Monday, December 21, 2009

Restaurant Review: Paprika

It was a rainy Friday night, and we were looking for a restaurant called Paprika. The streets behind the Pražská Tržnice were dark and abandoned. No people, and certainly no restaurants, in sight. I was beginning to think we were lost…

Well, not really. We were in a car, warm and dry, and we had a GPS navigation system to guide us to Jateční 39. But even after we'd reached our destination, I still couldn't quite believe we were in the right spot. The place was tiny and had Budvar signs on the outside, and its windows looked grimy. This looked more like a neighborhood herna than a Hungarian restaurant.

"Do you still want to go?" one of my companions asked when we had parked. He looked more than a little apprehensive.

"Of course!" I replied. My friend stepped out of the car with an audible sigh.

I had been looking forward to this for a while. I like Hungarian food; like many Slovaks, I'd been raised on chicken paprikáš and lečo. So when I heard there was a new, family-owned Hungarian restaurant in town, I was eager to give it a try.

I'd called the restaurant a few months ago, also on a weekend night, to make a reservation. Paprika's website had said it was hosting a talented chef from the homeland who would cook up some fabulous Hungarian specialties. When I first dialed the reservation number, there was no answer. Then, a little while later, I called again. A sleepy-sounding man picked up the phone.

"Hello. I would like to make a reservation for the special event this weekend."

"No, no," the voice said. "Closed. Sorry. Closed for weekend." He hung up.

That conversation was a little discouraging. But now I'd succeeded in making reservations, and it turned out that every Friday night is a special night – not necessarily because of a mythical guest chef, but because that’s when the kitchen cooks a Hungarian dish not on the menu.

The interior of Paprika wasn't nearly as sketchy as our initial impression had promised. There was a small room in the front, paneled in light-colored wood with matching tables and chairs. The tablecloths were red and white checkered, and a cheerful row of red peppers had been painted around the room's perimeter. Hungarian folk music played from the speakers. There was another seating area in the back of the restaurant, but it appeared to be closed. The lighting was a bit bright and the air a little smoky, but it was still quite cozy.

Besides, our host was so friendly that the place immediately felt welcoming. The special dish that night, he told us, was a traditional lamb goulash. They don't cook off the menu on Fridays, but they had a couple of other dishes ready in the kitchen, too.

The regular menu has a couple of soups on offer (goulash soup and bean goulash soup), but that night, the only appetizer available was brains. I am generally not a fan of offal, partly because I am a bit squeamish and partly because organ meat is a little too fatty and rich for my taste. But even I had to admit that the pig brains on toast at Paprika (90 CZK) were good. Served over grilled brown bread and mixed with paprika, the brain spread had the texture of warm babaganoush; it was especially tasty when topped with a smear of spicy red pepper paste (our waiter's own, as he proudly informed us).

Since I'd taken a risk for the first course, I felt justified in ordering an old favorite of mine as my entrée. The chicken paprikáš (140 CZK) came with a tender piece each of chicken leg and breast in a thin paprika sauce and a healthy portion of halušky (small dumplings). A large dollop of thick sour cream was placed on top – I chose to dip into it as I ate rather than mix it in with the sauce. The dumplings were slightly bland, but had obviously been freshly made, and the sauce was perfumed with the mild sweetness of the paprika spice.

Looking across the table, it would be easy to think that my dinner companions had ordered the same dish as I had; the heavy Hungarian use of paprika makes a lot of their national dishes look quite similar. But one of them had ordered the lamb goulash (159 CZK), also served with halušky, and the other the segedínsky goulash (120 CZK), a thick stew of sauerkraut mixed with tender chunks of pork and served with bread.

The plates looked similar enough, apparently, that even the restaurant staff was confused. When it came time for our entrees, my friend sitting next to me and I were presented with the paprikáš we had both ordered. Only the meat didn't seem very chicken-like – it turned out to be the lamb goulash belonging to the table next to us. The waitress swooped in five minutes later and transferred the dishes to the other guests. Luckily, we hadn't dug in with our forks yet, because we didn't have any; it took another five minutes after we had been given the correct dishes to get a set of cutlery.

