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