January 13, 2012

The Joy of Being Posh

Le Cochon Bourgeois - Kreuzberg

My favourite pastime in my first year in Berlin was to correct people who told me I was living in Germany. “I’m in Berlin, you fuckers. Berlin is NOT Germany.” Or so goes the line? Alas, I’ve been disillusioned since. I am now a proud protagonist of the “Berlin is very much in Germany” theory. No need to repeat all of that. I’ve ranted about Germans in so many posts that it would be getting tedious if I started this one doing the same. So no. What I did want to say about Berlin and Germany was (hopefully) a bit more intriguing than just that. It’s the age discrepancy between Berlin and the rest of Germany.

Do you see what I’m trying to say? Probably not. So here goes nothing. Think of the most ubiquitously German attractions: Neuschwanstein, half-timbered houses, the Black Forest. They all conjure up an image of beauty and greatness of yore. But then take a look at Berlin, the capital, the icing on that Black Forest Gateau,  and it seems to reject all of the aforementioned romantic paraphernalia. Not only is Berlin younger than your average German town, but the 20th century left such a mark of the city’s landscape, somehow marginalising the influence of all that had preceded it.

There is no need to retell the story of Berlin’s topsy-turvy history during the 20th century. You Know Who between 1933 and 1945 and that wall between 1961 and 1989 are reasons enough for any place to change its appearance and identity. But what it also means – especially in comparison to other places in Germany – is that the 20th century also made it impossible for Berlin to have old institutions.

At the end of the day, the effects of the war are still visible just about everywhere in Germany. But still, in most German towns one will still stumble upon old culinary institutions that have been around since the time eccentric kings still ruled the land. Lübeck’s 1960’s concrete market square has a Niederegger café and Munich’s got its Hofbräuhaus, both founded a very long time ago. Berlin, however, is a bit weaker on institutions. Things that have been around for a while. There are exceptions, of course, like the old and endearing  Baumkuchenlieferant (the official Baumkuchen supplier for the Kaiser) in Moabit, but they are few and far between. Berlin is often about the modern and the edgy.

Which is why I sometimes enjoy walking around West Berlin, finding things that have been around for longer than just a few years. Restaurants that assert themselves as small, local institutions (needless to say, due to a couple of historical interferences, it remains largely a West-Berlin phenomenon). Fichtestraße in Kreuzberg is the proud home of a few such venues, established places that have been around for a long time. Somehow the entire street manages to exude something dignified and appealing, which means most restaurants are priced accordingly.

One of these places is Le Cochon Bourgeois – a poshly French restaurant. The space inside looks like a flat converted into a public house and then decorated to produce an image of austere luxury. A bit like a pearl necklace dangling from a rich lady’s neck, Le Cochon Bourgeois does not go past the bare essentials, but it does it extremely well. No posters on the walls, no fancy decorations hanging from the ceiling, no loud music to distract you from a bad date (if this is what you happened to need). But after a second thought: why would anyone in their right mind bring a bad date to Le Cochon Bourgeois?


First of all, it’s pricey. Secondly, it’s too good for a bad date. We started with the two most different starters one could think of: a boudin (the French equivalent of black pudding, served with celery puree and apples for 8.00 €) and a goat cheese mousse (served with various green stuff for 7.00 €). They were both splendid. The boudin was perfect: the right consistency creating a refined mass where no one on earth would be able to imagine this was just a blood sausage. The sauce, the puree and the apples all seemed to dance along to the same music. It was like a whole party – but just in your mouth. The mousse was perfect as well, with just the right smoothness combined with a fantastically rich taste.

We continued to the mains, which were even pricier. We opted for the confit the canard (duck confit, maybe my favourite dish in the world, 26.00€) and veal medallions (fairly expensive, but what the heck: 32.50 €). I wish I could rant about the fact posh restaurants are just not worth the money and all that jazz. But I really can’t. It was all fairly perfect. The confit was brilliant, with the taste of something that had been marinated in fat for ages, just without the actual fat dripping from it. The medallions were tender and quite incredible, with a perfect match between the meat quality, degree of cooking, consistency, and yes, the sauce. All good. 

