Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Doesn't anyone know how to prepare unagi in this town? The continuing quest for decent ethnic food in Bratislava

Sushi in this town fares slightly better than Thai, which may not be surprising given that sushi restaurants in Bratislava outnumber those of all other asian cuisines. However, while the places we've tried generally seem to get the fresh nigiri and maki rolls right, none of them have even the slightest grasp of how to prepare and serve unagi (grilled freshwater eel), which is devastatingly sad because unagi (with its silky smooth, delicate texture and rich, totally distinctive sweet/savory flavor) is my favorite thing to eat at sushi restaurants, and I ultimately judge a sushi place on the quality of its unagi.

Osaka Sushi Bar is a Slovak-operated/staffed restaurant located way the hell out in Vrakuňa, which is a panelak wonderland on the outskirts of town that feels like nowheresville, and whose main claim to fame is a seedy, crime-ridden panelak development called Pentagon. I'd been told by a few sources that Osaka serves some of the best sushi in Bratislava, which is the only reason we made the epic trek out there. Overall, the sushi was fine, but nothing mind-blowing. 

The fish (sake [salmon], maguro [tuna]) was fresh, not fishy, and the flavors and textures were quite nice. The unagi tasted decent, but quite strangely, was served cold (I have to emphasize how utterly bizarre and wrong this is), and as a result it lacked that freshly grilled, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture that it's supposed to have, and its rich flavor was diminished as well. So, a big point deduction for that. 

The spicy tuna rolls were quite spicy and tasty, if a bit primitively executed, while the salmon skin rolls were pretty good, with a nice bit of crunch. The rice served with the nigiri and rolls was a bit too cold - it needed to be closer to room temperature. Overall, the flavors were nice, and given that it was the first sushi we'd had in over a year, it definitely satisfied our craving.

Osaka's main problem was that it was really overpriced. This was exacerbated by the fact that they don't serve nigiri in pairs, which is really unusual. If you order sake or unagi nigiri, for example, they only give you one piece, as opposed to two, yet it's priced as if you're getting two! If Osaka was located in San Francisco, it would be considered merely decent and we probably wouldn't return because there are better places that are easier on the wallet. But if this really is the best sushi in our adopted home of Bratislava, I suppose we may have to return when our sushi cravings get out of hand.

Zen Sushi, another sushi place operated/staffed by stone-faced Slovaks (I'm really starting to miss being greeted with the traditional "Irasshaimase!" by the sushi chefs working behind the counter of Japanese-run sushi joints), offered kind of a similar experience, except that it was a bit cheaper and MUCH closer to home (literally just about four blocks away). Located in an indoor shopping "passage" in the Old Town that links Laurinská street and SNP square, the place was relatively hopping with locals, and they had unagi on the menu, so we figured we'd give it a try. 

Like Osaka, the fish was fresh and tasty, but also like Osaka, they sold nigiri individually and not in pairs, but fortunately, it was more reasonably priced here, so ordering two pieces wasn't going to significantly run up the bill. 

However, the glaring sore point here was the unagi. Once again, it was served stone cold, and in terms of texture, was more dried out and lacking in flavor than Osaka's. I just don't get it. Unagi is not served cold, so why are these places stubbornly insisting on doing it the wrong way? Would it kill them to at least zap it in the microwave before serving it? I mean, that would be preferable to eating it cold. 

The jury is out on which of these two places is better. Terezia leans toward Zen, but I might give the slight edge to Osaka, despite it being horribly overpriced and far away. Of course, neither place can hold a candle to our favorite sushi joints back home (Tachibana - we miss you!). 

Maehwa Sushi was recommended to us by some people we know, who told us that they always saw lots of Asian people eating there, which they took as a good sign, and which is something you don't see at the other places at all. In fact, we saw more people of Asian descent in one hour at this place than we've seen in an entire year and a half around town. I'm not exaggerating!

At any rate, Maehwa is located way the hell out by Zlaté Pieski, a fairly large, public swimming hole that's popular with the locals in summer. However, taking the tram there in the middle of winter involved walking about a quarter of a mile from the tram stop to the restaurant, down an undeveloped and unlit street littered with potholes full of murky water, and whose sidewalks were covered in several inches of snow. Our feet were wet by the time we got to the place.

Maehwa is Korean-run (the first asian restaurant we've found that's not staffed solely by Slovaks, although the waitresses were Slovak), and there is a really good Korean-run sushi place in San Francisco called Nagano, which made some of the most kick-ass unagi I've found anywhere, so I had somewhat high hopes for Maehwa.

