Restaurant Review: Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Czech Cuisine - Bohemian HallThe Bohemian Hall, in Astoria, is New York’s oldest beer garden. It was established in 1910, and is not to be confused with the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side. The latter delivers culture, served as the venue for a celebration of the 70th birthday of Václav Havel, and hosts the best Czech restaurant in town; the former delivers… beer. Although it does boast a lime tree planted by the same Václav Havel, according to wikipedia. You’ll have to read on to find out about the food.

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Red Alert: Alternative Schnitzels

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

Red Alert - Alternative Schnitzels

Zagat says alternative schnitzels are trendy in NYC. For proof, the duck schnitzel at The Marrow:

When Harold Dieterle reached for his mallet at newly opened West Village joint The Marrow, he didn’t start hammering veal or pork into a thin patty. Instead he reached for some duck, taking a dish that doesn’t vary much from restaurant to restaurant and making it into something exciting again. His version of this Austrian comfort food is served with quark spaetzle, hazlenuts, cucumber-potato salad and stewed wolfberries. The dish is at once different and familiar, providing a fresh take on a plate that can easily feel tired.

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Restaurant Review: Koliba

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Koliba, which means chalet in Slovak, is located in Astoria, not too far from the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden. And as you can see from the frontage, it bears the peculiarity of serving cuisine from a country that no longer exists, and even brags about it on its web site — look at that beautiful Czechoslovakia in red on the map!

The interior is decorated like a hunting lodge, with stuffed animal heads, antlers and hatchets. You’ll find more (and better) pictures on their web site, too. And while you’re there, you might as well make yourself acquainted with the rules of the house. My favorite: “Take out orders are charged extra. Prices are subject to change without notice.”

The menu, of reasonable length, lists many Czech and Slovak classics: beef stews, pork roasts, schnitzels, dumplings, halušky (Slovak spaetzle), klobasa (sausage). Before ordering, keep in mind that the portions are really huge. Judge for yourself from the pictures below, but most dishes are about double the “normal” size.

The grilled sausage was smoky and juicy, as good Czech sausage usually is. I actually wonder if Czech restaurants make their own or order them from a butcher — I would think the latter, which is fine by me.

The langos arrived on a plate so large that it couldn’t fit entirely in the picture! It wasn’t bad, but the dough was a bit bland, with too much garlic and too much cheese. I would have preferred less cheese, but slightly melted.

The combination pork platter consisted of roasted loin of pork and smoked pork with red cabbage (lots of it) with an order of bread dumplings on the side. The roasted pork certainly didn’t look like loin to me, but all the meat was properly cooked and tender. The traditional dumplings played their sauce-mopping role to perfection.

The pork schnitzel (or schnitzels rather, since one portion includes two generous pieces) looked a lot like a chicken schnitzel, but was bland enough that we might never find out the truth. As is often the problem with schnitzels, it was rather dry. The dish could be significantly improved simply by adding some butter while frying, and serving it with an egg on top, and I don’t care if it’s not “the way it’s served in Czechoslovakia”! At least the fries were crispy. As for the under-ripe tomato and other tired vegetables, I’d like to shake the hand of a diner who actually eats them all.

The halušky, potato spaetzle with sheep’s milk cheese and bacon, were borderline inedible. First, the spaetzle looked liked giant greenish-greyish gnocchi and tasted rubbery and undercooked. Then there was the monstrous cheese sauce. Sure, it looks close enough to the reference picture on Wikipedia, but this is just an illusion. I certainly don’t remember eating anything that gross in Slovakia. To be fair, the bacon was good, but this just wasn’t enough to redeem the dish in any way.

The leftovers, minus the halušky that went straight to the trash, fed us for another meal and a half. I can only regret the quality didn’t always match the quantity. Oh, and if you’re one of those individuals with a special dessert pocket, they serve home-made štrúdl and crepes.

Cuisine: Czech and Slovak
Picks: grilled sausage, combination pork platter
Avoid at all costs: halušky
Food: 5 /10

Restaurant Review: Hospoda

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

In a sleepy corner of the Upper East Side, Czech restaurant Hospoda recently opened on the ground flour of the Bohemian National Hall. And unlike its compatriots (such as the nearly homonymous Bohemian Hall) this is not a beer garden. Far from it, in fact, as I would regard Hospoda as the first attempt at Eastern European fine dining in the city. With the Czech Republic’s location in Central Europe, the complete reconstruction that followed independence, and the influx of foreign tourists and investments, it’s not surprising that Czech cuisine would be the first of the former communist bloc to recover from half a century of culinary deprivation — the first restaurant in Eastern Europe to receive a Michelin star is in Prague, never mind that it serves Italian cuisine.

Hospoda means “pub” in Czech, and the place takes its beer very seriously. Only Pilsner Urquell is served on tap, but in four different styles. Beer kegs occupy all of the bar counter, and most of the cellar space that you can see through the glass floor in front of it. Although, since I don’t know of any truly decent place to have a drink in a 20-street radius (and also because I don’t drink beer), I can’t help but think that the space would be better utilized as a full bar area with stools.

The menu is a rather short list of smallish plates organized as first and second courses (as I write this review, I see it’s been reorganized into 3 sections: Green Market, Chef’s and Czech). Small plates doesn’t mean three ingredients thrown on a board tapas-style, though. Instead, think of them as dishes sized for a tasting menu, with you deciding how many courses you plan to have. The menu changes regularly and many dishes are still being tweaked. Depending on your perspective, you can either commend the chef’s efforts or regret that he doesn’t wait until a concept is finished before putting it on the menu.