Wonderfully weird

We were not sure whether we wanted to have dessert, but after one stern look from the wonderfully chatty waitress we decided it really was now or never. We opted for the boringly solid option (crème brulée, 7.00 €) and for the strangely unappealing one, which was nonetheless highly recommended by that same waitress (red cabbage in passion fruit marinade, nougat mousse and white coffee mousse for 13.50 €). The crème brulée was solidly wonderful: Just right, perfectly by the book. Yet the real surprise was that other thing. “The world belongs to the brave” was what the waitress said once we’d ordered the cabbage thingy. And she was right. Think of something that tastes of passion fruit with a cabbagy texture with two fantastic mousses on top and a piece of caramelised joy on top of that. Well, it was an experience, and quite a brilliant one of that.

The damage aounted to 130.00 € for a three-course-meal for two with one wonderful bottle of wine and another bottle of water. I forgot to mention we got small surprises from the kitchen between the dishes (a small soup and a sorbet, also excellent). It’s far from being cheap, but it was worth every cent. Go to the Cochon Bourgeois. It’s not cool, it’s not edgy, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. 

Overall Mark:

Le Cochon Bourgeois
Fichtestraße 24, 10967 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

December 13, 2011

Pan-Asian and Hotel Vibes

Modern Art of Asia (MAOA) - Mitte

Last week I had the misfortune of landing in the wasteland otherwise known as Potsdamer Platz around dinner time. Don’t get me wrong – the place has a few redeeming features, like the Philharmonie, the Stabi, the film museum and the fact it’s never empty. And yet, finding something decent to eat over there appears to be a super-human ordeal. 

But we were hungry and the weather did not leave room for flexibility on the subject of location. So we were pretty much stuck where we were. Glossing over the dismal choice of restaurants available around the square that gave the world the traffic light, I could only shrug and grunt an undecipherable complaint about the desertification of central Berlin. With a choice of overpriced and sterile-looking venues, Potsdamer Platz really does feel like an urban desert with a few bright lights and never-ending loads of tourists.

We ended up marching into Modern Art of Asia, one of the sterile-looking restaurants on Leipziger Platz. The pan-Asian restaurant is always crammed pack with people and getting a table is not easy, which was – at lest – reassuring. The interior reminded me of the hotel aesthetics in Lost in Translation, the 90’s version: bright lights, long tables, basic colours. The concept reminded me of another concept that seems to have been left to rot somewhere in the 90’s: Mongolian buffets.

You must remember the loud rise and silent fall of Mongolian buffets. They were everywhere in the late 90’s: the concept was assembling a dish from scratch using available ingredients, as an able looking chef then took over one’s creation and turned it into a work of fine showmanship on a scary looking grill. The same applies here. The menu is fairly basic, with a few starters and horribly overpriced drinks. The main course, however, is the buffet, available as a stuff-your-plate-full-for-one-serving for 16.90 € or as a recurring extravaganza for 23.70 €. We decided to go for the buffet and ignore the rest.

Every serving consists of stuffing a bowl full of whatever ingredients one chooses to eat, selecting a marinade from a list of different options and handing that opus-magnum to the exhausted chefs slaving at the grill (unfortunately, MAOA offers no spectacular show of knife throwing at your food). The available ingredients start with basic things like onions and different sorts of vegetables (bell peppers, carrots, courgettes, etc.), move over to spices like chillies, coriander or dried fruit and end with a copious amount of meat and seafood. The meat selection is actually the best thing about the buffet, as it offers just about anything from duck through beef to kangaroo. The other ingredients, however, are not as exciting with vegetables and spices remaining very German (between broccoli and champignons). 

What a bowl looks like
The meat section
And yet, the main feature of the buffet is that je-ne-sais-quoi DIY experience. It’s fun to assemble things and come up with the most ludicrous combinations. The marinades (from blackberry-sake to fennel-garlic) are also pretty pleasing in most cases. They are fairly mellow and offer a diluted, Germanised sensation, but this should come as no surprise at a pan-Asian restaurant that looks like a hotel lobby. Which brings me to the bottom line: If you happen to be around Potsdamer Platz, have enough money to spend and feel like stuffing your face like a pig, be my guest, it’s fun. However, do not expect any refined experience of superior taste.

