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[CZ] Prague Notes


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#1 Rail Paul

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Posted 04 October 2007 - 05:38 PM

Dee and I took the train from Vienna to Prague, which was quite delightful. First class fare was about $60 with reservation charges included. There were two first class cars, one modern (facing seats with one and one on the left side of the aisle and 2x2 on the other side), and one old (compartment with 3 opposite 3 seats). Ten second class coaches of 2x2 seating, plus a diner.

Delightful ride. The Austrian side featured 120 km running over smooth track, through wooded glades, with views of castles, farms, vineyards, etc. Once into the Czech Republic, the track got a little rougher, and we were stuck behind a slow local train for several hours. The views and on board service continued to be fine.

Prague was extensively rebuilt in the 1890s, as the Jewish Quarter was abolished and new homes and shops erected. Many of the churches in Prague, however, date from the 1500s, and some were rebuilt to accommodate the trend to Romanesque, to Gothic to Baroque, and to Rococo. Since Prague was the imperial city in the reign of Karl IV, each religious order built its own magnificent church to out show the competition. Many of these churches now feature concerts several times weekly to make ends meet, so it's not unusual to hear music from many sources in the evening. There are also a lot of street musicians, sometimes two or three on a single block.

We engaged a tour guide for a small group architectural tour of the city, which was wonderful. He provided a good context for the many different styles of buildings, especially the older office buildings from the early 1900s, similar to those in which Kafka likely toiled.

That tour ended at Prague castle, a multi-building complex overlooking the city. The president of the republic maintains offices there, and the castle was the seat of administration for Silesia, Moravia, and Bohemia for centuries. The cathedral is incredibly ornate, and (IMHO) overdone by today's standards. I was surprised to learn that the western half of the cathedral was built in the 1920s, while the eastern half was built in the 13th through 15th centuries. Stained glass windows by Alfons Mucha were especially impressive. Other noteworthy buildings in the immediate area include the Schwartzberg Palace (with its intricate scgraffito stonework), and the palace of the dukes of modena.

Czechs were, and maybe still are, enamored of relics. These elements are sometimes body parts like a hand or heart, or clothing, or a tool used by a holy person. In the middle ages, a particularly important relic could create a religious destination such as Compostela in Spain, or Canterbury in England. The cathedral at the castle held a number of reliquaries adorned with exceptionally detailed jewels, etc. Many other churches contained various relics and reliquaries.

Dining in Prague is easy if you focus on beer and ignore the food. The Czech people have a well earned reputation for crafting superb beer, and we sampled quite a bit. One well regarded place (U Thomas) is currently closed while the building is restored, but there are at least a dozen other taverns in a two block radius. We stopped up the street for beer (Gambrinus), schnitzel, duck with garlic and onions, and a chocolate torte. Came to about $30. There was a wedding underway at the gorgeous St Thomas Church (the parent of the brewery and restaurant). Swords, tying the hands of the bride and groom together, many interesting customs.

The Charles bridge is now a pedestrian crossing, with about 14 large statues mounted on the side sof the bridge. As part of a national policy, the government is duplicating outdoor artwork in modern materials, and moving the originals inside. Everything more than 20 years old has a thick coating of soot, and the heritage is disintegrating around the city. Many buildings have been either recently cleaned or are now being cleaned. Automobiles are discouraged downtown, buses have been banished to the outer stops of the trams and rail lines, and many factories have been relocated away from the city.

South of the Charles bridge is U Flecku, another beer restaurant. You're immediately presented with a pint of dark pilsner and a double shot of plum vodka ($8, you later find out). I had a game platter of rabbit, noodles, white and dark wurst, kraut, and potato dumplings with bacon. It was pretty good, the rabbit was very juicy. Dee had a chantarelle mushroom gulyas (goulash) which was nicely spiced. This restaurant didn't take credit cards (either), and the bill came to about $50 after I had them remove a few items we hadn't ordered from the tab. That happened in several places.

A group of Italian college girls came in behind us, and really lit up the place. They hauled over an accordionist and began singing bawdy drinking songs, knocking down multiple shots of the plum brandy, and having a great time.

