Friday, November 25, 2016

Prague - The food

Czech food falls within the classification of Austro Hungarian Cuisine. Austro Hungarian cuisine itself is an amalgam of culinary traditions of various nationalities [Austrian, German, Italian, the erstwhile Czechoslovakia and the Balkan States, Hungary and even Poland] which form a sort of common theme. Of course, localities have local specialities. 

So, for example, Goulash, will appear in traditional menus in Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The Wiener Schnitzel, appears in menus across Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and of course Italy where it is known to us as Veal Milanese and is eaten with a Saffron Risotto. Charcuterie is another common thread with sausages being a unifying food. Obviously, Charcuterie implies the cuisine is Pork based. The Pork Knuckle, grilled, appears on menus of restaurants serving traditional Czech food, and, in Germany it is equally popular and called Schweinshaxe. Dumplings of various kinds are another common food as is the heavy use of Poppy Seeds.

The two main regions of erstwhile Czechoslovakia are Bohemia and Moravia. Today the Czech Republic is in Bohemia while Slovakia is in Moravia. Differences appear in these two cuisines. The Czech Republic favours beer while Moravia wine. Sheep farming is dominant in Moravia so Slovakia has a lot of Sheep Cheese.

A Czech menu is rather interesting. Firstly, Pork is by far the most consumed protein. Duck, Goose and Rabbit are extremely popular too. Pike and Carp abound. Beef is popular too. There is plenty to eat.

We were staying in the Old Town area also known as Prague 1 – this is a postal code. Prague 1 encompasses the Old and New Town which, as you would have read, are the main tourist hubs in Prague. This at once is an equal advantage and disadvantage. Being a tourist hub, you get plenty of the bottom of the barrel [cost wise] Doner Kebab places followed by the Pizza places, pizza and pasta places, oddly Thai and Vietnamese places and sort of multi cuisine places serving all kinds of food with a smattering of Czech specialities. We had no intention of eating in any of these.

Being the tourist hub there were some very good restaurants too. We had decided to stay away from any that had stars in Michelin. We wanted to eat the best of the local stuff. Just as you would go to say Karims and Pandhara Road in Delhi, or Trishna/Apoorva/Gajalee, Britannia and, maybe, Bombay Canteen in Mumbai.

Before getting into the dinners we had, I must tell you about the spartan and delicious lunches we had. Sausages are big in Prague. The grilled Klobasa or Kielbasa [in Polish] is a thing of beauty. Klobasa are either filled with beef or pork, each paired with mustard. The skin has a nice taut snap to it. These are spiced with chilli peppers and garlic or cumin and garlic. Some have Paprika. There was also a delicious smokiness to the sausages that was the result of smoking them. Eating these beauties was a real pleasure. The sausage stalls at the end of Wenceslas Square are traditionally where you eat a sausage. Of course you could eat them elsewhere too and they will be equally delicious. 

The other great delicacy is known as Prague Ham. This, the Czechs say is as famous as the Spanish Bayonne Ham. I would take this with a pinch of salt. But the ham itself is very good. Large hams are fitted onto Rotisseries and cooked over open wood fires. You order a portion and the man sliced of a hunk, cuts it, weighs it and gives it to you. This was without doubt the best hot ham I have ever eaten anywhere. This was at one of the stalls in the town square.

The first night we asked the Concierge at the Hotel to recommend someplace for dinner. The recomendation was Mincovna. This was in a side street leading of the main square in Old Town. The menu looked decent and we sat down for a meal. Beers were ordered and as starters my little eye spied Duck Rillettes. If you ever see Rillettes on a menu, order it without thinking. A Rillettes classically, is pork shoulder, spiced with Juniper, Bay, Pepper, Nutmeg and Clove that is cooked very slowly in its own fat till the meat falls apart. This is then salted and made into a rough paste, put in a jar with a further layer of fat on top to prevent oxidization and aid preservation. When eating you spread the Rillettes on toast. In France, Rillettes are often simply placed on the table for you to eat while waiting. Rillettes are also made with Goose, Duck and Rabbit. Basically, meat with a heavy fat content. Modern versions are also made with Salmon. This was delicious with the cold beer.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered fried cheese. This is a Czech classic. You get two versions of cheese. One is the fried cheese, much like the Cheese Pakoda we are familiar with, except that the cheese is not covered with a Besan batter but is breaded. The second version is where the cheese is pickled with lashings of paprika. This too was delicious with the cold beer.

For my main I had to have the Goulash. This was made with pork and was served with potato dumpling. Evidently the Chef had one party trick, which was to serve crisp brown onion with every dish. The Goulash was decent however the dumplings were a waste of calories. Remained uneaten. HRH the Queen of Kutch had a roast Goose Leg with Pancakes. This was a good dish. Crisp Goose skin, soft melting interior, what more can one want. In the end we left feeling disappointed. We knew we had to do a fair amount of our own research to get decent dining options.