Overall Mark:

Modern Art of Asia
Leipziger Platz 8, 10117 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

November 30, 2011

Teutonic Pizza: A Guide to German Cultural References

Rocco und seine Brüder - Kreuzberg

Who owns a city? I’m not talking about rich people who own the land (who may not even live there) or the municipality that provides the services. What I’m aiming for is to get to the bottom of deep philosophical issues. I can see you are frowning at the screen and thinking of closing this window. Be my guest if you want to, but this is serious stuff! I stumbled over this question yesterday after the 4th G&T at a new, cooler-than-thou expat venue in Kreuzkölln. It was packed with trendy people. Yet it was the first time I felt a pang of superiority beside the usual feeling of pure, green envy.

I think the superiority bit came after listening to a girl from North London with a butterfly pinned on her beautifully coiffed head explaining why Berlin was HER city after mere 1.5 months. And why she was here to stay. She was giving tips and recommendations, talking about areas that are cool and others that are “so passé”. There was a lot of sneering involved. And the only thing I could think was: “Really? Your city?” So I just smiled back as if you’d smile to a slightly retarded child who had just done something resembling a failed imitation of a snotty Pug.

This girl actually made me feel superior. Not because I’m any better. All I can say for myself is that I’ve been here long enough to speak the language and get a feeling for the culture. It’s merely about time. And yet. Her sheer chutzpah, ignoring the time factor and the hard-earned lessons it brings, made me think: what makes a person own a city? Is it enough to know your geography and know the cool safe-havens in town? I believe it takes more than just that.

Because at the end of the day, even though Berlin may seem so un-German to the untrained eye, it is still in Germany (as the saying goes). And immersing oneself into the folds of Teutonic culture requires a deeper understanding of local codes, local aesthetics and local references. Unfortunately for the newcomer, local references are not always pleasant or easy to learn. Being exposed to deep-end Germany often requires developing a 6th sense for repellent schlager singers (I still wouldn’t be able to distinguish Roland Kaiser from Udo Jürgens even if my life depended on it), commenting the latest Bauer-sucht-Frau developments, and moreover, recognising Inka Bause (Bauer-sucht-Frau presenter) if you saw her walking down the street in lederhosen. These are things locals know automatically. But for us expats, learning all these references is a long, excruciating process.

The ever-elusive game of German references was the defining experience of this week’s dinner at Rocco und seine Brüder – a popular pizza restaurant behind the church on Lausitzer Platz in Kreuzberg. A couple of VIVA presenters had taken control of the next table and as the conversation drifted to commenting old German TV-presenters, I found myself at a loss. To make things worse, Rocco und seine Brüder is one of these themed restaurants, based on an Italian film from the 1960’s that used to be extremely popular in Germany. Most Germans around me seemed to have regarded the film as an integral part of West-German culture (even though it was about the Mezzogiorno. Oh, the intricacies of European culture), which made the photos on the walls and a few of the pizza-names accessibly witty for them. I, however, could only nod and smile as my table companions commented different aspects of the ambiance.

And yet, the place is pleasingly alive and nicely unpretentious. The tables are crammed on top of each other and the service is jovially accommodating. The menu is fairly simple, with starters and pizzas making out the two only categories available. We began with the anti-pasti platter (for two, 12.80 €), which I found to be fairly disappointing. It contained all the right things: a bit of cheese, a bit of sausage, a few oily vegetables and fresh ingredients. But the quality was not quite there yet. The cheese was very simple (the taleggio was alright, the mozzarella was the cheapest version available and the bland slices of the Gouda-looking rubbery cheese were completely unnecessary). The meat was alright, but nothing more. The other ingredients were not bad, but on the other hand, they were not refined or pleasing enough to justify those 12.80 €. 

Mario Adorf
And then came the pizza. The menu contains two whole pages of different pizzas, for prices starting at 7 € and ending with 11.90 €. We chose the more luxurious ones: the Mario Adorf (mozzarella, taleggio, cèpes, 9.50 €) and the Tartufo (truffle, rocket salad, 11.90 €). They were both quite good, but far from perfect. The biggest problem was the dough: it was a bit too thick and dry in all cases. In that same vein, slicing through the Tartufo was quite an ordeal. The toppings, however, were fairly generous and pleasing. The Mario Adorf (a German speaking actor from South-Tyrol in Italy) was more wholesome than the Tartufo, which came hidden under a mountain of salad, which was as dry as it was green. There would be other details which were not perfect, but at the end of the day, the pizzas were quite enjoyable.

