Tuesday, 10 September 2013

V Zátiší Restaurant, Prague

I consider myself to be a fairly liberal sort of person: I read the Guardian, eat hummus and don't set vulnerable people on fire. I vehemently disagree with prejudice but of course, would fight to the death someone's right to be an ignorant racist. I've realised lately, however, that I have a prejudice of my own. I say have - fortunately several restaurants Jamie and I visited in Prague earlier this year have managed to correct that - I can now proudly say HAD; I had a prejudice of my own.

"So what's the prejudice?" I hear you cry, pleading with me to tell you (read: bumping up our bounce rate to 99%). Well, until recently, I was under the impression that Asian food was never very good on the continent. If you read our post on Sansho, you'll know how wrong I was. Perhaps it was that lemon chicken I ate in Amsterdam, forever associated with an entirely horrific rite-of-passage 'Dam experience, maybe it was the millions of photographs of horrific-looking plates of south Asian food I'd seen advertised in tourist areas, or the fact that Asian restaurants in Europe seem to assume that no-one can handle any level of spice outside of the Balti triangle. Whatever it was, I made a judgment. A bad judgment. And I'm pleased to say, I'm pleased to admit to y'all here today: AH WAS WRONG, my brothers and sisters, I was wrong.

So where was it that proved me wrong? Well, I should really stop pretending to be readers asking me questions, particularly ones with answers that are based in the title of the post. As you may have guessed it was a rather posh ol' place down a quaint back street in Prague: V Zátiší (meaning cosy and peaceful - it was both of those things save a lone American tourist asking, "what the hell is turboh?"). Part of a group of fine-dining restaurants, this place clearly knows what it's doing: an opulent building, plush interior, perfect service and damn tasty food is always going to be an equation for a successful business operation.

Look at the size of those salt flakes!
I was initially drawn to the restaurant as I spotted they offered tasting menus - but not just that, they offered MIX AND MATCH tasting menus. Those with an affinity for spending vast sums of money on small plates of food and wine kept out of arm's reach (myself included) will be aware that this is practically unheard of. Next to a tasting menu description, you'll usually see the words "to be ordered by the entire table". One person alone may not enjoy a tasting menu, nor an experience different to that of their companion. The rules associated with tasting menus is, perhaps, a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I was excited: this meant that Jamie and I could each have a different menu and try more food. Hurrah! Oh, and then it got interesting. There are three choices of tasting menus: one, which I suppose consists of the classics of the restaurant; one made up of modern-Czech dishes; and one from "our visiting Indian chef's menu". Jamie went for the first, and I the latter.

In retrospect, maybe Jamie should have opted for the Czech menu as the 'menu degustation' he opted for whilst *ahem* positively delightful, was nothing really special, just very well cooked food. There was the unctuous foie gras, served with an orange puree and brioche, the pretty-as-a-picture asparagus salad (and heaven knows what else was on there now, this was back in July, but it tasted as fresh as it looks), and the perfectly-pink steak seasoned as if Jamie had poured the salt shaker on it himself. 

Curry & Mash. I'll never understand.
And, whilst the Indian menu was by no means flawless, there were some delicious dishes: the tomato and lentil soup with green pea and "tiki croquettes" - the latter like little fish-roe explosions of flavour - the mustard tandoori tiger prawns, which I will try and recreate until my dying day, and the tandoori chicken makhani, as good as any you'll find in Mughli. The lamb-lime curry was also delicious but far too rich for the fourth course in the meal, and I'm really not sure what they were thinking when pairing it with saffron and mushroom mash. The potatoes, entirely delicious on their own, would have been lovely with a stew but with an Indian lamb curry? No no no no. The blueberry kulfi with gulab jamun balls has even seen me attempt Indian sweets at home since.

By the end of five courses, we were full to say the least. At first it felt like an expensive bill - and I think it was for Prague - but paying around £45 each for the quality of cooking and service back in the UK would have been more than reasonable. I'm not saying you should rush and book a table if you're planning a trip to the Czech Republic, but if you fancy a taste of the curry mile whilst you're there, and have a fussy bunch of eaters who are hard to please, then V Zátiší is the place for you. It was worth it for me, if only to cure me of my prejudice.

V Zátiší
Liliová 216/1, 110 00 Prague 1
Reserve online here.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hemingway Bar, Prague

Manhattan at Hemingway Bar
I love booze. There, I've said it - that's the first step, right? Jamie loves it too. We're probably doing to die eating cat food because we've spent all our money on Gin Mare and Rip Van Winkle bourbon. Not a bad way to go, I suppose, as long as Heston comes up with a pet food range for Waitrose in the next thirty years. So, we've frequented the majority of Manchester's cocktail bars and now we're moving on to the Continent.

In our experience, upmarket cocktails bars in Europe differ from bars here. There's few places which offer table service, although Proof and Epernay are exceptions, though neither of those are quite as intimate as the places we've visited when abroad. There's nowhere quite like the hostess-seated, Green Door in Berlin, the ring-for-entry art deco space where Miles Davis once played, L'Archiduc in Brussels, or the too-cool-for-menus, El Gimlet in Barcelona. Fortunately, Berry and Rye - a stone's throw away over in Liverpool - is more akin to our favourite holiday haunts.