Kolkovna was another dinner selection, thanks to a very favorable comment from Schneier. It's about two blocks off the Old Town Square. Wonderful atmosphere in a basement room, with low, vaulted ceilings. The service was Soviet style, but the food was pretty good.

Rabbit pate in apple cider, chicken breast stuffed with ham, apples, yogurt, broccoli, a platter of 1/4 duck, sausages, pork cracklings and browned ends, kraut, dumplings of bacon, potato, and bread. Pilsner Urquell and a wheat beer. Maybe $50 or $60...


Menu

We visited the Old New Synagogue, which stands as a testimonial to the once large and vibrant community in Prague. Many of the prayer stalls have the names of their last occupants on them. This location, and the nearby Jewish information center, were the only places in Prague where I saw a heavy police presence. Police with automatic weapons and flak jackets, security guards in kevlar vests, etc. There was a testimonial on a nearby wall thanking the Czechoslovak state for its assistance in training paratroopers and pilots during the war for Israeli independence.

We purchased three day tram / bus / train passes, which let us ride all over. We rode the #22 tram up the hill, past Prague castle, and out to the end of the line at Bila Hora, about 10 miles away. Through residential neighborhoods, past new factories, and large parks with kids flying kites. Then we went the other way, past refineries, and shopping malls, and old towns engulfed by the sprawl.
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#2 Shrike

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Posted 04 October 2007 - 08:10 PM

Great notes on Prague that bring back memories of my honeymoon 9 years ago. We went to Prague, Budapest and Vienna in that order. Prague was probably our favorite city. I guess we drank a lot of beer and walked all over the city. I am curious to go back and see how much the city has changed with the increase in tourism.
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#3 voyager

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Posted 04 October 2007 - 09:02 PM

For those wanting to taste old Prague and stay in a period hotel, I recommend U Tri Pstrosu located a couple of dozen steps from the western anchorage of the Charles Bridge. Breakfasts were enormous, in the Eastern European sense: meats, cheeses, hot dishes, a zillion breads and cakes. The staff spoke English and was adorable. Rooms were basic but comfortable and simply decorated. No elevator, but the place is rather tiny with the stairs just feet from our door. We walked all over Prague from this location, and there was good tram service within a couple of blocks for longer adventures. The castle was quite nearby. I'd certainly stay there again rather than at a newer international hotel.


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#4 Rail Paul

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Posted 04 October 2007 - 11:24 PM

QUOTE(voyager @ Oct 4 2007, 05:02 PM) View Post
For those wanting to taste old Prague and stay in a period hotel, I recommend U Tri Pstrosu located a couple of dozen steps from the western anchorage of the Charles Bridge.


Thanks for bumping that recollection, voyager.

I was pretty impressed with that little neighborhood of homes, small hotels, a few restaurants, an art gallery, etc. I made a mental note to consider it for our next visit. The area is away from the crowds in the Old Town / Josefov / New Town, but close enough to walk there a few minutes.

The "astrological clock and visit of the apostles" was a big letdown, although I'm not sure what I was expecting. There's a giant, 14th century clock on the wall of a church building. On the hour, Death pounds a small bell, and upends a sand gauge. A door in the clock opens, and a carved bugler appears. He bugles. Another door opens and apostles emerge, and return, as another follows. Second door closes. All of this happens in about 45 seconds with hundreds of people watching...
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#5 Rail Paul

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Posted 13 October 2007 - 05:11 PM

NY Times has a short article on the autumnal music season in Prague.

The Old Town area is awash in music during the tourist season. For many churches, hosting concerts is a key source of revenue, and a means to keep the brasswork polished

QUOTE
From the first day of fall through Nov. 18, the Strings of Autumn (www.strunypodzimu.cz) offers a kissing cousin of the long-running Prague Spring concert series, but more diverse in taste. The program stretches this year from the American jazz violinist Regina Carter to the Portuguese fado vocalist Ana Moura.

For cutting-edge tunes with visual accompaniments, check out Music on Film-Film on Music (www.moffom.org, from Oct. 18 to 22) for music-themed movies from around the world.


