Saturday, December 10, 2011

Zypern: Rauch und Spiegel

Much to my amazement, I found a Cypriot restaurant in Berlin. Well, in the interest of full transparency, Pratirio is a Greek restaurant that offers Cypriot Mezze as one of their specialties. Pratirio isn't exactly der Griescher um die Ecke (a reference to the cheap restaurants opened by Greek immigrants during the post-World War II immigration boom). Located at Savigny Platz, it's as you would expect, a little upscale. There are white table clothes and once you've ordered, a very polite Greek (Cypriot?) waiter brings bread and olive paste. There's an actual wine list (with many Greek wines (they also offer Mythos, "the most famous Hellenic beer").

Of course we went for the Cypriot mezze. The mezze has to be ordered by at least two people and the menu states that it must be ordered in advance. When I made our reservation, however, the woman I spoke with said that was only necessary when they were really busy (we visited on a Friday night at 7 pm and the place was pretty full). The mezze are served in three courses. We started with spreads and salads: tzatziki and taramasalata, beet salad and gigante beans in a tomatoey sauce. The spreads were good, as was the beet salad, but the beans could have come out of a can. Our second round of mezze were all fish: green mussels, shrimp, octopus, little fried fish, and baby squid. Everything was pretty simple and some things were good (the squid in particular), but others not so much (the mussels and octopus were on the tough side). Finally, a meat and cheese course: halloumi, cheese croquettes, tiny lamb chops, ground meat patties with something like avjar, a tomato-based pork stew, little sausages (served, oddly with mustard). The cheese croquettes and the lamb chops were really good. Halloumi is halloumi and I can't get behind serving Greek sausages with mustard, even in Germany. To finish the meal, we were given a spoonful of Greek yogurt with honey and a choice of ouzo or espresso.

Overall, a few of the mezze were very good, but none were amazing and several were sub-par. Not a single dish was something I'd never had before. I can understand that the chef doesn't want to try to deprive his German clientele of their tzatziki (they love it so), but s/he might have included a few more unusual dishes. My main complaint, however, doesn't have so much to do with the food, but with the air quality: Pratirio has a large smoking section. It's in a separate room, but this room opens into the main dining room, making for a very smoky dining experience. That factor alone would keep me from going back. (I think Ousies (Greek, not Cypriot, but....) has better food for a few Euros less anyway.)

Knesebeckstrasse 122


When the Cuban security guard at work told me I could get real Cuban food at Veradero, I was pretty excited. I immediately developed a serious craving for a Cuban sandwich. "Can you get Cuban sandwiches there?" I asked. "Nobody eats those in Cuba anymore," he shot back. Thus dejected, I set out for Veradero. The place is cute enough with years of customer grafiti decorating the walls.

The mojito, I have to say, was quite decent. The food, however, was sort of meh. Nothing was bad, but nothing was anywhere approaching remarkable. We shared a corn tamale, which came with a large piece of roast chicken and a bit of salad. The tamale, despite not being of the Tucson-style to which I am very, very partial, was pretty good. The chicken was quite moist, but also quite flabby and covered in a sweet barbecue-kind-of sauce. Definitely reheated in the microwave. We also shared an order of moros y cristianos (black beans and rice) and an order of yuca. The beans and rice were a smidge better than those at Tierra Colombiana, but I've definitely had better. I was surprised that the yuca was boiled (or steamed?) and not fried. Luckily, it wasn't boiled to death (think gluey mashed potatoes), but cooked until tender and served with a mojo of sorts. It was better than it looked (possibly because I've eaten too much gluey boiled yuca in my day), but nothing to write home about. Overall, everything tasted sort of muted. Cuban food isn't known for extreme flavors, but it shouldn't be bland and boring either. Luckily (authentic or not) there's a Cuban sandwich in my not too distant future.

Vorbergstrasse 11

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kroatien: das Glashaus ist transparent

I picked Glashaus out of the many, many Croatian restaurants in Berlin mostly because it was a good halfway point between our apartment and that of the friends we were meeting for dinner. Croatian restaurants aren't trendy, and I couldn't find any reviews of them in any local press. There are lots of reviews of Croatian places on Qype, but they all sound about the same: big portions!, low price! Like the pseudo-Argentine steak houses, Croatian restaurants in Berlin are frequented by a certain type of German who likes to eat a serious lot of meat, but doesn't much care about the quality, and doesn't want to pay a lot. I am quite certain low-quality meat doesn't define all Croatian food. Even the Wikipedia entry on Croatian food (once again, my Croatian cookbook is on the other side of the Atlantic) describes a diverse cuisine full of regional specialties. I did try to find one that distinguished itself from the others -- an organic Croatian restaurant or one that was slightly upscale or trendy -- with no luck.

So, Glashaus it was and really, there isn't much to say about it. It was fine. All of our meals came with a salad, which was, in all fairness, a little better than it had to be. A trio of grated carrots, fresh sauerkraut, and lightly pickled cucumbers on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Nothing to get all that excited about, but I have had worse salads here and the dressing was a nice oil and vinaigrette, not at all sweet as it frequently is. The meat, however, was pretty bad across the board: the "small" trio plate came with a pork steak, a turkey steak, and a couple cevapcici (it seems every letter of the alphabet offers an opportunity to enjoy these sausage-shaped patties), rice and french fries. My spicy pork stew (similar to a goulash) was full of mushy frozen peas and carrots, not to mention that it was way over salted. Next to the massive pool of stew were two servings of rice: one plain that tasted of bouillon cubes and one that was vaguely tomato-based and full of the same mushy frozen vegetables. The best dish of the night, ordered by our friend who has spent time in the Balkans and is a professed fan of Croatian restaurants (in their Berlin form), was a giant beef patty stuffed with a feta-like cheese and served with French fries. Not a great dish - better meat would help, as would homemade fries, and maybe a few spices, but the concept wasn't bad. While Glashaus doesn't offer any Croatian beer, they do have several Croatian wines on the menu. I tried two and neither was particularly good as they were both one-note wines (one of them could easily have been manischewitz), but I always like it when an "ethnic" restaurant makes an effort to showcase the wines (or beverages) of the country. The only Croatian desserts were Palatschinken (crepes) with ice cream. Not very exciting, and after a disappointing meal, we passed on them. Berlin-style Croatian restaurants are not the sort of place I started this "project" to discover, but because I'm so very dedicated, I slogged through Croatia. Now I'm just glad it's over. Cuba here I come.......

Lindenstrasse 29

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kolumbien: Hin und wieder

It seemed for a while like Colombia might have been done in by The Curse. Friends of ours live next to Tierra Colombiana, so it had been on my radar for a long time, but the last time we were there I noticed a "closed until further notice"-type of sign in the window. Hmmmmmmm. La Chiva, another Kreuzberg Colombian spot closed "temporarily" due to some kind of "technical difficulty." They kept pushing their reopening date back (a real hoot when you show up the day after the originally posted reopening date) and are as of this writing neither open (as far as I can tell) nor answering their phone (or should I say, responding to calls because they only have a cell phone with a message saying they'll call you back). Just as I was about to give up on Colombia entirely, I called Tierra Colombiana one more time and they had magically reopened. Maybe The Curse can bring a restaurant back to life, too?

