Prague! Krakow! Vienna! Trip Report! (loooong)
We're back from two weeks in Prague, Krakow and Vienna and are happy to report that we had an absolutely amazing time. Many thanks to the Chowhounds who posted in my threads and others. Our experiences were a mix of great recommendations, a couple of travel books, a couple of TV shows and just our random wanderings and gut instincts. We didn't have a bad meal and almost every meal was great.
Also, while this is a loooong trip report, my wife is also working through the trip on her blog (with many pictures!) but in more bite-sized chunks. Her blog is called Tasty Trix, in case your curious. We did photograph pretty much every thing we ate and drank but obviously there's going to be lot of work involved processing all those shots. Anyway, on to the report!
VIENNA (a short stopover) and PRAGUE:
Our itinerary dropped us in Vienna for lunch with my mom who retired there earlier this year before training it to Prague. While Chowhound extraordinaire Sturmi suggested ditching the immediate area around Wien Meidling for more meal-worthy areas, there is no luggage storage at that smaller station and one of our luggage wheels was already broken, so we settled on GASTHAUS AßMAYERECK, which was just what we needed: A total neighborhood joint with solid food and cold beer. I had their special which was served in a skillet with dumplings, sausage, eierknockerl, white creamy sauce and a really, really fresh fried egg on top. My wife got a burger, which cracked me up since (a) it's an uncharacteristic choice and (b) the last time we were in Vienna we were almost vegetarian, but I guess the long flight left her needing something hearty. Anyway, it was a really good burger. We also split a rich and stomach-warming leben knodel soup. After being warned that the neighborhood was a culinary wasteland we were glad to have found such a place. Does a Chowhound need to go out of their way to eat there? Probably not, but if you have time to kill before a train you can rest assured that their beer is cold and their food is tasty.
Satisfied with our hearty lunch we hopped the train to Prague. On arrival we checked walked up Wenceslas Square to the old town (utterly destroying the busted wheel on the luggage), checked into our outstanding pension (The Green Garland) and headed out to Dlouha street for what we decided would be our first meal: LOKAL. We wanted to start there because it's traditional Czech food but in what we'd read was a slightly easier to navigate setting: Friendly, young staff, sleeker room. We wanted to ease into what we thought might be a tough-to-penetrate local food scene.
Lokal was terrific. The big barrel-shaped pilsners were ice cold and boldly, richly bitter. We split a plate of three spicy sausages with mustard (a subtle heat and a lovely, seasoned flavor) and Prague ham with horseradish cream. This was one of our favorite dishes of the trip with its paper-thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth ham and the bite of the horseradish. I love any society that values horseradish.
We then had a plate of goulash with bread dumplings and roast beef in carrot cream sauce with cranberry. The rich goluash sauce accompanied tender beef that was portioned out very reasonably: No unnecessary monster piles of food here. I particularly loved the bread dumplings, which I discovered were really more like compressed slices of steamed bread. Good thing I liked them since they were on a lot of the plates that we got over the next week. The roast beef was a more original flavor for us since the sweetness of the sauce was unexpected. Both dishes were exactly what we wanted. We put Lokal on our mental list for a possible return visit and headed back to the hotel to pass out.
The next day we strolled across the Charles Bridge, braved the tourist crush, listened to a little New Orleans jazz played by a group of older Czech gentlemen, and made our way through Kampa Island and Mala Strana. Our goal was lunch at U Osla V Kolebce, since they apparently make lovely sausages, but when we turned down their quiet street just off the main tourist drag we found that they were undergoing some pretty intense renovations. Luckily we had a deep list of restaurants to choose from and we hiked up to the Strahov Monastary for the Klášterní pivovar Strahov, where the beer is brewed on premises in the traditional way that the monks used to brew it. While I didn't notice any monks brewing beer I did love the place. We had their amber beer (rich, slightly bitter) followed by their special seasonal beer for early Spring (smoother). We also had a plate of sausage and meats, one of different cheeses and one of little pots of spreads. The spreads were particularly cool. There was a strong tasting beer cheese, a fish spread that went great with bits of raw red onion and something similar to liptauer cheese we've had in Vienna.
