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.

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