As it happens, I know a little something about Colombian food. My parents lived in Colombia before I was born. I don't remember them ever cooking anything Colombian at home, so they can't have missed the food all that much, but we did occasionally eat at a local Colombian hole-in-the-wall. Also, I spent a summer as an exchange student in western Venezuela and while they fact that yo soy marachucha means I'm required to tell you that arepas are really Venezuelan, in all honesty the two countries have very similar cuisines. In my experience, Colombian restaurants in the US have a fairly uniform menu and this is basically what you'll find at Tierra Colombiana. Between three of us, we shared the Picada Mixta, a Bandeja Paisa, and Ajiaco Bogotano. The Picada Mixta is a plate of little fried things (empanadas, yuca, tostones (fried unripe plantains), and chicharrón (fried pork belly) with a little hot salsa for dipping. What to was ok. The empanadas were a little greasy and bland and the salsa didn't have much heat or flavor. It's not a dish I would ever order again, though in all fairness, little fried bits are never my favorite. I had high hopes for the Bandeja Paisa - this is the national dish and any self-respecting Colombian restaurant should have it down. Wikipedia has this to say about the dish: "the main characteristic ... is the oversized amount of food and the wide variety of ingredients." Tierra Colombiana's version just didn't live up to this at all. It's not that I need or want to stuff myself silly, but this is peasant fare. It should be hearty and flavorful and fill you up so you can plow your Andean fields The chicharrón and chorizo were both good, if a little on the small side, but the beans were just wan. Sad, sad beans with very little flavor. Beans for a Bandeja Paisa need be cooked with a nice ham hock or the like and these beans were most definitely porcine-free. Tierra Colombiana has a surprising number of vegetarian options for a Colombian restaurant and I guess that's great, but they need to make a separate pot of beans for those dishes (with caramelized onion or something for a little flavor) and not force flavorless vegetarian beans on customers ordering the non-vegetarian Bandeja Paisa (ie, not the one with the soy patty). I hate to go on and on (really I do - I wish I had loved the place), but the rice was also sad. Great rice is harder to make than one might think, but this seemed dry and leftover, which just isn't acceptable. I will say that the Ajiaco Bogotano (a lightly creamy soup with chicken and potatoes, flavored with capers and guascas) was very decent. Not life changing, but a nice bowl of soup. To finish our Colombian feast, we shared a portion of Brevas con Arequipe y Queso or candied fig with arequipe (very similar to dulce de leche) and fresh cheese. This is just about three sweet bites and it's a nice, typically Colombian way to end the meal. Another point of excitement: Tierra Colombia offers three Colombian beers and a variety of Colombian rum and aguardiente. Unfortunately, in Germany of all places, Colombian beer isn't enough to overcome Tierra Colombiana's shortcomings.

Tierra Colombiana
Mittenwalder Str. 27

Friday, October 14, 2011

China: Gut für Berlin

I wish I had more to say about Selig, but I left feeling sort of uninspired. Selig features the cuisine of northwestern China and specializes in hand-pulled noodles (there is a live pulling demonstration on Saturday nights). I read This review a while back and it stuck with me, so that I was determined to ignore the recently added disclaimer that it might not be so good after all. It's my fault I guess.

The noodles themselves were very good, with a nice spongy bite, but the two noodle dishes that we shared were just alright. I left thinking: I could have made those dishes. Wasn't the stir-fry I made last week better?

The so-called Peking duck with someone's special sauce wasn't awful, although it was definitely not Peking duck, but rather a deep-fried duck breast (is deep-frying really necessary?). While it was nice to have a milder dish to balance out the spicier beef and vegetables we had also ordered, after several bites, I was left craving some kind of flavor direction. The beef and vegetables had a nice punch to it and the vegetables retained some crunch. It was by far the better dish, if it was a little over-sauced.

The big question is, would I go back to Selig? My dining companion said it was the best Chinese food she's had in Berlin, and it definitely is better than the average place (keeping in mind that this city is full of Imbisse with mountains of nasty, greasy noodles to be for just a few Euros). I probably wouldn't go out of my way to eat there again, but if I were in the area and craving a big bowl of noodles, I very well might. I was intrigued by the noodles with lamb and I didn't get to try the dumplings. It is undoubtedly better than most of the Chinese food on offer in Berlin, but, alas, nothing to get too worked up about.

Kantstrasse 51

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bosnien: das siebente Mal hat Charme

The Islamic Cultural Center of the Bosnians in Berlin is a little tricky to figure out, but seeing as I have a bizarre amount of dedication to this project, I have conquered it. After six unsuccessful attempts to eat something "authentically" Bosnian, I finally made it. I stumbled across the ICCBB's website when I was looking for someplace definitively Bosnian to eat. The problem with messy history, is that it makes it difficult to tell exactly what is Bosnian. I imagine at least some of the Balkan places in Berlin are run by Bosnians, but they could also be Albanian or Macedonian or Croatian. Of course it works the other way, as well. The Albanian place I visited could be run by ethnic Bosnians and some of the people involved with the ICCBB could have (had) Albanian passports. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to three ethnic groups: the Bosniaks, the Serbs, and the Croats. I'm pretty sure neither the Serbs or the Croats were represented at the ICCBB, but I did visit a Croatian restaurant and I'll do my best to find something Serbian if I ever make it to S. I can tell you that based on a little internet research and a few restaurant meals, Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia have similar cuisines. Clearly, this is tricky business, but I think the fact that I went to the center seven times suggests that I did at least try to find something legit. Whatever legit means.

It took seven tries to get a meal at the ICCBB because it isn't really a restaurant, but a mosque and cultural center. I'd like to tell you more about it, but the website is all in Bosnian. When I first found the website, the only part I was able to decipher was the address. So I went there, figuring that they might be able to point me in the direction of a "genuine" Bosnian restaurant. Unfortunately, it was closed, but there was a man fixing the front step so I asked him: is there anywhere I can find Bosnian food in Berlin? He beamed: here! His German was't great, but he showed me inside where there is a little cafeteria and a small store selling a few Bosnian products. This was just before Ramadan (see how long I've been at this?!) and he said that the cook had gone back to Bosnia, but if I came back after Ramadan, I would be able to eat in the cafe. So, in September, I tried to go for a late lunch, but the center was again closed and this time nobody was fixing the front step. Eventually, I was able (with the aid of an internet Bosnian-English dictionary) to figure out the schedule (M-Th, 4pm-8pm; F-Sa, 11am-10pm; Su, 10am-10pm). Off I went for an early dinner only to discover that food is only served on Fridays and Saturdays. I tried again on the next available Saturday only to discover that that week, food was available on Friday and Sunday. This went on a few more times, until a few Sundays back when we happened to be wandering around Kreuzberg, a friend suggested that since we were nearby we might as well check and see if the ICCBB was open. I was sure that the place would be locked up, but lo and behold there were lights on and a few people inside. I'd been fooled by these clues before, though, but when we peaked around the corner, people were moving around in the cafe area. With trepidation, I inquired: is it possible to eat something today? Yes, the man behind the counter said, we have cevapi (aka cevapcici). So, cevapi it was. Unlike the Albanian and Croatian cevapcici, these came served sandwich style on a toasted flatbread (Turkish pide) with some sliced onions and a big dollop of what I thought was yogurt cheese, but may have been kaymak. The sandwich presentation and the kaymak is really what set these cevapi apart from the others I've had. The kaymak (or whatever it was) was great. This is one of those condiments that elevates most any dish. I can't say that the cevapi were better than the others, but they weren't worse either. At 4 Euros, you could get a better kebab-type sandwich elsewhere in the neighborhood, but you would miss out on thrill of actually managing to eat actual food at the ICCBB. I have the feeling that if you could read Bosnian (and thus the website) or if you were lucky, you might stumble upon a really good event there featuring other interesting and definitely homemade Bosnian dishes. As it is, dining at the ICCBB does require some patience and/or luck. If you decide to check it out, go with a plan B (avoid the awful Santa Maria Mexican Diner around the corner on Oranienstrasse at all costs).

