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