Sunday, 25 March 2012

Northern Food on tour: Brno, Czech Republic

Following on from last year's visit to Zadar, my mate Sav's penchant for weekends in random Eastern European budget flight destinations continues. This year the text arrived: Fancy going to Brno in March? Where's that then? Czech Republic. Yeah why not, I like Prague.

And so to Brno. In case you're wondering, it's the historic capital city of Moravia, the Eastern half of the Czech Republic (Prague is in Bohemia to the West). It's hardly on the mainstream tourist trail, but easily could be, as it's really rather lovely. There's plenty of solid central European architecture, a fine castle surrounded by parkland atop a hill, a soaring cathedral and lots of squares to hang about in.

The weather was unseasonably warm and the whole place had a stately, relaxed atmosphere. Busy but with people rather than traffic (probably thanks in part to the 13 tram lines in a city of 400,000 people. Imagine that citizens of Leeds!), it was a pleasure to stroll the streets. It's not exactly nightlife central, but there are loads of good pubs and bars and the locals were friendly and welcoming. Beware the lack of a smoking ban though, stinky clothes are inevitable.

That's my customary travelogue done and dusted, so what of the food? Well that was a pleasant surprise too. Sturdy and rib-sticking as expected, but far higher in quality than I experienced in Prague a few years back. To be fair to Prague, I think we were poorly advised and ended up dining on the most meagre budget possible.

Even more surprising was that both of the pubs we ate in were chains, part of the Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen empires, both themselves part of brewing multinationals. Despite this the food was pretty good, and would easily have put the depressing crap served in most UK chain pubs to shame. I've reviewed each of them in turn below.

The beer was as I expected, good but unremarkable. Good quality lager, cheap and served well is the norm. We paid from 80p up to around £1.40 for a pint.

I did try a couple of more unusual brews, a dark beer in Pivnice pegas and an unfiltered Staropramen in another pub. Both were enjoyable but nothing to shout about.

We had some cheap street food and late night eats too, and even they weren't half bad. A 4am kebab was made from slices of proper pork, far superior to the low grade elephant's leg we're accustomed to in Britain (or at least I think it was, it was 4am so my 'quality radar' may have been off kilter). Anyhow, even if it was crap I did have a pint of lager with it. In a kebab shop, at 4am, in a glass. I love you Czech Republic.

Last but certainly not least there was Smažený sýr, a Czech dish I certainly do know the name of. It means fried cheese, which is what it is. Get a thick slice of cheese, crumb it, deep fry it, eat it in a sandwich. Filthy but delicious.

Would I recommend a visit to Brno? Yes, definitely. Flights from Luton or Stansted. Or if money and time are no object why not take the train via Brussels, Cologne and Prague? Much more fun.

Here are those reviews.

Stopkova plzeňská pivnice

Friday night and we were ravenous. This pivnice (beerhouse) looked like a good option. Very busy, huge, wood floors, good looking plates of food arriving at tables. We'd not eaten since a late lunchtime sandwich at the airport and it was well after nine by the time we arrived here. That in combination with an assumption that 'snacks' meant something not very big caused us to order an obscene quantity of food.

First up were a bowl of soup and two plates of those 'snacks', described as Czech tapas to accompany beer. I can't remember the Czech names for most of this stuff, so I'll stick to descriptions. This was a pan full of pork scratchings, croutons, spring onions and chilli served with half a loaf of bread and a tub of lard. Yes, an actual tub of lard. As I said, sturdy stuff but really quite delicious. The onions and chilli helped to cut through the fat and made the whole thing strangely reminiscent of salt and pepper ribs from the Chinese takeaway. In a good way.

I can verify that lard, chilli and pork scratching sandwiches are indeed a very good accompaniment to cold beer. In the background here you can see the soup; a bowl of chicken broth, also very good and bulked up with both pasta and potatoes.

As I was busying myself with lard butties and Sav was ploughing through what was in essence a massive bowl of chicken stew, the second 'snack' arrived. Three large potato rostis enriched with little nuggets of pork neck, garlicky mayo to dip them in, and some salad for good measure. They were a touch greasy but were good and crunchy and packed with flavour.

Onto the mains. Yes mains. Oops. We'd both chosen the Pilsen goulash. A generous portion of beautifully tender beef (possibly shin?) in a dark glossy, fairly spicy sauce. This was served with knedlicky, the ubiquitous Czech dumplings and some pointless lentil cake type things that were the only bad thing we ate all evening. I can't say I love knedlicky, but they do their job well. That is, to provide stodge and soak up rich, fatty sauces. Chinese food came to mind for the second time that evening, as the dumpling texture is not dissimilar (if a bit heavier) to baozi, the Northern Chinese steamed dough buns.

So yes, we could barely move after that lot, but we enjoyed it. Three pints in there was no more room for beer so we finished things off with large shots of slivovice, evil but strangely delicious damson brandy. Including a tip we paid around £28 for the lot: soup, starters, mains, three (or it might have been four) pints apiece and a round of shots. Fantastic value, good food, decent service and a lively (and not too smoky by Czech standards) atmosphere.


Potrefená Husa

Saturday night brought us here, much more modern and glossy in style, this seemed to be where the beautiful people of Brno came to hang out. The food and drink were pretty much along the same lines though, we went down the beer snacks route again only this time waiting to see how enormous the snacks were before ordering anything else.

A jar of cheese marinated in herbs (mostly thyme) and oil. What's not to like? This was delicious scooped on to bread from a basket containing several varieties including some good rye. There were four different cheeses in the jar, including a particularly nice creamy blue.

To accompany our cheese, a spicy sausage with beans and fried onions. Another success this, the sausage was like a peppery chipolata and with the beans made another great beer snack.

We were still a bit peckish after that, but not quite to 'colossal beef stew with a kilo of boiled dough levels' so ordered the conveniently positioned beef goulash soup instead. Less beef, no dumplings, same taste. Sadly it was terribly oversalted rendering no other flavours discernable and resulting in us necking beer at a rapid rate. Disappointing as the snacks had been excellent.

Service here was friendly if a little slow, and the ventilation was also fairly good so it wasn't too smoky. The bill was around £20 for all the food, three pints each and another bracing round of slivovices.



Leigh said...

I'm all for that cheese-in-a-jar. Unfiltered Staropramen, too - interesting!

Dave said...

Yep, the cheese in a jar rocked. I enjoyed the unfiltered Staropramen but sadly couldn't give you a proper description. For some reason after consumption of copious quantities of booze I can remember the taste of food I've eaten but not what I've drunk. Strange.

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