Monday, September 8, 2008

Goldenen Hecht

Goldenen Hecht, Heidelberg, Germany

Restaurant attached to a small hotel by the historic bridge in Heidelberg.

Most of central Heidelberg seems to exist as a tourist destination. Several of the streets are restricted access for cars, allowing pedestrians to walk and shop freely along them. Although there are German necessities stores, small markets and the like, the majority of the shops sell souvenirs of one sort or another.

By a happy chance, we visited Heidelberg on a weekend when there was scheduled to be a large fireworks show. This was a happy chance in more ways than one. It not only allowed us to see the show, it indirectly resulted in our discovering the Goldenen Hecht, because every other restaurant appeared to be full, and in Germany, or at least in Heidelberg, there was no concept of a waiting list.

So we happened upon this little restaurant and, it appeared, got their last table. We enjoyed the casual atmosphere--the room we were in had all of four tables and the small bar, so it felt more like a cozy old-time lounge than a restaurant, the more so because the seating was on benches and mismatched chairs. The staff joked with us and each other, and the owner (or at least the Guy In Charge) wandered around the floor chatting with customers and his staff.

We started with small green salads, basically just lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, with a tasty light citrus dressing. The beer bread, as all German bread has been, was fresh, thick, and good enough to eat plain. But we couldn't resist using it to sop up the herb cream sauce that came with the mushrooms and bread dumplings (the first main dish). These were a seasonal kind of wild mushroom whose taste was lost in the sauce and parsley, but which had a good, firm texture reminiscent of an oyster mushroom.

The other main dish we got, the pork sausages, were excellent. The skin crackled, and the rich, almost smoky meat was tender and juicy. Hands down the best sausages we had in Germany this visit. The sides of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes were solid, if not spectacular, but the mustard provided was spicy and perfect to counteract the sweetness of the sausage meat.

The third dish was a steak topped with fried onions and accompanied by some really fabulous fried potato slices. They almost reminded us of home fries, but really good home fries.

For dessert, we opted for the Kaiserschmarr'n, which we'd heard about at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Supposedly it was the favorite dish of one of the last Emperors (Franz Joseph, maybe?). It's basically shredded pancakes, with raisins soaked in rum. Here at Goldenen Hecht, they topped them with "sugared plums," which turned out to be a plum compote. It took half an hour to prepare, but the waiter assured us it was worth it.

How right he was. The "pancake" looked to have been baked, more like a Dutch pancake than a traditional American flapjack. It almost had the consistency and sweetness of bread pudding, only a little more custardy, and with the powdered sugar on it, it was just delightful. The plum compote was good, though honestly it didn't add a whole lot to it.

We had a good European dinner there, killing about two and a half hours until it was time to go see the fireworks. Mark's aunt, who had never been to this place before, now has a new addition to her list of restaurants to take people to when they visit Heidelberg, and Mark and Tim have a place to go back to.

Burgrestaurant at Thallichtenberg

Burgrestaurant at Thallichtenberg near Kesel, Germany

Traditional German restaurant on an old castle grounds

You can't really throw a stone without hitting an old castle in Germany. Mark's aunt took us to one near her house, a place called Thallichtenberg which has a lovely restaurant on the premises. It probably doesn't look much like the place where the castle residents dined in years past--the specials are listed on a large rolling mirror--but it's charming and the staff are extremely friendly and attentive.

We started with pumpkin soup, which didn't have a strong pumpkin flavor but did taste of creamy saffron. Unexpectedly light for pumpkin soup at a German restaurant. Next we moved on to salads, a simple combination of lettuce, shredded carrot, and shredded cabbage (white and red, only slightly sour). Mark and Tim both enjoyed the creamy dressing, tangy like ranch, but with a sweeter flavor.

The main courses were wild boar stew, and pork medallions with herbed cream sauce, both served with mushrooms and spatzle, traditional German noodles. Mark and Tim both loved the spatzle, like fresh pasta but with a softer texture and a creamy taste, almost of potatoes (though it is not, we believe, a potato noodle). The wild boar in the stew wasn't as gamey as boar we've had in the past--apparently Germany has quite the large population of wild boar (we would later see one dead on the road to the airport). The stew was a dark, winey stew that included mushrooms and a dark red berry called a johannesberry, whose tangy fruit flavor was fairly weak compared to the others. The boar and the stew really overpowered everything else, though we could tell the mushrooms tasted fresh.