So things at Paprika can sometimes be a little disorganized. We had ordered some sides of čalamáda (pickled cabbage), but they never arrived. For dessert, I had two pancakes rolled up with apricot jam and walnuts and sprinkled with powdered sugar (90 CZK), which would have been great if the nuts weren't stale and bitter.

Still, I can definitely recommend Paprika. The dishes are cheap, the portions are large, and we definitely don't get enough Hungarian food around here. And even if you don't have a thing for paprika, you can always have pig brains.

Jateční 39
Praha 7 – Holešovice
Tel.: 772 064 214

Open Mon-Fri 11:00-22:00, Sat 15:00-22:00. Closed Sunday.

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

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 21/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Restaurant Review: Lokál

The newest, best, most must-visit restaurant in the country doesn't have a celebrity chef. It doesn't have white tablecloths, amuses-bouche, or a sommelier. Instead of soufflés, there's smažený sýr (fried cheese); tlačenka (head cheese) takes the place of truffles.

This is Lokál, and it's the restaurant we've all been waiting for.

I probably don't have to tell you how miserable most Czech pub food is these days. The average inexpensive svíčková (beef in cream sauce) goes something like this: a rock-hard, dry piece of beef, smothered in a watery brown sauce, with a few stale knedlíky (bread dumplings) on the side. No wonder so many foreign visitors shudder at the memory of Czech food.

Those of us who didn't grow up weaned on the Maggi bottle, whose mothers and grandmothers cooked their national dishes with pride, know a different kind of local cuisine – one that lives on in our kitchens at home, but has all but disappeared from pubs and restaurants. Until now, anyway.

A plate of svíčková at Lokál costs 115 CZK, plus 28 CZK for the dumplings (all sides are served separately). For 100g of meat, it's more than you'd pay in most pubs, but the difference is startling. The beef was so tender it pulled apart easily under my fork. The dumplings were light and fluffy. And the sauce, tasting strongly of freshly pureed vegetables, was bright yellow and richly sweet. The dish was served with the traditional topping of whipped cream, cranberries, and a slice of lemon.

Tradition is a priority for Lokál, along with freshness, authenticity, and honesty. The inscription of the bottom of their (daily changing) menu explains their ideology best: "We want to cook Czech dishes differently than most pubs - places where hard work and fresh food are replaced with spices, flavorings, fats, ingredients that 'last forever,' and other cheap tricks used to make cooking faster, cheaper, and easier." What took them so long?

Lokál is the brainchild of Tomáš Karpíšek, the founder of the Ambiente Group and the Czech restaurant market's most brilliant innovator. He's achieved success with his chains of pasta restaurants (Pastacaffe, Ristorante Pasta Fresca) and all-you-can-eat gorgefests (Ambiente Brasileiro, Pizza Nuova). He's promoted Czech food before, too, with the First Republic-inspired Café Savoy and the upscale gourmet favorite La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise. But Lokál is set to be his biggest, most revolutionary, most important venture yet.

Housed in a massive space off of Dlouhá formerly occupied by Middle Eastern hideaway Dahab (since relocated to nearby Soukenická), Lokál is said to be the longest restaurant in Prague. It has been, despite its size, rammed to the rafters from the day it opened. That's no surprise, really. When was the last time anybody saw rýžový nákyp (Czech rice pudding) on a menu? Or šunkofleky (pasta with smoked ham)? Or škubánky s mákem (sweet noodles with poppy seeds)? Even if you've come across those long-neglected classics once in a while, I guarantee they've never been made this well.