Maybe it's just the holiday feeling that adds a certain je ne sais quois to the aforementioned bars, and I certainly mean no insult to the places that are serving some damn good drinks here in Manchester. Maybe I just go all pretentious as soon as I'm drinking in another country and want table service ALL THE TIME, certainly no standing and a bartender who looks like he's walked off a 1930s film set. God, I'm demanding, aren't I?

Courtesy of the Hemingway Bar website (it actually looks better than his in real life)

One of the places we found on holiday in Prague which ticked all the boxes was Hemingway Bar. We loved it so much, we managed to squeeze in three trips in our four night stay, and certainly worked our way through a hefty portion of the menu. I knew I'd love it as soon as I read the 'bar rules' on the menu online; some way find them a little arrogant, but having worked as a bartender for a number of years, they're exactly what I like to see when I walk into a place - I'm just not sure if others take as much notice of them.

Pistachio & Blackcurrant Cosmo - with pistachio foam!
From the attentive and friendly service - we had the same waiter on two of the three nights who was lovely, and had recently started working there after his old place of work flooded! - to the attention to detail in the drinks, we found the place hard to fault. Hardened booze-hound Jamie found some of the drinks too 'watered down' for his English palate, but on the most part they were a delight, even the cocktail which included English mustard!

As I say, we tried a few cocktails over the three days, and learnt they mixed a mean Manhattan and even did justice to some more typically 'girlie' drinks, such as their Pistachio & Blackcurrant Cosmopolitan. If you enjoy proper cocktails, a spot of table service and even a good ol' shake at your table, Hemingway Bar is worth a trip (or three!) if you're visiting Prague.

Hemingway Bar Praha
Karolíny Světlé 26
Praha 1

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sansho, Prague

Soft-shell crab slider with wasabi mayo

Halfway through our meal at Sansho the owner, Paul Day, passes by our table and asks us how we're enjoying the food. Anna promptly replies, “It’s really good.” I've just had a mouthful of some seriously tasty Beef Rendang and blurt out, “It's amazing!” Without a second thought, Day says, with genuine sincerity, “It's not amazing.” And with that he carries on his way.

Maybe it's modesty. Maybe it’s the high standards he expects of himself after working in Michelin-starred establishments. Maybe, just maybe, the Thai food he creates cannot, in his eyes, come close to the ‘real deal’. Whatever the case - for us - the whole experience was unexpected. Thai food in Prague? And good Thai food at that.

It’s not as strange as it sounds, we later found out. The Czech Republic has a huge Vietnamese population, over 10,000 of whom live in Prague according to the 2011 census. They are the country's largest immigrant community; so it stands to reason that Pan-Asian cuisine is something Prague-dwellers are familiar with. However, it's perhaps not at the level of sophistication that Day brings: soft-shell crab sliders, pork and watermelon salad, and that 12-hour Beef Rendang.

Pork and watermelon salad
Opened in 2011, Sansho is Day’s first restaurant; and judging by the turnout on a Tuesday evening, it's not doing too badly. Admittedly, it is high tourist season - we're flanked by a large group of Australians on one side and an American couple on the other - but the buzz about the place seems to have stayed strong. It's sparsely decorated and staffed with easy-going, somewhat Bohemian Czech twenty-somethings.

Paul Day was senior sous-chef at Nobu and worked under legendary David Thompson at Nahm, the world's first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin star - so, despite what he says, the food is very good. He offered to choose our courses for us, presumably to showcase the best of Sansho, although judging by the other dishes we saw flying past us, I'm not sure there'd be any dud courses in this place.

Beef Rendang

The meat dishes are the real treat. Given Day's background, it's no real surprise. Raised in Stafford, he was working in a butcher's shop at the age of 13; a shop which he ended up owning then selling when he was 18. With the proceeds he moved to London and started as a butcher in Chinatown, working in various restaurants as well. It's a passion he has brought to the restaurant and the city: he's started his own butcher's shop called the Real Meat Society (superbly branded, by the way) which provides all the meat used in our dishes. He's also committed to improving local farming practices and confessed in a radio interview his interest in "changing the Czech palate." You can see what he means: the pork belly is cooked five different ways in a three-day process and the rendang contains 21 different ingredients. The beef salad featured some incredibly tender steak and a complex array of non-native herbs.

The seafood was surprisingly good, considering the Czech love of meat (in particular pork). The Soft-shell Crab Slider is sensational: the delicate bun giving way to deep-fried crustacean with a hint of a heat from the wasabi mayo. They're deceptively simple and so good you immediately want another. The slider, along with the clams in an aromatic broth and salmon sashimi, were fine examples of less Thai-inflected cuisine that Sansho is capable of. 

Sansho - Interior. Like some hip New York gallery.

The only letdown was the desserts. Sticky toffee pudding and baked cheesecake could be staples of Thai kitchens for all I know; but I seriously doubt it. It's not that they were bad necessarily, it's just that on a sweltering summer's evening, we craved something with coconut, mango, and lime. Thankfully, they'd mixed some refreshing cocktails, a cucumber collins and a watermelon cooler, that did a good job of staving off the heat.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that rarely have I ever been as satisfied with a meal as I was with the tasting menu at Sansho. This may be down to my 'sunny' holiday disposition but I'd like to think that my critical faculties were still intact. Don't trust me? Then, there's only one way to find out.

Petrska 1170/25
110 00 Praha (Prague)