Rocco und seine Brüder is a thoroughly enjoyable place. The food would not be the first and foremost reason to go there – it’s not bad, but it’s not exciting either. However, the ambiance makes it a perfect location for a friendly evening with a few friends, a hearty pizza and a gargantuan carafe of wine. Before you go there, be sure to google the Luchino Visconti’s film Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco und seine Brüder). This way, you’ll always have a  knowledgeable remark available for any witty exchange. 

Overall Mark: 

Rocco und seine Brüder
Lausitzer Platz 13, 10997 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

November 22, 2011

Berlin's Worst Tourist Trap?

East Side Blick - Friedrichshain

Last week, as I happened to cross the Admiralsbrücke on the way back home, I found myself stuck in the middle of a loud demonstration of dreadlocked young Berliners. They were the angry, disenfranchised youth of a city in turmoil. They needed a well-earned outlet for their anger. But instead of doing something useful like occupying the Reichstag or Potsdamer Platz, they decided to demonstrate against the tourists.

It may only be my problem, but why this burning hatred for tourists all of a sudden? True, I occasionally make fun of lard-assed tourists. I will be the first to frown at drunken Spaniards vomiting in front of the few available Berliner landmarks after a night out at Berghain. Moreover, I refuse to go to touristy places and will always make a point out of showing I actually live here, thankyouverymuch. But from here to demonstrating against tourists? Why on earth?!

At the end of the day they bring in money, experiences and impulses. And we also enjoy being tourists in other places. The only reason I am here is because I once had the chance to enjoy this city as a tourist. Imagine what would have happened, had I landed straight on to an anti-tourist demonstration? Of course, you may say I have always been a good tourist. I respect the locals, try to embarrass myself ordering things in their language, I never vomit on the pavement (just on a cat once, but it was a mistake and it was inside a flat. So there you go). But this is all beside the point. Tourists have rights too.

The point is, however, that tourism changes cities. City centres become appropriated by shops catering for people who will not be coming back anytime soon. Aesthetics and quality usually suffer as a result. This often means locals avoid the most representative parts of their cities, leaving them instead to hoards of people who buy “My sister went to London and all she got me was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts. When was the last time you heard about a Parisian going for dinner at the Eiffel Tower? Or a Berliner going out for a fun evening at the Brandenburg Gate? You haven’t, not in a long time, and that’s because these places have been forfeited to tourist-aesthetics and prices. But isn’t it a pity? Wouldn’t it be nice to dine and simultaneously have one of these views that are usually reserved for tourists?

A new mission thus materialised: to find a spot where locals can feel like tourists and enjoy a Berlin landmark. For some reason I had the bad idea to start by testing the East Side Blick on the Spree-bank just next to the Eastside Gallery. I know, the daft name “East Side Blick” should have sent me a clear warning. When I entered the place and saw the bored expression on the face of the girl behind the counter I should have turned on my heel and left. The final straw should have been the menu (somewhere between a bad canteen and a bad idea of a restaurant) or maybe just the plastic ambiance? But I stayed nonetheless.

We should begin with the positive vibe. On a sunny day, the location actually is as stunning as Berlin gets. Being on the Eastside-Gallery bank, you don’t get any of the bleakness of the actual Eastside gallery or the O2 Arena. You get to sit on the riverbank, look towards a couple of nice buildings in Kreuzberg and even more importantly: the Oberbaumbrücke in all its glory makes for a truly pleasing setting.

And now to the less positive things. We started with the antipasti (priced at 6.80 €) and a Kartoffelsalat (for nice 1.60 €). The potato salad might have actually been home made. The antipasti was nothing but. Take a chunk of frozen mix of antipasti vegetables (mushrooms, courgettes and the lot), heat them up in a microwave (to get that extra soggy feeling) and sprinkle soy sauce all over them. 


Main courses? Ahem... they didn’t have any real salmon in stock (the only real main course on the menu was a salmon-steak. Probably hadn’t found any at Lidl?), so we ordered one dish of penne with smoked salmon and rocket salad (8.80 €) and another dish of pasta with shrimps and tomato sauce (8.70 €). The shrimp pasta was edible. The sauce had come directly out of a can and there were a few shrimps to be seen lurking in it. The smoked-salmon dish, however, was nothing less than horrifying. Dried/burnt strips of salmon, a bit of olive oil to make it sound Mediterranean and lots of dry rocket leaves. 