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#6 Rail Paul

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Posted 03 February 2008 - 05:14 PM

The Times continues its seasonal overview of Prague with a view of the lively musical and new restaurant scene.

QUOTE
CALL it the travel equivalent of contrarian investing: Prague, a famously beautiful city in spring, summer and fall, can yield big dividends for travelers in the winter off-season. Teeming crowds? Gone. Prices? Much lower. Overbooked hotels? Not for now. Picturesque spires and cobblestone lanes? With a gentle dusting of snow, perhaps even more so.

But beyond merely freezing out the stag groups and dropping the occupancy rates, Prague’s winter weather gives curious travelers a chance to take in the city’s attractions at a leisurely pace and, this season at least, discover some of the city’s newest developments before they make it into the guidebooks.

Take the Meet Factory (Ke Sklarne 15; www.meetfactory.cz), a vast industrial building currently being turned into artists’ studios by David Cerny, a Czech sculptor whose two immense fiberglass cars hang from the building’s crumbling facade. Situated in the down-at-heels Smichov neighborhood, Meet Factory is opening its ground-floor public gallery, bar and performance space in several stages this winter.

“It’s a bit colder here,” said Mr. Cerny. “And one thing you don’t get in New York are seven straight days of gray. But otherwise it’s not that bad.”

In fact, for a New Yorker it is often very much like back home: Prague’s daytime highs in early February average 36 degrees Fahrenheit, only a few degrees lower than the average in Manhattan. Lows are often about the same in both cities, around 27. The biggest difference, as Mr. Cerny noted, is Central Europe’s often overcast skies, meaning you can probably leave your sunglasses at home.

Instead, enjoy the city’s dusky glow and a similar low intensity at new destinations like Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (V Celnici 7; 420-221-822-300; www.gordonramsay.com/mazeprague), which opened here in November. The menu makes a nod toward Central Europe with glazed pork belly and spiced lentils (700 koruna, or about $38.25 at 18.29 koruna to the dollar), not far at all from a Czech recipe, though in much smaller portions. With no trouble getting a short-notice reservation in the off-season, I found Maze to be surprisingly low-key for such a high-profile address, with several tables remaining empty all night, despite the outstanding fare.

And yet it was not out of sync with the rest of the city in winter. A walk down historic Nerudova street in Mala Strana, for instance, may be a daunting trek in the height of tourist season, but come winter, no large groups block the views over the rooftops, no tourist buses obscure the Gothic and Baroque facades of the buildings.

On a recent stroll, the few people I encountered seemed far more relaxed and friendly than anyone would rightly consider normal in Prague. The city seemed to be exhaling, finally calming down over mugs of mulled wine and pints of lager in cozy pubs that would be overflowing in busier months. Winter feels like a time for Praguers to reclaim their favorite spots, like the sturdy old pub U Kocoura (Nerudova 2; 420-257-530-107) at the bottom of Nerudova, or the outstanding pan-Asian restaurant Angel (V Kolkovne 7; 420-773-222-422; www.angelrestaurant.cz), just a few steps from the Spanish Synagogue.

Even near Prague Castle, the tiny photogenic lane known as Novy Svet was devoid of shutterbugs on a recent visit and each shot of its antique street lamps and broad doorways was completely unobscured. The Castle remains the seat of government today, and while searching for the bureaucratic approval of some personal documents that brought to mind the work of the city’s most famous writer, Franz Kafka, I walked across the castle’s wide, snow-filled Deer Moat and passed by the Romanesque Basilica of St. George and the wedding-cake-like Archbishop’s Palace without hearing so much as a single tour guide.


Prague in winter

Airfares from the NY area are surprisingly high, though. The best fares I could find for mid-February were in the $650 - $700 roundtrip.
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#7 Baroness Tapuzina

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Posted 04 February 2008 - 01:25 PM

Another restaurant that is suppose to be good is Perpetuum, which specializes in duck and goose.

Did you make it to the renovated Grand Cafe Orient?

I also heard that Cerny Kohout is suppose to be very good, but expensive.