There isn't much to describe about Lokál's food. The plates are kept clean, with garnishes and other unnecessary flourishes kept to a minimum. No wilted oblohy (garnishes) here – just simple, straightforward dishes. My plněný paprikový lusk (stuffed pepper) (99 CZK) was filled with a mix of lean ground beef and marjoram in a sweet tomato sauce. The tatarák (beef tartare) (178 CZK) was made with similarly high-quality meat, pre-mixed to tender perfection, and served alongside crispy topinky(fried toast) and raw cloves of garlic.

That may sound close to what you'd order in any pub, and it is. The difference is in the consistent freshness and quality of Lokál's ingredients – and in the little details, like the homemade, hand-cut noodles in the chicken noodle soup (38 CZK for a pleasantly large portion), or the fresh whipped cream decorating the rakvičky (little meringue "coffins") (28 CZK). Renowned regional companies provide much of the ingredients, and the hotové jídla (pre-prepared dishes) are made from scratch several times a day.

The simplicity of Lokál's food is reflected in its interior, which, with its stark lighting and long wooden benches, brings to mind a school cafeteria. The only decoration, appropriately enough, are childlike doodles made along the length of the wood-panelled walls, illuminated from behind to create a glowing modern display.

For a Prague 1 restaurant, Lokál is refreshingly and unapologetically Czech: there are no menus in English (or French, or German, or Russian), and there are no conciliatory dishes of spaghetti or hamburgers. All of the drinks, from the tea (black, fruit, or rosehip only) to the hard liquor (Tuzemský Rum, Pražská Vodka, Lokál's own slivovice) to the soft drinks (Kofola, homemade sodas) are from these parts. And the beer (36 CZK for 0.5l) is fantastic: ice-cold Prazdroj, tapped fresh from small tanks, and also available as "Šnit" (a mini beer, to be consumed in one or two gulps) or "Mlíko" (only foam).

The only detail that seemed a little off were the coasters – they were the regular green Pilsner Urquell kind. Shouldn't a Czech restaurant this concerned with tradition have its own coasters, emblazoned with its own logo, as all the pubs used to have in the old days?

I guess I can forgive Lokál that one oversight. They are, after all, the restaurant (and future chain of restaurants) that is single-handedly saving good Czech pub food from near-certain extinction. You might think I'm exaggerating, but try it for yourself. If you don't like it, they'll bring you Maggi to make your meal taste more familiar, and your waiter won't even give you a dirty look: the service is more traditional Ambiente than traditional Czech, and thank God for that.

As for me – and again, no exaggeration – Lokál is the only restaurant that I feel like visiting at the moment. Everyone else peddling Czech food in this country should pay attention – because only now, after so many years of greasy goulashes and salty soups and freezer-burnt knedlíky, is somebody finally doing it right.


Dlouhá 33
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: 222 316 265

Open Mon-Fri 11:00-01:00, Sat 12:00-01:00, Sun 12:00-22:00

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

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 05/12/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Restaurant Review: Hard Rock Café

Prague's Hard Rock Café may have opened just this year, but the American rock 'n' roll-themed restaurant chain had already had a presence here since the early 1990s. That's when tourist-oriented vendors began selling (next to those ubiquitous "Prague: Czech It Out" shirts) Hard Rock Café Prague T-shirts. The joke, of course, as that there was no Hard Rock Café, but that didn't prevent burger-craving tourists from pestering locals about where the Prague branch actually was.

Now, when a group of foreign teenagers asks me where the Hard Rock Café is (a surprisingly frequent request, surpassed only by inquiries about the metro, "The Clock," and – God only knows why – the Wax Museum), there's actually a direction in which I can point them. The Prague Hard Rock Café is located conveniently close to The Clock, on Malé Náměstí.

I can't be the only person who's walked past the new Hard Rock Café and felt a pang of nostalgia. For 150 years, the Dům U Rotta was home to one of the most well-known Czech department stores, a three-story family-owned hardware emporium that was famous for selling just about everything. In the height of the store's success in the 1930s, it carried 70,000 varieties of metal goods, along with electronic appliances, building materials, hockey equipment, and fishing gear. The interior was notable for its light-filled atrium, crowned by a glass and cement cupola – the first of its kind in Czechoslovakia.