Islamic Cultural Center of the Bosnians in Berlin
Adalbertstrasse 94 (hinterhaus)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

O Kanada: ein Land zu arm für echte Teller

I have nothing good to say about Ron Telesky Canadian Pizza. First and most importantly, the food is awful. Berlin isn't one of those towns where you can get a good slice of pizza just anywhere, but with a little trial and error, you can find decent pizza. I'm not even sure if Ron Telesky is better than the individual frozen pizzas you can buy at greasy Imbisse for 2 Euros. I have no problem with thin crust pizza, but floppy and soggy are not good qualities. Neither is greasy. Moreover, Ron is clearly using the cheapest ingredients one can possibly buy and this comes through in the flavor. Interesting toppings are supposedly Ron's thing, but on the night we visited, they had only a few options: marinara, pesto with mushrooms, mushroom-onion-bacon, and spicy (lots of different kinds of peppers), and a dessert pizza. Between the two of us, we sampled all four savory pies. The marinara and the mushroom-onion-bacon were the better of the four. Not that I would recommend them or go back for them, but they weren't completely disgusting. The pesto tasted of nothing but jarred pesto, which as you may know, tastes nothing like the real stuf, but oddly musty. The spicy pizza was so spicy it had no real flavor (this is not one of those situations where it's a relief to discover real heat in Berlin). As I may have mentioned, I do enjoy my sweets, but the dessert pizza (unimaginatively named "the Pothead") brown banana slices, scatalogical lumps of brownie, and scary congealed vanilla pudding was not remotely tempting. The German beer selection is perfectly adequate, but the only Canadian beer they had was blackberry-flavored Moosehead. Blackberry-flavored Moosehead?!

As if awful pizza isn't bad enough, everything about this place proclaims, "I don't care." The giant moosehead, which even the owner admits is the only really Canadian thing in this place is draped with a Canadian flag like a teenager had discarded a dirty shirt on the floor of his room. There are a few odd condiments on the counter - a spicy maple sauce in an old bottle (might work on the sweet potato pizza, but it certainly doesn't work with your more standard pizzas). "Homemade tabasco sauce" (tasting nothing like tabasco) and some kind of a honey mustard were both in crusty looking cups, like you might see at a party at some guy's first apartment. Ron Telesky isn't exactly dirty, but there is an overall dinginess that I don't enjoy when dining out. I can accept (although the environmentalist in me doestn't like it) that they only have paper plates, but the slices of pizza are much too big to fit on them (they aren't full size). As if this wasn't annoying enough, there are almost no tables or chairs at RT, so you end up perched on a tree stump on the sidewalk trying to balance your floppy slice of pizza on your knees, inevitably getting grease stains on your pants. You see, at RT, they are "totaly addicted to swing dancing" (not my spelling - the website is chock full of spelling errors and I'm not talking about words like colour) and twice a month they host a swing dance. We happened to visit on one of these nights, which could have been great. I like swing just fine, but a restaurant the size of a postage stamp (if it's dedicated to being a restaurant that is) does not get to do away with all of the tables. And, I'm sorry, but the decaying canoe on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant cannot seriously be considered a table, especially when they aren't providing big enough plates.

What is Canadian pizza, anyway? My pre-dining interest research turnedup this bizarre explanation. The German owner told me he lived in Canada for a while and worked at a pizza place specializing in non-traditional toppings. He brought the idea back here and decided to call it Canadian pizza. I'm certainly not Canadian and I find their flag-plastered backpacks absurd (if you don't want to be mistaken for a US American, don't act like one), but I think the Canadian embassy might want to take action here.

Ron Telesky Canadian Pizza
Dieffenbachstrasse 62

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le, viva Chile!

As luck would have it, I got to the C countries in September and when a very lost Latin American studies major (especially one who spent a year in Santiago) thinks about Chile in September, she immediately thinks: 18 de Septiembre (Chilean independence day)! It took a bit of googling, but I managed to track los Chilenos en Berlin down and indeed, las fiestas patrias were to be celebrated at the Statthaus Böcklerpark in Kreuzberg. In Chile, the 18 de Septiembre is celebrated with rodeos, carnivals, dancing the the cueca (the national dance of coquettish handkerchief waving), barbecues and other traditional fare. At the fiesta in Berlin, only the rodeo was missing. The relatively small Böcklerpark was pack with well over 100 Chileans and friends of Chile. The park was lined with stands selling almost all the Chilean hightlights: choripan, a chorizo sausage in a bun topped with pebre (the ubiquitous Chilean condiment: think non-spicy salsa fresca); ceviche; asado (a selection of grilled meat) with ensalada chilena (tomatoes and mild white onions); empanadas de pino (minced beef) and queso; completos (Chilean hotdogs with the works - my favorite is a completo italiano with mayonaise, avocado puree, and chopped tomatoes); churrascos (thin slices of steak on a bun with melted cheese (called a Barros Luco after the former president) or avocado, mayo, and tomatoes), pastel de choclo (similar to shepherd's pie with a sweet (too sweet in my opinion - and many Chileans sprinkle extra sugar before eating. yuck) cornmeal topping), cakes and the fried pastry calzones rotos. Of course there were also stands selling pisco sours (really excellent ones), piscolas (pisco with coke), and Chilean wine.

After a year in Chile, I was unbelievably sick of the cuisine. It's not the most diverse cuisine and my host-mother wasn't a very good cook. That said, after a ten-year break, it was a lot of fun to eat my way through Chile in the middle of Berlin. With a few exceptions: the food was quite good. It's hard to go wrong with a choripan, hot off the grill. And the completo took me right back to the completeria near La Moneda, except that it was even better with a German Wiener. We skipped the cheese empanadas as they were never my favorites, but the pino was very good - of course it should have been made with hand-chopped meat, but the crust was just right. The ceviche was simple, but refreshing and spicy and the asado took me back to so many Sunday barbecues with my host family. The pisco sours were a little pricy at 5 Euros for a small glass, but they were so very delicious, nobody seemed to mind. As you can tell, we did a pretty good job of sampling just about everything. We did skip the paella (why?) and the pastel de choclo because I never could get behind that much sugar with my ground beef. I was a little disappointed in the dessert table. Most of them looked more German than Chilean, with the exception of pay de limon and the calzones rotos, but how is it that there wasn't any manjar (the Chilean word for dulce de leche) to be found? Not a single alfajor? Weeks later and I'm still craving it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kambodscha: Wir haben ein Gewinner

I really didn't want to move onto the C countries with Bolivia and Bosnia still uneaten, but Bolivia was a bust and Bosnia is proving to be particularly challenging. I was really excited about the Deutsche-Bolivianische Azzoziation's 25th Anniversary Festival, but unfortunately the September 15-18th listed on their Facebook page was a big lie (typo?). Such a bummer as this seems to have been the only opportunity in Berlin to eat Bolivian food. And I do love me a salteña. Bosnia is still coming, I promise....