The pork medallions, too, tasted mostly of the herbed cream sauce, which was a little salty but rich and tasty. Both the sauce and the stew were delicious with the spatzle, too.

We had room for a couple desserts, so we split the rotiger ritter (or "poor knight"): french bread dipped in milk, browned, and rolled in sugar and cinnamon; and a bowl of four small scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with hot raspberry compote. The rotiger ritter tasted like cinnamon French toast, but with a sweeter bread. The hot raspberry sauce melted the vanilla ice cream quickly, leaving a creamy vanilla-raspberry soup, which we found nothing to complain about.

It's easy to see why this place is kind of a "special event" restaurant for the nearby villages. It renewed our faith in German cooking, and would have been the best meal we had in Germany, save for the next day's visit to Heidelberg.


Ottakringer, Vienna

Pub just off the river bank in Central Vienna

There's a section of the riverbank that the locals call "the Bermuda Triangle," because it's so easy to get lost in the pubs there. We aren't sure, but we think we found it, and so we thought we'd stop for dinner at one of the local joints.

We're still not sure what the actual name of the place is. The sign said "Bermuda Brau - Ottakringer." That could just have been a beer sign, though. At any rate, we grabbed a table out on the narrow street and ordered our usual bread basket with the pork schnitzel and a perch with tomato sauce. Mark got a brown beer which he liked well enough, resembling a New Castle brown. Tim got a Pepsi Light for the first time in Europe.

The beer bread here, as everywhere, rated highly. One thing Germany and Austria can do is bake bread. We were slightly disappointed with the pork schnitzel, although it was good. It was pounded very flat and fried with a smooth breading, not a crumb breading as we so often get in the states. The meat was good and not too dry, and with lemon, the flavor was pretty good. It just wasn't the wonderful regional specialty we were anticipating. We did like the potato salad that came with it, though (Tim more than Mark): a very simple sweet-sour dressing, like the Pennsylvania Dutch's German Potato Salad, but without bacon or extra trimmings, and not heated.

The perch was good, a simple whitefish done well. It was overwhelmed by the tomato sauce, but that was okay as the tomato sauce was pretty good, thin but nicely salted and with good juicy tomato. The fish came with buttered and herbed potatoes; the herb was mostly parsley. Good potatoes, cooked just right, but again, the butter and parsley was nothing special.

Good location, out on a street table on a warm summer night, but other than the location, there wasn't much to recommend this place as opposed to any of the other pubs in the "Bermuda Triangle" of Vienna's riverside.

Haas & Haas

Haas & Haas, on Stephandomplatz in Vienna

International tea house associated with a tea shop

"A variety of international breakfasts," the guidebook said, and the menu at Haas & Haas didn't disappoint. We'd arrived in Vienna by train at 6 am, found ourselves a room and showered, and were hungry for a good Austrian breakfast. Haas & Haas offers not only that, but breakfasts from many other cultures, including Chinese (dim sum), Japanese (miso soup), and American (baked beans and a fried egg). Given the curious composition of the American one, one wonders how authentic the others are, but we were interested in an Austrian breakfast, and we assume they got that right.

Their tea menu reads like a wine list, and you can buy any of their teas from the shop next door (which we did, later on). Tim had a Marille-Pfirsich (apricot-peach) blend that was delicious; Mark thought highly of the coffee. We ordered a sweet pastry, scrambled eggs on toast, and an omelette with herbs.The herbs in the omelette were rather subtle but still good, and the scrambled eggs moist and creamy. The sweet pastry was nice: lightly sweetened dough sprinkled with nuts and a light dusting of powdered sugar.

The ambience was terrific, though. We were seated in a small interior courtyard, decorated with flowers and plants and very peaceful, just a few steps from one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vienna. We may have been there late, but the courtyard wasn't crowded, and the whole breakfast was very relaxing.

The tea shop is worth mentioning too. They have hundreds of tea varieties that all sound delicious, not to mention the shelves full of tiny travel-friendly jams and jellies. We also picked up some jellied fruit candy to snack on, which had very rich flavors. The staff all spoke English and were glad to help us decide among their many products. If you're at Stephansdomplatz around breakfast time, whether you're feeling international or not, this is a great place to unwind before resuming your touristy day.

