Monday, December 31, 2012

Laos: man kann nur seufzen

My expectations were pretty low heading into Lemon Leaf (Southeast Asian food being almost universally blah in Berlin to put it mildly). Still, all those positive reviews on Qype. Maybe this place really was above average. Sigh. Lemon Leaf markets itself as an Indochinese restaurant - Indochina being the name for the French colony made up of today's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The folks behind Lemon Leaf have thrown in Thailand because people like Thai food. I could get worked up about that - focus people! - but if the food was really good, who would care? As I've mentioned before, food doesn't stop at political borders, so there is plenty of what we might know as Thai food in traditional Laotian cuisine. But the food's not really good and that, of course, is the problem. The menu is nice enough, with most dishes labeled for one of the four cuisines on offer. Also, most dishes are available with your choice of tofu or preferred meat. I kind of hate this and wish the chef would just decide which protein is best for which dish, but (again) this isn't the main problem here. We stuck to the Laotian offerings and shared a papaya salad, chicken and bean sprouts in a nondescript sauce with sticky rice, and crispy duck and vegetables with basil and jasmine rice. I suppose I should have written down the names of the dishes we ordered, but none of them are worth you tracking them down, so it's not much of a loss. Sigh. I guess the food at Lemon Leaf is a tiny, baby step above what you find at your average Asia-Imbiss (a sort of fast food snack bar common throughout Germany selling cheap stir-fries for little money. Think neon lights and greasy noodles). The rice (both sticky and jasmine) is well cooked at Lemon Leaf for one thing. As are the vegetables - obviously cooked to order so that they are just tender and not at all greasy or soggy. I guess that's not nothing. But the flavors are really muted - there's just no punch or complexity of flavors at all, in any of the dishes. Everything is overly sweet or bland. This is, in my experience, always the case in Berlin when it comes to Southeast Asian food. I'd love to be proven wrong (and yes, I've been to "Thai Park" in Preussen Park). (Angkor Wat was the closest I've come to finding an exception here.) At the end of the meal, I asked the waiter where the cook(s) were from and he said one was half-Lao, half Thai and the other was Thai - specially hired to cook the food that Berliners so love. I wasn't trying to suggest that the food had been bad (it's not his fault), but he seemed to sense something. He became a little sad and said, they can't cook authentic Laotian or Thai food because the locals don't like it. I just don't believe that. Lemon Leaf is in Friedrichshain for one thing - an area full of educated Germans (many of whom have, as Germans do, traveled) and expats. This is not to say that all educated Germans and expats care, because I know that they don't. Most of the Germans I know are thrilled to eat this dumbed-down food and view anything with coconut milk like manna from heaven. But that's not the same as saying that they would turn up their noses as really good, complex Southeast Asian food. I know many of them wouldn't. Sigh.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Korea: ein Loch in die Wand

The internet is full of very positive reviews of Arirang, along with a handful of posts lamenting the dingyness of the restaurant. So I was a little wary heading off to lunch, but at least on the day we were there, the place seemed perfectly clean. Make no mistake, though - this is a true hole-in-the-wall - the furniture and decor is absolutely functional and half the tables are separated from the kitchen only by a counter. Service is fine, but none of the three people working their seemed to speak much German, which makes pleasantries difficult. No matter - we were there for the food. It was a cold day and we were hungry, so we settled on a set menu for two (larger menus are available for three and four diners): kimchi soup (Kimchi-Jigae), fried mandoo (Korean dumplings), and beef bulgogi for about 25 Euros. As a pickle fiend, the highlight of the meal was the banchan or relish tray (for lack of a better English expression) that came with the meal: kimchi, of course, along with pickled cucumbers, a sort of kimchi shredded radish, caramelized potatoes, and preserved bean sprouts - all housemade, I think. The kimchi soup was my favorite of the three menu items - rich, pleasantly mellow kimchi flavor with good chunks of tofu and some slices of pork. Oddly, though, we got one bowl to share - not a problem as I was dining with my husband and Arirang isn't a likely spot for a formal business lunch, but there are plenty of reasons someone would prefer to have their own small bowl. The mandoo, alas, were nowhere near as good as the soup. They were very probably the industrial frozen ones we can all buy at Asian grocery stores, but mostly they just tasted fried. I've had lots of better mandoo in my day. The bulgogi was pretty solid. Not life-changing, but it tasted good and it's easily four servings of meat. Arirang is bare bones, so you won't get a plate or anything fancy to eat your meat on. I have no idea if this is a cultural difference, but the pieces of meat are fairly large and perching them on the small bowls of rice isn't always easy. I'm perfectly happy dining without table clothes under neon lights, but plates don't seem excessive to me. Still, the food at Arirang was good (and not at all dumbed down or dressed up for the locals) and if I lived nearby, I would definitely go back. I'm not sure I would trek across town for it. I may however, check out their sister restaurant, Ho Do Ri, which is in my neighborhood. I'm already craving kimchi again... PS: I do know that North and South Korea are separate countries....but I was specifically forbidden from trying to access the North Korean embassy by my paranoid husband who may have watched too much 30 Rock. In any case, while there are no doubt regional differences, the two cuisines are supposedly quite similar, with the North having a somewhat milder cuisine...and these days, less food in general.... Arirang Seestrasse 106

Jordanien (sozusagen)

Dinner at Casalot was a Seinfeldian experience, which is not to say that the food was bad, but sometimes awful service, even for those of us who really are most interested in how the food tastes, can be what you remember of a meal. I found Casalot by googling "Jordian restaurant Berlin" - it's the first search result that appears, but I still wasn't certain that it was actually a Jordanian restaurant. There's no mention of Jordan at all on the restaurant's website and who knows what tricks Google is up to. But then I found this little review of Casalot from the Berliner Zeitung last year, which sings the praises of Casalot's mansaf "the Jordanian national dish." So it had to be Jordanian, right? But a few weeks later when I was arranging to meet two friends at Casalot for dinner, I happened to notice that mansaf was no longer on the menu posted on the website. I called to find out (1) if Casalot is a Jordanian restaurant and (2) what happened to the mansaf? Casalot turns out to be run by Palestians, but if you know your Middle East geography, you know that Palestine and Jordan are neighbors. And of course, political borders do not usually mean that the food eaten on either side of the line is dramatically different. Besides, as the man on the phone told me, "Palestinians and Jordanians are the same." There may be different thoughts on this statement by some Palestinians and Jordanians, but according to Al Jazeera, Palestinians do make up about half of Jordan's population. And perhaps most importantly, a Palestinian restaurant serving the Jordanian national dish is the closest I was going to get to eating Jordanian food in Berlin. Except for the little issue of mansaf having been removed from the menu! This turned out to be a non-issue, however, because when I asked about it, the nice man on the other end of line told me that they would make it for me if I wanted. I wanted.

I'll try to spare you the boring details, but let's just say after devouring an order of mazza (often spelled mezze), which were, by the way, truly excellent - the best I've had in Berlin, our mansaf (the entire reason we were dining at Casalot) failed to materialize. This was a huge service failure on the part of the restaurant (Casalot is not a hole in the wall - there are table clothes - and a basic level of competent service is to be expected.) First, they should have known we were expecting mansaf when I arrived and gave my name as I had ordered the mansaf when I made the reservation. At at least two other points during the meal, I attempted to tell the waiter that we had pre-ordered mansaf, but both times I was interrupted and brusquely told that the food was coming. Not wanting to be pushy, I assumed the kitchen was slow and didn't push the issue until we had waited 30 minutes after finishing our mazza. The waitstaff realized their mistake quickly and what had been odd and surly serviced became annoyingly gushing and over-attentive service. There's not much a restaurant can do at this point except comp (part of) your bill or offer free drinks. We were immediately offered a bottle of very good Lebanese wine and water for the non-drinkers. I think they might have comped the drinks we had already ordered, but they didn't. After another short while, the mansaf made it's appearance. At this point, we weren't even really hungry anymore, and I'm sorry to say, after all this fuss, I wasn't too thrilled with the mansaf. I think much of this had to do with lack of appetite and frustration with the overall experience, but I also think for my non-Jordanian palate, I would have liked something more. Mansaf is lamb served on rice with a sauce made from fermented dried yogurt (it's a originally Bedouin dish, I believe, and the nomads had to dry their yogurt so they could travel with it. You can see the hard lumps of yogurt here if you're interested). Anyway, the meat wasn't bad and the sauce was really quite good, but I was missing vegetables or pomegranate seeds or something to give a little more contrast. Still, I'd be game for giving mansaf another go under less irritating circumstances. And in all fairness, none of the tables around us seemed to be experiencing any service issues. So if you find yourself at Casalot, stick to the menu (or just get the very filling mazza) and the Lebanese wine. Casalot Claire-Waldoff-Strasse 5

Monday, November 12, 2012

Japan: Mehr Fussel als Substanz

Berlin has plenty of Japanese restaurants, though many (most?) of them are mediocre Vietnamese restaurants that serve Sushi. In other words, there is an awful lot of mediocre Vietnamese and Japanese food in Berlin. There are exceptions for sure and for this post there were several places I considered (Daitokai, Green Tea Cafe aka Mamecha, and Nazuma as well as places I've been and like: Sasaya and Heno Heno (not life-changing, but more than decent and not pretentious)). In the end I chose Hashi because it was extremely highly recommended by an acquaintance - a chef who has eaten around Japan and knows a fair amount about Japanese food. Let's just say I won't be getting my recommendations from him again (though in all fairness - I did have my doubts after reading reviews online, but stuck with Hashi because the friends we wanted to see live nearby and wouldn't be talked in to going out of the area). Lesson reinforced: the further away from Mitte you get, the better the food. I know there are exceptions to this (and maybe Mamecha, which happens to be just around the corner from Hashi, is one of them?), but there are so, so many examples of restaurants and cafes in Mitte that are nicely decorated and hyped up in the media, but if you care about the quality of the food more than the furniture, you're almost guaranteed to be disappointed.