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#8 voyager

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Posted 12 February 2008 - 06:05 PM

I just fell over this site which is interesting on several counts. First, it provides some thoughts on eating meatless in Prague, something I tried with great difficulty to do in the middle of winter, and second, it lists little Hogo Fogo which was one of my favorite lunch haunts. At the time, it was young and very hip and we were neither but they welcomed us day after day with cheap pasta plates and drinkable red.

"A meal without wine is called breakfast."   Camille Fourmont


#9 Rail Paul

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 12:42 PM

Near Prague Castle, just off St George Square, is a small museum holding paintings, jewelry, maps and other artworks going back hundreds of years in the history of an old Bohemian noble family.

QUOTE
Had a friend not tipped me off before I left on a recent visit to that city, I would never have known either about Mr. Lobkowicz or about his family's art collection, which opened to the public only last year. Housed in a 16th-century family palace on the grounds of Prague Castle, the Lobkowicz Princely Collections are a treasure trove of paintings, drawings, furnishings, and priceless musical manuscripts, all collected by successive generations of one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Bohemia. This astonishing collection, however, is still something of a well-kept secret; guidebooks tend to be updated only every three or four years, so many visitors to Prague leave having never known of its existence, let alone that it is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The masterpiece of the collection is one of only five surviving paintings made by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1565, which depict the seasons of the year. (There are thought to have originally been six. One is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, three others are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other is lost.) This harvest scene presents an amazingly rich panorama of peasant life: Hay is being loaded onto a cart; baskets laden with fruit and vegetables are transported in procession on the heads of their pickers; a group of haymakers, carrying rakes and wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, are heading off to the fields, while others are already hard at work scything corn and bringing in the harvest. In the distance is a village and stretching far beyond are mountains and sky.

This painting alone is worth the price of admission, but it's only the start of what's on view. There are two very fine Canalettos, a curious Rubens painting of Hygieia clutching an ominous looking serpent, a superb Velásquez portrait, an exquisite Cranach, a room of Tiepolo drawings, and the largest collection of 16th-century Spanish portraits, many of them by Coello, outside of Spain. The sitters, not surprisingly, were some of the most important personages throughout Europe and related to the Lobkowiczes.



WSJ

Prague Post

Museum info


QUOTE
Jirska street runs from the square U sv. Jiri (St. George square) in the direction of the eastern gate of Prague Castle. Standing on the southern side in its lower part is Lobkowicz Palace.

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#10 Rail Paul

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Posted 30 March 2008 - 03:21 PM

The NY Times has a travel section article on Prague through the eyes of Milan Kundera.

QUOTE
The streams of visitors are not disappointed by the Gothic Tyn Church or the Art Nouveau Municipal House. But the result of so much beauty is a visual amnesia that lulls even the historically versed visitor into a kind of forgetting, encouraging a Disney castle version of the city and rendering Prague’s recent wounds almost invisible.

As Tereza, a principal character in the novel, climbs the grassy Petrin Hill, Mr. Kundera wrote, “On her way up, she paused several times to look back: below her she saw the towers and bridges, the saints were shaking their fists and lifting their stone eyes to the clouds. It was the most beautiful city in the world.”

But “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” first published in a French translation from Czech in 1984, is no love letter to the city; it is a message from a time of oppression, and one worth carrying for perspective on a trip through Prague. Mr. Kundera submerges the reader in the undercurrents of political life, the rough passages of far-too-recent vintage and the personal repercussions of an invasive, claustrophobic time.

Tereza is climbing Petrin in a dream — a dream in which she will be executed, but only if she convinces the executioners that she seeks death of her own free will. The novel returns again and again to Tereza’s harrowing dreams, simultaneously erotic and morbid.

She and her husband, Tomas, are living through a most tumultuous period for what was then Czechoslovakia: the crackdown by the Soviet Union after Czechoslovakia’s attempt at liberalizing reform. The Prague Spring of 1968 was a brief flowering of openness behind the Iron Curtain; what followed was a trauma hidden inside the city. The novel provides a key to remembering.


