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!"