The Rott building now has another, more dubious, achievement to add to its list: at 1900 square meters, it houses the largest Hard Rock Café in Europe. The décor is predictably rock-oriented, with rows of glass cases holding the memorabilia the Café is famous for – Bob Dylan's guitar and setlist, for example, or Jimi Hendrix's fringed leather vest, or (not as exciting) a hat and tambourine from local group Žlutý Pes. There are American-style booth seats and flat-screen televisions playing rock music videos, and in the middle of the famous atrium hangs a custom-made 5-meter-long crystal chandelier in the shape of an electric guitar, which sounds ghastly but is actually quite beautiful.

The energy at Hard Rock is kind of frenetic: the music is loud (deafeningly so when there's a live band playing), there are usually lots of customers, and the waiters rush around trying to keep everybody happy. I'm not sure exactly which drug they're giving the servers, by the way, but whatever it is, it seems to be working. Everyone is all smiles, all the time. The joy actually seems to be genuine; on my last visit, I saw a waitress, milkshake in hand, bounce her way down the steps, a big smile on her face as she danced to the thumping rock music.

That sort of thing may be bizarre for Prague, but it's normal for the Hard Rock Café, which prides itself on having replicated the very same menu, style of décor, and standard of service in 140 locations in 36 countries. The food is exactly what you'd expect of an American rock 'n' roll chain restaurant, which is to say it's low on greens and heavy on grease.

In short, don't come here if you're on a diet. You could always order the h
honey citrus grilled chicken salad (290 CZK), of course, but even that lone sort of low-fat dish on the menu comes with blue cheese on top – and besides, you wouldn't get to taste what Hard Rock is all about. The best way to accomplish that is to order the Jumbo Combo (420 CZK), which combines all of the appetizers onto one plate along with various sauces. There are deep-fried chicken tenders with a honey mustard sauce (good, crispy), potato skins with sour cream (dry and flavorless), chicken wings in a spicy "heavy metal" sauce and a blue cheese dip (nice and meaty), onion rings with barbecue sauce (huge), and Mexican-style spring rolls filled with spinach (totally gross). It's like the deep fryer's greatest hits, if you'll forgive the rock-themed pun.

I've written about the Hard Rock Café burger before, and it really is excellent, with ten different varieties and all the proper fixings. But on this visit, I decided to have something new. I went for the hickory-smoked barbecue ribs (390 CZK): 650 grams worth, served whole on the rack with a special knife for separating the ribs so you can pick them up with your fingers and suck off the meat. These were probably the best ribs I've had in Prague (if you don't count the ones made by my friend Steve from Alabama, which are unbeatable). The meat was tender and fell right off the bone, and had a nice smoky flavor. They were served with cole slaw and French fries, along with a side of ranch beans that were, unfortunately, cold.

I could have used an extra napkin or three after those ribs to wipe down my fingers – and my shirt, which had gotten splattered with barbecue sauce during the process. We'd gotten some wet napkins to go with our Jumbo Combo, but now there weren't any to be found, and I hadn't gotten a plate for my rib bones, either. On previous visits, I had found the service at Hard Rock to be stellar, but there were all kinds of problems now: we also waited ages for them to take our plates away, and they didn’t wipe down our table when it was covered in sauce and crumbs.

At least our waiter was super friendly. And besides, if you have a complaint about the service, you can go online to fill out a survey after your meal and get $5 off your next visit. How very American – and appropriately so.

Hard Rock Café
Dům U Rotta
Malé Náměstí 3
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel.: 224 229 529

Open Mon-Sun 11:30AM - 01:00AM

photographs 1, 4, 5, 6 Jindřich Mynařík for Lidové noviny; all others

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 14/11/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.