Truly horrid pasta
Bad pasta
I know, I should have known. The only place around Eastside Gallery is basically there to exploit tourists. So why would anyone take advantage of a splendid location and actually make something out of it? It doesn’t have to be pretentious. It doesn’t have to be posh. But even basic studenty pasta can be done right, and if it is done right, it can be enough to make people come and savour the presence of Berlin’s central waterway. Unfortunately, however, there is no reason to stop at East Side Blick. 

Overall Mark:
East Side Blick
Mühlenstraße 70-71, 10243 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

November 11, 2011

Berlin's Only Curry? A Birthday Post

Sigiriya - Friedrichshain

It’s that time of year all over again. It’s cold and damp. People seem to enjoy being rude and grumpy. Leaving work in the dark, sunlight belongs to a distant memory of the past. Oh, the gloom. And yet, the Footprints are in a celebratory mode. Yes, you heard me; you are now reading blog’s 40th post, which also marks a whole year of incessant cyber-ranting about Berlin’s culinary landscape! Yay.

It did not take too much brooding to reach the conclusion that the most appropriate birthday gift to readers would be a recommendation about real curry in Berlin.

Just to recap – curry in Berlin is a problem. Always has been. I just blame it on the German psyche, which seems to be inherently incompatible with spicy food. Or with anything all too different from home. You are bound to see where this ends: sweet Vindaloos, creamy Daals, Gouda sprinkled over Naans. In other words: curry genocide. Let’s not exaggerate. Worse things have happened in history than expats unable to appease their ever growing hunger for curry. My stomach rarely stays empty (there is enough non-curry food around, as numerous posts here must have proved beyond doubt). I have not yet starved, a blank expression over my face and flies hovering over my head in a street corner somewhere in Marzahn. And yet, curry deprivation is psychologically taxing and should not be taken lightly. Oh, the gloom.

Yet no more! I come bearing the gift of the first edible curry in Berlin. But let’s not rush things. One step at a time.

It all started with Sarah’s (who knows her curries) discovery of the Sri Lankan Sigiriya in Friedrichshain. I’ll be frank about it: I found it hard to believe her at first. Add the fact that we were talking about an Indian-style restaurant in the heart of Friedrichshain’s Südkiez, which – for the sake of all fairness – did not help dispel any fears or misconceptions in advance. But it’s hard to doubt a Bradfordian’s judgement about curry. Every possibly edible curry is worth a shot. So there I went.

The menu’s layout, the overall ambiance and the insistence on putting organic symbols all around the place reminded me of Chandra Kumari on Gneisenaustraße (which had left me lukewarm at best). I should also add that I am less keen on Sri Lankan/Southern Indian food, as I grew up feeding on Pakistani/Northern Indian deliciousness. But we are in Berlin. We shall not be picky. Or anal. Or stupid. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was time to meet my maker.

We began with the three starters on the menu: Roles (vegetarian roles with a potato-based filling, 2.50 €), vadai (chick-pea balls served with sweet-sour sauce, 2.70 €) and the elavalu roti (samosa-like coconut-bread dumplings with vegetarian filling, 2.80 €). I’ll have to admit they were not breathtakingly spectacular. Far from it, actually. The roles were nice – the filling was a nicely seasoned, stodgy samosa-like-filling and the dough was thin and light. The vadai was... well... dry. The chick-pea balls were nicely seasoned, but it felt like biting into a piece of dry cardboard. The elavalu was, however, very pleasing. It was perfectly seasoned; the dough was good with just the right touch of coconut. They were quite alright, but not much more. As such, I was still dubious about the next phase.

Elavalu roti

We then ordered five dishes: Niviti dhal hodhi (vegetarian red lentil curry with spinach, 6.30 €), chicken curry with paripoo hodhi (a dish with both a chicken based curry dish and a daal – red lentil curry – for 8.90 €), chicken curry with wamboutou hodhi (a chicken curry dish with another aubergine curry, 8.90 €), mutton saag (mutton curry in spinach served with an extra raita-bread, 8.90 €) and mutton curry with ratu ale hodhi and sini sambole (a dish of mutton curry, beetroot – coconut curry and caramelised onions, 9.50 €). The first three we ordered “originalscharf” – which is trying to say we wanted it really spicy, and the latter two were ordered “German-spicy”. Which means not spicy at all, which kinda misses the point, but oh well. In addition, we ordered two pol-rotis (delicious coconut bread, 1.50 €).

