Monday, July 15, 2013

Two-year anniversary at Liviano

So, it's been two years since Terezia and I tied the knot. And what a cuckoo and kaleidoscopically colorful two years it's been. We thought we'd celebrate by going to what is (by some considerable measure) our favorite restaurant (so far) in Bratislava - Liviano.

This was our second time here. We first tried Liviano when my friend Randy was in town back in April. He's as much of a food snob as we are, and when he was here he insisted that we try one of Bratislava's more high end restaurants, and I'm glad he did. Liviano's food could be described as kind of pan-European, but leaning heavily toward French and Italian dishes and techniques. A typical fried-food-reeking Slovak joint with aloof kroj-clad waitresses serving piles of gloop-coated meat and potatoes this is definitely not.

Liviano is a bit of a strange restaurant. It's tucked away deep in the bowels of Petržalka, far, far away from any of the tourist foot traffic in the Old Town. The communist-era Petržalka, Bratislava's biggest (and most dystopian) borough, is not exactly known for its charm, and only the bravest and most curious tourists ever set foot there. Liviano is located in an extremely unassuming building that's attached to the base of the commie-era Technopol tower, looking from the outside a bit like something out of a California strip mall. Stranger still that the place is only open Mon-Fri and closed on the weekends. Both times that we've eaten here happened to be on a Monday evening, and both times we practically had the place to ourselves, which is a bit odd for a restaurant that recently made some list of the top 101 restaurants in Europe. When we were there with Randy, Terezia asked the server on the way out if they get more business during other nights of the week. He showed us the reservation book for Friday that week and it was all booked, so the place does, apparently, get busy.

Petrzalka's Technopol building - is this where you'd expect to find an awesome restaurant?
Liviano - looking a bit like something from a strip mall.

And this place deserves to be busy, because the food is amazing. For appetizers, I had the foie gras variation - foie gras done three ways - while Terezia had a poached egg with goat cheese, which came with this tube-shaped thing filled with ham tartar mixed with some kind of delicate cheese. Mine had a savory foie gras, a semi-sweet/fruity foie gras over minced fruit, and a dessert foie gras, which was foie gras incorporated into a silky smooth whipped cream. Really delicious overall, especially the savory part. Terezia's ham tartar tube was actually more interesting than the egg, and had a nice smokey undertone.

Foie gras variation.
Terezia with her poached egg with goat cheese and ham tartar tube thingy.

The main dishes were the indisputable stars. I ordered tagliatelle with funghi porcini - one of my very favorite Italian pastas - and I'm glad I did because they absolutely nailed it. People may remember from the posts about our honeymoon in Italy that I go stark raving mad for good porcini pasta dishes, and this dish instantly transported me back to Florence and Siena, where I had the same kind of porcini pasta dishes, which were every bit as amazing as this was. Orgasmically rich, intensely flavorful and seasoned to perfection, with meaty pieces of fresh porcini that packed a powerful punch, this dish left me wanting to writhe around on the floor in a funghi porcini stupor - it was that good. There was also just the right amount of the foamy and delicious sauce. I could wallow in a vat of this stuff and never get sick of it.

Tagliatelle with funghi porcini. Yum.

Liviano evidently kicks ass when it comes to wild mushroom pastas. When we came here with Randy, Terezia ordered a dish of home-made gnocchi with fresh morels in a similarly rich foamy sauce, which was every bit as mind-blowing as this porcini dish. Liviano's chef is clearly a man after my own heart.

Terezia ordered the braised veal cheeks, which came bathed in a rich sauce and a pea puree, all of which was cooked to absolute perfection. The cheeks were so tender that you didn't need a knife to cut into them, and the sauces complemented everything wonderfully. Every bite was an explosion of flavor. A classy and well-executed dish.

Braised veal cheeks with green pea puree. 

I totally can't remember what the wine was, but it was a super tasty local red.

Desserts were a bit more run-of-the-mill, but still enjoyable. I had crème brûlée, which I know sounds pedestrian, but it was still quite nice. Terezia had something called crema catalana, which was basically like a miniature oblatky tower with layers of light, airy whipped cream and fresh berries in-between. Nothing mind-blowing, but appropriately summery. The glaring lack of anything involving chocolate on the dessert menu was unfortunate, but the entrees were so great that I can't complain too much.

