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 When we arrived, Asmarino seemed to have been replaced by (morphed into?)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, but....it 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