The good news is that everything was good. Unlike curries I’ve so far encountered in Berlin, Sigiriya actually uses real spices and not just pieces of “things” swimming in a tasteless, generic curry batches made of blandness and cream. It’s all nicely refined. The bad news is that it’s not Pakistani. I am not sure I am the biggest fan of coconut-based dishes, and Sri Lankan food is big on coconut. But then again, this is my problem, not Sigiriya’s.

Chicken and daal
Mutton and beetroot

I’ll start with the daals, because we all know daal really is the ultimate test. Both daals were good: rich dishes with a real palette of tastes. I found them a tad too coconutty, but then again, this is only me talking. They had enough spice to have more presence than anything else I’ve found in Berlin, but I did not think they were spicy enough. The daal with the spinach was a tiny bit better than the pure daal. The aubergine curry was perfect. Again, too coconutty for me, but otherwise rich in taste, spicy and quite wonderful. The chicken curries were good as well, with the chicken and the spices taking centre stage together (so different to any chicken-curry you’d order anywhere else in town, where you just get a bland sauce with tasteless pieces of chicken lurking around in it). If only, the sauce was not powerful enough, but it was all in the right direction. The mutton dishes were not bad either. The saag was nicely refined, but I found it lacked a bit of presence. The raita was perfect, however, and compensated for the relative blandness of the dish. The second mutton was a lot better. The beetroot curry was very pleasing and the spicy caramelised onions were quite fantastic: both had just the right presence, well balanced and well spiced. The mutton curry on the same dish was a bit more disappointing. Not spicy enough and tasted a bit more generic than the rest. But still light years away from anything else around.

Bottom line: Go to Sigiriya. Like... you know, NOW. Compared to curries in Birmingham it might still be lacking in more than one way, but it could still be a fairly good choice on a London scale. On a Berlin scale, which is what we are dealing with a the moment – it may just be the only possible choice.

Overall Mark: 

Restaurant Sigiriya
Grünberger Straße 66, 10245

Größere Kartenansicht

October 31, 2011

Korean Hipster Bashing

Kimchi Princess - Kreuzberg

I have promised myself not to start another entry with a new report about the weather. Another weather rant would set the seal on my creative ambitions, as it would – justifiably – appear as if I had nothing else to write about. I mean, I would not like to convey the impression my life had no more substance than discussing the weather and watching Downton Abbey (a fine neo-Victorian combination if there ever was one).

And thus heavy hearted I realised I had no choice but to opt for the second least original activity after talking about the weather (and procrastinating with Downton Abbey): hipster bashing.

I usually try to keep hipster bashing to myself. First of all because everyone else around me (especially Two Broke Girls) does it so much more eloquently than I ever will. Secondly it’s because deep inside I really am a failed would-be hipster. And yes, I’ve finally said it: I see all these young people with a trust fund somewhere in their pantry and coolness smeared all over their collars and I get green with envy. Literally. My insides turn with nausea that is not so much hatred as it is pure jealousy. As we all know, the aspiring kind is usually worse than the real thing.

The obstacles preventing my metamorphosis into a real hipster are manifold. First, I don’t have the right parents. Meaning – no trust fund to speak of. The only trust my parents ever bestowed on me was a grave talk about the lack thereof as I had taken (my parents used the word “stolen”) my mother’s only ring and given it to a friend back in year one. The second reason for my acceptance of being nothing more than an aspiring cool person for the rest of my life would have to be my aversion of stupid hats and neon colours (beside the fact my hair gets too rebelliously curly when I try coaching it into an asymmetric hipster-do). It’s not that I haven’t tried. I once even walked through Dalston wearing skinny neon-coloured trousers, thick rimmed clear-glasses and a stupid hat with a butterfly on top, but I think it was too obvious I had the wrong hair beneath my hat and that I felt like a court jester in what I was wearing. Not owning your look is probably the biggest deal breaker on the hipster credibility (a.k.a. coolness) scale.