If we could afford to eat here every week (hell, every month), we absolutely would, because the food here is worth coming back for. I suppose we'll have to settle for every season, which is okay since the menu changes seasonally. It's nice to have a restaurant that doesn't serve the same old Slovak slop, and it's also great that Liviano's prices are actually pretty reasonable and even a bit lower than some of the high end restaurants closer to us in the Old Town (whose menus, it should be noted, tend to look a bit less inspired than Liviano's). At any rate, this town has so few decent dining options that we seldom eat out, so it's really nice to make those times when we do eat out count!

As for our anniversary, I'm happy to report that we're still totally happy with each other and that our experience in Slovakia has not turned us into one of those annoying rotten couples who bicker all the time and make everyone around them feel awkward and uncomfortable. So, yay for that!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A day trip to Brno

We'd been meaning to take a day trip to Brno for eons. Whenever the train pulls into Brno on our numerous trips between Bratislava and Prague, I'm always struck by the view from the station of the gothic cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul, with its pair of needle-thin spires that shoot dramatically into the sky, which sits atop a small hill in the center of town. The next thing you see from the train if you're heading in the direction of Prague is what looks like a big nuclear cooling tower, ringed by dilapidated old streets with torn up, abandoned couches and random articles of clothing strewn about the sidewalk. These things got me kind of curious to see what Brno is all about. Plus, we'd wanted to explore a Czech city other than Prague, for once, to get a taste of another part of the country and to see what life is like in a non-touristy city in the Czech Republic.

Brno's main cathedral as seen from Špilberk castle. 

Brno is the Czech Republic's second largest city and the capital of the Moravia region, and it's also kind of a halfway point between Bratislava and Prague. Brno is not a huge tourist magnet (Rick Steves doesn't even mention it in his Eastern Europe book), and it's definitely not some undiscovered gem. While it does have a nice historical center and some other attributes (which I'll get to below), it's ultimately more of a workaday city with a lot of surrounding industrial sprawl and communist-era panelaks, but also a fair amount of green space and, apparently, a healthy university student population. It's actually tempting to draw comparisons between Brno and Bratislava, given that both cities are on the small side, with Brno having about 400,000 inhabitants (Bratislava has 450,000), both have similarly compact historical centers, and both seem to have a balance of historical splendor and contemporary urban grit.

Heading up Masarykova, Brno's main drag.
A typical jumble of architectural styles in Brno. 

But Brno lacks anything akin to Bratislava's quaint, fairytale pedestrianized historical center. While it does have the cathedral, Špilberk castle, the old town hall, and a few other compelling sites, it doesn't have anything like Bratislava's intimate and ornately colorful main square, and there appear to be precious few medieval, renaissance, or baroque buildings downtown. But much of what the city does have - a slew of 19th-century historicist and art nouveau buildings - is nevertheless pretty striking. In fact, Brno absolutely slays Bratislava in terms of its myriad drool-inducing art nouveau buildings (of which Bratislava has very few). Many of Brno's facades reminded us of the grand buildings in Vienna, with perhaps a dash of Budapest, which has the effect of making Brno seem a bit more, well, city-like than Bratislava, if that makes sense.

Bow to the massive Art Nouveau head.
Groovy facades in Brno. 

Brno's main square, Namesti Svobody (Freedom Square), is shaped a bit like a stingray. From the train station, you reach it by walking up Masyarkova, the main drag, which meanders gently up a gradual incline, and after three blocks opens up into the square. The square lacks the sort of over-the-top, dramatic historical facades and spires that line Prague's main square, yet the buildings on Namesti Svobody are still nice, and the square itself has a pleasant kind of energy to it, with lots of locals and only a handful of tourists sitting on its benches, playing around the interactive modern fountain, drinking pivo in the outdoor seating of any of the numerous pubs and cafes, or just milling about. When you look around at the square's buildings, you'll notice an interesting mix of old and new - grand and slightly goopy 18th and 19th century facades sit side by side with a few angular commie-era boxes and some sleek contemporary structures. Yet, nothing really sticks out in a jarring way; there's a relative sense of harmony.