The food at Hashi wasn't terrible, it just wasn't great. Hashi is supposedly an izakaya which I understand to be something between a tavern or pub and a tapas bar in that it's main focus is drinks, but there is also food available, usually in mezze or tapas-size portions and often intended for sharing. Hashi's menu is quite extensive with a lot of sushi options, fried things, grilled things, plus a few noodle and rice dishes, as well as salads. Despite the fact that nothing anyone at the table ordered was strictly bad, somehow it was all fairly underwhelming. An appetizer of Gomae or spinach with sesame sauce, which is a very standard dish was slightly overpriced (2.90) for it's tiny size, and average in flavor in my opinion. My Mentai Kimuchi Udon -- udon noodles with spicy fish roe and kimchi -- was pleasant enough and I'm no expert on Japanese cuisine, but it just seemed like a few ingredients were mixed together and then tossed in a bowl ... like you might do at home after an exhausting day at work.

For me, though, the weakest part of a meal at Hashi was the service. This started when they didn't answer the phone after I repeatedly called to make a reservation. Normally, this might have been cause to just go elsewhere, but we'd already agreed on Hashi with friends that we don't manage to see very often. Dining out is supposed to be a pleasant experience that simplifies your life. Dining out with a reservation, even more so. The phone just rang and rang and rang. There wasn't even an answering machine. When I mentioned this to the waitress, she stared back with a vacuous expression and mumbled some sounds like you might make to a pet or a baby. As it turns out, none of the waitstaff that we dealt with at Hashi speak German. Even the menu is written in bold English with German in smaller print underneath. As someone who learned German, speaks mostly German at work, and even ran a small business where I had to speak German with my German clients, I find this totally unacceptable. Nobody cares if the chefs speak German or Japanese or Somali for that matter, but the waitstaff's role is to interact with customers. I know most Germans, especially in Mitte, speak English, but I know several Germans who live in Mitte who would definitely prefer not to. I wouldn't care (or, let's be honest, probably wouldn't notice) if they made some grammar mistakes, but to effectively ignore a customer because you don't speak the local language .... beyond unacceptable.  What if I had been informing her that I'm deathly allergic to soy or something of great import? On top of this, the waitstaff just doesn't give off the impression of great competence. It's a casual small plates type restaurant so I guess it's acceptable that one friend was done with his meal before I'd even gotten my food. But on several occasions, someone would, for example, ask for a spoon or order a drink - the waitress would walk across the room, returning immediately with said spoon and interrupt the conversation to ask who the spoon was for. I've been a waitress, so I know it's possible to get flustered and forget a simple detail, but this happened several times with different waitresses. Hashi isn't a five star restaurant, I know, but it's like they're not even trying and don't think they should be. And I'm telling you that it's because they're in Mitte and don't have to. The hipsters will continue to flock because it's in Mitte and they think it looks cool (personally, the furniture reminded me of an office cafeteria, though the 15,000 chopsticks on the ceiling are cool). Tourists will flock because it's in a part of town they're likely to be in and because they think it looks like a cool Berlin restaurant.  I'm already nostalgic for the 106 bus....

Rosenthaler Str. 63

Friday, November 2, 2012

Jamaika: die Sonne scheint, das Wetter ist süss

It's sort of hard not to like a Jamaican restaurant called Ya-Man (Ya, Mon in English) with a waiter/proprietor sporting a bizarre 1970s Jheri curl wig. Especially on yet another beautiful fall day - if you can eat lunch outside in Berlin in October, life can't be all that bad. Ya-Man isn't cooking revolutionary food, but good home cooking aka soul food. Despite the sunshine (no jacket required!), I ordered the stewed oxtails. They were full of flavor and I would definitely order them again. I could, however, do without the small blob of coleslaw and the iceberg salad. I found this nod to Germany unnecessary and not at all delicious. If I'm looking for coleslaw or salad of any kind, I wouldn't head for a Jamaican restaurant. My friend's Soul Food Plate, basically a salt cod stew was also good, but on the salty side. My sense is that if you order right, you can do really well at Ya-Man. I'm not so sure I'd ever order the arugula salad with duck breast - both things I like, but this almost-hole-in-the-wall just doesn't strike me as the type of joint for this kind of food and I'm not sure what it's doing on the menu. That said, they have plenty of traditional Jamaican things on offer (jerk chicken! curried goat!) and I would stick to that. My main issue with Ya-Man has to do with their beverages. It would be nice if their juice selection wasn't limited to apple and carrot, which doesn't really say Jamaica to me. You can get good quality frozen fruits (or pulps) in Berlin and that's what I would expect them to have. Nonetheless, my friend ordered the apple-carrot juice and it was both very small for the price and very watery and served with ice. Nobody's expecting anything for free, but using cheap ingredients, serving them watered down, and taking up most of the tiny glass with ice does not scream hospitality. My ginger beer also came in a small glass with ice. I know they are importing ginger beer, but for more than 2 Euros, I expect to get the entire can without ice. I also didn't care for the brand of ginger beer they serve - it was very sweet and not all taht spicy, but I can chalk this up to a matter of taste. There have been some rumbles on Qype about prices at Ya-Man and I found the food prices to be acceptable and in line with similar places in Berlin -- restaurant-owners have to eat too. But when a restaurant is so blatantly cheap, as Ya-Man is with the drinks ... it does leave a bad taste in your mouth. I would go back to Ya-Man if I found myself hungry on the 106 bus, but next time I'm packing tap water. Ya-Man Gotzkowskystraße 17

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kamerun: Besser spät als nie

I interrupt these (somewhat) regularly alphabetized postings to bring you Cameroon. Back when I was eating my way through the C's, I wasn't able to find a Cameroonian restaurant and had to skip it, but a visiting friend randomly discovered Bantou Village in one of the temporary exhibits commemorating Berlin's 775th birthday (something having to do with the city's diversity). I was initially skeptical that it was even a Cameroonian restaurant. They do speak Bantou (also Bantu) languages in Cameroon, but as Wikipedia says: "Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of the present day country of Cameroon; i.e., in the regions commonly known as central Africa, east Africa, and southern Africa." And, BV is on Kameruner Strasse - what are the odds that a Cameroonian restaurant in a city the size of Berlin would end up on this street!? But, the website does show that they serve ndolé, the Cameroonian national dish ... so it seemed I had to get to the bottom of it! Off I set for Bantou Village (I've been spending an awful lot of time on the 106 bus lately - a good indication that Moabit and Wedding are home to some of the city's most interesting neighborhoods for "ethnic" eats). The place was empty, save for about ten guys playing the gambling machines in the back, when I showed up a few minutes before my friends, and the waitress looked very surprised to see me. BV is clearly a Cameroonian/African hangout - with one exception we were the only non-Africans there all night. It's also one of those places that, while it does have a printed menu, may not have several items on said menu. No matter. Between the three of us, we ordered ndolé (of course), mbongo, and the more familiar chicken wings. I'll just go ahead and tell you that I have failed the foodie coolness test by really disliking the ndolé. The dish, which looks similar to creamed spinach, is primarily bitter leaf and ground peanuts with the possible addition of some protein (beef in our case). I am a huge fan of greens and I like most bitter things, but it turns out bitter leaf is just too bitter along with having an unpleasant smoky aftertaste (this might have come from a seasoning - black cardamom?). I tried to like it, I really did, but concluded that it must be an acquired taste...and I just couldn't acquire it. In my defense, neither could either of my dining companions. Mbongo on the other hand, is something I could eat again. That said, I'm not entirely clear on what it was. The base was collard or a similar green and while the dish was listed under the seafood section of the menu, there was no visible fish, but rather a fishy flavor (dried fish, I'd guess) and contained a few chunks of beef. The internet tells me that the flavor comes from the seeds of the alligator pepper plant. Another source says that it is flavored with a ground tree bark. I just don't know enough about African, let alone Cameroonian cuisine to say, but it was good. Both of my friends loved the chicken wings - I'm just not a chicken wing person under the best of circumstances,'ll have to take their word for it. At the end of the day, I can't say I loved Bantou Village. It's not a restaurant doing everything right - the rice accompanying the mbongo was really mushy, for example, and as I mentioned, they were out of about a quarter of the menu, but it was definitely a worthwhile expedition. I do enough ranting about "ethnic" restaurants dumbing down their menus here and it's really refreshing to find one that doesn't. So I don't love ndole - now I know. Bantou Village Kameruner Strasse 2

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Italien: enttäuschend

Maybe the problem is that my hopes for brunch at Aroma were too high. I've eaten there before - it's one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. It's associated with Slow Food and the web site proclaims it as a "Berlusconi-Free Zone." They have good art from local artists that changes several times a year. There are invariably tables of Italian diners in the restaurant. I've always thought it was a cut above most of the Italian restaurants in Berlin. And a few people I recommended it to, raved about their brunch. So when we finally (after living around the corner for three-plus years) managed to go for brunch, I was excited. Was it better than most of the brunches you find in Berlin? Yes, definitely. But was it great? No, not really. It's nice to have a restaurant brunch that isn't made up of par-baked rolls, sweaty cheese, and cheap cold cuts. And I know that brunch isn't exactly an Italian concept, but many non-German restaurants in Berlin from Indian to Turkish to pretty much any place that wants to make money offers a brunch of some kind because Germans like to go out for brunch, preferably a buffet. Also, my hands-down favorite brunch in Berlin is Italian: Pappa e Ciccia in Prenzlauer Berg. Somehow the brunch at Aroma had that cleaning-out-the-walk-in feel that a lot of cheap brunches have. A lot of the dishes were at weird slightly too-cold temperatures, like they had made the night before and taken out of the fridge just before they landed on the buffet. But also, unlike Pappa e Ciccia, for example, a lot of the stuff was just sub-par. The bread, for example, was either rolls they bought par-baked and finished off or that they got from any average bakery in Berlin. Germans eat these rolls (Schrippe or Broetchen) for breakfast all the time, but they always taste like cotton to me. Germany is full of good bread, but good white bread is harder to find. That said, it is findable and a place like Aroma (Slow Food?!) should be buying or making better bread. Along the same lines, there was a big bowl of blah fruit salad just like you see on most any brunch buffet - no thought is/was given to the season in terms of varying fruits, it's just always the same apples and grapes and ick. Standing next to a big vat of starch-thickened yogurt that is getting warmer by the moment. Finally, there was a platter of different cake slices - not a nice crostata or anything remotely Italian, but the same squares of cake you see at any chain bakery in Berlin. I have a serious weakness for poppy seed filling and have been known to purchase a slice of the stuff sandwiched between two tasteless pastry layers from Thoben's (a local chain of no particular quality), but this stuff has no place at Aroma. Maybe it was an off day - I don't know, but from now on, I'll happily make the trek to Pappa e Ciccia when I'm feeling the need for brunch. Cafe Aroma (not to be confused with the Chinese Aroma of dim sum fame) Hochkirchstrasse 8