Angkor Wat is a little off the beaten path (at least it's not a neighborhood that I frequent) in Tiergarten, a short stroll from the Brandenburg Gate. At least one reviewer found the decor "slightly more gaudy than the usual Asian restaurant" and while I wouldn't necessarily say that the restaurant has an understated look (multiple paintings adorn the walls, there are some lovely pieces of painted woodwork, and there is foliage), I found it to be very tasteful, cozy even (this reviewer has clearly never eaten Indian food in New York's East Village under the glare of ten thousand Christmas lights). So many restaurants in this town look exactly the same (and many serve near-identical menus -- if I see one more salad with Putenstreifen (strips of turkey meat) and bad balsamic dressing I might lose it); it's downright exhilarating to find a place with some personality, that isn't afraid to announce to the natives: here you can have a unique Cambodian experience. Amazingly enough, nowhere does Angkor Wat also claim to be a sushi restaurant or a Thai restaurant! These are Cambodian people cooking Cambodian food: it's refreshing to see, and delicious to eat.

Cambodian food is often described as being similar to Thai food, but less strongly and less complexly spiced. In my one Cambodian dining experience I found that to be true and my initial reaction was: in a city full of bad Thai food, this is a great restaurant, but now I don't know. I'd have to eat more Cambodian food to really be sure, but maybe there is a delicious subtlety in Cambodian food? Maybe I just haven't had a real Thai meal since I moved to Europe? In any case, the food at Angkor Wat is certainly not boring. We shared four appetizers-spring rolls, summer rolls, banana blossom salad, and a beef salad with toasted rice. The rolls were both good, but not particularly remarkable. The banana blossom salad, however was light and refreshing and the beef salad was excellent, with flavors reminiscent of, if a slightly milder version. For entrees, we split an order for two of grill-it-yourself beef (if I was a better reviewer, I would remember the actual name of this dish) and a chicken stir-fry flavored with bergamot leaves (although a little internet research suggests that Bergamot is more of a Mediterranean plant, so maybe they were lime leaves???). Whatever they were, the chicken dish was simple, but with a very nice, lightly citrusy flavor. It was a good foil for our beef, which was richly marinated and just a little spicy. The beef was served with rice noodles, a vegetable salad with lots of mung beans, sliced peppers, and cucumbers, steamed rice, and various sauces. A little tabletop grill was placed in the center of the table and we cooked our own dinner (similar to Korean barbecue).

Angkor Wat is not the cheapest Asian restaurant in Berlin. Appetizers are in the 5-7 Euro range and entrees are closer to 15 Euros. Four appetizers and three entrees split between four diners left us all very full (we did eat every single morsel, including the radishes carved into roses and the goldfish carrot). While you certainly can have a cheaper Asian meal in this town, you'll have trouble find a place that (1) provides such a complexity of flavor and doesn't just bathe every single dish in coconut milk and (2) pays such close attention to detail. The food is served on nice plates (not nice as in expensive, but nice as in not boring sturdy white Ikea plates or the like). As soon as we were seated, our waitress brought us a welcome aperitif (some sweet liqueur) along with some shrimp chips (I loathe these, but the Germans do really seem to like them) and when we had finished eating, she brought us each a schnapps on a beautiful little tray. To top all of this off, after we had finished eating and all agreed we were too full for dessert, the chef came to our table to say hello and see how we enjoyed our meal. I must tell you that the chef is the most jolly, adorable man I have seen in a long, long time. This guy grins even when he is not smiling. We told him everything had been delicious, but we were too full for dessert, but disregarding our fullness, he said he had a new dessert and surely if he brought us two portions, we could manage to sample it. Out came two plates of sticky rice with pumpkin and coconut milk. Mango provides a better contrast to sticky rice, but pumpkin is pretty delicious too. My dining companions suggest that the free dessert was just a ploy - that the chef has heard of my curse and hopes that by appeasing me with sugar, I won't close his restaurant (in my defense, only six places (that I either visited or tried to visit have closed and they were for the most place not very good). I don't think that I have any control over my curse, but if I do, I can certainly be appeased with sugar, especially after a delicious meal.

Angkor Wat
Paulstraße 22

Monday, September 5, 2011

Brasilien: Nur mit Einladung

When mein Mann said that he was attending a function at the Brazilian Embassy on one of my rare nights off, I announced that I would join him. Usually, I pass on these functions because I end up in a circle of people discussing German politics in minutia -- my eyes quickly glaze over and the food is almost always disappointing. But the Brazil event (in honor of Brazilian independence day) came along just as I was needed some Brazilian food, so I decided to make an exception. The best part was the Brazilian band playing loudly in the corner. The worst part was the caipirinhas. First of all, there weren't enough of them - this beverage has trended in Berlin and they were in high demand, but low supply. The more serious problem was that they were mixed with instant lemonade. Yuck. It's not a good sign when at a Brazilian party you'd rather drink the French Champagne. The finger food was a little hard to come by as it often is at large receptions, but I can accept that the Brazilian government doesn't want to buy 200 people dinner. Still, the pre-made canapes (the kind you take out of the package already assembled) were really bad. The one I sampled tasted like cat food on stale bread. The shot glasses of black bean soup were pretty tasty, but there is something unpleasant about drinking a shot of hot soup. I nabbed something quichey that turned out to be full of canned corn (making it fairly authentic, I have to admit) and tasted so strongly of instant soup that I would have spit it out in less mixed company. Alas....after a couple hours of mingling and eyes glazing we headed out into the night still hungry and still craving Brazilian food.

We made our way to Café do Brasil in Kreuzberg. The place was hopping and many of the guests were Brazilian - always a good sign. The waitstaff was a little scarce, but there was a buffet (available Monday-Wednesday evenings and for Sunday brunch; 10.90 Euros), so we helped ourselves. This is basically a feijoada buffet, there was some chicken on a platter, but none of the churrasco-type meats (on Thursdays they offer a Churrasquinho buffet and you can order both a la carte at other times). In any case, the feijoada at Café do Brasil is very good. The beans are very, very flavorful with chunks of smoked sausage and pork ribs, served of course with farofa or toasted manioc flour. I did miss the collard greens, which are a traditional accompaniment, but they do have green salad and roasted vegetables on offer. There are also a variety of fritters to choose from: acarajé or dried shrimp, something spinachy, fried yuca, and fried bananas to name a few. The fried bananas are a must with the beans. I will say that none of the food (which is set out in chafing dishes) was quite hot enough - this wasn't such an issue with the beans, but the fritters would have been a lot better fresh. In all fairness, I'm not really a fried food person and with the exception of the bananas (which could have been baked or pan-fried rather than breaded and deep-fried in my opinion and in keeping with what I've eaten in Brazil), which you really shouldn't miss, I would skip the other fritters next time. On the other hand, a Brazilian restaurant without a variety of fried bits wouldn't feel quite right.

At the end of the day, I really liked Café do Brasil, even with it's small shortcomings. So we didn't see a waiter for most of our meal and I never got to order my caipirinha - at the end he pointed out that we hadn't had dessert (the buffet only had fruit) and brought us each an eggy custard with a splash of mango or passion fruit juice. I suppose it's easier to sell a Brazilian restaurant to the German public (than, say a Bulgarian one) and this restaurant feels very Brazilian - the food is fairly authentic (I can't find collard greens anywhere here and I've looked), the music is loud and Brazilian, the yellow walls are dripping with with fake foliage (which sounds tacky, but works in this space), and vibe is mellow and everyone seems to be having a good time.

Café do Brasil
Mehringdamm 72

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bulgarien: Eine von Viele

As much as I've tried to keep this project orderly, the B countries refuse to get in line (alphabetically that is). I've got Bolivia and Bosnia in the works, but Bulgaria pushed it's way forward (Brazil is just behind it) and that's just how it is. Maybe the C countries will be less chaotic....