Masarykova, again.
Freedom Square, the heart of the historical center (with the needle-like spire of St. James cathedral in the background).

The square is interrupted by a tram line that runs right through its center, but the trams don't seem to harsh the generally mellow vibe too much.

Freedom Square, as seen from the outdoor seats of a pub while imbibing some tasty local beer.
Freedom Square. 

A couple blocks away is Zelny trh (Green Market), another, presumably older square, which on most mornings has an outdoor produce market. Sadly, a good portion of this sprawling square is basically a parking lot these days.

Zelny trh, with the cathedral's spires looming just in the background.

From Zelny trh it's just a couple of short and steep blocks up the hill to the cathedral of Ss Peter and Paul. Like a lot of cathedrals in Europe, the narrow lanes that surround it make it difficult to admire the thing without craning your neck. The best way to appreciate this cathedral's exterior is from a distance, where you can take it all in (preferably from the tower of the old town hall). It's a seriously beautiful cathedral, though. Brno may lack Bratislava's tranquil storybook center, but Bratislava's main cathedral, St. Martin's, absolutely pales in comparison to this thing. Unfortunately, the once-gothic interior was given a baroque make-over, and all of the masonry has been covered in yawn-inducing white plaster. They have a strict no camera policy inside (why are cathedrals in central Europe such camera nazis?), but it's not a particularly photogenic interior to begin with, so no big loss.

Heading up to the cathedral.

On the narrow lane that runs around the cathedral. 

Maybe it has to do with my extreme bitterness about not being able to ascend the tower of Kosice's cathedral when we were there back in May, but I was determined to climb every tower that was open in Brno, including those of its cathedral. However, the only tower in Brno that's really worth climbing is that of the old town hall, and that's partly because it offers awesome views of the cathedral, just 4-ish blocks away. But it also gives you a 360 view of the city, which you don't get from the cathedral's cramped little balconies.

Špilberk castle seen from the cathedral tower.
The cathedral as seen from the town hall tower.
Špilberk castle on the hill in the background, as seen from the town hall tower.
The old town hall's tower. 
Entrance to the old town hall with its twisty center spire. 

I mentioned earlier that just a stone's throw away from Brno's old town is what looks like a big nuclear cooling tower. It's actually a water cooling tower, as you obviously wouldn't see a nuclear power plant right smack in the center of a city. But I always associate that style of tower with the structures at nuclear power plants, so when I first saw the thing it definitely had me scratching my head. It's an amusing contrast from the cathedral and Špilberk castle, with which it shares the skyline.

Wait, is that a nuclear cooling tower in the middle of Brno? No, it's actually a water cooling tower, but still makes for an amusingly jumbled skyline. Notice all the panelaks that line the hills in the distance. 

Špilberk castle has an interesting and kind of gruesome history - its dungeon was a prison that became notorious for its squalid conditions. A lot of people involved in uprisings or rebellions against their Habsburg rulers were imprisoned here, including Italian poet Silvio Pellico, who served 8 years here in the 1820s and somehow lived to write a book about it, which revealed for the first time to all of Europe just how awful conditions in the prison were.

Špilberk castle.

We weren't really interested in touring the various parts of the castle, but it's worth trekking up the hill and wandering around the nice park-like surroundings, especially for the views of the city. The castle itself is this relatively plain, white, plastered blob that's not very striking visually, kind of in the way that Bratislava's castle isn't all that interesting to look at, yet the fact that it's perched on the top of a hill makes it at least a little more compelling than it otherwise would be.

View of Brno from Špilberk. 

Veveří street is absolutely worth a stroll for its endless cavalcade of goopy and pastel colored 19th-century historicist and art nouveau facades. The first 5-6 blocks that lead away from the historical center are quite striking, as are the side streets that branch off from this section of Veveří. The street is lined with basement-level restaurants, pubs, and wine cellars.

We also checked out the Capuchin monastery crypt, where, due to its dry, well-ventilated air and the composition of the soil, the people buried there were essentially mummified. So, you've got all of these corpses from the 18th century and earlier displayed in coffins with clear glass lids so you can see how their skin has been transformed into leather. Kind of amusingly gruesome.