We hiked up Petrin Hill and the mock Eiffel Tower to get a nice view of Prague and to walk off some of the beers. We also checked out their fun mirror maze (complete with a mural depicting the battle to drive back the invading SWEDES, of all people) but were dismayed to find that the funicular tram which runs up and down Petrin Hill was closed.
After zigzagging back down to Mala Strana we wandered around some more, eventually heading to the hotel to relax a little. We didn't quite have our trip appetites fully functioning yet so instead of a full dinner we had sausage at an Ostermarkt we discovered at Namesti Republicky. Not the most exciting sausage of the trip but still damn good.
The next day we saw some of the obvious sites (the astronomical clock) and some a little more strange (the desiccated hand at St James Cathedral; After St Stephens Basilica in Budapest we seek out desiccated hands at any church we visit) stopping for coffee at the beautiful GRAND ORIENT CAFE in the House of the Black Madonna. Coffee in continental Europe is so outstanding and is such a fun production, with the silver trays and the little glass of water. I love it.
For lunch we wanted to go to Česká Kuchyně, a cafeteria-style restaurant, but it was closed until later in the day for some reason so we went to plan B, Betlémské Kaple in Bethlehem Square, a favorite of Jana, the woman at the Green Garland. We had frankfusky soup (a belly-warming tomato-based soup with pieces of sausage) and a very flavorful garlic soup with sliced of bread floating on top. We split a plate of juicy roast pork which came with a very tasty red cabbage kraut and both bread AND potato dumplings. The potato ones were even better than the bread ones!
After lunch we headed for the Jewish quarter which we were delighted to discover was even more complicated to navigate than we thought it would be. Buy tickets here, then go here, then go there... Still, the parts that we visited were fascinating. The Spanish Synagogue is one of the most entrancing structures in a city full of stunning architecture, the old cemetery, with its crooked headstones, was a really engaging stroll, and the Pinkas Synagogue, with the Czech victims of the Holocaust memorialized on the wall, was breathtakingly moving the moment we walked through the door. And that was before I found my own surname on the wall...
Needing a drink we headed to the Prince Hotel bar overlooking the Old Town Square. While the martinis were not memorable the view from the roof sure was.
For dinner we decided it was time to partake in what we'd heard was one of Prague's biggest culinary obsessions: Italian food. Instead of going to one of the many Italian restaurants in the Old Town, however, we crossed the Manesuv bridge at dusk (no crowds) and headed north to a quiet residential neighborhood where we dined at LA BELLA CANZONE. We were one of the only tables with customers and the service was a little wobbly (if endearing), but the food more than made up for it. We went with both pasta courses and meat courses: I had spagetti bolognese, which was rich and hearty. My wife had a garlicky shrimp pasta which tasted buttery and beautifully simple, although there was a bit too much oil pooled at the botom of the plate when she finished. The pasta on both dishes was perfectly al dente. For my second course I had a steak topped with smoked mozarella and wrapped in bacon and she had grilled pork with rosemary potatoes. The pork was good but the steak was one of the (admittedly many) highlights of the trip. I ordered it medium rare (in a country where I'd been warned meat was often overcooked) and, if anything, they went a little on the rare side. The bold, salty bacon and the hunk of cheese matched up with the butter-smooth rare steak was a lesson in textures and flavors working together. Really amazing. We paired the meal with an outstanding bottle of Montepulciano. An ideal neighborhood restaurant.
After dinner we strolled back towards the Old Town and ended up at Tretter's, a cocktail bar with an extensive menu of mixed drinks. We tried a few, including an incredible currytini (with fresh curry leaves) and a Pisco Sour, and decided that the bar chefs here really know their stuff. We were also thoroughly entertained by some of the other customers, from the skeevy guy who proudly displayed his two lady friends from a corner table, to the American girl who pouted and chewed out her dad the entire time. Funny stuff.
