Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dining Out in Berlin


My caveat before you start reading this is that all of the places I write about here I only ate at once and so what you're getting is just my first impression. The fact that I have bothered to write about them here is, to my way of thinking, a recommendation, even though I tend to be fairly critical when it comes to food.

For so many years people have made fun of German food. It was all boiled, bland, and bad, Sauerkraut, Wurst, and potatoes in a million different variations. Well I am here to tell you that this is so far from the reality of eating in cosmopolitan Berlin, where you can't walk a block without seeing a trendy café or restaurant serving any number of cuisines.

You could spend a month in just the neighborhood of Kreuzberg alone trying out all the different place of interest and still miss plenty.


My first day in Berlin we went for what was to be really my only truly German meal of the trip (well not totally true I did eat at a new German restaurant that served locally sourced food, but it can hardly be put in the same category). Appropriately it was in a beer garden situated in a beautiful park very near where my friends live.
Adjacent to this pastoral, open-air restaurant is a mini golf.

It was the bleakest mini golf I’d ever seen, no whimsical structures or bright colors, everything was gray including the putting “greens”. What were they thinking? Have fun, but not too much!


It took twenty minutes for our first beer to arrive. It didn't bother me, I was on vacation and the waitress seemed very charming, but my German friend, Christian, was not pleased.
He complains often about the terrible service in Berlin restaurants, but, in fact, this was my only experience in Berlin where the service was really slow. Mostly, I guess, I got lucky as other than this instance I never really had any reason to complain.

Understanding that in part this is because wait staff in Germany actually gets paid a decent salary (and I believe get health care) more to the point: they don’t make the majority of their income from tips.


People leave change, but it’s not a lot.

The food was not memorable with the exception of a soup that came from a list of specials featuring the seasonal ingredient Pfifferling mushrooms (a.k.a. Chanterelles). It was lovely, light and creamy, brimming with sautéed mushrooms, warm and delicious. My Arugula salad was a mixed bag, the greens were fresh and tasty, but I could have done without the large chunks of onions and the upsetting presences of hard, canned, black olives. Still, when all the undesirables where separated and pushed aside the basic essence of the salad was fine.

Similar to this experience was eating at Spaghetti Western, a sleek, minimalist pasta joint on Torstraße, a very trendy food street in the fashionable Mitte neighborhood. The service here was great and the waiter very charming, professional and cute as is befitting such a stylish place. We sat outside at worn, light wood tables with candles placed in simple white paper bags, creating a charming feel, which is rather an accomplishment given we were on a busy city street.

Big picture windows allow you to see the interior of the restaurant so even though you are sitting outside you still have a sense of the place and feel very much a part of the aesthetic.


The menu is extensive and reasonably priced, the portions generous. I did not try any of my friends' pastas. Mine was perfectly cooked al dente, I had the puttanesca and found the tomato sauce over powering and a bit one note, as if they had just tossed the pasta in tomato paste. The olives again were hard, black, canned and inedible. An occasional glimpse of caper, but no anchovy at all. I think a lighter, fresher sauce, freshly chopped parsley and pungent, fishy anchovy bits would have improved this pasta greatly.
Still, given the atmosphere and price this would be a place worth trying again.

Maybe pizza and a bottle of wine would be the way to go?

My other Italian experience was at the fabulous Fratelli La Bionda on Bergmannstr just around the corner from where I was staying. An elegant, simple room with the occasional wall covered in Italian movie posters from the 50’s and 60’s. The rooms have an easy charm and sophistication, comfortable yet somehow special. This meal was the most expensive one I had, but at about $110 for two with a bottle of wine, it is what it would have cost in New York at a lesser place.

The wine was Cantina Terlano’s Winkl a brilliant Sauvignon Blanc from the Alto Adige in Italy. Fruity, yet nuanced, crisp and complicated it cost 30 Euros, and in doing a quick search I see it’s selling for $25 retail in NYC, so that’s a pretty good deal.
The meal was multi-course: simple, fresh tomato bruschetta, a briny, al dente pasta with clams and calamari, thinly sliced octopus laid out on a plate like polka dots, lightly marinated, simple and simply delicious.

The tag line for the restaurant is Pizza e Vino; I want to go back and have their pizza!


The day Keith and I went to KaDeWe to make all the videos we, of course, had to eat lunch! What a challenge it was to choose at which of the many options to eat. It was only afterward when someone suggested we graze that it occurred to me that we could have done appetizers at one stall, mains at another and dessert at yet another. In the end it was the bouillabaisse counter whose call was the loudest.