The next night we had identified Vkolkovne [no, I cannot pronounce it either] a Czech Pub in Josevof for dinner. Under the section "Beer Snacks" – which we had seen in pubs in Belgium and Germany – was the other variety of Cheese popular in Prague. Pickled and with lots Paprika. This was good. The beer went down well.

Main courses were the bog standard Schnitzel for me. I like Schnitzel, crisp on the outside, sharpened with a squeeze of Lemon and accompanied by a Potato Salad. Simple tasty food. You cannot possible go into raptures over such a uncomplicated dish. HRH the Queen of Kutch had grilled Pork. Of course, she could not finish her portion so I got a slice. It was excellent. Moist Pork, smokey from being grilled and extremely tasty. This was a far better meal and atmosphere than the previous night at Mincovna. Things were looking good.

Cestr was another highly recommended place. This restaurant specialised in beef. We thought that why not have a good steak in Prague and cancel our reservation at Zelman’s Meats in London. So we went ahead and book at Cestr. The restaurant is located in a huge office building. The place is large and buzzing.

We were served an amuse bouche of toast with a Pumpkin puree. Decent. A wine was ordered, Moravian, to go with our steaks. We were handed a menu, sealed with a sticker. We opened it up and were delighted. Lots and lots of options leapt out. First up for HRH the Queen was a wonderfully clear Consommé – Double Beef Broth with a Poached Egg. Rich tasting, full of flavour, crystal clear, no oil floating on top. The Egg Yolk that oozed when cut enriched the soup. This was good cooking. Very simple classic French techniques to make this Consommé. I ordered a Beef Carpaccio. This too was very good. I admit that this is not a Czech dish, however, this was totally local. The beef was from a Czech breed of cow, the cheese on top was local hard cheese. I loved the dish.

For our mains we shared a T Bone made with the local breed of beef. This was good, but, unfortunately, nowhere quite as good quality as what we have eaten in London. Mind you this was a specialist beef restaurant and at the top of its game. London is a big city. The food in London is far better, alas. A plate of Spinach and Potato Chips accompanied the Steak.

To finish we asked the waitress what her favourite dessert was. Stuffed Dough Buns filled with poppy seeds and rum-flavoured mousse was her suggestion. They were excellent. A good suggestion. To wash this down was two glasses of spirits – Aged Slivovitz and Pear Brandy. This was a mixed meal. The starters and desserts were very good, unfortunately the main event was sub-par.

The last meal was at Lokal a very highly regarded restaurant close to Josevof. This was huge. It could seat 250 at a time. Once section had a smoking section, one had a non-smoking. This is one of the few places in Prague that sells unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on tap. By way of background, Pilsner Urquell is beer that was first brewed in Pilsen, close to Prague. This was where the largering process was discovered and beer as we know it today was first made. Today Pilsner Urquell is owned by SAB Miller and brewed all over the world. However, it is only in Prague you get the original unfiltered stuff. Kozel is another local beer, also available unfiltered. I had a glass of each. Cold, crisp and light. While on the subject of beer you get beer in several combinations. Hladinka (Smooth, half brew and half foam in the glass), Šnyt (two fingers of beer, three fingers of foam, and one finger of empty glass), Mlíko (Milk, a beer almost entirely of foam). Why anyone would want to drink a glass of foam is beyond me.

When we entered at our appointed time of 8 pm, Lokal was absolutely heaving. We were ushered to our table. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Menus were handed out and we ordered. It was to be three starters. The specialities of Lokal, Prague Ham with Horseradish, Fried Cheese and Rillettes with Crisp Pork. All three were knockouts. Each the best examples of these dishes that we have tasted. The Fried Cheese was just this side of melting and far better than the fried cheese at Mincovna. The Prague Ham was cold, and sliced thin. The Horseradish was sharp and delightful with the Ham. The Rillettes had these salty crunchy bits of Pork skin. Delicious.

For our mains I could not resist the last chance to have a Goulash. This was a Pork Shin Goulash served with a Dumpling. This was a Dumpling made with some care, it was nice, just right to soak up the Goulash. We needed some vegetables so a side order of Spinach was appropriate. HRH the Queen was not very hungry, so she ordered a Spicy sausage that was served with grated Horseradish and Mustard. This was a very good Sausage. The portions were small. As we have observed, smaller portions often means that the food is better cooked. This was exactly the case here. The food was very good.

We were still not done. Dessert was what is described as Traditional Czech Biscuit which is a biscuit with lots of whipped cream dusted with Cocoa Powder. The other was Meringue with Chocolate. Both desserts were pleasant.

The last meal had to end with a glass of Mint Liqueur for me - I recall the Crème De Menthe I used to have all those years ago - and Slivovitz for the Queen. It was a wonderful final meal to our final night in Prague.

In the end we had a range of meals in Prague. Some dishes were really world class and others were ordinary and disappointing.

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