By the time we were done with all the drinking we actually needed another bite of food so we stumbled over to Wenceslas Square for a fried cheese and mayo sandwich. Um, hello! Talk about yummy late night food!
The next day we jumped on a metro and then a bus and headed out to SAPA, the North Vietnamese community on the outskirts of Prague. Anthony Bourdain made the place seem unfriendly to his camera crew but frankly we were greeted by some of the friendiest people we met on the trip. Granted, we didn't have a videographer with us, but still people were eager to help us eat amazing food, even though the language barrier broke down even further than usual. We were left with no other option than to draw little pictures of pigs and ducks on a notepad to order. We had a couple of steaming bowls of pho at Bun Ca (one beef and the other duck, maybe) accompanied with some long fried dough sticks. These were definitely some of the best bowls of pho I've had and the chance to vary up the flavors and textures added something really great to our overall eating experience. After some more exploring we shared a bun cha at Quan Hai Ha. We had been enthusiastically watching the grill guy get the perfect char using his outdoor charcoal grill so when we finally walked into the restaurant he just ordered for us. The crispy meat and the sweet, tangy sauce plus the fresh herbs and veggies made this a memorable meal.
On the way back we noticed a logo on the metro map indicating that we were passing under something important so we hopped out. Following signs for the Vyšehrad we had no idea if we were going somewhere cool or not but we ended up being really glad that we stuck with it. The hilly park is dotted with historical sites, grand monuments and an impressive church, plus it offers some of the most stunning views of the Vltava river valley we saw on the trip. And, most importantly, it's filled with outdoor beer gardens. We picked a particularly big one popular with both people and dogs, and had a drink as the sun headed towards the horizon. Looking around at all the locals playing with their dogs and their kids, enjoying grilled food and cold beers, we had a blissful moment.
Italian food is indeed a local obsession in Prague. We had a similar experience tonight with a neighborhood (we're staying in the old Jewish Quarter) Italian place that doesn't have a high guidebook profile but provided us with an outstanding meal at a very reasonable price. It caught our eye initially for offering gluten-free pasta (solving a dietary issue for my wife), although we didn't actually order that when she decided to go for a risotto instead. I had a black tagliatelle with crabmeat and we shared a beef carpaccio appetizer, a semifredo dessert, and several glasses of wine. All were exquisite, and the tab, with service, was a princely 1640Kc for two. La Vita e Bella, Elisky Krasnohorske 12/5, a couple of blocks away from Old Town Square.
When we were ready for dinner we headed around the corner from our pension to a place that I at least was hotly anticipating: U Zlatého Tygra, the Golden Tiger. I'd heard that getting a seat at this place was really tough but I had no idea how tough. After an early faux pas (going to see if a couple of vacant seats were actually free) the bartender stuck us at the bar, where we remained for some time. As they handed us Pilsner after Pilsner we were starting to feel discouraged. My wife was ready to give up but I was adamant. "This is happening," I said. Eventually a couple of guys left from a table right next to the bar and a burly Czech guy waved us over and invited us to join him. Truth be told, he was hoping that we were just friends and that my wife was available but he took it in stride and proceeded to make the next few hours some of the most memorable of the trip. Radek, a Czech guy from a town outside of Prague told us that he learned most of his English from watching Jennifer Lopez on American Idol on YouTube, but when you're in a place with the beer pouring policies of U Zlatého Tygra, sometimes the phrase "I SAY YES!" is all you need.
Seven beers later I was feeling great. We also had some food. At Radek's prodding we ordered the tartar, a big hamburger-sized hunk of raw ground beef topped with a raw egg yolk and surrounded by the widest variety or herbs and seasonings that we saw on the whole trip. After mashing the whole thing together and spreading it on toast that had been vigorously rubbed with warm garlic we were left with something so damn tasty we couldn't believe it. Another standout! We also got some grilled sausages that were split and had a beautiful char. Just when we were ready to order more food we found out that the kitchen was closed, but no matter. We closed the place out, feeling very good about having redeemed ourselves from our early error and having made a buddy in the process.