Unfortunately, it was really all over the place in terms of quality. The tuna maki and shrimp tempura maki were good (nice balanced flavors, fresh), while the sake nigiri was just okay (not as buttery in texture as it could be, but at least it wasn't fishy), although very generously portioned (were they trying to get rid of it?). However, the unagi was horribly, appallingly wrong.

Rather than prepare it in delicate but tender and fleshy strips, the pieces of unagi looked like thick little rectangular sponges - a bit like Spongebob without the pants. The unagi nigiri left a lot to be desired, but the grossly overpriced unagi roll was just utterly and unpleasantly bizarre. The unagi, while at least warm this time, had an odd texture - it didn't really melt in our mouths in that silky, buttery way that good, fresh unagi does, and the chef left the skin on the bottom, which I've never encountered before. The glaze was kind of nasty - it was excessively salty and sweet at the same time, and left a funky aftertaste. I just don't think it was fresh, and the gross glaze did a poor job of masking that. Plus, the avocado, egg, and rice roll which the unagi was placed on was stone cold, and just didn't meld together with the unagi at all. It didn't help that the thick, sponge-like chunks of unagi were too thick to warp around the roll, but were basically just kind of stuck on to the top of them and fell off as soon as you picked a piece of it up with your chopsticks. The unagi may have been served warm-ish, but that was obviously not enough to redeem its other glaring flaws.

We noticed that the (presumably) Korean people who were filtering in were all being ushered into a back room, which we could sort of make out through an open doorway, and which appeared to have a much cozier and inviting atmosphere than the brightly lit room in the front where we were seated. We also noticed that all the dishes that the waitresses were bringing back to them were Korean entrees. This *might* just be the place to go for some traditional Korean specialities. We do like good Korean barbecue, but it's not something we regularly crave like sushi or Thai.

Oh well.

Next on the list is a very chi-chi place in Petržalka called Fou Zoo. I'm a bit skeptical because its menu is kind of asian-european fusion (some of their sushi rolls have foie gras, for example), but they do seem to offer some more traditional sushi items. Hopefully we'll get the chance to try it next month, and as soon as we do, I guarantee you'll hear all about it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Can't anyone make a decent curry in this town? The quest for good ethnic restaurants in Bratislava

After nearly a year and a half in this city, Terezia and I STILL have not found a restaurant that we would return to with any enthusiasm. Food is one of the things I judge a city by, and sadly, Bratislava has come up seriously short on that front. It really bums me out, because while we don't have the money to eat out all the time, it's still nice to be able to get out every now and then to a good restaurant and eat some tasty food, chat, and enjoy the ambience of a place that's not our kitchen for once. Is that really so much to ask?

Apparently, it is.

First of all, the overwhelming majority of restaurants in this town serve Slovak food. If I may be brutally honest, Slovak food can be good if it's prepared well, but even the best Slovak food has got nothing on good Italian or French cuisine, in my ever so humble opinion. A lot of Slovak restaurants serve what often amounts to heavy, bland mush - lots of starches and meat originally intended to fuel hard-working farmers. Besides, I can get good Slovak food from Terezia's mother's kitchen, so why pay money for inferior product?

There are some more upscale restaurants in Bratislava that focus on European or international cuisine, which if the reviews are to be trusted, are supposed to be pretty good. Yet these places are also outrageously expensive and therefore not the kind of restaurants that you could just pop into on a regular basis. At least not us.

Bratislava also has a handful of Asian restaurants, which is important because Thai, sushi, Indian, and Vietnamese were crucial staples of my diet back in the Bay Area. We had a diverse array of ethnic restaurants back home, some of which were insanely good (and even walking distance), and which we could always rely on to dazzle our tastebuds.

Sadly, Bratislava's ethnic eateries have so far proven to be pretty lacking. Firstly, there really aren't that many to begin with, which can be partly explained by the glaring lack of non-caucasian ethnic minorities living in this town. Typically, Asian restaurants, for example, spring up in western cities out of a necessity to cater to their respective ethnic communities, and then eventually attract other people who appreciate the food as well. But with such a minuscule ethnic population in Bratislava, there is an equally minuscule list of ethnic restaurants to choose from.

But I also think that Slovakia, having been an extremely ethnically and culturally homogenous place all through communism, suffers from a native population that isn't all that interested in or open to ethnic cuisine. I do think this is changing, albeit slowly, but the fact that Slovakia attracts so few immigrants from far-away countries certainly exacerbates the problem.

But of course anyone can learn how to prepare Thai, Japanese, or Vietnamese food - and many of the ethnic joints in this town appear to be run and staffed by native Slovaks. Clearly, you don't need to be of Japanese descent to master the art of sushi, and nor does being Japanese ensure that you're a kick-ass sushi chef. Still, one gets the impression that some of these places in Bratislava, whether they are Slovak-run or not, haven't put too much time into perfecting the type of cuisine they've chosen to focus on.