Staromestska Restaurace

Staromestska Restaurace, Prague

Traditional Czech cuisine on the Old Town Square

(Note: I'm terrible at diacritical marks--will try to edit to add them later.)

If you're going to be a tourist in Prague, you might as well eat out on the sidewalk at the Old Town Square. You'll pay a premium for food you could get cheaper a couple blocks away, but it's worth it to see the twilight descend over the ancient buildings, the lights go on, and the other tourists go walking by. And, as it turns out, the food is pretty good.

There were a few Czech dishes that we'd been reading up on and wanted to try. We didn't get the fried pork knuckle, sadly, but Staromestska did offer roast pork loin with red and white cabbage, and bread and potato dumplings, as well as a roast chicken with pear, fries, curry sauce, and cheese sauce. So we sat on their patio, where the prices are about 40% higher than inside the restaurant--again, you're paying a premium for the location and the view.

The waiter waved us to our choice of table, and understood enough English to help us with our order and inform us that they did not accept credit cards. They did, however, take Euros, which we had enough of. So we sat right on the edge of the square, the last row of tables, as the sun was setting, and sipped our beer and Coke Light (same price), and reflected on how lucky we were to be in Prague.

In Prague, as in much of Europe, you have to request bread; it doesn't come free with meals. So we did, and got a basket with some slices of beer bread--good and sour, like the bread at Allegro--and rodlicky, the traditional Czech banana-shaped roll. The rodlicky was slightly disappointing, almost like a pretzel with its solid but not crispy crust and firm interior. But maybe that's what it's supposed to be like.

Nothing disappointed about the rest of the meal. The chicken and pork both came out tender and juicy. Good fries, firm and crunchy, and good cabbages. You could tell the difference between the more sour white cabbage, which was almost sauerkraut, and the sweeter purple variety, though both were marinated and cooked. The dumplings took the place of our mashed potatoes, thick, bready, and moist. The potato dumplings almost had the consistency of the gnocchi from Allegro, while the bread dumplings tasted like slaps of unsweetened bread pudding. Both good for sopping up gravy or softening the bite of the cabbage.

We sat and ate our Czech meal, watched them fold up the shade umbrellas, and watched the buildings shine under the glow of the lights. Wonderful way to conclude our too-brief visit to Prague. We toasted the city with a promise to come back.


Allegro, in the Four Seasons Hotel in Prague

Italian cuisine in a luxurious four-star setting.


In all our research on Prague restaurants, the Four Seasons' Allegro kept coming up. Not as authentic Czech cuisine, just as one of the best restaurants in the city. So we figured we had one full night in Prague, we'd give it a shot.

Walking in, you get the impression of elegance immediately. It's quiet and dim without being dark. Windows give a lovely view of the river and, if you're in the right seat, the Charles Bridge. Otherwise, you might be "stuck" with a backdrop of wood paneling, floral arrangements, and simple colorful art.

Service was generally excellent. We were never presented with one course before another was finished, and all of our instructions about splitting dishes were followed to the letter. The only problem was that the portions were somewhat larger than we'd been expecting, but more on that later.

The first course, or zeroth course, perhaps, was an amuse-bouche of duck with bacon, marscapone cheese, and glazed fig. We enjoyed it: the duck didn't overpower the other flavors, melding well with the salty bacon and sweet fig.

We particularly love bread, as you may have gathered. The bread basket was outstanding here. Besides the standard white country bread we'd been given to dip in olive oil at the beginning of the meal, we also had a thick black bread, sour and seedy, but not as thick and sour as some of the ones we've had in California, so it was to both of our tastes. There was also a light beer bread with a lighter sour taste, almost like a softer sourdough, crispy breadsticks, a potato bread with onion topping that was as light as focaccia, and a fruit bread which, sadly, we did not get to try. The only disappointment was a bland flatbread.

