Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Heavy Seas and Restaurant Week

Let's take a quick break from Prague and Berlin (don't worry - we'll be back with more on the bars, museums, and clubs) to discuss the delightful little Saturday I had last weekend.

One of my girl pals is on one of those New-to-Baltimore List Serv thingies (even though she moved back here six months ago) and happened upon a chance to tour the Heavy Seas brewery just outside of Baltimore City. Heavy Seas makes deliciousness like its flagship IPA Loose Cannon and the delicious new Siren Noir (a chocolate stout aged in bourbon barrels). Even so, I never pass up an opportunity to see where one of my favorite things (beer, wine, chocolate, what have you) is made.

$5 gets you in the door and 5 "free taste" chips, each good for about 1/4 of a pint of beer from the sampler bar. Like many tastings I've been to, that 1/4 pint swiftly turned into 1/2 pint tastes, and there seemed to be chips materializing out of thin air, so I'm pretty sure we had more than five tastes. We might have had twelve. But who's counting?!

Beer? No beer here.

Much like my embarrassing recycling pile every Thursday morning.

Bottle conveyer belt thingy with mesh = technical term.

If I made beer, I would be too.

No one goes thirsty on the tour.

We're helping the local economy by drinking beer!

This is where the beer comes down the chute and into the...bigger chute.
And stuff.

Good for 14 free beer samples.

You earned every one, Heavy Seas, EVERY ONE!

Loose Cannon and Siren Noir

Following our beer tour, my gal pal and I headed back to the city to meet a bunch of my friends from high school for Restaurant Week, another favorite Baltimore activity.

Restaurant Week is held twice a year (in August and January) and local restaurants have special prix fixe menus with two courses for lunch ($15.13) and three for dinner ($30.13). Generally, the idea is to encourage traffic to visit higher-end restaurants to sample the best of the best, but the list of participating venues grows every year. Depending on the restaurant, it's only occasionally a great deal money-wise, but the pairings tend to be excellently chosen, and if going with a crowd it's a great opportunity to share and get a broad tasting of the menu. This particular night, we went to Grille 700, which is inside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. 

Here's my menu for the evening:

Buffalo Sweet Breads, Local Bleu Cheese Spread, Pickled Carrots, Micro Celery 
I had never eaten sweet breads before, but I am always down for trying new animal parts. (For the most part. I might draw the line at, say, haggis...but having not yet been presented with the opportunity, I can't say for sure.) A misnomer about sweetbreads is that it's brains - it's not. It's the thymus gland (and can also be the pancreas if it's called "heart" or "belly" sweetbreads) and comes from a calf. The consistency is kind of like a tougher tofu, and the taste is incredibly rich as you'd expect any organ meat to be. I also happen to LOVE buffalo sauce and bleu cheese, so you probably could have coated a pig's ear in that combination and I would have gladly eaten it. But, truth be told, I actually really liked the sweetbreads and would absolutely try it again with a different kind of preparation to see if it's thymus gland I enjoyed or just something vaguely meaty and smothered in buffalo sauce. 

House Made Duck Ravioli, Hominy, Smoked Duck Broth
For my main course, I did the duck ravioli. It was good, but incredibly rich. Duck itself is a deliciously fatty meat, and although the ravioli was fairly light and not overdone on pasta, the whole meal was kind of heavy. Especially after the sweetbreads. In retrospect, the two did not pair particularly well together. But this was nonetheless quite good, the broth was rich and sugary-smoky, and the hominy was roasted beautifully. Hominy is sort of like giant kernels of corn, and provided a nice sweet balance to the richness of the ravioli. By itself, this dish was a meal and a half, though. I probably would have done better starting off with something lighter.

And dessert didn't help:

Smores Tart, Graham Crackers, Dark Chocolate Ganache, Creamy Caramel, Marshmallows

Oh. My. God. I love s'mores. I LOVE them. They combine all of my favorite dessert elements: graham cracker, marshmallow, and chocolate. You don't even have to mess with this recipe too much to get me all excited.

Let's take another look though, shall we?

 Yes, they've added MORE AWESOME STUFF like chocolate ganache and caramel to the inside of it. And it's all encased in some kind of crunchy, delicious graham cracker cookie crust thingy. Swoon.