Feeling like we didn't have enough food in us to justify the gallons of beer we'd had (the Tygra just replaces any empty glass with a fresh one automatically, no questions asked) we headed back to Wenceslas for more street food, this time a couple of fat sausages covered in spicy mustard.
The next day we had our biggest plan of the trip set up for dinner so we wanted a lighter lunch. We'd read about a number of vegetarian places in Prague, obviously thriving due to the large student population, so we headed to COUNTRY LIFE. While it was good, it couldn't compare to the other places we were eating at. While it might seem like an unfair comparison, thet did create some very satisfying vegan stews. But some of it was unnecessarily flavorless. For perspective, last time we had some really delicious food at Vienna's vegetarian Formosa. So it can be done. Still, Country Life was good.
The day was filled with some of the more touristy things you can do close to the center of town, including a climb to the top of old town hall and a visit to the Mucha Museum, but when it was time for dinner we put on our dressiest clothes and headed to LA DEGUSTATION where we sat at the chef's table (a counter looking into the kitchen) and proceeded on a culinary journey unlike anything we'd ever had before. All told we were brought well over a dozen different courses including many memorable amuses, plus thoughtful wine pairings with each full course. We ordered both menus (the one inspired by the flavors of traditional Czech cuisine and the one where the chef runs wild with whatever inspires him)
Between the 9 courses n each menu plus the 9 amuses (the same or both menus) and the wine pairings (tailored to each menu, of course) we got to try a stunning array of flavors and textures. I won't list each item here because it's just ridiculous (my wife will probably recap the entire meal on her blog along with glorious photos of each dish) but I'll mention a few stand-outs. There was a braised rabbit belly amuse that was a stunning pop of flavor. There was a pork dish with crisp little horseradish foam bits and a perfectly poached egg yolk that was a stunner. There were a few vegetable components to dishes that outshone even their perfectly cooked proteins, particularly a parsnip puree that was one of the best things I tasted on the entire trip. There were also dishes that made use of offal and tongue, parts that obviously don't get used very often in the US. We had planned this trip to come after some more traditional places so we could contrast what they're doing with the cuisine and it was interesting to see how all the foams and purees and little drops of neat little things were all in service of a flavor. You'd have components that were all great on their own and then, when taken together, created a completely unified and new flavor, but still maintaining the rich, hearty flavors that we'd been having at places like Lokal.
I also loved getting to sample such a diverse collection of wines, particularly on the Czech menu. Moravian wines are definitely underappreciated. They have a huge breadth and having the sommelier's perspective on the wines and why they were pairing them with particular dishes was very interesting. The Moravian dessert wine was extra memorable, with its rich golden color and Tokaj-like presence.
It was the most expensive meal we've ever had (beating Antoine's in New Orleans by a decent margin, but killing them on quality) but I have a feeling that compared to other meals of this scope and ambition it was a steal.
Their website says that the cost of the meal only (without wines and drinks) is 2,250 Kc, which is about 140 USD. They do have a cheaper and shorter lunch menu, but the dinner experience is the real thing, As long as you can afford it, I would recommend dinner.
Make your reservations at least a week in advance, the restaurant is fairly small. Their web site is http://www.ladegustation.cz/en/
Yeah, the Czech menu was 2,250Kc when we were there and the international menu was 2,750. The wine pairings (which I can't imagine not having had since they were so integral to the experience) were over 1,000 each (I think) but I don't remember the exact amount. We probably spent more there than we did for all the rest of the food on the entire trip. And yet, it was well worth it. Like I said, the experience was around 4 hours by the end and we're still talking about it. My wife is going to post pics from the dinner on her blog tomorrow and I'll post the link.