For a long time being spießig in Berlin had been my refuge. I had been inherently cool by proxy of being an expat in Berlin and inherently free of hipsters because I usually went for good food. This week’s visit to Kimchi Princess in Kreuzberg taught me that the times, they are a-changing.

So Kimchi Princess, right? I’ve known the place for a while. It was the first credible Korean restaurant in Berlin. It is also – like – designed and stuff. A large space divided into a main space and second floor amidst post-industrial wannabe beams and construction elements. Dimmed lights, nice accessories, the lots. Not only is it all beautifully executed, but they even have a cooler-than-thou club facing Skalitzer Straße. And needless to say, the place is packed. Has been for a while, but this time I was just overwhelmed by the amount of strange neon-coloured hats that greeted me as I had set foot past the threshold. Fortunately enough though, as I had not reserved a table we had to be seated in the crouching corner away from the coolness (where you sit Japanese-style on a higher platform and crouch over a low stool). This way I was actually able to concentrate on the menu.

The menu at Kimchi Princess has always been quite blissfully manageable. It contains a few starter classics, the usual Korean grills (starting with 16 € per person) and a few Korean classics. We did not try any of the grills, but rather chose to concentrate on the more affordable parts of the menu (knowing that the real Korean test is the holy trinity of the pancake, kimchi and bibimbap).

Kimchi Pajeon
Bibimbap (not yet mixed)

The starters were the mul mandu (steamed meat dumplings, 4.50 €) and kimchi pajeon (kimchi pancakes, 6.70 €). It was an OK start. The portions were large, the presentation pleasing and the overall quality was high. The dumplings were fairly well executed – just the right texture and moisture, the right size and all. The seasoning was fine as well, but lacked something in order to be perfect. Alright really. The pancakes were good. The Korean softness was there and the entire thing was a fine experience. No complaints. Other than the fact that the kimchi pancakes are supposed to be heavenly (no exaggeration here. My short life has introduced me to a fair amount of kimchi pancakes that made me want to re-enact the entire orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally and to mean every bit of it). Those were just nice. They tasted too much like pizza and too little like kimchi.

And so we continued to the main courses: the haemul udong (a spicy noodle soup with seafood and tofu, 10.50 €) and the unavoidably classic bibimbap (a hot pot with rice, beef, vegetables, egg and spicy deliciousness that you get to mix up and enjoy, 10.50 €, also available for 9.50 € in the vegetarian variety). They were both served alongside an impressive selection of sides (these change every time. The only obligatory one is – of course – kimchi. That wonderful, stinky Korean cabbage which really is what Korean heaven is made of. This time it was accompanied by bean-sprouts, anchovies, green beans and green cabbage, all marinated in something rather pleasing).

The soup was alright. The noodles were delicious, one could argue about the amount and quality of the seafood used, but the general size of the dish was impressive and the general taste very agreeable. The best thing about it was that broth managed to be pleasingly spicy and have a strong presence all at the same time. The bibimbap, however, was more than just alright. It was really good. And that’s an improvement. I know I’m supposed to base my reviews on that one evening only, but the reason I had not set foot at Kimchi Princess for a while before that evening was because their bibimbaps had been just alright whereas Madang and Ixthys offered superior choices. Well, no more, or partly so. The ones at Madang or Ixthys are still better, but this week’s bibimbap at Kimchi Princess was A LOT better than what it used to be like. The meat was just right, the overall size, taste and abundance of the other vegetables as well as the taste and availability of the spicy red bean paste were very good as well. At last, I managed to actually enjoy a bibimbap at Kimchi Princess without too many ifs and buts. And now to the sides, not any less important here. They were actually all very good. The kimchi, the most important one, was also another sign of improvement – I used to find the kimchi at Kimchi Princess fairly bland. It still isn’t the best in town, but the cabbage had just the right consistency and age, the seasoning was good as well. Definitely enjoyable.

At the end of the day – Kimchi Princess is a good address. Good Korean food in a very pleasing setting. There may be cheaper and better quality Korean restaurants in Berlin. However, what Kimchi Princess lacks in pure food quality, it compensates with the accessories: service, ambiance, presentation and oh yes, how could I ever forget – coolness.