And once the beer tasting and the three course dinner were all over, I went home and went to bed. At 9pm. On a Saturday night. And had delicious, delicious dreams.

And this is why I run half marathons. So I can eat like this.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Berlin - FOOD

French cheese, pickled fig, berries, balsamic at Clärchens Ballhaus
By the time we got to Berlin, after five days in Prague, we were just about sausaged-out. Does that mean we didn't immediately eat a bratwurst at the first Christmas market we stumbled upon (which happened to be right outside our hotel near Potsdamer Platz)? OF COURSE NOT. But it does mean that we spaced out the pork with lots of Asian food. 

Berlin is, essentially, very much like New York in its metropolitanness. It was a bit of culture shock after five days in the quaint, charming village of Prague. I had been to Berlin twice before, but both times in the summer, and the most recent time was ten years ago. While it hadn't changed significantly, it's quite different to visit Berlin as a 30-year old when the last time you were there, you were 20 and broke. Even McDonalds was too expensive for touring college kids.

After all of our time spend traveling in the Middle East and Prague over the past year, I had forgotten that there are plenty of countries in the world that do not print menus in anything but the native tongue. Thankfully, my six years of German studies did not fail me, and I was able to accurately interpret the food options. Most people in Germany do speak English and will kindly explain the menu to you, but it's much more fun to stumble over Hänchen.

Our first night, we went to Clärchens Ballhaus for drinks and an appetizer. The Ballhaus opened in 1913 as a dance hall, and remains an important venue for swing dancing and celebrity parties today. With our beer and wine, we got this delicious bread basket (WHAT IS IT ABOUT EUROPEAN BREAD????) and the above cheese plate with some delightfully stinky French cheese. The stinkier the cheese - the happier I am.

For dinner, since Clärchens is in Berlin Mitte (a beautiful historic area right in the middle of the city with lots of little cafes, book shops), we stopped into a restaurant called Pauly Saal which is absolutely incredible and has a random decor:

I don't get it. But I love it. LOVE. IT.
Terrible photo, but I had this incredible rye dumblings filled with goat cheese and spinach, served on Jerusalem artichoke creak, and leek. It at least contained vegetables, which was a switch from pork.

And for a snack? A tasty almond croissant from one of the metro vendors. Yesssss.

Our last day of vacation, we ate nothing but Asian food. Because that's what you do in Berlin. Or - that's what WE do in Berlin.

We ordered some pretty legit spring rolls and dim sum at a restaurant near our hotel in Potsdamer Platz called 

The spring rolls came with the wraps mounted on plastic discs, and you peeled them off and wrapped the chicken and veggies therein and dipped away at a peanutty sauce. FRESH VEGETABLES! What a shock to the system.
Stuff, fold, and stuff into your face.
 We also hit up a Thai restaurant that was literally right around the corner from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Sisaket. It might have been super-touristy, but we didn't care because the craving for curry overtook any and all attempts at authenticity. 

The Massaman curry was incredibly sweet - almost dessert like,  but plenty coconutty and rich. The Gentleman had a lovely pad thai dish. And beer.


 And now I'm on a diet until March.

Prague - FOOD

There are two things that you should probably really, really like if you're heading to Prague - pork and potatoes. And beer, but if you don't really, really like beer then I'm not sure why you're reading this blog. 

Vegans need not apply. I love you, but you will have issues in Prague, where the only "Vegetarian Option" on the menu (and yes, it's listed as such) is fried mozzarella. No joke.

But for us, the pork was a selling point when we chose Prague as a destination, mostly because The Gentleman's current street address happens to be smack dab in the middle of a Muslim country. You want pork there, you have to go into the special "Non-Muslims Only" pork room, and buying it carries about the same amount of shame as purchasing a black plastic-wrapped magazine in a busy 7-11 at one in the morning. Evvvvverybody knows what you're up to, and yes - they're judging you.

Did you like that comparison? It wasn't that much of a stretch from pork, because I only had to change one letter.

I digress.


First off, I have to note that food and drinks in Prague is incredibly cheap. The most expensive meal we had - with an appetizer, two entrees, and drinks for both of us, was $60. With tip. On average, an entree was between $7-$12, and it bought you a lot of food. Portion sizes are huge, which is probably why we would eat breakfast around 8, lunch around 3, and dinner around 10pm. You gotta space out all of that rock-solid food with lots of walking around.