NY Times


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#11 Rail Paul

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Posted 18 May 2008 - 05:04 PM

The NY Times has a readers' list of additional points of interest in Prague. The readers' list is a distillation of comments made on the blog created for an article.

Samples:

QUOTE
For budget-conscious travelers looking for a clean, well-appointed and nicely located place to stay, it is hard to beat Miss Sophie’s (Melounova 3; 420-296-303-530; www.miss-sophies.com). Like a hostel, there are a variety of room options, ranging from multiple people in one room or private rooms all for a reasonable price. However, unlike most hostels, Miss Sophie’s decor, facilities, amenities and cleanliness make you feel as though you are staying in a modern flat in the heart of Prague.

(snip)

A superb collection of Medieval Art, displayed in the National Gallery in Prague at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, testifies to Prague’s fine artistic heritage. Creative use of an early medieval convent enables the museum to echo the original setting for the remarkable collection. Strangely omitted from most guidebooks, the museum deserves a half day.

Posted by Patricia A. Neal



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#12 Sneakeater

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Posted 21 August 2008 - 06:23 PM

PRAGUE SUMMER 2008

Without meaning to, I put together an instructive set of restaurants to eat in in Prague this summer. Actually, what I did for the most part was slavishly follow an article by someone named Evan Rail in the Times earlier this year (although one place he recommended had already been raved about by Nathan and several other people on the boards)

Kampa Park

This one I chose on my own. It's probably Prague's best-known fancy restaurant, very popular among well-heeled locals.

Located on the enchanting Kampa Island in the Vltava -- a place one guidebook aptly described as "like Prague's Ille St. Louis, but much more rustic" -- it serves seafood in the International Style. But the way the food turned out provided an interesting slant on International Restaurant Cooking.

I went here for lunch the Sunday I arrived. My red-eye flight landed at 6 AM. My hotel room would not be ready until 3 PM. I thought that sitting on a bank of the Vltava, so close to the Charles Bridge that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, eating fancy seafood wouldn't be a bad way to fill up some time.

The setting is magnificent. I'd recommend people go there for that alone. But then there's the food.

My appetizer was so good that I really got my hopes up. Pike-perch, pan-fried (I think), in a chestnut sauce with bacon. As I was eating it, I couldn't help but think that my grandmother would have really liked it (she'd have had some trouble with the bacon -- but my mother would have snatched it when she wasn't looking). This was International Restaurant Food, but informed by local cooking traditions.

Which I don't think is true of my halibut main dish. I might be wrong, but I don't think Central Europe has a strong tradition of poaching fish in olive oil. This is a dish I'm sick of in New York, and I wasn't any less sick of it on a bank of the Vltava, with the Charles Bridge seemingly within reach. (You might wonder why I ordered it. I'd remind you that it was noon after a red-eye flight.)

Now we can enjoy this sort of deracinated cooking in the United States, because after all this a country that either doesn't yet have a cuisine, or is in the midst of forming it. We're farther from the Mediterranean than Prague is -- but we have more Mediterraneans living here. It seems somehow organic to cook that way here. But how interesting that my dish at Kampa Park that was MittelEuropa-inflected was so much better than my freefloating Restaurant Food one.


U Petrerzke veze

No Mediterranean inflections, or International Restaurant Food, at this place, tucked away in a fairly obscure northern corner of the Old Town. U Petrerzke veze serves what's supposed to be refined traditional Czech cuisine. So portions are smaller, and preparations more elaborate, than what you see in the beerhalls. And -- the curse of the refined restaurant -- they emphasize wine as a beverage rather than beer (even though Czech beer is the nectar of the gods, and Czech wine, well, isn't). (In fact, though, the half bottle of a late-harvest Moravian St. Laurent that they came up with for me was better than decent.)

What should have been a warning sign is that this place, though very far from casual, wasn't that expensive. So what do you think happened? Let's think about my main dish, boar in rose-hip sauce (a traditional dish). The sauce was aces, but the boar just wasn't very good, as a raw material. I've had wonderful pieces of boar meat in my life, in Tuscany and New York City and elsewhere -- but apparently they don't source them at U Petrezke veze. In other words, that old familiar problem with the quality of proteins at inexpensive restaurants with culinary pretentions. (I should add that, given the paucity of vegetables in Czech cuisine, the quality of proteins assumes higher importance.)