Before getting to the food, don’t miss the homemade raspberry and ginger sodas, which both tasted very fresh:

The meal started with two amuse-bouches: an unexpected beef tartar (I’ve never seen anybody eating raw meat in Eastern Europe) and toasts of caraway bread with cottage cheese and radish, accompanied by a beer sample.

The duck breast with plums, thyme sour cream and shortbread was very nice and packed a lot of plum flavor, topped with little cubes of stock that melted in your mouth.

The white asparagus composition gathered many classic flavors — mayo, quail egg, mushroom and bacon. Great execution, but it lacked a little something to be really impressive.

The rabbit aspic, covered with apple and cabbage was also well executed but rather boring, partly because I don’t really like aspic and I find American farmed rabbit bland.

The potato variation offered 5 different preparations of the tuber with a nice variety of textures (purée, foam, chips, boiled, and roasted), mixed with morels, Brussels sprouts and cottage cheese. Although the potatoes tasted very good, some of them lacked salt, and I’d say that overall the dish lacked fat: whether it’s olive oil, butter, lard, or bacon I’m expecting a certain level of grease with my potatoes. I would have made the potato purée with a lot more butter, for example.

The Prague-style ham with its thick horseradish foam and assortment of expertly picked vegetables was the turning point where the food went from very good to excellent. The salty, smoky meat melted in my mouth and was perfectly balanced by the horseradish.

The beef oyster blade with its creamy horseradish sauce and barley dumplings demonstrated the same qualities. The delicious slice of meat (that you may know as the flat iron steak in another context) was tasty, and fatty but not overly so. The slightly heavy dumplings were perfect to mop up the thick sauce.

The smoked beef tongue was another melt-in-your-mouth success. I’m not always fond of beef tongue, but this has to be the best one I’ve ever had. The rich, delicious jus and the pickled onions didn’t hurt either. Too bad the yellow pea purée totally lacked salt and tasted rather watery for something that was sold to me as being full of butter.

The lamb leg with lentils was very well cooked and had a good lamby flavor, although as with the pea purée, the lentils lacked salt.

The porcini and egg yolk ravioli — they call them “pasta pockets” — on the other hand, turned out to be problematic. We actually returned the dish because the pasta itself was very undercooked, and the second time around it was still barely cooked but with the egg yolk overcooked. The dish tasted like mushroom but not all that much like porcini (I wonder where they got their porcini from when I’ve been looking for some without success over the past month), and compared to the big yolk, there wasn’t enough mushroom mixture inside the ravioli.

The dessert menu offers a short selection of Czech and not-so-Czech dishes. The profiteroles tasted fine but were disappointing — not disappointing enough to stop us from cleaning our plates under 2 minutes, though! The choux puffs were hard and not puffy enough. They weren’t filled with vanilla ice cream but with whipped cream instead, and the ice cream was served on the side.

The cherry variations consisted of cherry sorbet, preserve and sauce. The sorbet, which was more akin to a parfait, was the strong point of this tasty dessert. It had a great, almost chewy texture.

The apricot soufflé with lime and fromage blanc ice cream was equally good, if only a bit too small. All the flavors worked well together.

More traditional were the potato noodles. While the pear jam and rum custard that came with them were both very good and the plate very pretty, the noodles themselves were rather plain and heavy.

Despite the little ravioli incident, the salt level of certain items and the on-going tweaking of some dishes, Hospoda is definitely several steps above all the other Eastern European restaurants in town, especially for the attention it pays to textures, presentation and cooking techniques — not to forget taste, of course. The restaurant easily lands my highest rating so far!

Cuisine: Czech
Picks: Prague-style ham, beef oyster blade, smoked beef tongue, cherry variations, home-made sodas
Food: 9/10

Czech and Slovak Festival at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden

Last weekend, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, NY hosted their annual Czech and Slovak Festival. For two days, bands and folk artists offered performances traditional and contemporary, Czech and Slovak. Here are the Czechoslovak Moravian Club Folk Dancers:

It’s worth mentioning the Bohemian Hall’s long history. At the end of the 19th century, many Czech and Slovaks fled Austria-Hungary and settled in Astoria. In 1910, the community purchased farmland and turned it into an authentic European beer garden, which has survived for over 100 years.

More dances:

This being Memorial Day weekend, we were also administered a triple dose of national anthems — Czech, Slovak, and American:

Some traditional dancing revolved around the valaška, or shepherd’s axe:

Of course, we didn’t come just to watch grown-ups gesticulating with hatchets. We were also there to taste the food, and the Bohemian Hall offered a special menu for the duration of the festival. Since the dishes were prepared in advance and kept on a steam table, it would be unfair of me to make a formal review. So here is a short account of the things we tried.

The pierogies came with two fillings, potato and mushroom. While the smaller mushroom ones were a little bit dry, the potato half-moons were moist and greasy (in a good way):

The homemade potato pancakes, served with a classic apple sauce and sour cream, contained way too much garlic:

The Moravian stew, with its traditional bread dumplings, consisted of tender cubes of pork in a caraway sauce. Quite nice.

Later in the afternoon, a long line formed as the outdoor grill started serving sausages and burgers. Here’s the country klobasa with fries. The klobasa was smoky and juicy, just how I like it. The crispy fries weren’t bad either!

There was even a welcome dessert stand, selling apple štrúdl, prune and cream cheese koláč, and a mixed berry cake. We only had room for the strudel, which, unfortunately, was dry and embraced the unpleasant American habit of drowning all apple desserts with cheap cinnamon.

All in all we had a very nice time at the Czech and Slovak Festival. But one final complaint: $8 for a shot of plain vodka is way too much money!