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Israel: Feh

I've been told many times that Israel has amazing food. Reading David Lebovitz's postings on a recent trip to Israel made me want to drop everything and hop on the next plane to Jerusalem. But dinner this week at Sababa left me underwhelmed. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't remarkable either. We split a hummus and kebab plate. The hummus was good, but it was too heavy on the tahini and too light on the lemon for my taste. The kebabs (think koefte or meatballs) were decent, but decent koefte is a dime a dozen in this town (great koefte...a different story perhaps). Also, one of the three kebabs wasn't quite done in the middle. It's a pretty small menu and cooking three meatballs to proper doneness, especially when the restaurant isn't particularly full, shouldn't be an issue. My biggest issue with this item though is the pita bread that comes with it - this is the same stuff you get all over Berlin. It is made to last for weeks and has more in common with cardboard than bread. I've complained about this before, but am I the only one who thinks pita bread should be more than a vehicle for shoveling various spreads into one's mouth? In Sababa's defense, they do offer pita bread from Israel for an extra 35 cents. I meant to order this, but forgot, so I can only hope this stuff is better. Though if it is, why not (as an Israeli establishment) charge 35 cents more for the meal and serve the good bread? Or just get their bread from Lasan, which is infinitely more delicious than the tasteless, dry stuff they currently serve. We also shared a pomegranate salad, which gets to my other, not easily fixable, issue with Sababa. The salad, was mostly tomatoes (my friend said it usually has more pomegranate, but this time not so) in a nice tangy vinaigrette. The problem here is that tomatoes in Berlin are almost always (even in August) bad. There's just no good way around it. From what I've been told, Israeli cuisine is so good because they have amazing produce. Reproducing Israeli cuisine is like trying to make California cuisine (or even Italian) always falls a little flat. I'm not sure what the people behind Sababa can do about this...but out of season tomato salads are surely not the answer. To end on a positive note, I do appreciate a little cafe like this giving you a bowl of olives and pickles and pickled turnips (swoon) when you sit down. So there is that. Sababa-Mama's Kitchen Kastanienallee 50/51

Friday, October 19, 2012

Irland: Warum?

If I had a Euro for every German who's laughed at the idea of an American chef ... well, let's just say I can sympathize with the British, who are also often ridiculed by Germans (of all peoples) about their cuisine. I know I was pretty harsh about Scottish food in the last post and I can't take that back because it was really more bad than good, but....I have eaten really well in England and Ireland. That said, on the heels of my Scotland trip, I couldn't get too fired up for an Irish meal (I know they're not identical, but they aren't worlds apart either and the Irish options in Berlin aren't exactly varied). After all those Scottish B&Bs, an Irish breakfast was definitely out. In my current state, swilling a pint of Guinness and calling it a day was also out. But then a friend pointed out that we could go for Irish stew. The weather had turned grey and rainy (as it will dependably do in Berlin) and that didn't sound like such a bad idea. So I tracked down an Irish pub, which claimed on its website to serve it. Thus, we convened at The Cliffs of Dooneen on a wet and windy evening, thoughts of hearty bowls of stew in our heads. Only to find that there was a big German soccer game on and the place was full of Germans watching the game and smoking up the place (Qype, for what it's worth, also has The Cliffs listed as nonsmoking). Luckily my friend knew of another pub nearby, so undeterred, we set out to try for our stew again. The luck of the Irish was with us - The Dubliner was open, not entirely packed with soccer-watchers, not overwhelmingly smoky, and they had Irish stew (homemade according to the menu)! We ordered our stew and took in our surroundings. The Dubliner is a pretty big place with the requisite Guinness paraphernalia, etc., though somehow it has more of an Old West saloon vibe. The saloon doors and Irish beer posters don't add up to much of anything, though. Honestly, it would have to have been really, really good stew to make me return. I loved the pubs in Ireland, but Irish pubs outside of that country are, in my experience, universally lame. And then the stew arrived. It was.....mostly edible. I have trouble believing that it was homemade. It really tasted like canned stew to me, but I guess it's possible they did "make" it, but used some scary instant broth and possibly frozen vegetables. For better or worse, there was very little meat. Most definitely for worse, it was way, way over-seasoned with black pepper. I know people in this part of the world are sensitive about their food being labeled tasteless, but excessive black pepper is not the answer. Normally I wouldn't have touched the piece of toasted Wonderbread served on the side, but it was absolutely essential. As was making a dash over to Hokey Pokey - the culinary highlight of the night by far (a scoop of caramel plum and goat milk chocolate in case you were wondering. The Dubliner Gleimstrasse 33-35

Thursday, October 18, 2012

(der) Irak: Nichts cleveres aber lecker

Tandur Lasan is one of those places that has been blogged about by just about everyone in Berlin with a blog. This is one of my online pet-peeves and for that reason alone, I would have visited a different Iraqi establishment ... if I'd been able to find one. I came close, but everywhere else seems to have closed. So, I had no choice but to join the masses, though for clarity's sake, while I did eat at at Tandur Lasan a while back (this place is only a bakery, so you can buy their delicious flatbreads by the bagful or for 1 Euro, get a freshly baked round wrapped around a feta-like cheese) this time around I decided to go all out and vist Restaurant Lasan, their Kreuzberg outpost with a more complete menu, as well as tables and chairs. I'm frequently shocked at the places that get repeatedly blogged about here - they are so often so underwhelming I can't understand why so many people would sing their praises (except that I am a reknowned crank), but Lasan is definitely an exception. That said, I cannot explain the superimposed child in this photo from their website. Arabic food, while not as ubiquitous as Turkish, is pretty easy to come by in this city. But once you start sampling it, you realize that it's not all created equall. A schwarma at Habibi on Akazienstrasse a few weeks was one of the worst things I've eaten in a long, long time (and I recently spent two weeks in podunk bits of Scotland). It had no flavor at all (again, this summer I ate almost consecutive 50 meals in Scotland - flavor did not abound). None. They start with a piece of pita designed to last for weeks and then microwaved it. It was a sad, sad state of affairs. The bread at Restaurant Lasan, as you might have guessed, is baked fresh (to order!) in a tandur/tandoori oven. It is soft and delightfully chewy and with actual flavor. This alone elevates Lasan above just about every other Arabic restaurant in town. My vegetarian appetizer platter at Lasan came with a single piece of bread, but in addition to being delicious, it was probably 14 inches across. I couldn't even finish it, which left me with a deep sense of regret. I did however finish every morsel of my appetizer plate: hummus/hummos, muttabal (think baba ghanoush), ful, tabulle, lasan hot sauce (similar to ajvar), and zaziki (a close relative of tatziki) as well as a big glass of housemade Ayran (pleasantly effervescent and not too salty). As mentioned, you can get can order a mixed vegetarian appetizer plate throughout Berlin, but the components of my lunch were a big step above the rest. Everything tasted really, really fresh - not at all like it had been sitting in the display window for too many days. Not to mention that everything on the menu seems to come with a complimentary bowl of soup - we had the lentil, which wasn't life-changing, but was delicious. Add this deliciousness to a table outside on one of our recent sunny fall days and it's pretty hard to beat. Restaurant Lasan Adalbertstraße 96

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Iran: die verbotene Frucht

A while back I wanted to buy some saffron for a soup recipe I'd been ogling and found a good deal at my local Turkish supermarket. When I got home I noticed it was from Iran and felt an immediate pang of guilt. In the US, there has been an on and off embargo of Persian saffron (I think it's ok again???) and in my mind, it was a no-go and I was a traitor to may nation. But what was I going to do, return the little vial, explaining that as an American I couldn't possibly make my soup with this saffron seeing as how it was tainted with oppression and basically a threat to all of my countryfolk and our entire way of life? Would I have purchased the saffron knowing it was from Iran? Logical or not, right or wrong, I probably wouldn't have bought it and I probably wouldn't buy it again, but seeing as I already had it and returning it didn't seem like a valid option....well, the soup was delicious. I have no such (illogical?) feelings when it comes to patronizing Persian restaurants. Of course, they are owned and staffed primarily by immigrants who, one can guess, are not such big fans of the current regime. And, of course, at least most of the ingredients are locally purchased. Again, I'm not claiming that any of this makes any sense, but... there you have it. Anyway, I was lucky to get a recommendation on where to get a good Persian meal from a Persian-German acquaintance, so off to Hafis we went. Hafis is basically a Persian restaurant trapped in a German restaurant. A few years back, they took over the space from a popular restaurant frequented by theater-goers (the former Hansatheater is nearby) and never really changed the decor. You'll probably eat kebabs or Persian lamb stew, but your table will be overlooked by a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg or some German actor of yore. That said, it's actually a very pretty restaurant and if you want a more stereotypical Persian vibe, you can request a seat in the Orient Lounge (only open after 6 pm), which features low tables and cushions on the floor. In any case, the decor is always secondary in importance to the food and I thought it was quite good, if not life-changing. The menu is really extensive and I'm sure if you ate there often enough, you'd be able to discover Hafis' real strengths. I'm five months pregnant and going through a very cliche pickle phase and refused to be put off by the waiter's warnings that I might find the Persian pickles to be too sour. (Try and find something too sour for me these days, I dare you.) We compromised on the pickles because I also agreed to order mast o khiar (the Iranian version of tzatziki) and flatbread. For the record, they were delicious, though probably not housemade, and I can't imagine that they would be too sour for anyone. The Persian tzatziki came with a big plate of herb sprigs, which is always a good touch (Berlin Vietnamese restaurants: take note). We also split a lamb and eggplant koresh or stew with lime powder and saffon and fessendjan, which is a sort of chicken stew with pomegranate juice and ground walnuts. The fessendjan was very flavorful, but not nearly as good as the version I used to order at my favorite Afghan restaurant in New York. Or at least, not as good as the version that now exists in my mind. The lamb was extremely tender and flavorful, though I had hoped that the lime and saffron would have had a little more punch. Both dishes came with enough rice to feed about four people. I washed everything down with a glass of dugh (sometimes doogh), a thin yogurt flavored with salt and dried mint, similar to ayran. Delicious. I so wanted to have room for dessert, but the portions were generous and I was much, much too full. I could probably have eaten more pickles though.... My biggest complaint about Hafis, is the section on their menu with dishes like turkey steak with creamy mushroom sauce or beef stroganoff. Maybe these are also holdovers from the previous restaurant, but I always wish restaurants would have the courage to stand up and make their delicious food and not kowtow to the local morons. Besides, if you have a hankering for beef stroganoff, I can't imagine Hafis has Berlin's best version. That said, the menu is predominantly Persian food and the few other diners on a late Saturday afternoon were all eating Persian dishes, so this is really nitpicking. Hafis also has a Persian food shop next door. Hafis Alt-Moabit 45-47