And we spent a lot of time walking around, and thus had several meals that consisted of street meat from stands at the Christmas markets. I don't know if these stands are in existence year round, but we were there over New Years and they were everywhere. Notable areas include Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square. Most of the stands sell mulled wine, hot rum, mead, sausages, Czech bread, and pretzels. And they are delicious, all of them.

This was one of the first things we saw at the market. It was terrifying. 

And this was the second. Spinning rows of dough. It was not terrifying.
Heck yes, it is!

Beautiful sausages.
Mmmm, street meat.
Menus in all of the restaurants we wandered into had items listed in English and Czech, and many had photos of the food as well. There was some confusion over what, exactly, "pork knuckle" was (since, to my knowledge, pigs do not have knuckles), but we figured out that it's actually the knee of the pig, and it's actually delicious. Behold the pork knuckle:

It's braised, and fall-off-the-bone delicious. Fatty and rich and knuckle-y.

We also enjoyed a variety of sausages. I can't remember how they were described, only that we seemed to get a different kind of sausage every time we ordered them. This one is sliced fancifully and curled up with some delicious French fries.

Another thing I love about Europe is the sandwiches. Europeans love their cold cuts, and I do too. And the bread is fantastic. I don't know how they do it, but it's forever chewy and flaky in all of the right places. 

 By the third day, I was starting to feel like I maybe needed some greens in my diet. Greens that weren't made up of the lettuce on my cold cut sandwich. So, I ordered a Caesar salad. And - GUESS WHAT IT CAME WITH?!

Pork. It came with pork. And it was delicious.
 We went to a traditional Czech restaurant on our last night in Prague, only to find out that they were completely sold out of pork knuckle, sausages, dumplings, and all things traditionally Czech. They did, however, have a "Super Burger." When I ordered it, the server shook her head at me. No? No I cannot have the Super Burger? 

"You share," she said, pointing to The Gentleman. Well, ok then.

I was incredibly glad that she made this decision for us, because when we got our food (45 minutes later - European service is not exactly quick), an entire cow arrived at our table:

To give you an idea of scale, please note that this is a full-sized dinner plate, and see how much of it is buried under burger.

We had to cut it into eighths to eat it. And, of course, it came with  pork on it.
 One night, I ordered what I thought would be a small sampler platter (because it cost about $7), and The Gentleman ordered a braised pork stew. Here is what came to the table:

Also for scope, The Gentleman's plate at the top is a full-sized dinner plate. My dinner was served in a round trough.

Braised pork stew, and a variety of dumplings. Dumplings are actually sort of like soft, chewy slices of  bread and potato. 

We've got ham, duck, pork, dumplings, two different kinds of sauerkraut, and a partridge in a pear tree. 
 Let's get back to the spinny, rolly, dough thing:

Apparently this is Trdelník. It reminded me of cinnamon toast, and is a warm, sugary, cinnamony, flaky tube of bread that peels off in strips and is heavenly and delicious:

Rolling out the dough in the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Also, let's take a closer look at that sign. We ordered a hot wine and what we assumed was a hot rum. It wasn't. It was literally four fingers of rum in a plastic cup. A SHOT of rum.
I am not even sure what a Chocobomb or a Bombardino are, but I'm guessing it involves four fingers of alcohol, a wish, and a prayer.
 Sausages, sausages, and more sausages. And potatoes. And bread. It was dreamy. And also probably the reason why we overloaded on Asian food in Berlin, because one cannot subsist on sausages alone. As much as one might like to.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Prague - The Castle Thingy

The Prague Castle's pitch should be "We Have Wine."
According to its official website, "The Prague Castle was most likely founded in around 880 by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty (Přemyslovci)."

At least they fully admit that the facts surrounding the history of its origins are up for debate. Full disclosure! We have no idea how or why this giant castle appeared! But it's awesome!

Our first full day in Prague, we woke up disturbingly early and were out on the streets, breakfasted and bundled up, well before 9am. Blame it on the jet lag. (We had also already had our first mulled wine of the day by this point too - WHATEVER, WE WERE ON VACATION.) This turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events, because we figured out a little later in the day that things get EXTREMELY crowded after, oh, say 11am. 