Keith is a vegetarian who eats fish, so this was perfect. There are several
bouillabaisse variations to choose from: single portion simple fish stews (about 8 Euros) to deluxe elaborate shared feasts (43 euros – don’t quote me on that I should have taken better notes). We decided to split a simple fish stew (the more complicated ones come with lobster, shrimp, and mussels) and a crayfish gratin.

We sat at the bar and sipped a nice Sancerre while we waited for our food to arrive.

The atmosphere is simple, clean white tiles and stainless, the center area of the floor is cut out with a railing around it, helping to give the space an open airy feeling as well as allowing you to see the floor below; a sky light above provided the lighting.

It’s a nice place to eat because it’s separated from the rest of the floor enough to give a sense of quiet.

As this is counter service there is no back kitchen, you get to watch them prepare everything, which I love. I did however almost change my mind about eating here when I saw that the precooked fish is added to broth warmed to order in a microwave!

Come on guys you are charging top dollar for this soup, broth can easily be kept warm in a simple steam tray or heated a la minute!
The crayfish gratin however was broiled in an actual oven with a decadently thick layer of melted Gruyere, rich, unctuous melted cheese over firm slightly briny meaty crayfish. Truly heaven and probably one of my favorite dishes I ate the entire trip. The portion was huge, but we managed to finish it.

The bouillabaisse was good, but in addition to the nuked broth the fish was slightly dry and over cooked.

Raw fish poached for a minute in hot broth, cooked in an actual pot on a stove, would not have had this problem as the chef would have had full control over the process and given how long it took to heat the broth in the microwave I don't think it would even have taken much longer.


Although I found it amusing, the service here started out slow and was not at all what you might call friendly. The ample, middle aged Fräulein with the daring dyed hair was efficient enough, but I think the best word to describe her might be gruff.


Meat, meat and more meat, Berliners love their meat. Christian tried in vain to get me to try Currywurst at his favorite Imbiss. As much as I was tempted to have this famed sliced pork sausage slathered in curry sauce and a side of fries, I'm trying to only eat local farm raised meat. Sometimes being good is such a drag.

So it was with not a little bit of surprise when I ended up lunching at Avril whose menu is a celebration of vegetables, fish and cocktails(so says their card at least).

We sat outside on the lovely Graefestrasse on a particularly warm and sunny day. My luncheon companion had a whole broiled trout on a huge portion of potatoes, boiled and mashed together with tomatoes, they needed salt, but were very tasty and the fish was cooked to perfection. I had a huge triple-decker sandwich, tomato, Arugula, pesto and mozzarella. The mozzarella was not the fresh kind and tasted more like a hard cheese, almost mild white cheddar - it didn’t matter whatever it was, it was delicious.


I tried to come back to Avril for lunch on Sunday only to find that Berlin restaurants do a buffet for Sunday brunch and with rare exception I’m not a buffet kind of guy.


The last place I want to talk about is the uber hip and ultra hot Chez Gino. Apparently the only reason this local, seasonal German restaurant calls itself Chez Gino is because they kept the sign from the previous owners.
It was so cold the night we dined al fresco the waitress offered me a woolly warm vest, nice touch! I sure was very thankful for it.

This place is like something you would expect to find in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The interior rooms are fairly sparse with funky wallpaper and a 70’s photo-mural of woods. I think there must have been some antlers; everything was ironic, funky and fun.


The food was local.

I had a wonderful, perfectly seared, pork chop with a savory/sweet sauce (onions and fruit reduced with sugar but I don’t recall the specifics)next to a nice pile of turnip mash. The chop was perfectly cooked. We started the meal with a large mixed salad, caper berries, olives (real ones!) and lots of tasty mixed greens.

The only off note in the meal was a special Christian had, local venison so over cooked and dark it tasted like week old, well done liver. Luckily the portion was small and juxtaposed to what had to have been the largest amount of salad greens I’d ever seen stacked on one plate. The prices here were reasonable and it was the only time we had to make a reservation. The service was spot on.


Finally, here is the menu for the BBQ at Exile that I made for the over one hundred people who came to the opening. It was a huge success and we sold out of most of the food (with the exceptions of wurst) within the first hour.

Pulled Pork with Potato Biscuits*
Homemade Maple Baked Beans

Cabbage Salad
with Apples, Walnuts and Caraway

Potato Salad
with home made may, capers and parsley
Wurst and Burgers

Watermelon


This is my final piece on Berlin, until next time, auf Wiedersehen!

*check out the recipes! This was a variation: I ended up boiling the pork for 4 hours instead if roasting over the grill, then reducing the sauce with pork water for a good 90 minutes, then mixing it with the pork that I pulled apart with two forks.


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