I was pleasantly surprised to find a good handful of Bulgarian restaurants in Berlin to choose from. As a matter of fact, for what it's worth, there appear to be more Bulgarian restaurants in Berlin than in New York City. Luckily, a friend with a Bulgarian boyfriend offered to take me to her favorite: Pri Maria (Bulgarian for Maria's Place) in Friedrichshain. Inflamatory as this statement may be to certain passport-holders, the flavors found in Bulgarian food are not dramatically different from those found in Turkish food (they do share a border after all), which means that a Bulgarian meal in Berlin (home to a bazillion Turkish restaurants) doesn't really provide a new and exciting palate to explore. That said, it's always interesting to explore regional or national variations and Pri Maria offers very good versions of these familiar dishes at very reasonable prices.

We shared a small mixed appetizer plate, a schopska (the Bulgarian version of the more familiar Greek salad), and an order of Sirene natur (Bulgarian sheeps' milk cheese (think feta)). The appetizer plate included a selection of speads: eggplant, red pepper, yogurt-cucumber, along with some marinated vegetables. While many places in Berlin offer a near-identical mixed appetizer plate, at Pri Maria they are clearly made in-house and taste notably fresher and more distinct than what you most often come across in this town. My chief complaint regarding the appetizer plate is that it doesn't include any feta, which we had to order separately. The feta is very good and not expensive (3.20 Euros for 6 or so slices), so it wasn't a huge problem in our case, but if I were dining alone or with a cheese-phobic companion, I might not want a whole plate of it. Seeing as it is listed under appetizers and the mixed appetizer plate is described as "a little of everything," it seems that a bite or two of feta wouldn't be out of place. Another issue is the bread. While it's perfectly edible white bread and provides a necessary vehicle for the many spreads, it's nothing special. Alas, I don't know enough about Bulgarian food to know if this is the sort of thing one might be served in a cafe in Sofia, but the very good spreads would have really been elevated had they been served with homemade pita (!) or even a purchased bread with some actual flavor. The schopska is an excellent example of how making a small change - in this case, grating the feta instead of cubing or crumbling it - can give a familiar dish a very different feel. My complaint regarding the schopska is a familiar one: the tomatoes in Berlin are almost always bad, particularly if you are buying cheap ones, which most inexpensive restaurants here do. Maybe in late August you can find a few good ones, but this year has been especially, depressingly bad. If you've ever eaten a Greek salad with tomatoes and cucumbers fresh from the garden, you know that one made from grocery store produce just isn't the same. Still, I liked the "concept" of the salad. If I ever get my hands on a tomato with any flavor, I just might make my own schopska, though I am craving a tomato sandwich on toasted bread with basil mayonaise so much these days, that would have to take precedence......but back to Bulgaria....The meal ended on a very good note: yogurt with honey and walnuts. This dish has so much potential to be blah, but Pri Maria's version was anything but. The yogurt (whole milk, of course) was thick and creamy with just the right amount of tang. There was just enough honey so that somehow you managed to get some in each bite without it being cloying. And the walnuts - they weren't just tossed on as an afterthought, but were caramelized, giving each spoonful the most delicious, toasty crunch.

Because Pri Maria is in Friedrichshain, they also serve crepes and gallettes (is there a neighborhood law that one cafe per block has to serve these?)and a few Russian dishes (there seems to be a Russian involved somewhere - married to the owner perhaps?), but at heart Pri Maria is a Bulgarian cafe with a complete Bulgarian wine list! My glass of red wine was pretty generic tasting, but still - it was Bulgarian! They also host wine tastings (and randomly, offer bike rental), so maybe there are some gems on the list. It would be nice if they pumped up the Bulgaria a little - the decor is pretty generic. The cheesy painting of a cappuccino and some oddly squid-like light fixtures didn't do much for me. Similarly, I was much happier listening to the Bulgarian music (which can only be described as raucous) than the forgettable pop that was playing when we first came in. I can imagine the owners might prefer a more modern look, but I'd like to think that proclaiming themselves as a place to have a distinctly Bulgarian experience would be a real selling point. Having said that, the place doesn't seem to be lacking for customers: the food is good and the price is right.

Pri Maria
Boxhagener Straße 26

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Das Bermuda-Dreieck: Vermisst

I was mostly kidding about my ability to bring about a restaurant (or bar)'s demise, but I am here to report that the Bermuda Cocktailbar in Weissensee and the Bermuda-Dreieck in Kreuzberg have both closed and been replaced by shisha bars. I might as well also add here that until a year or so ago, there was a Burmese restaurant near Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, that has also become a shisha bar. Not a good development in my opinion. The Burmese place was pretty bad -- I recall a plate of momos covered in red glop -- but I am pretty sure it was better, and definitely more interesting, than this shisha place. Sigh.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

B für Belgien

I first discovered Liege waffles about 10 years ago when backpacking around Europe with my sister. I remember that we weren't very hungry, but bought one from a vendor in the subway in Brussels because it seemed that one should have a Belgian waffle when in Belgium. But the waffles one finds in Brussels (Liege) have little in common with the Belgian waffles found in diners in America. Liege waffles are made from a slightly sweet yeasted dough (also not to be confused with a yeasted batter a la Marion Cunningham)
that is sprinkled with pearl sugar before it hits the waffle iron - the sugar melts and forms a light glaze. I don't have anything against regular waffles, but if I never eat one again, it would basically be OK with me. Liege waffles, on the other hand, are something that I dream about.

Cassonade, a small Belgian cafe on busy Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg sells both Liege and regular waffles. The bummer is that they make both kinds in advance, reheating them in the waffle iron. This is just nuts as both kinds of waffles benefit highly from being freshly made and neither takes very long to cook. In Brussels, the majority of vendors use thawed frozen dough with delicious success and I can't think of any reason Cassonade couldn't do this as well. That said, the waffle was pretty good and at only 1.60 Euros, a delicious and affordable snack. Still, it wasn't quite as doughy (in a good way) as it might have been had it been freshly griddled, and the glaze was somehow lacking. I'm not saying I didn't like it, but with with a very little effort, Cassonade could remedy these issues. I have to add that the cafe also lacks something in the ambiance department. Aside from a shelf with some different Belgian products (mostly beers) and a plastic table, there really isn't much to the interior. These days you can sit outside, but it's not like Oranienstrasse offers much charm. I say, go early and maybe you can catch them making the waffles fresh, get one to go (do not be distracted by the toppings, they only take away from the sweet doughyness, which is the beauty of a Liege waffle) and stroll down to the canal.