Feeling like we had peaked in a way we decided to revisit some old favorites the next day. We wanted to finally see the castles on the inside so we headed back across the Charles Bridge and made our way back to Strahov Monastery, to finally see the library. For lunch we stopped back in to Klášterní pivovar Strahov for more of their seasonal ale and some of the monk's wine. We also had some pickled Olomuc cheese, since that type of cheese had been part of the cheese course at La Degustation (Olumuc, not pickled) and an onion soup topped with bread and a stinky cheese. Both dishes were obviously ideally suited to go with ice cold beer. Gotta love this cuisine!
After climbing to the top of St Vitus we sat out in the self-service wine bar at Wenceslas Vineyards and shared a carafe of Moravian red. I don't know if the alcohol content in Moravian wine is particularly high or if it was the stunning view of the whole city but this stop left us feeling quite giddy.
We planned to go to Restaurace Rybářský Klub, a restaurant on Kampa Island owned by a society of fishermen for dinner but when we walked in we were struck by how empty it was, how no one seemed to work there and how musty it smelled. We walked through the entire place and exited on the river side without seeing a soul. Maybe just not the season, but it was odd. Creeped out, we decided to head back to old town in the direction of Lokal. We also poked our heads into U Medvídků to see if we wanted to swap out the fish place for that venerable institution. While I'm sure the food and beer are top notch we were turned off by the gift shop and the overly touristy atmosphere of the main dining room. I appreciate that the place has a long history, but so does the Tygra and they've managed to absorb their guidebook-carrying visitors without apparently changing a thing. So we headed back to Lokal, since we wanted more Prague ham with horseradish cream anyway. We also ordered a couple of other items as well: A sort of pork schnitzel fried in lard with potatoes and Czech carp in cumin butter. Lokal is great.
Feeling like I needed one last shot at Tygra, we headed back for a drink, got a table pretty quickly, and ended up also getting a rare roast beef dish. Sadly the staff was entirely different from the first night so we couldn't test out my theory that return visitors would be greeted differently. Next time.
Our last day in Prague was a chance to see the last few things that had slipped through the cracks (the inside of the Klementinum, an attempted ride on the funicular (which, sadly, was still closed), a last drink outdoors on
Malostranske namesti in Mala Strana) plus some taking care of business (a new luggage cart for our hobbled suitcase, some gifts). We also finally made it back to Česká Kuchyně. The set up is that the menu is posted in Czech outside but once you get inside you're on your own. One of the woman at the counter sensed our confusion and broke the day's offerings down for us. We ended up with a couple of plates piled with chicken and pork stews, boiled potatoes, potato knedliky, garlic spinach and pasta salad, plus a couple of frosty beers, of course. While it could have been a bit hotter the food was comforting and homey in a cafeteria sort of way. It didn't jump out as the best food of the trip but for the price it's definitely a good stop of travelers who need a quick, hearty meal. The spinach was probably my favorite part.
My wife spotted an older gentleman patiently sitting while his grandson ate a big plate of dessert. Peering into the dish we spotted the Czech version of mohnknudel, a dessert that my own grandfather took me to eat during my visits to Vienna as a child. Of course, I needed it that instant. Potato dumplings covered with poppy seeds, sugar and butter... Instant childhood flashback!
For dinner we headed south of the National Theater to U HOSPODA NOVAKA, a corner restaurant in a more residential neighborhood. Thanks to the continually surprising innovation of Czech food we even had something here we hadn't seen anywhere else: Templars saute, or a huge potato crepe folded around a rich stew of pork and kidney chunks. Along with yet another memorable stew loaded with pork, dumplings and stunningly colorful braised red cabbage and a couple of final giant Czech beers, it was a great send-off meal.
Eventually we had to go back to the hotel, grab our bags, and stroll back to the train station, sad to say goodbye to Prague but excited for our next destination: Krakow!
I SO appreciate your taking the time to write all this up. We're heading to Prague, Danube River cruise and Budapest in a few weeks. All this detail is going to help a lot. Now if CH just had some kind of print feature that didn't eat up an old growth tree! Copied and pasted. Thanks again.