The Capuchin crypt.

The body on the left belonged to a woman who, according to the description, was most likely buried alive, albeit in an unconscious state after having contracted the plague or some such disease, as back then it was not standard practice to wait 3 days to make sure the person was really and truly dead.

We didn't pay extra for reserved seats on the train like we usually do, because we were being non-commital about when we wanted to go back. There was a 4:20 train and a 6:20 train, and wanting to be flexible, we thought we'd play it by ear and leave Brno when we felt like we'd had enough. The problem is that the 4:20 train involved a connection at Břeclav, the last stop before you cross into Slovakia, with only a few minutes to switch trains. That meant that if the train from Brno was late, we'd be stuck in Břeclav for a couple of hours until the next train, which was not a very exciting proposition. We headed to the station around 4:00 with the intention of taking the 4:20 train if it was on time, or skipping it and taking the 6:20 train if it was late. The 6:20 line was the crowded, direct line that runs from Hamburg through Prague and all the way to Budapest. Predictably, the 4:20 line was 10 minutes late, so no dice. But that meant that we had time to check out Brno's modern art museum.

The museum was definitely worth an hour or so of one's time, but there was initially some confusion about what the museum actually had on display. When we bought our tickets, the woman only told us to go to the second floor, so we figured that was where the bulk of the permanent collection was located. But when we got there, the entire floor (one large room) was given over to the work of one artist who does these amusingly perverse socio-political montages. The montages were loaded with Czech text, which I'm told was witty and sardonic, but not knowing Czech, I had to rely on the images to get the gist of what these pieces were about. Terezia asked the staff person in the room if there was anything else to see on the second floor, and she said no. We started feeling kind of ripped off; I mean, this is Brno's museum of modern art, and all there is to see are these high school-ish montage pieces?

In the elevator of Brno's modern art museum. 

Thoroughly confused, we went back downstairs to the entrance and Terezia asked if there was anything to see in the museum other than the montages. As it turns out, there is an entire (and fairly sprawling) third floor, which houses their entire permanent collection. I suppose the woman meant for us to start on the second floor and then work our way up? Who knows! At any rate, overall it was a nice collection, with an emphasis on Czech impressionism and especially Czech cubism. You had a lot of the usual suspects - Filla, Kubista, Prochazka, etc... - which we've seen in the museums in Prague as well as in a temporary exhibition in Bratislava last year. Ultimately, it wasn't as amazing as the Museum of Czech Cubism or the Museum of Modern Art in Prague, but still certainly worth the 2.30 entrance fee.

A painting by Jan Zrzavý in Brno's modern art museum.
I think this one's by Emil Filla. 

When we got to the station to catch the 6:20 train, we were dismayed to discover that it was 35 minutes late. When the train finally pulled in, we deeply regretted not buying reserved seats, as every car was packed full of bummed-out, sweaty travelers, with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridors due to all seats having been taken. I kind of suspected that this might happen. After all, we're in the midst of the peak summer tourist season. But then again, I've been on this line during peak season in the past, and somehow managed to find seats. At any rate, we had to stand in the corridor at the end of a train car by the toilet for the entire hour and a half long ride back to Bratislava. Fun - especially since we'd been on our feet pretty much the entire day and would've given anything to sit down at that point. Luckily, there was only one guy by us with rank body odor, but you could really only smell it when he shifted around a lot; as long as he stood relatively still, things were bearable. A pretty unpleasant ride, obviously, and I don't think we've ever been that happy to arrive back in Bratislava.

We think Brno is a good day trip destination. It obviously lacks Prague's wildly majestic visual appeal, but still has enough going for it to warrant a look around. And I think we saw enough of what we wanted to see to feel like we don't need to come back, at least not any time soon. It nevertheless felt like a livable city. The fact that there were so few tourists added to that livable factor. So while I can't say that we're clamoring to go back, we certainly dug getting the chance to explore a new (to us) city, which beats sitting around on our asses all day in Bratislava.

(Click here to see the full set of Brno photos!)