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[CZ] Prague Notes


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#16 Ampelman

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 03:14 AM

QUOTE(H. du Bois @ Aug 24 2008, 07:36 PM) View Post
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.

Yes. My first visit was back in December 1984, when the mood was glum, the city's unrestored beauty shrouded in a fair amount of grime and the food scene grim. Plus my brother and I nearly froze to death after a drunken tram mishap left us stranded in windbreakers at 3 a.m. in sub-freezing misery, far on the outskirts of town. By my last visit, on business in 1997, things had changed dramatically. A few memories stand out from that more recent one: a side trip to Kutná Hora and kostnice Sedlec, the bizarre ossuary where the elaborate interior decorations are fashioned from thousands of human skeletons and skulls; a private tour (and dinner) at the lavishly restored 1912 art nouveau gem Obecní dům (Municipal House); and a performance of Smetana's highly rustic opera "The Kiss" (Hubička) at the Opera Národního divadla (National Theater).

Thanks for the great dining write-ups, Sneak. Time for me to visit Prague again.
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In a thousand concrete rooms!"

#17 Sneakeater

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 08:34 AM

Le Degustation made me think.

Suppose someone opened a restaurant like this in Lower Manhattan, featuring traditional Czech cuisine lightened up and inflected with contemporary cooking techniques. They might decorate the dining room with murals in the style of Alfons Mucha, and maybe call the place "Moldau".

What would happen? A lot of people here would whine that they were misrepresenting -- "Frenchifying" -- a cuisine that doesn't need such tomfoolery, in order to make it more palatable to Americans. And just as I thought it was bullshit when people said that about Danube in New York City, I'd think it was bullshit here.

Surely, no one would lodge such a complaint against a restaurant like Le Degustation located in Prague. I would hope we'd agree that they can do whatever they want with their cuisine. But once you accept that, it shouldn't make any difference whether this is being done in Prague (or Vienna) or New York. It should only matter if it's good.

Also -- let's face it -- Central European cookery can use lightening up. Czech food (if not Viennese or Hungarian) is, not to put too fine a point to it, pretty boring. AND too heavy. A place like Le Degustation does just what's needed to suit it to contemporary tastes.

Moreover, if Central European cuisine is part of the European mainstream -- something its native proponents are very adamant about -- then there's no reason in the world it can't avail itself of contemporary European techniques.

It may seem like I'm setting up a straw man here. But if you read the "Danube" thread on the New York Board, you'll see what I'm talking about.
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#18 Sneakeater

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 09:24 AM

Cerny Kohout

Although Cerny Kohout ("Black Rooster" -- it's like that old Steve Martin riff about traveling in France: they have different words for everything) is now located fairly near the National Theater in the New Town, it started out in a suburb. I think that's an interesting fact, because what Cerny Kohout -- a mom-and-pop operation focusing on fresh seasonal ingredients and local produce, with a modest but quirky chef-driven menu -- most reminded me of is a New Brooklyn Restaurant.

Frankly, I think I blew this place by ordering wrong. I hewed to the more traditional Czech dishes, when to get the most out of this restaurant I think you have to go to the parts of the menu where the chef gives himself his head. Certainly, my lamb shank (the menu called it a "lamb knuckle") was as well prepared as any I've had, the outside crunchy and the inside meltingly tender. I shouldn't have let my native suspicion of the dread Fusion deter me from trying the dishes where the chef tries out French and Asian influences: I wouldn't avoid them in Brooklyn, and it was patronizing to avoid them here.

But remember what this place is. It's like the New Brooklyn: what you get won't be impeccably conceived and slickly executed; rather, it will be sort of funky, untutored, and, you hope, soulful.

Visitors should learn from my mistake.
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#19 Ampelman

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 02:55 PM

QUOTE(Sneakeater @ Aug 25 2008, 04:34 AM) View Post
It may seem like I'm setting up a straw man here. But if you read the "Danube" thread on the New York Board, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Sneak, you know of what you speak!

Flipping through Vaříme zdravě, chutně a hospodárně, sort of like the Czech Joy of Cooking (published in English the 1960s as "The Czechoslovak Cookbook"), I'm hard-pressed to find many dishes that really appeal. Many are stultifyingly plain (a recipe for "Ovar" consists of pork jowl, tongue and heart, boiled in salted water, served with "optional" horseradish or mustard; the Roast Pork Loin and Roast Goose recipes have no other ingredients save for salt and caraway seeds; Radish Salad is radishes, lemon juice, sugar and oil; etc.); others would seem to have limited appeal nowadays (brain pancakes, jellied brawn, creamed tripe).

Milan's, the kitschy Slovak restaurant in Brooklyn, was never very good the few times I tried it -- salty, heavy and stodgy. I for one would prefer a "Frenchified" place like Vienna '79, Peter Grunauer's "neue" take on Austrian food that Mimi Sheraton awarded 4 stars to back in 1981, noting approvingly,

QUOTE
The cuisine that Mr. Grunauer has devised for his restaurant could be described as nouvelle Viennoise, styles that at first glance might seem mutually exclusive considering the lightness of the nouvelle cuisine and the heaviness of traditional Austrian fare. But by lightening up on fats and flour, and by garnishing dishes with an unusual rainbow of bright steamed and sauteed vegetables, Mr. Grunauer and his chef are devising what is virtually an original cuisine. It is true that many of the themes considered new by the French chefs who are credited with inventing France's nouvelle cuisine are inherent in Austrian-German cooking. Among these, the most obvious are the accents of sweet and sour fruit sauces with meat dishes, the use of cool-flavored green herbs and aromatic spices such as dill, juniper and caraway, and the frothy. brightly refreshing eisbecher - a sundae of sherbet, fruits and ice cream.