That would be great if you have the time. This is part of an escorted tour but we'r arriving in Prague several days before the tour begins and staying over in Budapest for a few days at the end. We love this tour operator but they're very full days and by dinner time, we would generally wimp out and eat the very meh hotel buffet. I tried to tell myself that the Turkey and Israel trips simply weren't about food, but it does take away from the experience for the likes of us. TIA, allie.
re: c oliver
Glad you enjoyed the write up! I haven't been active on CH lately but maybe I'll get back into it. It's fun putting all your thoughts down and having them to refer to later.
Remember, though! My views are just the views of one pretty ignorant traveler! Also, this write up is three years old so much has probably changed. Don't take it as gospel!!
While our first overnight train ride was far more comfortable and relaxing than we expected, we still arrived in Krakow at 7am feeling pretty dazed and confused. The very first thing we did after leaving the train station was look at a map and then promptly walk in the exact wrong direction, turning what should have been a 10 minute walk to the Globtroter pension into an hour long wander through completely random neighborhoods. By the time we finally got our bearings we had lost whatever momentum a decent night's sleep had afforded us. After dropping off our things at the Globtrotter we stumbled across Plac Szczepański to Gościniec Polski for some breakfast. They had a nice little buffet with some Polish cheeses and dark breads plus some coldcuts. With a little more fuel in the tank we wandered around a bit and took a preliminary look at Krakow's stunning central market square, before heading back to the hotel to see if we could check in.
After resting a bit we strolled around some more, enjoying the less-densely packed streets and slower pace of this lovely city. We worked our way down Grodzka towards Kazimierz, where we had dinner at PIEROZKI U VINCENTA, the Van Gogh-themed pierogi joint that comes highly recommended. We got a couple of combo plates and tried to devour each little pillow of creamy goodness as slowly as possible. One of the plates had a lovely garlic sauce that we could have definitely used more of. For the price this is a really endearing little place. I also had a Polish beer called Zywiec, which I've had before. It's interesting to note that Czech beers have a nice bite - almost a bit of bitterness - while Polish beer is creamier.
We spied the zapiekanka stands at Plac Nowy, filed them away for future reference, and headed back to the market square for a drink. Sitting outside at one of the cafes we ordered a few different vodkas and enjoyed the beautiful night.
The next morning we checked out some of the medieval sites at the north end of the old town (the barbican, the florian gate, the weird medieval cellar in the McDonalds) and had lunch at KWADRANS, one of the milk bars on Grodska. While is was a satisfying lunch, we had been warned that you shouldn't expect taste-bud popping flavors at milk bars, and that's pretty much the case. A bowl of borscht definitely hit the spot but the mains of a breaded chicken breast and a stew with chunks of what looked like pork meatloaf were good but not great. We put our plans to hit every milk bar we found on temporary hold.
Unfortunately what happened next slowed our Krakow experience down significantly. My wife sprained her ankle on a particularly rough bit of medieval cobble stone while exploring backstreets around Wawel Hill. Ever the trouper, she iced it for a little while at the hotel but then demanded that we head back out. We were down, but we weren't out. We headed back to Wawel Hill, made a snack of a big kielbasa at PRYZYSHAK STARAPOLSKA, the 24 hour grill garden at the foot of the castle, and slowly worked our way up the hill. Of course, when we got there we were told we couldn't enter the cathedral because it was Sunday and you could only go in if you were praying (I don't know how they could tell we weren't going to pray. Can you really spot a non-believer that easily?) but we did get to see the insane chakra point worshippers in the main inner courtyard. Hilarious!
We made our way out of the castle via the dragon's den, which was actually more fun than described, saw the dragon statue spit actual fire (I'm sure that would go over great in the States!) and slowly worked our way up the Planty back to the hotel. An evening of icing a rapidly swelling ankle left us without dinner plans but I did run across the street to POLSKI SMAKI, a little milk bar-esque restaurant to get a few things to eat back at the room. I can't judge too accurately because I was stuck with whatever they still had in the buffet pretty close to closing, but it was a little underwhelming. The golabki and roast turkey were kind of bland. Again, I think spinach was the probably the most flavorful thing.