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Indonesien zu hause

We were both feeling a little under the weather (despite the weather being uncharacteristically nice). Somehow it was determined that I felt less sick and thus, off I went for some take out Indonesian chicken soup. Little did I know that Tuk-Tuk was just around the corner from us. The restaurant is actually very cute, decorated with wood paneling and low-key murals. I was a little sorry not to be dining out, but this was a day for soup in bed, so take-out containers balanced precariously in a plastic bag, home I went. This not being Manhattan, I suppose Tuk-Tuk isn't overly focused on their take-out customers. Their chosen soup containers are really more suited for a non-liquid-based dish and the weight of the top containers caused most of the liquid to gush out of the bottom soup container and into the plastic bag. So, no points for take-out service. In terms of flavor, the soup was not bad. The broth seemed homemade and had a nice turmeric and ginger thing going on. There were noodles and hard boiled egg and bits of chicken. I could have passed on the shredded iceberg lettuce, which had wilted to nothing during the short walk home. Cabbage would probably hold up better in hot liquid, just a thought. Not a life-changing soup, but a decent change from the mediocre pho I'm usually subjected to when I'm sick (what I wouldn't do for a Jewish deli in the neighborhood...). We also split an order of gado-gado, an Indonesian salady dish of cooked vegetables and peanut sauce. I have to say, Tuk-Tuk's is possibly the worst rendition of this classic on the planet. Unless you like your vegetables for dessert. The vegetables were not really ok to begin with. The green beans were decent enough, but the iceberg lettuce (again!) had totally turned to mush under the sauce. There were also hard boiled eggs - this time drastically over-cooked so that the yolk was a really unappetizing green color. There must have been other vegetables, but they were few and far between. Still, the vegetables were the good part of the dish. The peanut sauce was so sweet, it was just disgusting. There just isn't any other way to describe it. Green beans are not improved with sugar. Neither is iceberg lettuce or rubbery eggs. I have to say, this "salad" really killed the meal for us. Thanks a lot, Tuk-Tuk, now it's back to my sick diet of mediocre Pho from restaurants that are irritated when I ask for more than one sprig of cilantro or (gasp!) a bit of lime (what I wouldn't give for an Eden Center (and no, Dong Xuan does not cut it) in this neighborhood. But that's another story. Tuk-Tuk Großgörschenstrasse 2

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Indien: ein Blue Curacao-frei Bereich

I know this will sound cranky-expat-food snob of me, but I sometimes think the Berliners/Germans deserve all the bad "ethnic" food there is here. I know if they demanded curries (or Pho or substitute most any "ethnic" delight) with any complexity or depth of flavor at all, immigrant chefs would be thrilled to provide them. But the thing is, most of the locals I know are overjoyed with the Indian food on offer in Berlin. Among the non-German residents of Germany, especially those familiar with Indian cuisine (coming from countries with Indian immigration, such as the US, UK, or Canada for example) Indian food in Germany has a laughable reputation. I for one, have refused to eat it since trying it early in my time in the Fatherland. Most every dish on the menu in most every restaurant tastes exactly the same and there is a suspicious amount of cream going on. I'm aware that cream has a place in some Indian dishes, but all of them??? One expat blog wonders: Do they pipe this sauce in from the currywurst place next door? They really do taste like ketchup seasoned with curry powder (and cream). And then there's my personal pet peeve: almost every Indian restaurant in Berlin serves all kinds of discount cocktails. I'm talking mai tais, swimming pools, and a lot of scary looking drinks with blue curacao. (I also find it exasperating that the locals insist on drinking mango lassis at Vietnamese restaurants, but I suppose that's another story). I'm not saying an "ethnic" restaurant has to remain firmly within the bounds of some randomly designated field of authenticity. There certainly are/have been Indian establishments in New York (and no doubt elsewhere) with cocktail menus. These restaurants mesh Indian cuisine with a more upscale New York restaurant culture and in my opinion it generally works (they've also put thought into which cocktails to serve, creating new drinks that pairs with the food they serve, not just haphazardly mixing the cheapest liquors available). And I guess who am I to say that you shouldn't drink a swimming pool with your creamed ketchup curried chicken? At the end of the day, both are attempts by restauranteurs to make a few extra dollars or Euros. Still, the cranky-expat-food snob in me gets irate every time I see this. After all this ranting, I do have some good news. Good Indian food does exist in Berlin, it just might not be in your neighborhood. I will admit that from the small list of potentially decent Indian restaurants I drew up, I chose to visit Satyam because it's website makes it seem decidedly un-blue curacao-y. Satyam is a vegetarian restaurant specializing in ayurvedic (I'm not sure that this impacts the taste of the food, but you can take a test to determine your your constitutional type or dosha and I suppose they would then help you order based on the result) and south Indian food. The restaurant isn't really all that much to look at and the service isn't anything out of the ordinary and I may have had better Indian food at various points in my life, but after such a long Indian food drought ... oh the food was good. I'd been under the weather and not craving much of anything, but I can't seem to get the mustard greens with panir (made in-house with milk from Rudower Farm - apparently long acquaintances of Satyam) out of my head. We also sampled an okra curry and the lunch special (4,90 Euros; changes weekly). This was a little more hit or miss - I could have done without the tofu something-or-other in peanut sauce, but the daal was better than average. The menu is immense and there are lots of dishes I'm eager to try: South Indian wild eggplant curry! Uttapam and Vaddai! I wasn't up for trying it, but I was excited to see that Satyam offers a few Indian wines - I'll take that over a neon blue cocktail any day. Satyam Goethestraße 5

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ungarn: kein Hunger dafür

There aren't as many Hungarian joints in Berlin as I would have thought. The cuisines seem similar enough and Hungary doesn't really feel all that far away.....I probably should have dragged myself out to the Gasthaus Gémeskút Csárda in Mahlsdorf, but it was hard to get excited about a place with creamy catfish goulash and fried Camembert, though of course they also have pork goulash and a handful of other things cooked "Hungarian-style." In the end, I picked Cafe Szimpla in Friedrichshain for its proximity and because it is the the Berlin branch of the Budapest Szimpla. It's fairly obvious that Szimpla's website hasn't been updated since some time before November 6, 2010 ... but I had high hopes that they would still be serving Flódni or Mákosguba (I'm fairly certain I wouldn't list eastern European as one of my favorite cuisines, but I so love poppy seed desserts), which are listed on their menu online. Alas, off the website and in real life, the surly waitress listed some very average sounding cakes (chocolate and "something with cherries, I'm not sure"). I love chocolate cake at least as much as poppy seed, but I learned long ago that the Germans are not to be trusted when it comes to chocolate desserts (most desserts, really). And I just wasn't sold on "something with cherry." Dejected, we opted for Hungarian beer and an order of Hungarian sausages. Hungarian beverages are pretty well represented at Szimpla - in addition to the beer, which was perfectly fine, they also have a few Hungarian wines and several palinkas, or Hungarian fruit brandies. The sausage wasn't bad...sort of a cross between Spanish chorizo and a German Landjäger, served with bread, mustard, and a bit of salad. Szimpla is really just an average Friedrichshain bar that happens to have more Hungarian beverages than your average joint ... but it's not particularly special or interesting and definitely not worth going out of your way for. Not to mention the false advertisement of multiple poppy seed desserts...... Cafe Szimpla Gärtnerstraße 15

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hong Kong: kein Land mit leckeren Essen