Oranienstrasse 199

Photo courtesy of the Taxi Gourmet

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bangladesch: Nachos und Mehr

I think Dayal Bhandar may be the world's only Bengali-Mexican restaurant. Alongside the traditional curries and fritters, you'll find many variations on nachos and fajitas (burgers, too). When asked, the jolly owner informed us that he had previously owned several Mexican restaurants and his regular customers asked him to keep their favorite dishes on the menu. While I get that from an economics perspective (we were the only customers at 7 on a Saturday evening), it doesn't quite jive with his professed desire to make Dayal Bhandar into a Bengali cultural center, serving authentic food that isn't dumbed down for the Germans (his sentiment, my words). While I was tempted to see if the Fajitas con Vaca came with a real cow, we stuck to the Bengali menu options. We shared Missron Kulipita, fried turnovers filled with beef or chicken served with a tamarind sauce and Bangla Labra, a sort of vegetable curry. I can't say that the food was amazing, but something about the place appealed to me. The fritters were fine; no better or worse than you would expect. The major flaw in the cooking was that the vegetable curry was made with frozen vegetables. I can't defend this (in July no less), but the sauce was good and it was spicy. In a city filled with odd cream-based curries that all taste exactly the same, this dish stood out despite the crinkle-cut carrots. My favorite part of the meal, though, was the beverages. Dayal Bhandar doesn't serve any alcohol, but they do have a few Bengali beverages. The owner's wife (co-owner?) had trouble explaining them to me, so I chose Burhani, which she could only describe as spicy. I liked it, but it was like drinking a glass of creamy, spicy (!) cilantro chutney. I do love me some cilantro chutney and while it might not become my new drink of choice, it's refreshing to be served something with real heat in this town. Spain and Germany have taken a real toll on my spiciness tolerance and between the curry and my drink, my ears were on fire. I was also intrigued by their traditional Bengali breakfast offerings - homemade flatbread with eggs, cilantro, onions, and chilies stood out in particular. Even though the food wasn't mind-blowing, it still seemed like they were cooking for us like they cook for themselves. I have a suspicion that with a little work and by showing some interest in Bengali cuisine, you might be able to eat really well there. Or maybe I'm just getting desperate to believe that about one of these places.

At the end of the day, Dayal Bhandar does have room for improvement. The restaurant's interior is fairly generic and sitting outside means you are essentially eating in a construction site (they can't be blamed for this, though, and in time it will be gone). Still, the food has real flavor and the jolly owner and his family (when we first walked in only the children were present) are charming. I hope that the fact that they only had one table on a Saturday night doesn't mean what I think it means. The off-the-path location will always be a challenge, but they do seem to get that cooking their food as they like to eat it is something special. And that counts for something in my book.

Dayal Bhandar
Goslarer Platz 5

Friday, July 1, 2011

Aserbaidschan: Fast Italien

Baku-Napoli is the classic combination Azerbaijani-Italian restaurant (they also serve Russian and German food). I have to give them credit for pointing to a link between Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) and Naples on the website with a Maxim Gorki quote: "No streets in the world remind me more of Naples than those in Baku" (Baku being the capital of Azerbaijan for those of you not up on your Azerbaijani trivia). I'd so love to tell you that this is a hidden gem, that the restaurant's generic sign and unappealing location on ugly Potsdamer Strasse belie amazing homemade treasures, delights found nowhere else in Berlin. In all truth, on the inside the restaurant is a lot more charming than you would guess. The walls are decorated with murals of what I guessed to be Baku street life and in the back is a nice little Biergarten for outdoor dining in case summer weather ever returns to this city. You can get a good sense of the music they play a little too loudly from Baku's website: Russian pop and funny covers of American show tunes, etc. (we actually thought they had started doing karaoke in the main dining room at one point, but it was a CD). Some of the food at Baku-Napoli is pretty decent, but nothing was so good that I'm planning to go back. And importantly, the prices are way out of line with the portions, the neighborhood, and the quality of the food.

The menu offers a wide selection of Italian dishes: pizzas, pastas, various salads, along with a few German or Berlin standards, such as Chicken Schnitzel, Currywurst, and Eisbein (pork knuckle), but we stuck to the Azerbaijani/Russian section of the menu. The Pelmeni, little ravioli-style dumplings with a ground chicken filling (these are more Russian than Azerbaijani as far as I know) were served with sour cream and oddly with yellow rice and a little salad of a couple cucumber and tomato slices on a spoonful of sauerkraut. They were OK, but I'd guess they weren't homemade and they were quite bland. Also, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on Azerbaijani cuisine, I don't even have a cookbook, but I don't think rice is a traditional or logical accompaniment to dumplings. Especially such insipid rice. Whatever gave the rice it's yellow coloring (certainly not saffron as is traditional) had no flavor whatsoever. Our grilled veal kebab came with the same salad and tasteless rice, but the meat had very good flavor and was served with pomegranate molasses and a sort of plum-based smoky barbecue sauce. The quantity of food was certainly enough to fill up two diners, but was on the meager side by today's restaurant standards. It's not that we needed to eat more (although the menu does claim that all the grill dishes are served with grilled vegetables and all we got was a half a grilled tomato). It's just that for almost 14 Euros (especially in this town) one expects a little more. If the rice had been good and there had been some nice grilled vegetables .... Maybe if the bread they serve was homemade (Azerbaijani Tandoor bread is supposedly quite delicious)...then maybe I can see charging 14 Euros, but what they actually serve and how it's presented just doesn't justify that much money in this town. Sigh....

Potsdamer Strasse 131

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Österreich: Bleib bei dem Schnitzel

I thought about skipping over Austria. Schnitzel is easy to make and I am forced to make it fairly often at work (not that there isn't more to Austrian cuisine, but schnitzel does seem to be the focus at Austrian places here). I've also already been to several Austrian or Austrian-ish places here and one might argue that Austrian food is more of a regional thing, but that seemed to go against the spirit of my little project here. And so I made a reservation at Austria. (Why this place is called Austria, I do not know (Austria is Österreich in German -- alas, the waitstaff at Austria are not imports, but surly locals and our waiter did not seem interested in answering such questions.)

There are a decent number of Austrian places in Berlin and I don't have a very good reason for having picked Austria. Many people consider their schnitzel the best schnitzel in town and I have a nice memory of sharing a schnitzel at the bar with mein Mann a few years back. I don't know for sure if it's the best in town, but the schnitzel at Austria is quite good. (But if schnitzel is what you're after, get yourself some good-quality veal and make it at home - it's beyond easy.) Still, the bigger-than-plate-sized schnitzel at Austria has a light, crispy coating and comes with simple, but good potato salad and cucumber salad. If you are feeling lazy or don't want your kitchen to smell like grease or you have out-of-town visitors who want a "typical German" restaurant experience, you could definitely do worse. Because I had already sampled the schnitzel at Austria (and just made it at work), I decided to branch out and ordered the Tafelspitz (think brisket). At Austria, this means two large pieces of meat with a generous serving of fresh horseradish, creamed cabbage, smashed potatoes, some julienned vegetables (carrot, kholrabi and the like) that mostly added color to the plate. The potatoes and creamed cabbage were both excellent. The potatoes were perfectly seasoned with lots of caraway seeds and the occasional crunchy bit of Speck and let's just say that there should be more creamed cabbage in the world. But the meat didn't do much for me. It was a little too dry and didn't have much flavor. Also it was served (per tradition) in a little pool of wan cooking liquid that I really could have done without. I can, however, report that Austria has a full list of good Austrian beers and wines. As well they should.

Austria isn't the most beautiful restaurant in town. I don't mind the mountain hut look, but the ceiling is cheap office tiles and the place could really use a fresh paint job. For whatever reason, many of the paintings and plaques with antlers, etc. have been taken down leaving only dingy marks on the walls. If it was some amazing bargain hole-in-the-wall I could let it slide, but with entrees above 15 Euros, a decent paint job is in order. In the end, when in Austria: stick to the Schitzel. (For tafelspitz, head to Vienna and make a reservation at Plachutta - their Tafelspitz is worth the plane/train fare.)