Now I'm not telling you to stay away from this place: with its gentle prices, it's a fine choice in a city not known for its fine dining scene. But I wouldn't get excited about it, either.

[More restaurants to come]
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#13 Sneakeater

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 09:09 PM

Le Degustation

So on to Le Degustation (just outside the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town), where we have an honest attempt to update Czech cuisine. Well, not completely honest, because as we shall see, they don't quite cop to what they're doing. Whatever. This was the only restaurant I ate in in Prague that I got really excited about.

Le Degustation certainly tries to fall within current gustatory trends among Serious Eaters. All you can get there is a tasting menu. Your choice out of three: the "Boheme Bourgeois" menu, which purportedly is based on a hundred-year-old Czech recipe book; a menu centering on fish and -- extremely unusual within the Czech Republic -- vegetables; or a Chef's Choice menu constructed out of the former two. All these menus are something like seven courses with a lot of extra "hidden" courses. Wine pairings -- exclusively Czech -- are offered.

I predictably chose the "Boheme Bourgeois" menu. There was a bit of evasion going on here: these dishes may have been based on hundred-year-old recipes -- but I don't think there was quite as much use of foam and gelees as this around the turn of the last century.

So this food was based on traditional Czech food, but lighter and more imaginative, livened with contemporary techniques. The boiled beef, for example, came in a chive sauce that seemed almost creamless. Instead of serving an iced tomato consommee, they served skinned tomatoes chilled in water with olive oil injected into them (something else I don't see 19th-into-20th Century Czech housewives having done much of).

My favorite dish was rabbit, among the best I have ever eaten. The reason why -- at least I suspect it was the reason why -- is one that will be familiar to all us Momofuku fans. When I asked my waiter what the thin layer of white stuff was I saw them melting over the rabbit fillets (I was seated at the pass -- more later), I was told it was lard. Oh, THAT trick.

Like most places in this trip so far, Le Degustation seemed somewhat nonplussed at the prospect of a solo diner. They offered me a seat at the pass, which of course couldn't have been better. I think they were taken aback by how quickly an ill-mannered solo New York diner can get through a multi-course menu.

I highly recommend this place. If you go to Prague and DON'T eat there, I'll yell at you.

*************************************************************************

The house cocktail at Le Degustation is a variation on the Hendricks cucumber Martini, something we've all had a million times and that's hard to get very excited about. Except that this one was noticeably more complex, more interesting, and just plain better than the run of the mill. This was surprising, since Prague -- and indeed Central Europe as a whole -- is not cocktail country. (Why should it be? When you have beer as great as theirs, who needs cocktails?) When I remarked on this to my waiter, he told me it had been formulated by the resident cocktail genius at Bugsy's Bar, which he described as the best cocktail bar in Prague.

I went there after dinner. It turns out that Bugsy's resident cocktail genius just decamped to Pilsen to open a cocktail bar there (a Quixotic enterprise if ever I heard of one). Some cocktails were better than others, but they were all too sweet and fruity (the sign of an immature cocktail culture, IMO). No jiggers.

Don't look for cocktails in Prague.
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#14 Rail Paul

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 10:55 PM

That sounds wonderful, sneak.

tasting menu
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#15 H. du Bois

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Posted 24 August 2008 - 11:36 PM

Interesting. I haven't been to Prague in a few years - the last time in 2001. The city had been altered radically by western influences/investments during the spell between my first visit and my last visits, as was the food. I used to joke about how Prague cuisine was "truth in advertising" - e.g., if the dish was translated as being grilled trout with cucumber, sour cream and dill on the side, that's exactly what it was. Not even a grain of salt as seasoning if it wasn't on that list.

That last visit I went to what was considered to be one of Prague's top restaurants (name of which I cannot now remember), and paid New York City prices for beautifully prepared game meats and the like. But it couldn't have been further from a tasting menu or a chef's choice experience. It's so interesting to see how the food scene has altered still.