Technically speaking, Hong Kong isn't a country, but rather a Special Administrative Region belonging to China, but it is on and it is famous for dim sum, which is most always a delicious good time ... and therefore, country or not, not to be skipped. Once you start to poke around, you'll realize there is more regional Chinese food in Berlin than you might think (especially if you never venture west of Mitte). Aroma specializes in Cantonese food and according to my Hong Kong sources, it's the only place in Berlin with a Hong Kong-trained dim sum chef. Apparently the other restaurants offering dim sum are reheating frozen dumplings and the like. Unfortunately, even when the food at Aroma is good, some of the dim sum experience is still missing for me. Instead wheeling the food around on carts and marking off your order on a slip of paper, as per dim sum tradition, Aroma has a regular old menu. It doesn't change the quality of the food, but somehow it's a bit less of an experience for me. Like tapas bars outside of Spain. Where are the toothpicks?! Still, food is most important and the food at Aroma can be really good. But, according to my Hong Kong sources, the chef sometimes goes on vacation and when he's not there the restaurant uses the same frozen dumplings, etc. that all the other places use. I am certainly in favor of chefs being allowed to take a vacation and I'm sure the number of chefs in Berlin trained in the art of dim sum is rather small, but ... there's got to be a better solution than this - especially when there's no way to tell when he's there and when he's not until the food shows up at your table. Aroma has a fairly small dim sum selection (as well as many non-dim sun options that I've heard are sub par), but it does feature all the classics. There are several types of dumplings, sticky rice, char siu bao (steamed buns filled with Chinese barbecued pork), chicken feet, and a few other items. It's certainly a wide enough selection to keep a big group happy, but maybe not quite enough variety to entice me to go really often. Most of what we ordered was very good. The only real dark spot was the pork dumplings - the meat had the texture of a hotdog and no real flavor to speak of. If they were handmade, they were nothing to be proud of. On the other hand, our bao were revolutionary. Possibly the best I've ever had. Chinese broccoli is an essential part of dim sum for me because it cuts the sweet starchiness of the other dishes. The chinese broccoli at Aroma, while very, very simple was perfection. Steamed and dressed with just a hint of oyster sauce, I could have had an order of that and called it a day. Well, I probably would have needed a pork bun, too. Aroma (not to be confused with the very good Italian Aroma on Hochkirchstrasse) Kantstrasse 35

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ghana: Sterne Ganz Bestimmt

I write this blog to amuse myself and I'm not looking to amass readers, but in this one instance I wish I had a bigger following so that I could spread the word about the Royal Aerostar Berlin. Even if the food was mediocre, I think I would love the restaurant for it's name alone. The Royal Aerostar?! And how cool is it that the Royal Aerostar is actually a chain, with the other and original "famous" branch located "at the Kotoka International Airport Accra in Ghana." It's true that the Royal Aerostar Berlin is tucked into a sort of far away corner of Charlottenburg, but I'm telling you: it's worth the trip. If you're one of those people who can't bring yourself leave Prenzlauer Berg you should have stopped reading many letters ago because it has become clear that there is very little good ethnic food located in the midst of all that trendiness. First of all, the Royal Aerostar Berlin is the only place (that I could find anyway) to get Ghanaian food Berlin and even better, they aren't dumbing it down for the locals at all. I have no idea how they're staying in business and I really wish you would go there today and give them some of your money in exchange for a great Ghanaian meal. The Royal Aerostar is one of those "ethnic" restaurants that has managed to decorate enough to give you a sense of place, but not so much that you worry about loss of sight (Indian restaurants on 6th Street in Manhattan: I'm talking to you). We were the only patrons for a late weekday lunch and we got lots of attention. So much that it was almost comical. Every few minutes they seemed to realize something wasn't quite right: the dying rose on our table was replaced with a fresh one, then our candle stump was traded in for a new candle, the music came on, mood lighting appeared, etc. Lest this sound like a complaint, there was a certain charm to the continued attempts to please us. Having concluded my workday, I decided I needed a beer with my lunch and asked the waiter to bring me his favorite Ghanaian beer (there were five or so to choose from). He showed up with a huge Star Lager, which I promptly forced my friend to share. At first taste, I found the beer a little flat and lacking in punch, but when the food arrived I quickly changed my tune. First of all, Ghanaian food in its non-dumbed down state is spicy! We needed that beer. And while Star Lager is very different from the German beers I've grown used to, it was perfect for Ghanaian food. By the end of meal, I was secretly regretting having forced half of it on my friend. The food! The Royal Aerostar Berlin has an amazing (and funny to my non-Ghanaian ears) menu. Fried turkey tails! Eba & Okro soup! Some kind of rice dish called Waakey! After a personal consultation with the chef we were still overwhelmed, but finally settled on the classic Jollof Rice with beef (also available with chicken or rice) and Fufu and Goat Soup. I regret not having my camera with me because now I can't show you how beautiful the full moon of fufu was emerging from my enormous bowl of soup. It's true, I have no prior experience enjoying Ghanaian food, but the Royal Aerostar Berlin has made me a convert. The food is richly and complexly flavored and as I write this, I am so bummed to be going to a German barbecue full of bargain basement pseudo-marinated pork steaks instead of another bowl of fufu goat .... My only dislike was the salad next to the Jollof Rice dressed with that same overly sweet balsamic vinaigrette you find all too often in this country. Fufu is quite filling and we were sad not to have room for a dessert of fried plantains with pepper, ginger, and peanuts .... next time! Royal Aerostar Berlin Kamminer Str. 35

Georgian: fast Mexikanisch

My friend Sam came all the way from Barcelona to eat Georgian food with me. I recently ate Georgian food with her in both Estonia and Latvia, so I think it's become a thing for us. Our guidebook in the Baltics claimed that Georgian food is to former Soviet states what Mexican food is in the US or Indian food is in India. I suppose you could take issue with that on some level, but the point is, it's the interesting, flavorful thing people go out for dinner for when they are tired of borscht and pelmeni. With that theory, you might expect Berlin's Georgian restaurants to be located in the former East and maybe they once were, but today they seem to be concentrated (well, all both of them that I could find) in West Berlin's Charlottenburg. To be honest, we picked Genazvale rather than Mimino because it was slightly closer to the U-Bahn station and we were starving, having walked allllllll the way from Schoeneberg stopping only to sample the local beer at my local bar and then to use the bathroom at the KaDeWe where I remembered that I had a couple coupons for free champagne in my wallet. Sam and I are good walkers - we did The Camino in Spain together a few years back - but after a few afternoon drinks, we were very ready for our khachapuri. The restaurant was pretty full, but we were given a table near the front. While we were still examining the menus, the waitress came over and asked if we would mind moving to a neighboring table. No big deal, we happily moved, and went on examining the menu and admiring the bottles of wine lining the walls that are dressed as little Georgian soldiers complete with fur hats. Another waitress came over and apologized profusely that we had had to move tables and announced that the wine was on the house. It's true that Georgian wine isn't usually great, but still - this kind of thing almost never happens in Berlin and I give them big points for going above and beyond. The food was very good if not quite life-changing. We ordered the "boat-shaped" khachapuri with cheese and an egg. It's hard to find something bad to say about fresh baked goods with melted cheese and runny yolk. We ordered an herb salad that turned out to be mostly a plate of parsley, which was actually a very good counterpart to the rich cheesiness of the khachapuri. Having let so many weeks go by, I am a little fuzzy on the details of the rest of our meal, but I know there was eggplant in yogurt sauce and roast chicken with garlic-walnut sauce. Both were good, but somehow not quite what we had expected based on the menu descriptions. For dessert we shared Thathara, a grape pudding, which was a little bit interesting, but was really grape juice and cornstarch. Not awful, but not something you need to try before you die either. Genazvale might not change your life, but order the khachapuri with cheese and egg when you're feeling indulgent (or starving). If you're lucky, they'll give you a liter of wine for almost no reason at all and I bet you'll have a pretty good night. Genazvale Windscheidstraße 14

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

England: Meh

Eating all these G cuisines brought Great Britain to mind. It's officially listed as the United Kingdom, so I had forgotten about England during the E's. Still, in the interest of thoroughness, why not break this down into the four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and North Ireland (though I can't guarantee I'll be able to find something for each one). So with that decided, we set off for dinner at East London. If I weren't being so thorough, I might skip this review because it was really pretty meh. Nothing was horrible, but nothing was really great either. It's walking distance from my apartment (on an ugly stretch of Mehringdamm), but I'm fairly certain I'll never go again. The worst part was probably the service, which was, in a word, indifferent. East London is a casual place and nobody's expecting tuxedoed waitstaff or an amuse, but it's irritating at McDonald's and at the Four Seasons to sit at your table forever, waiting for someone to bring you a menu or even look in your direction. There were a few other tables of diners, but the place was not so full that neither waitress should have been struggling. When I finally got one's attention and asked for menus (should I really have to ask for them?) she went off on a search (should she have to search for something as elementary as menus?) and finally came back mentioning that they only have three (should they really only have three menus?). In all fairness, the menu is printed on the wall, but should I really have to turn around in my chair and lean over to read the wall? And how is a first-time diner to know that it's the full menu? Also most of the condiments on our table and the table next to us were empty ... that just doesn't way well-run restaurant to me. The state of service put me on alert and I decided we had to order safe things. There isn't really anything too complicated on the menu, but you really shouldn't be able to mess up bangers (sausage) and mash, right? Right - the sausages were not life changing, but they were good. The "mash" had nice flavor (onions and mustard), but it was a little stiff and the texture somewhat grainy. This is better than the overly smooth instant stuff, but it had definitely been sitting around for a while. We also shared a spring salad, which while not particularly springy was very good, much better and more interesting the Putenstreifen-overly sweet balsamic vinaigrette fiascos you get in most German places. Broccoli (the menu says it's chili-roasted, but I'm not so sure) featured prominently, which was better than it sounds. The vinaigrette was aggressive in a good way and did not taste like something you might serve on ice cream, and the goat cheese crumbles gave it all a little heft. Still, I think 8 Euros is more than a little steep for a bowl of non-organic vegetables with just a little cheese for protein. Mein Mann was also less than thrilled with the beer prices, which, with the exception of Carlsberg (Danish) range between 4.50 and 5.80 Euros. I know this is because they're imported from the UK and I guess for British expats, it might be really nice to have a source of London Pride Ale, and maybe if everything else had been top-notch, I wouldn't have cared, but to me it's a hard sell in a country full of good 3 Euro beers. So, in sum East London was fine, though I have no idea what is East London about the place -- the food seemed generically British to me. The service needs major work, but the food is decent. You could certainly do worse, but it's a far ways off from great and I probably won't be back. Meh. East London Mehringdamm 33

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guadeloupe: Nur die Strasse ist anders

The Caribbean is seriously underrepresented in Berlin, so I was excited to discover the Karibikmarkt stand at the Winterfeldplatz market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) specializing in products from Guadaloupe. You can buy yourself a bottle of Guadaloupean rum, some guava jam, or coconut vinegar, among other treats. If you go on a warm day like I did, you can first enjoy a grilled fish sandwich (having nothing to do with Guadaloupe, but tasting delicious -- anyway, sorbet alone isn't a proper lunch) sitting on a picnic bench in the sun. My favorite is a mackerel sandwich, but they always have trout as well, and sometimes squid and other "fancier" bits. For 3.50 Euros, the grill guy prepares the fish to order, smears a fresh roll with mayonnaise (somehow it's not the icky sweet German stuff) and horseradish, adds chopped onion and this last time he used some samphire. Once done with your sandwich, you can wander about, admiring the rhubarb and eying the baked goods. Finally, you can get a cup of mango and/or coconut sorbet from Frau Mokros (the coconut, creamy and not too sweet, is her mother's recipe). I recommend getting a little of each with the mango on the bottom, so you can pull it up through the coconut with your spoon. The sorbet is quite soft; it's obviously made fresh on market days. A perfectionist, might find it too soft, but I loved this homemade quality. It reminded me of something you might buy on the street when vacationing on a Caribbean island. Now (just three days later!) that the weather has turned cold, gray, and rainy, the sorbet feels almost like a memory from a long-ago vacation....