I wish it, or something like it, were still around here in NY. Austrian-German cooking can be a thing of beauty; two of the most wonderful meals I had in recent memory were at the Michelin-starred 'Caroussel' restaurant at the Relais & Châteaux Hotel Bülow Residenz in Dresden, and the rustic Hans-Thoma-Stube ("Schwarzwälder Behaglichkeit und regionale Spezialitäten") in the excellent Columbi Hotel in Freiburg-im-Breisgau. I hit the latter one in springtime and had the Spargelkarte, which was truly outstanding.


"Cheryomushki, Cheryomushki
Shall bloom a thousand blooms
Of happiness and dreams come true,
In a thousand concrete rooms!"

#20 Nathan

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 03:35 PM

yeah, the best parts of the Cerny Kohout menu are the Franco-Czech stuff...and the fallow deer in the spring.
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#21 Sneakeater

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 05:51 PM

So, ultimately, the problem with restaurants in Prague is that they serve Czech food. It's like the conductor Osmo Vanska: the problem with being a Sibelius specialist is that ultimately it means you conduct a lot of Sibelius.

I know that these days we're supposed to say that everybody is special in his or her own special way. But let's be honest: Slavic food isn't as good as Austro-German or Magyar food (much less French or Italian). So the old truism remains true: there are lots of good reasons to go to Prague -- but (Le Degustation excepted) food isn't one of them.

Beer is. Now that I've been, I'd put it this way. Take however good you'd expect Czech beer to be, based on things you've read and exports you've drunk. Then, multiply it by ten.

That's how good Czech beer is in the Czech Republic.
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#22 Nathan

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 08:59 PM

Word. I'd kill for some Starapromen fresh off the tap right now.

I share your sentiments toward Czech food...but I think that about Eastern/Central European food in general.
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#23 Sneakeater

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 10:35 PM

Hungarian food is like incomparably better.

I don't know if you're counting Austria in Central Europe (not only is Vienna the classic Central European city, but it's farther east than Prague, as people in Prague never tire of telling you), but Viennese food is like on another planet from Czech food.
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#24 spaetzle

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 10:54 PM

When I was in Prague I didn't enjoy the food, but found it interesting from a novelty perspective. Those big wet dumplings... Just very interesting.

Hungarian food is also kind of wet. But I liked it more. That was where I started eating spaetzle smile.gif
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#25 mongo_jones

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 11:01 PM

my last (and only) time in this part of the world was in the late 90s as well. i too remember liking the food in budapest more than in prague (where i mostly remember a lot of whole fish in drab sauces). but i was travelling with my girlfriend's very generous family, and they're not very adventurous eaters, so i doubt we were eating at the most gastronomically adventurous places anyway. i remember that one of our meals in prague was at that three ostriches place. but i have no recollection of the meal other than the place was probably a tourist trap. but god, it's a beautiful city, and i'd love to spend another week eating badly there.

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#26 Nathan

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Posted 25 August 2008 - 11:13 PM

I see Austria as kind of a culinary salient in central Europe.
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#27 Sneakeater

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Posted 26 August 2008 - 09:25 AM

QUOTE(mongo_jones @ Aug 25 2008, 11:01 PM) View Post
but god, it's a beautiful city, and i'd love to spend another week eating badly there.


Fuck yeah.
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#28 H. du Bois

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Posted 26 August 2008 - 11:42 AM

You can exist quite happily going from coffee house to tea house to bar. Who needs the restaurants, anyway?

#29 omnivorette

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Posted 26 August 2008 - 12:32 PM

I need schnitzel and wurst like I need air.


"It seems a positively Quixotic quest to defend food from being used as any kind of social signifier, as if it could avoid the fate of each other component of our everyday lives." -Wilfrid

#30 Sneakeater

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Posted 02 September 2008 - 03:11 PM

Cerny Kohout

So I went to see the great revival of A Walk Worth Taking -- a 60s pop opera originally put on at the famous alternative theater the Semafor -- at the National Theater. (It's such a huge hit it's still playing more than a year after it's debut in the stagione here. They should tour it.) This presented an opportunity to revisit Cerny Kohout, and to try to rectify my previous ordering mistake.

I opened this time with a salmon pate with crabmeat, served alongside a cod liver emulsion (yes: they are making food out of the most famously distateful item in world gastronomy!). This seemed as far away from traditional Czech cuisine as possible, since only William Shakespeare and possibly OTB would think a fish like salmon would be native to the Czech Republic. It was a good dish (don't tell my mother, but I loved that cod liver emulsion!). But still in the rather amateurish, unslick, "New Brooklyn" style I had noted in my first visit.

Then, on to something described as larded carp. (Carp, unlike salmon, is WAY native here.) As far as I can tell, larded meant rolled with slices of Prague Ham. Since you can barely get a piece of fish that isn't served with a pork product in New York these days, I felt right at home. Another good dish, also in the unslick, slightly amateurish style.

I guess I think this is a good place -- I'd be happy to return yet again -- but not great. Again like the "New Brooklyn" restaurants, if it were somewhere else, with a lot of better restaurants, people wouldn't get as excited about it.
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