We didn't want to fill up on bread, but we couldn't help ourselves--until the appetizer arrived. "Variations on tuna" was the official name, presented as three small dishes on a plate: tuna tartare with a refreshing cucumber jelly and a slightly sweet green tomato foam; seared tuna over "panzerella" (?), a seasoned diced tomato mixture that also included some dried mango on top; and a variation on a nicoise salad, with cooked tuna over greens, potato, cucumber, and tomato with a balsamic reduction. The tartare had a very summery taste, between the cucumber jelly and the celery and bell pepper mixed in with the tuna. We didn't like the mango on the seared tuna, but the rest of it went together well, the creamy tuna with the sharp tomatoes. And the nicoise was very nice, proving to have egg, green bean, and olive in addition to the potato, cucumber, and tomato--quite a lot to fit into one small sampling, but an excellent combination, also rather summery and light.

For the middle course, we'd selected the homemade gnocchi, and this might have been the highlight of the meal. It was served with morels, tiger prawns, chopped langoustine, and walnuts in a zucchini sauce with carrot foam. The gnocchi was terrific, not doughy nor as heavy as we're used to, with a great potato flavor that the sweet zucchini sauce combined with to make it hard not to shovel the whole plate down. The morels and shellfish were fresh, good earth and sea flavors to go with the potato and veggie. We like European walnuts, thicker and meatier than their American counterparts. The carrot foam we weren't sure was necessary, but it was a nice visual touch to an overall yellow-orange dish.

While we were recovering from that, they brought out the duck to show us the cuts they were going to cook so we could approve of it. The skin was brushed with a sweet glaze, and we each got a small leg portion and a larger breast portion. Interesting difference between the two: the texture of the breast meat was thicker but the flavor less rich than the leg meat, which overall we both preferred. We couldn't finish that course, much as we wanted to, because we'd run out of room. It turned out to be lucky that we didn't try.

We attempted to decline dessert, but the waiter talked us into a lemon sorbet by telling us that it aided in digestion. All right, we said, one to share. Unfortunately, that opened the door to a pre-dessert offered by the chef, a plum tart topped with plum sorbet, which was really good, but by the time our individual lemon sorbets arrived--one each--we were groaning. Digestion, we said. We need help with that. So we ate the (very good, very lemony) lemon sorbet--and the attached little wafer cookie--and sat back, thinking, fools that we were, that the meal was over.

When the waiter brought the bill, he also brought along a small tray of petits-fours. Upon seeing our expressions, though, he asked if we wanted them added to the box we'd requested for our duck (and the remains of the bread basket). Please, please, we said. He was good enough to box up another set, but even though he left the original eight on our table, we resisted the urge to eat them.

And then, on our way out, they gave us macaroon cookies! We'll tell you how they are when we finally get around to eating them. But we have to recommend Allegro for anyone seeking fine dining in Prague. It's pricey--dinner was as much as our hotel room for the night, almost--but it's truly an experience to cherish and remember if you want to be pampered for one night, and feel like the royalty that once lived here.

Cafe Savoy

Cafe Savoy, Prague

Cafe serving full meals and wine as well as French pastries and coffee

This Parisian-style cafe was founded in 1893 in an old apartment building. It's been continuously in operation since then, through Communist Party rule, when officials met there to consider new memberships, and the current Czech Republic, where it's now a historical destination with a great kitchen and wine list. The interior is very modern, with some nice touches: when you walk downstairs to the bathrooms, you pass the wine cellar and can continue down to overlook the bakery.

The ornate ceiling dates from the early days of the cafe, was covered up, and recently rediscovered. Its colorful, floral designs, almost Middle Eastern, give the cafe a distinctive character that shows in the menu offerings, the modern furnishings, and the service. Our helpful waiter recommended the Savoy Cake when we were lost in the dazzling array of pastry choices, and offered to bring a fresh coffee when Mark's cup spilled out into the saucer.

We wanted to get the traditional European (more German/Austrian) "Kaffee und Kachen." Mark got cafe au lait, and Tim got fresh ginger tea. Really fresh ginger tea, basically just ginger root steeped in hot water. The Savoy Cake we shared had an outer layer of marzipan enrobing layered chocolate cake and cherry.

It was a great place to sit and enjoy the late afternoon sunlight on the cobblestone streets of Prague. It's easy to let yourself drift back there to the early 20th century, with the nearby bridge over the Vaclav and the palace and St. Vitus's Cathedral looking down from the hill. Or you could be in the seventies, discussing Party politics with your fellow officers. It's not even bad to imagine it's a late summer afternoon in the twenty-first century, and you have nothing better to do than while away an hour with a friend over Kaffee und Kachen.