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Griechenland: Berzis in da Bezirk

As months go, April hasn't been without its hiccups. May isn't looking much better and I can't make G happen in perfect alphabetical order. But I can tell you where to get a good lunch for 3 Euros and that's something. It's possible that there are good Greek restaurants in other neighborhoods, but Schoeneberg seems to have the lion's share. Mein Mann would eat at Ousies every night if I let him and while Greek isn't my very favorite cuisine, Ousis does it well. So well, in fact, that it's really not worth going without a reservation. It's also not worth going with the elderly because it's always packed and always loud. From what I understand, it's not a lot easier to dine at Berkis sans reservation, but at least they have an Imbiss (right next door to the main restaurant). That means without planning ahead, you can get five different sandwiches or platters (gyros, souvlaki, ground beef or lamb kebabs, and a vegetarian version) along with the standard mezze (tzatziki, grape leaves, taramasalata, etc.) most any time. Even at the Imbiss, Berkis has a selection of Greek beers and wines. Most importantly, their sandwiches are really good. Berlin has no shortage of snack bars selling meat in flatbread (the Turkish doener is, of course, the most ubiquitous, but there are a handful of Arabic schawarma places and the ocassional gyros). They always cost somewhere between 2 and 4 Euros (you really want to avoid those 2 Euros ones, in case you didn't know), but there is a huge range in quality. There is an awful lot of scary meat (not to mention scary meat fillers - hint, if you can't see the individual layers/pieces of meat on the spit, they are using ground meat, probably with lots of filler) out there, but there is also too much bread that has nothing to say for itself (no flavor, no texture of note, etc.). There are way, way too many overly sweet mayonaise-y sauces that have no place in savory food (and I do love me a cheese and chutney sandwich) or really anywhere. Finally, there are too many places stuffing sandwiches full of sad vegetables. This is mostly true towards the cheaper end of the scale, but this being Berlin, nobody ever (and I mean not even in August) has a decent tomato. I've yet to find a place in Berlin that does all these elements really well (though I have to admit, despite having written a Master's thesis on the humble doener, I haven't made it my mission), but I am here to tell you that Berkis come close. First, they really have the meat down. They use all organic meat and both my gyro and mein Mann's bifteki (ground beef kebab) were really well-seasoned with excellent meaty flavor. I give extra points for making the bifteki to order - not something every Imbiss would do. Not to belabor the point, but there is so much cheap, flavorless meat in this town - I would absolutely go back to the sit-down Berkis and order something meaty. Berkis doesn't make their own pita, but it's actually quite good: fluffy and substantial enough to support the sandwich contents. My biggest problem with the sandwich was the meat to vegetable ratio, but I think I could tweak my ordering technique and fix that. I know it's traditional, but I don't think French fries have any place in a sandwich. A vegetarian friend of mine has fond memories of the all-French fry gyros she ate in Greece, but I just don't. So I asked for my gyro without potatoes. I should have specified: no potatoes, extra salad because was a tad heavy on the meat for my taste and it would have been helped by a more crunch from additional veg. I will say, though, that the tzatsiki is excellent and really puts those sauces available in every single doener Imbiss in town to shame. When you think about all the mediocre 3 Euro flatbread sandwiches out there, Berkis is really offering an amazing deal. If I can convince mein Mann that there's life beyond Ousies, I'm going back to get out Berkis' sit-down restaurant. Berkis Winterfeldstrasse 45 Taverna Ousis Grunewaldstrasse 16

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gambia: ein spontan Reise

Our visit to Senegambia wasn't exactly planned, but I had found the restaurant online and made a mental note of the address. So when we found ourselves nearby one Saturday evening, it was obvious where we should go for dinner. Alas, knowing almost nothing about Gambian cuisine, I did a very bad job of noting or remembering what we ate, but I'll do my best.

Senegambia is really a hole in the wall. It's run by a Gambian woman and a Gambian-Senegalese woman, hence the name (though Gambia is actually in Senegal, so....). There are maybe four tables (a couple more outside for nice weather). When we arrived, someone was skyping in the corner. When I asked to use the bathroom, the proprietress went in first to spray disinfectant (it was clean enough). The large tv was broadcasting a Gambian wrestling match, which seemed an awful lot like sumo wrestling sans obesity. The place was packed with young Sene(gambian) men. Senegambia is clearly more than a source of meals, but also a sort-of Sene(gambian) cultural center.

Somehow, this was my first experience with West African food and I realized that I know almost nothing about it. We decided to share four dishes (out of the ten or so on offer) between four people (literally more than enough food) to learn as much as we could. My favorite of the four was domoda, a peanut butter stew that we ordered with vegetables (almost every dish is available with a choice of fish steak, lamb, or vegetables or for a few extra Euros, a whole fried fish). Also interesting, yassa, a mustard-based stew that we ordered with fish (some kind of bass, I think?). Unfortunately, I don't remember the names of the other dishes, but one was a ground beef stew with lots of palm oil served over pieces of yuca (aka manioc). It was ok, but the beef was ground a little finely ground for my taste. The final dish was a tomato-y stew that was supposed to come with fish balls, but was instead served with another fish steak. With the exception of the dish that came with yuca, all the stews were served over a hearty portion of rice. The waitress gave us all a dab of hot sauce out of a little tupperware container. A warning: this is seriously hot. Too hot, in fact, for any of us to eat. Senegambia doesn't sell any alcohol (or pork - Gambia is a majority Muslim nation), but in addition to a couple standard soft drinks and some bottled juices, they make their own ginger and hibiscus drinks. We sampled the ginger, which was zesty and delicious. We were stuffed with no chance for dessert. Next time, I would split one entree and sample the Senegambia donuts or chakery (a yogurty pudding with couscous and maybe fruit and/or nuts).

Knowing almost nothing about Gambian food, I'm not equipped to say if what we ate was well-made, but I can tell you that the other diners (who I am pretty sure were not eating Gambian for the first time) were cleaning their plates and eating dessert. Not to mention that by the time we left, it was standing room only. Despite my ignorance, I enjoyed almost everything we tried. And, as I've said here before, it's refreshing to discover a restaurant in Berlin where they are cooking from the heart and not dumbing things down for the locals.

Reichenberger Str. 72a

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Frankreich: ein verdammt guter Deal

I left La Bonne Franquette thinking that I'd had a great lunch and marveling at the amazing deal they offer: three courses for 13 Euros, including a nonalcoholic drink. All of that in a chic modern Brasserie complete with a chalkboard menu. Now that it's been a week or so and I've had a chance to reflect on the meal, I still think it's a good deal, but the food quality was pretty spotty. Out of six dishes, one dish was very good. So good that I have been thinking about it since and next time I'm somewhere between Nordbahnhof and Hamburger Bahnhof around lunchtime, I will very likely return. The flank steak with frites bumped my bill up an extra 3 Euros, but it was worth it. Flank steak isn't a common cut in these parts, but it's one of my favorites. The meat had great flavor and an excellent charred crust. But the frites! Best I've had in Berlin hands down. If/when I go back, I'll skip the appetizer and dessert and have a great steak lunch for 10 Euros (LBF offers one course for seven Euros plus the three Euro supplement).

In addition to the excellent steak, we also sampled the French (obviously) onion soup and the pork pate, which were both good, but not life changing. The onions in the soup might have caramelized a tad, the broth could have had deeper flavor, the bowl should have had a nice crust of Gruyere on top instead of a single small Gruyere crouton, but it was a decent bowl of soup. I'm sure they don't make the pate, but it was good, not great, but for the price, good. The real low point of the meal was the red mullet with zucchini gratin. We should have known not to order fish. It's rarely very fresh in Berlin and this fish had an off taste. That alone would have ruined the plate, but the wan zucchini gratin wasn't heated through. I know it's a 13 Euro lunch deal, but they need to figure out how to get the food hot.

With such low prices, LBF surely can't afford a pastry chef, but they need to figure out how to make a few simple desserts well. We split chocolate mousse and coconut flan. The mousse tasted suspiciously like it came from a mix (specifically the one my husband made me years ago - the ONLY thing he's ever made me). If it's not a mix, they're using terrible chocolate. The flan was rather soggy and lacked any real coconut flavor, but there was a delicious smear of salted caramel on the plate. A decent brasserie needs to have a few good desserts, especially chocolate mousse. No excuses here.