The castle is located across the bridge from Old Town, and is an easy walk. In fact, most everything is an easy walk in Prague. Distance-wise. Terrain-wise, everything is cobblestones. Which is fun and beautiful and extremely painful on the ole' feet after several days of traversing a city. Wear comfortable shoes. Seriously.

The castle is one of those old-fashioned all-inclusive type deals, meaning there's a giant wall and inside the wall is essentially a small city. You've got your church, your small merchants, your local eccentric woman accused of witchcraft. Disney is mad they didn't think of it first.

And - the best part - there are approximately 47 small stands selling mulled wine and hot rum and Irish coffee. I'm not sure what they sell in warmer weather. Maybe beers and mai tais. 

There is a lot to see once inside the castle walls, and you do need to purchase tickets to get into some of the buildings. We selected the "short visit" option which gets you into St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica, and Golden Lane with the Daliborka Tower. "Short visit" tickets are about $13 apiece (250 czk). You can opt for the "long visit" tickets for 100 czk more (about $18 total per person) and see everything in the castle, but that's only if you're really taking the entire day to see the castle. 

We were there for a few hours, and that was plenty for us. The Gentleman can spend hours upon hours in exhibits, reading every plaque, but I get anxious and cranky if I'm in one place for too long. Because I'm a toddler while on vacation that needs to be fed, napped, and liquored up at regular intervals. Apparently.

And now, some awesome gargoyles:

And some delightful St. Vitus Cathedral facade: 

St. Vitus Cathedral is equally badass on the inside, although it's freezing. I suppose a giant structure made of stone doesn't retain heat particularly well when it's 25 degrees outside. But it does retain awesome. Behold:

My ride is here.

I want this over my bed. 
"Pssst...girl, you seriously got it GOING ON."

I would like this for my birthday. Please and thank you.
I'm not sure what I was supposed to be honoring or observing here, but it was purty.
The Golden Lane is this incredible alley way with little shops and houses. I was walking around with my mouth open like a codfish because it was so adorable and amazing and forgot to take any pictures, but here's the general idea

UPDATE: My buddy Beth sent me this picture, which she took while on vacation with her husband in Prague last summer: 

Unreal cuteness. Photo courtesy Beth!
One of the homes that they've preserved and set up as an exhibit belonged to a film collector who carefully cataloged a bajillion old Czech films and had a collection of film posters like this one:

The real love story of a man, his woman, and the creepy peasant ghost lady that followed them around.
Among other things that I neglected to take pictures of was the home belonging to a woman who claimed to be a fortune teller and was arrested and tortured in the 1940's by Gestapo because she said she foresaw Germans losing the war. She had, among other things, stuffed owls and a collection of curiosities. It was pretty cool. I should have taken a picture. But I didn't.

Another totally awesome thing (that I neglected to take a picture of) was the famous window involved in one of the Defenestrations of Prague. Which is, by the way, the best thing you could name an altercation in which one or more parties was thrown out of the window. There are woodcuts of the incident in 1618 (see - I didn't even need to take a picture, here is one for you!) which concerned a row between Catholics and Protestants and, basically, things got out of hand and the Catholics were thrown out of the window. They all survived, though, and it was all miraculous and whatnot.

We saw a bunch of other stuff in the castle, including a collection of armor (with lots of protective cod pieces), a bunch of medieval torture things, sample old peasant gowns and robes of the aristocracy, and then I got to shoot a crossbow.

It's a lot harder than it looks, it has terrible inaccurate sites, and I'm not surprised that armies abandoned this technology in favor of things like boiling oil.
Prague is full of surprises and fun, and we were delighted to discover that right outside of the castle, there is a vineyard on the hillside overlooking the city. Is that not just perfection?


A word to the wise, however - this is not...shall we say...the best wine. In fact, it's rather, um...tart. Young. A bit sour on the way down. But it's wine, and so we drank it anyway.
The pink one is The Gentleman's. I am not even kidding. 
We didn't spend a ton of time at the castle, and I'm sure there was a lot more we could have/should have done. But, as I said before, it got insanely crowded after about 11am, and along with my ADD tendencies while on vacation I also can't stand waiting in long lines, or being jostled around while trying to look at interesting things. It was also freezing cold, and so we ducked out to go and find lunch. Which means the next post should probably be about food, because that is my most favorite part of vacation.