Bergmanstr. 30

Not to be confused with the wannabe, copycat Felix Austria down the street at Bergmanstr. 26!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Australien: Ich habe es wirklich versucht

I am starting to think that this project may be something of a curse. Chraazan, the Afghan restaurant closed shortly after I visited it. I noticed that the Great Australian Bite had closed on my way to the Armenian Amberd. And try as I might, I wasn't able to make a reservation at Billabong (lame name, I know). The Billabong website states that they are closed for vacation from April 14. I initially assumed that they just hadn't gotten around to taking the message down - surely a restaurant doesn't go on vacation for two entire months? In the end, it seems that Billabong has closed as their phone is disconnected and they aren't responding to emails. You cant say I didn't try....

Lest you think I would let the closing of not one but two Australian restaurants deter me, I am here to report that Ululu Resort, "The Australian PUB in Berlin" is going strong. And while it is not all that Australian, the motto does seem to ring true. (Full disclosure: there are two branches of Restaurant Corroboree in Berlin, but this place looks so cheesey, so touristy, even the German-language reviews on Qype, etc. so bad .... I just couldn't subject myself to the croc tournedos or springbock steak. sorry.) I don't know that I would recommend Ululu in the winter because it really does reek of stale cigarette smoke, but on a warm June evening it was pleasant enough to sit at a table in front of the restaurant and sip a glass of Australian Chardonnay. Alas, the Chardonnay is the only Australian thing on the menu (there may be Bratwurst on the weekends, but the official menu is just drinks - with the exception of the unremarkable Chardonnay, it's the same beers and Erdbeer Bowle (strawberry wine cooler/punch) you find in any non-trendy Berlin bar). According to the friendly owner "the Australia part is really just a facade; it's basically a stammkneipe (local pub)." least he was being honest.

Ululu Resort
Rykestr. 17

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Armenien ist OK

Our waitress at Restaurant Amberd proudly declared: "I'm not Armenian," but then went off to find out how to say cheers in Armenian: genatz (pronounced according to our non-Armenian-speaking waitress like kay-nuts). Amberd is surprisingly one of two Amrmenian restaurants on Uhlandstrasse, both of which have near-identical menus, prices, and casual-but-white-table-cloth styles. I feel like I'm getting repetitive here, but once again there were a few interesting points, but I wouldn't go out of my way to eat at Amberd again (I do like the name, though).

We shared a mixed appetizer platter four ways (more than enough), which included a relative of baba ganoush (pleasantly smoky), feta (nice and creamy, not too salty), stuffed grape leaves (subpar), kidney beans in a tomato-y sauce (very bland), some fried croquettes of indeterminable substance with lots of fennel seed (meh). Aside from a few generically "international" specials like chicken breast in orange-curry sauce, the bulk of the menu is made up of rollos and grilled meat served with rice, lavash bread, or (oddly) potato gratin (to appease the Germans, I guess). I was very intrigued by the rollo, which is a sort of Armenian burrito made with lavash and various stuffings. Ours was filled with feta, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, and yogurt sauce. It was enormous, but needed something to bump up the flavor (I had expected more from the yogurt sauce).

We also shared the Jerewan plate: grilled lamb fillet, a grilled chicken breast, and some lulee, or ground meat sausages (similar to cevapcici, but milder) - more than enough meat for two people. The meat came on a large piece of lavash folded over itself. (If I ever remembered to take my camera anywhere with me, you could see what it looked like.) Now this seems obvious to me, but with such simple food, you really need to put some thought into the ingredients. Grilled cheap meat tastes like cheap meat. This was especially evident in the chicken, which had basically no flavor. Amberd isn't Berin's most expensive restaurant, but it isn't the cheapest either. I for one, would much prefer a single decent piece of meat than three mediocre ones for 13 Euros. Having been to many a Grillparty in Berlin, I guess I have to conclude that I am in the minority in this city. I will say that every table got a pitcher of pomegranate molasses, which did wonders for both the meat and the rollo. I also enjoyed the private party of fancyish, raucous Armenians (or possibly Russians), including a large gentleman with a man-purse. But back to the menu: Wikipedia says that Armenia is the world's oldest wine-producing region. I don't know if they still drink it there today, but the menu was disappointingly almost exclusively French.

Sad news! On my way to Amberd, I biked past the Great Australian Bite, which I had hoped to make my next spot, has closed!

Restaurant Amberd
Uhlandstr. 67

next up: Restaurant Billabong

Monday, May 16, 2011

Argentinien: Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

The problem with trying to eat at an Argentine (or Agentinean(ian) if you prefer) restaurant in Berlin is trying to pick which one isn't a super cheesy German interpretation of what the owner thinks an Argentine restaurant might be, i.e. a restaurant serving mediocre steak with mediocre German side dishes. In the end, I feel pretty confident that we found the most typically Argentine restaurant in Berlin. Alas, this is not the same as saying that it was good. In my very thorough internet research, Camba-la-che de Mafalda seemed to be the only Argentine restaurant in Berlin run my actual Argentines. My dining companion, who lived in Buenos Aires for several years set the requirement that the restaurant must serve empanadas, Italian food, Spanish food, and several cuts of beef. Camba's menu meets most of those requirements: several kinds of empanadas, Italian food in the form of pizzas and gnocchi, and Spanish tortillas. They only have two cuts of beef, but given that they fulfilled all the other requirements and we couldn't find anywhere else that even came close, we decided to check it out.

I speak Castillian and Chilean pretty well, but I only get by in Argentine Spanish and all I can tell you is that the fun name refers to a popular Argentine comic strip, Mafalda. Cambalache seems to have something to do with tango. Anyway, the restaurant has a very cozy, interesting vibe; you can tell someone has put something of themselves into the place and, refreshingly, it doesn't feel like every other restaurant in Berlin. (You can check it out from the comfort of your laptop in this somewhat random, oddly (for a restaurant) lacking in food shots, and after a few minutes, really boring video from the restaurant's myspace page. Unfortunately, the video seems to have been done before most of the decorating was complete, so you don't get to see the nice artwork, much of which was done by the owner and his wife. The owner (pictured here), I must add, was the real highlight of the evening. His flowing white locks, killer Argentine accent, and jovial manner just about made up for what was sadly, a less than stellar meal.

I'm normally all for drinking European wine in Europe, but I thought it would be nice to have a glass of Argentine wine to go with my Argentine food. Alas, my dining companion was feeling under the weather and the only way to order Argentine wine is by the bottle. My glass of Spanish house wine was perfectly fine and very affordable , but ... it really seems like this place could find one affordable, drinkable Argentine wine to offer by the glass. Moving on ... we shared an Argentine empanada (the classic variety with a ground beef filling) and Argentine rump steak. Having lived in the Southern Cone myself (albeit on the other side of the Andes (different accent, similar empanadas), I can attest to the fact that it is common knowledge that a good empanada is made with beef that is hand chopped with a knife. Ground beef provides a different texture entirely and ground beef empanadas are the kind of thing you find in sad, dingy restaurants in back alleys. Ultimately, we could get over the fact that the empanada was round (they are pretty much always half-circles) because the crust was decent, but the filling sort of ruined it for us. The side salad (iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and onions (the classic components of an Argentine salad) were not really helped by the mayonnaise-y dressing (even if I was thrilled to eat in a restaurant in Berlin sans ubiquitous overly sweet Balsamic vinaigrette). The steak was OK. I'm sure it really was Argentine beef (as promised on the menu), but I would have rather had some nice organic German beef with actual flavor. This is not to say that all Argentine beef is flavorless - the beef I had when I was actually in Argentina was excellent, but I've eaten plenty of Argentine beef in Berlin at nice places and I'm not sure they are exporting the good stuff. In any case, this restaurant, lacking a real fire over which to grill our meat, was not able to make it taste like much. A little chimichurri would have done wonders, but Camba serves a red chimichurri, which the internet suggests may also be traditional, but is just not as good as the bright, herby green chimichurri I was hoping for. I hate to be negative about the pizza, because the extremely nice, adorable owner gave us each a slice of his own dinner (pizza with anchovies), but it was just not good. My friend the Argentine food expert assured me that the crust was exactly like what you would get in Argentina and that may be so and I suppose it counts for something, but it tasted like a frozen pizza crust to me. Did I mention how nice and adorable the owner was? I feel really guilty for not liking his pizza. I wish I could invite him over and make something that he wouldn't like so that we could be even.

