little different.

If that is indeed the case, I hope the chicken with green curry (€12.12) is usually better. When I had it, it was incredibly greasy, with oil gathered in pools at the top, and tasted only of chili and nothing more. The chicken was tough and stringy, a surprise after the tender chicken sate appetizer (€7.47) I'd just had. Plus, we had to wait an absurdly long time for our main courses to arrive.

It's not all bad at Lancia Café. They have a fantastic salad comprised of papaya, celery root, green beans, and grilled shrimp in a spicy lime dressing (€10.79), and a simple but tasty chicken stir-fry (€13.11). And their desserts can be pretty great, too: the Thai classic sticky rice with mango, honey, and coconut milk (€5.48) and a range of homemade ice creams and sorbets (the chocolate sorbet is particularly wonderful). They also are the only restaurant in Slovakia to brew the top-quality "sustainable" coffee Tierra Lavazza, a blend harvested exclusively from three small communities in Colombia, Peru, and Honduras.

Was all this good enough to make me a believer? I will probably visit Lancia Café again the next time I'm in Bratislava. But I’m still not sure it could live up to the standards of a more cosmopolitan city and a more demanding clientele. Looks like all that time in the home country has made my parents soft. Nice try, guys, but next time you'll have to come up with something better.

Lancia Café
Ventúrska 1 - Erdödyho Palác
Bratislava, Slovakia
Tel.: +421 2 209 227 22

Open Mon-Sun 08:00-01:00

photographs 1, 3, 5, 6 Tomáš Hájek for Lidové Noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 31/10/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Prague Burgers: A (Small-Scale) Investigation

What makes a good burger a good burger? Well, for starters, the burger can't be a karbanátek.

I've seen some people in these parts frown on the notion of a hamburger being anything more than a quick food alternative to a real meal. But across the ocean in the hamburger's adopted home, putting together the all-American meat sandwich has turned into something of an art. Top-notch chefs like Daniel Boulud and Hubert Keller are opening burger restaurants, and some are even making them with luxury ingredients like foie gras and truffles.

I suspect it'll be some time before we see those kinds of ingredients on our burgers here, but there are a few places making a solid effort (and some not so solid) at dishing out the classic American meal. I went to six different local establishments that reportedly have good burgers, and ordered a bacon cheeseburger where available. Here are the results:

Bohemia Bagel Holešovice
Weekends are Burger Weekends at the Holešovice branch of Bohemia Bagel, when their usual selection of burgers is doubled; variations include the Falafel Burger, the Greek Burger, and the Steak Burger. But their classic version, the Bohemia Burger (135 CZK, plus an extra 20 CZK for bacon and American cheese), is probably their best: a juicy-flame-grilled patty on a toasted sesame bun slathered with garlic butter and served with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. The bacon was crispy and the cheddar cheese was plentiful – but alas, there were no pickles, and the fries were miserably limp and soggy.

Judging by the recommendations I'd gotten, I thought the Fraktal burger was supposed to be something really special. And it was special, but not in the way I'd hoped. This was one sad little patty (I chose the small 125g burger for 170 CZK; a 200g burger is also available for 195 CZK), black and shriveled on the outside and overdone and rubbery on the inside. The top layer of the sesame seed roll was crumbling, as if it had been defrosted after spending the last six months at the bottom of a freezer. Not recommended.

Hard Rock Café
I hate to give the Best Burger in Prague title to a big corporation, but this one was really good. The choice here is between ten different types of burgers in two different sizes: Legendary (285g of meat for 320 CZK) or Regular (starting at 220 CZK for 170g of meat). My HRC bacon cheeseburger had the telltale criss-cross marks of a flame-grilled patty, was perfectly medium-rare and came on a toasted brioche-style bun. The bacon was crispy, the meat was juicy, and there were potato peel fries on the side (not enough of them, though). The best part? The service at Hard Rock Café is simply stellar.

Jama's burger doesn't have pickles, but it does have tomatoes, red onions, lettuce, and… olives? To get a bacon cheeseburger here, you pay 175 CZK for a cheeseburger or a bacon burger, then add 40 CZK extra for bacon and 39 CZK extra for your choice of cheese (you can save a crown if you do the math). My beef patty was crumbly and thick, with nice grill marks, but it could have used a little more seasoning. The bun was American style (sweet and light with sesame seeds) and the bacon was Czech (fatty, with very little crispiness). Jama was the only restaurant I tried that had steak fries, but the service was excruciatingly slow. And I could have done without those olives.

Mozaika's is a cheese-less burger (199 CZK), topped instead with garlic mayo and sautéed onions and mushrooms. I liked the effort at ingenuity here – the string fries come with a homemade spicy tomato dip and the burger is served on spinach foccacia – but the execution was all wrong. This was a straight-up karbanátek, with the meat all mashed together into an unappetizing lump, and the focaccia was saltless and soggy. I remember this hamburger being a lot better once upon a time.

PotrefeHusa Dejvice
This Husa makes its 200g burgers (268 CZK) with beef tenderloin. That sounds good in theory, but tenderloin is really too lean a meat to make a juicy enough patty – and this one was under-salted, too. The toppings (American cheese, red onions, lettuce, tomato) were plentiful and fresh, and the shoestring fries were great, but they couldn’t make up for the white bacon and tasteless beef. It'll satisfy a craving, but you won't be dreaming about it.

photographs: 1 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others Prague Spoon

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 12/09/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.