Despite it's flaw, I really enjoyed my lunch (I was starving, though, and the company was good). That said, one good dish (or three if we're rounding up) out of six even for a good price isn't all that spectacular. There are a lot of lunch deals in Berlin and I've yet to find a place that really knows how to make this concept work. That said, LBF knows how to make steak frites and I'd go back for that in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Finnland ist für Feinschmecker

I couldn't find a restaurant in Berlin serving traditional Finnish food, but I did find the Quadriga, a (one) Michelin-starred restaurant with a Finnish chef. It was all I could find, so I had no choice, but to endure a delicious if pricey Finnish-accented lunch. The Quadriga is located in the Brandenburger Hof hotel, a small luxury hotel in a sort-of no man's land bit of Charlottenburg. I'm not sure who stays here and there was certainly nobody else eating when we were there (at 12:30 on a Tuesday), despite their business menu deal: three courses served in 45 minutes. I am fairly certain that this can be explained by the fact that the Quadriga has priced themselves out of the business lunch realm. The food we had was very good and worthy of a Michelin star (NOT always the case in Berlin in my experience), but 52 Euros is a lot for "a quick bite to eat," particularly by Berlin standards (even in Charlottenburg).

If you're going to shell out for lunch though, it's nice that the food is so tasty (not always the case in Berlin ... coughFacilcough). At lunchtime you have the option of the "lunch in the garden" menu (aka the lounge menu), a set menu (two choices per course) at 52 Euros for three courses or 62 Euros for four or the "Taste of Bliss" menu (also labeled Edition I ... there are an awful lot of titles here), which offers a la carte options. We hemmed and hawed a bunch, but ultimately decided to go a la carte as the Taste of Bliss menu had more of a Finnish flair. We shared "Salmon & Scandinavia" aka Nordic Pot-au-feu (which are two fancy ways of saying salmon soup or chowder) and "Reindeer & Tarragon" aka Sauli's Osso Buco (Sauli being chef Sauli Kemppainen), which came with the guarantee: "'Rudolph' was spared – Promised!" In my humble opinion, there are too many words on the menu (the club sandwich even has a link printed beneath it), but both dishes were delicious, so who really cares. The soup had large chunks of perfectly (as in barely) cooked salmon with a few cubes of vegetables and some crispy bit of fried dark bread. Not an earth-shattering dish and certainly over-priced at 19 Euros, but delicious and very well-executed. The same goes for the Reindeer: the meat was deeply flavorful with a perfect glaze. It came on a bed of pearl barley in a delicious winter squash (or carrot?) sauce. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you that it goes for 32 Euros, but it was really very good. Would they have more customers if they knocked 10 Euros off that? Perhaps.

Portions from the Taste of Bliss menu allow plenty of room for dessert. My friend was allowed to order from the Lounge menu: a very pretty strawberry mousse with mascarpone ice cream. I went for the "Classical sweeter, Edition I" aka Cloudberries & Rosemary. The menu also informed me that "the berry is immortalised on the Finnish Euro coin ... the flavour: gold value!" I did finish (no pun intended) my dessert, but this was probably the worst dish of the four. The rosemary was in the form of a creme brulee - making for a rather dingy looking custard. It was also sprinkled with rosemary and the flavor was just too strong for dessert. I edited a Swedish cookbook in another life and the author raved about cloud berries. I so want to love them, and thought that perhaps it was just the poor quality of Ikea's seedy cloudberry jam (my only cloudberry experience before today) that was hindering my full appreciation of the fruit, but Sauli didn't really convince me either. It may have been the pairing with rosemary because the fruit's flavor - in both a quenelle of cloudberry ice cream and a blob of cloudberry puree were too mild to really appreciate.

At the end of the day, I do feel that I experienced a little something Finish in Berlin. My main issue with the Quadriga (aside from making fun of its wordy multiple menus) is the price. That said, I'd rather pay 52 Euros to eat at the Quadriga again than repeat my disappointing meal at Facil (39 Euros for 3 courses) -- not really a fair critique because I've only eaten in each restaurant once, but Facil was weird without being interesting or good and the service ranged from snobby to negligent. I complain a lot about people wanting to spend as little as possible for food regardless of flavor or quality or hidden costs, but there are limits. And just for comparison's sake, a three-course lunch at Cafe Boulud (a very nice restaurant) in New York will set you back just 32 Euros. And I may not have mentioned it before, but when it comes to ethnic food or really almost any food at at all, Berlin is not New York.

Eislebener Strasse 14

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fidschi/Französisch-Polynesien: ein Versuch

I didn't have very high hopes going to Tiki Heart, but then I hadn't been able to find any "real" Fijian or French Polynesian restaurants in Berlin so I'd decided a Tiki Bar would have to do (I was so disappointed to learn that the Trader's Vics at the Berlin Hilton closed in 2009!). I know it's a stretch, but tiki does refer to those "large wood and stone carvings of humanoid forms" from Central Polynesia (thank you Wikipedia). Ok, so Fiji is Melanesian, not Polynesian....but apparently it was settled by Polynesians before the Melanesians moved in. So it's not like there's no connection at all. Of course, Tiki bars are not and never were an attempt to replicate real Polynesian culture (or cuisine), but rather a bizarre and amusing mix of Chinese-ish food, silly cocktails, and colorful decor.

Tiki Heart has the decor more or less down, but that's about it. Apparently, there was never one type of music played in tiki bars: they might have played exotica (1950s tropical jazz) or surf music (think Beach Boys), but maybe not. Still, I would think that an establishment in Berlin trying to capture the tiki spirit would make a little more of an effort when it comes to setting the mood. The staff at Tiki Heart were all heavy metal types (from the looks of them) and the music was, too. This killed it for me. I am by no means a music snob (or even music-literate), but heavy metal does not have any kind of tiki feel to it whatsoever. Tiki is light and fun; heavy metal is dark and scary. In the interest of full disclosure, it may not be like this every night. Tiki Heart hosts concerts and in January (they might consider updating their website, but...) there were rockabilly, country, blues, and ragtime concerts. None of these genres scream tiki in my opinion, but they are significantly better than heavy metal.

We went to Tiki Heart with the intention of having dinner. I knew from the website not to expect pu-pu platters and the like, but burgers and nachos. I was prepared not to have the best dinner of my life, but something about Tiki Heart put me off. A lot of it was the music, but the place was mostly empty and it didn't have a good food vibe. I don't know how else to put it. We had a drink - mine did come with a paper umbrella, but not, alas, in a tiki mug. The drinks were fine, but I can't imagine I'll ever go back to Tiki Heart. If they are really interested in the tiki way, they need to try a little harder.

Tiki Heart
Wiener Strasse 20

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eritrea/Äthiopien: Du sagst Kartoffel...

Even though most people will tell you that Ethiopia and Eritrea share a single cuisine, I was planning to be thorough and visit an Eritrean AND an Ethiopian restaurant. I picked Asmarino (the website proclaims: "Eritrean specialties") because it had a few good online reviews and was in the neighborhood (a big plus on a cold, rainy Sunday night). When we arrived, Asmarino seemed to have been replaced by (morphed into?) Abissinia, ("Ethiopian and Eritrean specialties," according to the sign). It was cold and wet and we decided to venture in and find out which cuisine was really being served.

The DC area had a sizable Ethiopian population when I was growing up and going for Ethiopian food was always a treat. I don't remember ever having Eritrean food, but this may have something to do with the fact that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until 1993. I may well have eaten Eritrean food when it was still called Ethiopian food. Poking around the internet (my Eritrean cookbook is, of course, an ocean away), it seems that even most Eritreans and Ethiopians believe that they share one cuisine. (I should also point out that Somali and Djiboutian cuisine has a lot in common with that of Ethiopia/Eritrea). Some people suggest that Eritrean food is more lightly spiced and/or uses more tomatoes. You find this kind of regional variation in just about any cuisine (and in some places, in any neighborhood), though; it's not really suggestive of two distinct cuisines. I have also heard that Eritrean food uses more seafood, which is only logical as Eritrea has a whole lot of coastline while Ethiopia has none. As a fan of Eritrean/Ethiopian cuisine, I think eating at a bunch of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants (or better yet, eating across Eritrea and Ethiopia) and seeing what kind of regional differences exist would be a very good time. That, however, is a whole other blog. If you really need to know whether a restaurant is Ethiopian or Eritrean, there is one trick. At a restaurant run by Eritreans the menu will probably be in Tigrinya, while one run by Ethiopians will use Amharic. Thus, whether you call it tsebhi dorho (Tigrinya) or doro wat (Amharic), it's a chicken stew spiced with berbere/berberē and tesmi/niter kibbeh (a regional spice blend and spiced clarified butter).

While relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have never been particularly good, the people behind Abissinia seem to have worked things out and the restaurant is by all measures, an Eritrean-Ethiopian place. The front of the house is run by a very nice Eritrean woman, the chef is Ethiopian, and the menu is bilingual. The food at Abissinia is good, but it's not mind-blowing. We were the only customers the entire time we were eating and this may have been reflected in the food. At least one of the dishes could have been a little fresher -- just a few tough, obviously old, green beans, nothing too dramatic, does make you wonder. I was very happy to get a decent number of injera (the spongy, sour flat bread essential to this cuisine). I ate at Massai a couple years ago and remember being rationed a single piece (making it difficult to eat as it is also acting as your plate). In the end, while Abissinia didn't quite measure up to the Ethiopian food I've eaten in DC, I love the complex flavors of this cuisine and would probably return to Abissinia (in large part because it's walking distance from my apartment - I probably wouldn't trek across town for it). I will, however, cross the Ocean to visit my Eritrean cookbook at some point and Ethiopian/Eritrean food is on my list (along with pupusas and a Cuban sandwich and.....).

Grunewaldstr 82

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ägypten: eine andere Welt

A cliche it may be, but sometimes a meal can transport you to another place. This is true at Horum -- I don't know if it feels like Egypt in there, but it certainly doesn't feel like Berlin. In some cities, you can duck in an out of different worlds multiple times a day. In fact, it's hard to avoid in some cities (New York...sigh). Maybe my life in Berlin is more confined (although I prefer to blame it on Berlin), but Horum made me realize how much I miss the feeling of experiencing other places just by turning a corner. I'm not saying Berlin is monolithic; if it was this blog would really have no point. Clearly there are ethnic restaurants here, but so many of them feel designed for, even dumbed-down for Berliners. You might still get a taste of another place, but it's more like dipping your toe in the pool than going for a swim. So, it was refreshing when I walked into Horum by myself (my friend had not yet arrived) and the waiter gave me a what-are-you-doing-in-here look (he was actually quite friendly).