Alas, I should know better than to have high hopes when dining out in this town. We were too disappointed to order the Panqueques with Dulce de Leche. If you're ever in the neighborhood on a Wednesday night, though, they have concerts with Argentine music. If you had a friend or two in tow (or a higher tolerance than I do), you could even enjoy some Argentine wine.

Camba-la-Che de Mafalda
Skalitzer Strasse 45

Albanien: Dieses Mal, Kein Witz

I actually own an Albanian cookbook (thanks to the aforementioned crazy New York job), but like too many of my worldly possessions, it resides on the other side of the Atlantic, so I was forced to turn to Google to brush up on the ins and outs of Albanian cuisine before conquering the second country of the alphabet. Randomly enough, when you google "Albanian food," one of the first links that pops up is a youtube clip from a movie I didn't know existed, "My Mom's New Boyfriend," in which Antonio Banderas (playing some sort of gangster who's actually an undercover CIA agent (this I gleamed for you from the clip and Wikipedia)) takes Meg Ryan to an underground Albanian restaurant complete with belly dancers and drug deals. There were some men smoking in the back room at Sofra Shquiptare and a highly informational special on boob jobs gone wrong on the wall-mounted television, but the similarities pretty much end there.

The part of me that really loves a good hole in the wall really wanted to like this place. And there is something charming about it, starting perhaps with it's unpronounceable name, the website is all in Albanian (!), and the glittery murals of Albanian folklife that decorate the walls. In the end, we had a good meal and both left plenty full for less than 12 Euros. I have all too often had worse meals for a lot more money in this town. Basically, although there is a seating area and they will bring the food to your table, this is basically an Imbiss (the kind of place you might get a Döner Kebap in Deutschland or a plastic plate of dumplings or a burrito in New York). The menu includes pizzas and other fast food items, but there is a corner devoted to Albanian dishes and we focused our attention there.

We shared a cheese borek, a stuffed pepper, some stewed vegetables (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes), an order of cevapcici (casing-less beef sausages), and what might have been Sheqerpare for dessert (basically a lady finger soaked in sugar water). Ultimately, most everything was tasty and tasted like it had been made by someone, which is saying something in my book. For this kind of money, you can't really expect the best ingredients and this was most evident in the stuffed pepper, whose filling was basically just rice and ground beef. Unfortunately, the beef had the cat food-y texture of cheap ground beef. The borek, however, was pretty decent, as were the cevapcici (no doubt the same cheap meat, but less noticeable in sausage form) and the stewed vegetables. I may have ordered the wrong dessert. As mentioned, it tasted like a soggy, overly sweet lady finger. I didn't come close to finishing it and I pretty much always clean my dessert plate. The surprisingly large dessert case was filled with several intriguing options: a towering marshmallow of a cake with a thin pastry crust, a very thick sliceable vanilla pudding-type cake, something from the churro family (Tulumba), Baklava, as well as the god-awful local version of a strawberry mirror cake (hugely popular here for reasons I have yet to fathom), and tiramisu. I regret not ordering the marshmallow thing, but I was really full and went with the smallest option. I did get to live vicariously through an Albanian man (or at least he spoke Albanian with the owner) who came in as I was poking at my soggy pastry and ordered a huge box of desserts. I'm guessing that Sofra Shquiptare is probably the only place in town to load up on Albanian sweets. Actually, I think we may have found the Albanian cultural center in Berlin.

A final sad note, there is not a single Algerian restaurant, Imbiss, or market of any kind in Berlin. This I report based on my own very thorough internet research and a phone call to the Algerian embassy here. The man who answered the phone and delivered the unfortunate news agreed that this is really a shame. I don't have much hope for an Andorran restaurant, but I'm off to check it out.

Sofra Shquiptare
Pankstraße 61

Berlin von A bis Z: Chraazan

When I lived in New York, I had this crazy job as a cookbook editor for a very minor publishing house. It was crazy in many ways, the first being that I was hired with basically no editorial or publishing experience whatsoever. To top that off, I was in charge of the entire cookbook department with essentially no supervision because my boss was rather elderly, disabled, and a little bit senile. To add to the fun, one-quarter of our four-person office was a total wack job: paranoid, prone to semi-violent temper tantrums, etc. Oh and he had a ton of photos of his mom's cat in his cubicle. This job was seriously underpaid in a seriously underpaid industry and because I was the entire cookbook division, I was responsible for everything from acquisition to editing to marketing. Until my off-kilter coworker really started to lose it, this job actually had some perks: I got to read cookbooks all day long, minimal senile supervision meant I could focus on the projects that interested me and disregard my boss' dumb ideas (he wouldn't remember that he'd had them), and once a week we ordered lunch for the office. As the cookbook editor, it was naturally my job to coordinate this and of course I used my powers to influence the decision as to which restaurant we would order from each week. Also (being seriously underpaid and overworked) ordered way more food than I could possibly eat at lunch providing me with several extra meals. One of my favorite restaurants on our ordering rotation was Bamiyan, an Afghani place on E. 26th Street. After a few meals, I had my order down and would always order Fesenjen, a chicken dish with a pomegranate and walnut sauce and Mantoo, meat dumplings with spiced tomato and yogurt sauces.

A while back, thinking of how much I miss the quality and variety of "ethnic" restaurants in DC and New York, I had the silly idea of trying to find the best restaurant for every cuisine in Berlin. I'm not sure this is realistic -- I'm pretty sure many cuisines are not to be found in Berlin, but the idea amuses me even if I'm also pretty sure I'll just be disappointed by the quality of what I do find. But, I have to say that I'm not off to a terrible start. Last night found me at Chraazan, which according to my research is the only Afghan restaurant in Berlin. It wasn't quite as good as Bamiyan, which as I remember it was a little more complex in flavor with a slightly fresher product (we were the only guests on a Tuesday night at Chraazan so I'm guessing they don't move things quite as quickly as at Bamiyan ... nor is there any Afghan competition for miles and miles). Alas, Chraazan didn't have fesenjen and when I asked about it the waiter (who seemed to also be the/an owner) didn't light up, delighted that someone was remotely knowledgeable in his cuisine and offer to have the kitchen make it as I had hoped....alas. But, they did have mantoo, which were almost as good as at Bamiyan. The saffron-spiked rice pudding with pistachios, which we ordered to share, was a disaster, though. Mushy rice lacking any flavor of saffron or cardamom or other spice that had been microwaved as it was warm in the middle and cold on the exterior. I don't remember ever having dessert at Bamiyan, but I can't imagine it would be this inedible. Still, the mantoo took me back to a Wednesday lunch in New York washed down with cheap Georgian wine. I don't know if I'd go out of my way for Chraazan, but I might try it again if I were in the area. I'm definitely going to do something about my fesenjen craving now, though....

Updated (thanks to Luisa):"Chraazan is gone - replaced by an Indian joint... Sad!"