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