If you order carefully you can eat quite well at Horum for very little money. It's possible you don't have to order carefully to eat well, but we skipped the broccoli with Gorgonzola sauce and the the steak with herb butter and French fries, so I can't tell you if they are any good. Maybe Horum offers these items to pacify the guests at the run-down-looking Ludwig van Beethoven Hotel next door? The place was full of Arab (Egyptian?) men smoking hookah, drinking glasses of tea, and playing batgammon, but some of them were eating and I'm pretty sure it wasn't steak with herb butter.

In any case, we arrived somewhat uninformed and made a few menu errors. First, we attempted to order a beverage: Belila, described as a warm drink with milk, wheat berries, and nuts. OK, this is a weird drink to have with one's meal, but we wanted to try something different. Belila, although it is listed on the menu with the drinks, not with the desserts, turns out to be more of a porridge-like dessert. In fact, it is served in a bowl, not a cup/glass/mug. But, while it isn't really the ideal aperitif and we might have benefited from some gentle waiterly guidance, it is delicious: sweet, creamy, hearty, nutty. It's exactly what I want for breakfast on a cold and rainy Berlin winter morning. As we were finishing our Belila, the waiter brought out a mountain of kushari (seriously, it was enough for three eaters) and an order of falafel. Thanks to sloppy menu-reading (or less-than-clear menu-writing?) we ordered a plate of falafel with tahini sauce rather than a dish of falafel with tahini sauce and ful medames -- disappointing because ful (an Egyptian staple) was our main target. Alas.....the falafel were quite fluffy, but a little on the greasy side. The tahini sauce and mini salad were both delicious. I won't even pause to wish that they made their own pita, put it could have been a tick fresher. The kushari, on the other hand, was excellent. Pasta and lentils may not sound like much, but when cooked with enough olive oil and topped with caramelized onions (and tomato sauce at Horus), they can be downright luxurious. This is food for manual laborers or serious hikers, though. The two of us together only managed two-thirds of the ginormous pile. And then were were too full to order Um Ali, some sort of delicious-looking Egyptian bread pudding.

The decor at Horus is a little over the top: a mishmash of hyroglypics, scenes of Egyptian street life, fake palm trees, photos of elder statesetc.), but it sort of works. The major downside to the restaurant is that despite the two no smoking signs, it is a pretty smoky place. It's better to sit in the hookah section, than in the dining section (especially because you can recline on the benches and watch the batgammon), but after a couple hours the cigarette smoke has wandered over to mingle with the hookah smoke and it's time to move on.

Cafe Bistro Horus
Hasenheide 16

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ekuador: etwas zu weit

This one is admittedly a bit of a stretch. I really did look for a restaurant serving Ecuadoran food, but Berlin is a little lacking in the Latin American department. But, seeing as I am trying to be thorough, I did the best I could and wound up at Amorino. In the interest of full disclosure, Amorino is a French chain of ice cream (gelato, to be specific) shops founded by two Italians. I don't know that there are any Ecuadorans involved, but they do seem to have a thing for Ecuador: three of their flavors (by my count) are sourced in Ecuador (chocolate, passion fruit, and banana). I went hoping for a scoop of the (71%) chocolate, but on a snowy February day, Amorino didn't have all of their flavors in stock. Alas, I was forced to settle for a cup of passion fruit (paired with a little Sri Lankan coconut). What is there to say? Amorino makes very, very good ice cream. The texture is spot-on, but more importantly, each flavor tastes intensely of it's main ingredient. There's none of the milkiness, which clouds the flavors of even Berlin's most hyped ice cream shops. My passion fruit was very good, but my friend's mango (made from Indian Alfonso mangos) was outstanding. The best mango ice cream I've ever had. It tastes of nothing but perfectly ripe mango.

Amorino sells ice cream in a variety of sizes and you can cram as many flavors as you like in your cup or cone (a decent-sized small cup/cone goes for three Euros and easily has room for two or three flavors). After eating my ice cream from a boring paper cup, I can assure it tastes pretty amazing from any receptacle, but if you order a cone as my friend did, they will scoop it into a rose (as in the photo above). As good as my cup was, I will definitely be back to try the Ecuadoran chocolate (in a cone!) -- maybe on a day with less snow, though....

Oranienburger Strasse 1

and in the summer, a stand in front of Galleries Lafayette,
Friedrichstrasse 76-78

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dänemark: Besser in Berlin

I was so disappointed to discover the Danish Kunst Cafe (Danish Art Cafe) only to find out that it was closed (yes, another one bites the dust). I had envisioned such a nice outing to Schoenweide with a walk around the lake and then warm cinnamon buns or Smørrebrød. Once I had resigned myself to the fact that this couldn't come to be, I called the Danish Embassy to see if they knew of any Danish restaurants in Berlin. Considering that Denmark is a neighboring country, it seems like there might be a few Danish places here (although I supposed the US isn't full of Canadian restaurants). The Embassy reported that there was just one Danish cafe in Berlin: Lene's Creperie. Alas, I am not here to tell you about the deliciousness of liquorice crepes (which Lene's apparently serves). I just couldn't get excited about crepes. I know they really do eat them in Denmark (where they call them pandekager, but something about this place just didn't draw me. Aside from crepes, they offer daily lunch specials like ground beef, cheese, and leek casserole (ick) and salmon in puff pastry with ginger-dill sauce (possibly interesting, but I've eaten out in this town and I'm telling you at a place serving ground meat casserole it is almost definitely both soggy and overcooked).

Fear not, I didn't get lazy and skip over Denmark. (For the record, I do actually like Denmark (I even visited last year!) and Danish cuisine (although I did have the worst AND most expensive meal of my life at AOC.) I can't tell you if Lene's crepes are worth a trip to Stuttgarter Platz, but I can tell you that the Danish hotdog at Der Hot Dog Laden in Schoeneberg is better than the one I had in Copenhagen. This is mainly attributable to the fact that as hot dogs go, Germany knows what it's doing. (There aren't that many things that I give Germany credit for being best at (that's right -- I said BEST), so take note. Other than the slightly improved dog, Der Hot Dog Laden's version of a Danish hot dog seemed pretty authentic to me: relish, ketchup, mustard, fried onions, and sliced pickles on top. I could do without the ketchup (actually, it just about ruined the dining experience for me), but I felt I needed to keep my Danish hot dog experience as pure as possible seeing that I had ditched out on the authentic Danish crepes. At the end of the day, I can't really say that Der Hot Dog Laden is anything all that special. The dogs are decent (they are Neuland, which as I understand it means the animals are raised under humane conditions and not given GMO food or antibiotics), but I don't know that they are wildly different that at other places with the exception that here they are served in a bun in a variety of styles (Danish, Kraut, etc.) rather than with a bun on the side and a pool of mustard on a small rectangular paper plate. As a side note, Der Hot Dog Laden is really more of an Imbiss - you take your dog through a window and can sit at one of the tables in the front, but it's not really a place to linger. Especially if you visit on a sub-zero day in February....

Der Hot Dog Laden
Goltzstraße 15

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Der Tschechische Republik: Knödel mit Musik

There are multiple Czech restaurants in Berlin, but in my search I came across this video of Restaurant Böhmerland and was instantly sold. Nevermind that it's in Spandau, a good 45-minute U-bahn ride from us, there would be no other Czech meal for me. Once I heard the charming Czech accent of the jolly owner/waiter, Vojtech Novak, saw the pictures of the roast goose with Bohemian dumplings (only available at Christmastime - alas), heard the Czech folk music played by the same adorable owner....I was out the door and hungry for a hearty Czech meal. Actually, making and hand-decorating literally thousands of Christmas cookies kept me quite busy and I missed out on the goose. But yesterday, despite the cold and drizzle, I finally managed to drag mein Mann to Spandau. (It helped that the restaurant is located a very short walk from the Spandau Citadel, an old fort today housing (among other things) a museum with all kinds of old weapony things.) Actually, the Citadel is worth a trip (in summer, it might be too warm for Czech food, in which case it would be a great picnic spot.) In any case, we braved the weather, bought a 14€ painting of the Dolomites at a junk fair we stumbled upon, spent a few hours at the Citadel, and had an early dinner at Böhmerland.

The restaurant isn't all that much to look at. It's not very big and the simple decor is rather dated. I had worried that the adorableness of the owner/waiter might have just been for the video, but I am pleased to report that he seems to be just as adorable every day. He bounds around the room - pouring shots of Becherova, telling jokes, proclaiming the deliciousness of Czech cuisine, and finally playing his guitar and singing old Czech songs. The dining room is quite small, so he is practically sitting at your table when he sings. And the food: it's very good. I don't know that I would stray too far from the classics, but the roast pork with sauerkraut and Bohemian dumplings was excellent. Böhmerland is known for these dumplings and they are as promised, fluffy and perfect for soaking up the brown meat sauce. This was my first interaction with this variety of dumplings and they taste surprisingly exactly like the dough in a steamed Chinese bao, which is to say that they taste exactly like steamed white bread. At the end of the day, I prefer bread dumplings (Semmelknödel), but I appreciate that someone in Berlin is making them and doing a topnotch job at that. The portions at Böhmerland are more than plentiful. The roast pork was easily enough for two (we split that and a salad (not particularly remarkable, but quite decent if you overlook the iceberg lettuce). Böhmerland serves Konrad pilsner and dark beer from the Czech Republic (plus a few German beers and several Czech wines). Mein Mann is a real snob when it comes to how a beer is poured and he gave this place two thumbs up, both for the pouring and the beer itself. I can't imagine ever being able to eat dessert after even half an order of pork roast and dumplings, but I imagine that the fruit-filled dessert dumplings and palacinka (Czech crepes) are delicious, too.

Hoher Steinweg 5