The reviews

What I thought I'd do is write some reviews of the restaurants that we've tried so far, just to give you an idea of what we've encountered. Since Thai is probably our first love, as well as the first ethnic cuisine we tackled here, we can start with that.

Sadly, Bratislava has far more Thai massage parlors than Thai restaurants. There are currently has two (yes, count 'em, two) Thai restaurants, and both of them more or less stink. The first one we tried, Lemon Tree (over on Hveizdoslavovo namestie, by the American Embassy), was seriously overpriced, and served uninteresting and water-thin green curry with desiccated and flavorless pieces of chicken breast. I've bought pre-packaged, frozen green chicken curry entrees from the grocery store that were better than this. The same problems reasserted themselves with the red curry with duck: bone dry and bland pieces of duck breast in a very mediocre curry.

We also ordered an appetizer consisting of shrimp that were so rubbery they could have doubled as erasers, which were slathered in an amateurishly conceived, cloyingly-sweet vanilla bean sauce that did not pair well with the shrimp at all. The prices were insane, and we wound up paying over 80, including the half carafe of mediocre white wine. Even the best Thai restaurants in San Francisco wouldn't cost that much for two people.

What was especially weird about this place was that it also serves "Mediterranean" food, with a whole other menu focused on that. Why not just focus on one cuisine, and work on getting it right?

Needless to say, after one visit to this bastion of mediocrity, we had no intention of going back.

Green Buddha, located several paces away from the Old Town's main square, seemed promising at first.

On our first visit, the tom kha gai was passable, while an appetizer with delicate fried shrimp with a cool, sweet-and-spicy sauce, was decent. Their green curry chicken, while not mind-blowing, was really not bad (thick, spicy, decent flavor), and definitely better than Lemon Tree's. Sadly, the dish Terezia ordered, Thai duck with mango sauce, wound up being a very Slovak-tasting smoked duck breast slathered in a pile of super sweet canned mango goop. There was nothing even vaguely Thai about any part of this dish. Disappointing. 

Since the curry and the appetizers were okay, we thought we'd go back and give the place another chance, but this time order a Thai staple. Terezia opted for the pad thai because, given that it's such a standard, how badly can you screw it up? Pretty badly, it turns out. 

What we got honestly shouldn't even be called pad thai. This was a plate of soggy, overcooked noodles slathered in a sauce that tasted mainly of beef stock, with dried out pieces of chicken, totally flavorless pieces of shrimp, and only a vague peanut flavor. There was no cilantro, no fish sauce (two very crucial ingredients), and absolutely no indication that the chef had any clue as to what pad thai is supposed to taste like. (It also lacked bean sprouts, which give it crunch). I don't understand how a restaurant could serve this dish to paying customers and keep a straight face.

Google pad thai recipes and I guarantee the first five that come up will yield better pad thai than the bizarre pile of gunk this place served up.

Another thing - they put little bits of curly leaf parsley in the rice that came with the curry, which is further evidence that the chef here has no idea what he or she is doing. I mean, what kind of a Thai place would do that???

Adding insult to injury, neither place serves thai iced tea, which is just mind boggling. That's almost like a Slovak restaurant not serving any beer.

Both of these restaurants would have trouble just staying open in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland.

But the biggest issue for me about these places is, why would you go to all the trouble of opening a Thai restaurant in the most expensive part of town to serve Thai food, and then get it so horribly wrong? I mean, in this day and age, you don't have to go to Thailand to get a feel for even halfway decent Thai food. And with gazillions of recipes available to try out on the internet, there's just no excuse for being so far off the mark. I don't get what the motivation is here, because these people clearly aren't passionate enough to even attempt to prepare something that could pass for decent Thai food, yet they've clearly put a lot of money and energy into opening up these restaurants (both of which look quite swanky inside). I mean, if the passion's not there, why bother?

What's even sadder is that these restaurants seem to be doing fairly well, which means their clientele probably doesn't have enough experience with good Thai food to know any better. And that means that these places are exploiting the ignorance of the local population, simply because they can.

Fortunately, Terezia makes a mean green curry chicken, and it's so good that it genuinely satisfies my intense and unrelenting Thai cravings. But still, it's sad that we can't go out and enjoy somebody else's amazing curry, not to mention other Thai staples like pad thai or tom ka gai, all with a refreshing cold glass of Thai iced tea. We both miss this kind of thing dearly.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I'll detail our attempts at finding some decent sushi.