My dinner companion and I agreed that Vermeer, Vinohrady ´s new hot spot, exceeded our expectations. More importantly, Vermeer clarifies what can truly be anticipated from a restaurant in Europe referred to as American-style.
What exactly is American cuisine? Well, I know what non-Americans think it is, and what some Americans mean when they refer to it while abroad. I know that I´ve cringed on multiple occasions when my European friends have said things like, “When I drink too much and I get the late-night munchies, I really crave American food,” fully meaning McDonald´s. And, during the what-I-miss-from-back-home cuisine chatter that emerges from an international table of Prague-dwelling friends, there is always the random remark to “fairly” acknowledge so-called American food: “Well, I really would like to try a real American hotdog someday,” accompanied by a few seemingly sympathetic nods in my direction, as I grow slightly defensive about the sophistication of my homeland´s tastebuds and its place on the gastronomical map.
Vermeer not only reminded me what American fare really consists of—in all its diverse, relaxed, and overly indulgent glory—but this restaurant also delivered it with a commendable level of sophistication. The atmosphere, service, and most of all, the quality could serve to heal the overseas perception that´s been tainted by the Golden Arches as well as high-priced low-quality chains like T.G.I. Friday ´s, sadly perceived by many as our “upscale” version of McDonald´s.
So let´s put the sandwiches front and center, because they are certainly the stars of Vermeer´s show. Non-Americans will ask, “How good can a good sandwich really be?” Try one of these mouth-watering combinations from the menu and there will be no question. Even my Czech friends (the Czechs are commonly known to have a disinterest in and disliking for sandwiches) have been won over.
As an American and especially an east coaster, I know what a real Reuben or a real pastrami sandwich is, and I couldn´t be happier that we´ve been reunited on the other side of the Atlantic. I can safely say the Vermeer sandwiches are the real deal, and not some tweaked, settle-for version to shrug at. But that´s irrelevant to those who aren´t familiar with the authenticity of American deli delights. To paint the picture, a hot pastrami sandwich is pastrami meat, which is shredded and smoked corn beef, thinly sliced tomatoes, melted Swiss cheese, and Dijon mustard between two thick pieces of grilled rye bread. It´s big and fat, like most of my country. It is also a beautiful symphony of taste, one that Vermeer conducts with perfection. I confirmed that the executive chef is American, but the pastrami has me suspecting that a New Yorker is working behind those kitchen doors.
And to make my sandwich reunion even more magnificent, the dish was served to me in the honorable fashion it deserves: upon an elegantly set table draped in white linen, in a room of tasteful Pottery Barn-esque decorum. Ah, what a concept: take the downscale and lift it upscale. It was as though the fairy godmother of sandwiches turned the pastrami-Cinderella into the belle of the ball.
The ambience was sleek and urbane as my Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, I could indulge in fun finger food while sipping wine; it´s the new winter fashion, in case you haven´t heard. Why not take advantage of a decent wine list?
Above the praiseworthiness of the ambience is the impressive professionalism of the waitstaff. The service could not have been more friendly, accommodating, and attentive. Service plays an enormous role in the American dining experience, and these servers, bright and smiling, add many extra points to the Vermeer experience.
Anyway. Of course I sampled more than just the sandwiches. I was all about ordering the typical that has turned into the atypical since I started life abroad. Here is a menu full of blast-from-the-US-past choices. It´s also full of calories, so dieters and strict calorie-counters beware. The menu also pulls from all corners of the gastronomical globe, as does American cuisine, but is a bit too extensive. A wide enough variation can wear a kitchen too thin, resulting in deliverables that aren´t up to par, as was the case for some of our orders. Dare I suggest Vermeer choose a focus and stick to what it does best, limiting the menu and highlighting the heavenly sandwiches.
Although calamari is a popular appetizer in the coastal areas of the US, be it in a high-end or casual establishment, and a food I really enjoy, it´s not something I typically order in Prague. Perhaps it´s for the same reason that I no longer seek Mexican food: I sort of expect to be disappointed. But Vermeer´s calamari was refreshingly California-licious, not over-fried and rubbery, but served exactly as calamari lovers expect: with the perfect cut, breading, and texture, a nice aioli, and enough lemon to drizzle the whole plate.
Nachos, we assume, are Mexican, until they are on an American menu, and a single dish turns into an edible recreation of Mount Kilimanjaro. The order ranked in size, but the nachos sported the typical Euro-nacho errors, such as an unidentifiable cheese type (“Is this brie under this red bean?” I asked half-jokingly as I stared at my scooped tortilla), a salsa that is more like an Italian tomato sauce, and the random scatter of jalapenos—all in all, a messy heap of flavors and textures that don´t jive.
The Mediterranean peppers, however, are satisfying. Marinated in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette with garlic and parsley, and served over thick pieces of fresh mozzarella, this starter had my normally pepper-disliking dinner companion widening his eyes, highly pleased.
The salads are not side orders, but full meals of generous proportions, which I should have immediately guessed by the price, running from 145CZK to 175CZK. Vermeer is not cheap.
I found myself saying things like, “Yes, this is, in fact, quite popular in the US,” about many menu items, including the cobb salad, which I also ordered because it includes a plethora of items by which I could judge ingredient freshness. On the aesthetic front, the salad is squarely served in perfect rows of each component, making it difficult to mix, but perfect if you are an OCD person. Each ingredient, though, was absolutely fresh and delicious, particularly the tomatoes, for which Vermeer deserves special praise, as tomatoes of such caliber are difficult to obtain in this cold season.
The chicken tikka salad was dominated by the chicken, and I mean that in the best way possible. It sent us digging for all the chicken pieces and ignoring the rest, wishing we had ordered the chicken tikka masala listed as a main course.
For other main course meals, there are lists of pasta dishes, risottos, steak and seafood platters. Neither the spinach pagliatelle nor the seafood risotto impressed us, the former weak in flavor and overcooked, while the latter delivered a meager amount of seafood.
The almighty grilled cheeseburger was huge and loaded with all the best burger accessories, like tomatoes, bacon, sautéed onions, and dill pickles. A notable slip-up, however, is that we weren´t asked how we wanted it cooked, and it was therefore delivered medium-well. Although the burger was satisfactory, I am too much of a carnivore for medium-well. Do remember to specify your preference.
Vermeer´s sandwiches, in addition to the flawless service and ambiance, are remarkable enough to compensate for all other dishes that were little more than mediocre. Even if the meal is but one piece in the puzzle of what actually makes up American cuisine, an order of calamari, a hot pastrami sandwich, and nice piece of cheesecake are the cure for trans-Atlantic nostalgia. It´s so, like, totally, like, American food, ya know?
U vodárny 1151/2, Prague 3
+420 222 516 992