Overall Mark: 

Kimchi Princess
Skalitzer Straße 36, 10999 Berlin

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October 12, 2011

Things to Do With the Last Rays of Sun When Sarah Palin's Already Out of the Presidential Race

Freischwimmer - Kreuzberg

You might not remember it anymore, but last week actually started out as a gloriously balmy one. It showed Berlin at its best: sapphire-blue sky, massive trees shedding their summer green for the sake of yellows and reds, pesky little bees buzzing for the last time. Yes, you heard me, the last time. You can kiss all that goodbye for a few months.

But before we sink into the usual winter depression (there will be enough time for that, I an assure you that much), let’s take a closer look at the last days of autumn. Actually, I like autumn in Berlin. July and August tend to be wet and horrid, whereas September and October always offer a glimmer of joy.

And as this might have been the last streak of good weather for many months to come, I just decided to make the most of it. First of all, I suppressed the fear of a Eurozone collapse, of a dwindling economy, festering conflicts and few more years with the Tories in power. I tried to ignore my disappointment as the dream of seeing a Palin-Bachmann debate was savagely crushed (OK, there might be a positive spin here, with Palin actually opting OUT of the presidential race). I did all that and just went to the Freischwimmer to enjoy the weather.

The thing about the Freischwimmer is that I don’t usually think of it as your local restaurant. Up to last week I had been there a countless number of times, but not once had I actually eaten there. I have always thought of the place of just a perfect place for either a coffee or a beer.

On the other side of the canal from the notorious Klub der Visionäre, the Freischwimmer is probably everything the festering lair of wannabe techno-coolness is not: pleasant, laid back and idyllic (albeit with a bit of techno bits invading the calmness from across the canal). The place makes the most out of its waterside location, offering an inherently urban sensation, which nevertheless manages to ooze a sense of luxurious calmness. It is a bit like what opening a bar on a small side branch of London’s Regent’s Canal would be like, just without the incessant stream of tourists and cyclists. Going back to my political dismay from last week, it is a place Sarah Palin would refudiate as genuinely “un-American” – just like New York, Delaware or Portland (OK, Freischwimmer shouldn’t even be American, being in Germany and all. I just wanted to say refudiate. And maybe also point to the obvious fact it should probably expand and open a branch in Portland).

But enough with that useless praise! We are here to talk about food. And food is what we went for this time. And the bottom line? Meh. But here I am, jumping ahead of myself. So let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The menu was, well, meh. It had a very limited choice of dishes (not a bad thing in itself), but they were all strangely presented. There were no starters, but rather “small things” that included a soup, olives and chips. We skipped that (deciding that it should probably be ordered just with a beer instead of to open one’s appetite for a real meal) and opted directly for the main courses. This part of the menu offered a small variety of classically German bar-food, from Currywurst to Schweinebraten. Simple dishes that could be either a glowing success or what Grizzly moms would call a shot way missing its target.


We opted for the Szegediner Goulasch (the “Hungarian” variation on German goulash. The Szegediner is always made of pork and sauerkraut. It’s a personal favourite of mine, here for 9.80 €) and the Schweinebraten (pork roast, another German favourite for 10.80 €). The result? Not bad. Just to start with a first gush of criticism, the goulash was fairly small, which ruined the entire “simple and hearty” vibe. It was nonetheless very good. The meat was simple, yet as tender as chunks of cheap pork can get. The sauce was very pleasing in itself with just the right touch of sauerkraut. The pork roast was a tad less convincing. Yes, the sauce was nice and the meat was tender, but it was also too fat. The size of the portion was quite pleasing, making it quite a nice choice of weapons, but still, nothing like anything you’d get down in Bavaria.

The cake you should avoid
We then exasperated the unfriendly waitress by ordering a dessert. It was their chocolate cake de la maison in strawberry sauce and cream (3.70 €, also available without the sauce for 2.20 €). And the result? Yikes on bikes! If the food before had actually managed to convince me that Freischwimmer might have been a fair address for a nice meal out despite the menu’s disarray and the waitress’s attitude, now this was just embarrassingly disappointing. There came a large chunk of chocolate cake which was nice and rich inside and not all too edible on the outside (is the idea of an unchewable crust the new parent-friendly fad so that children will not be able to get to the yummy part inside and give up on chocolate cakes altogether?). In a cake-metropolis like Berlin, is it really that difficult to bake a pleasing chocolate cake?

Bottom line? No matter how good or bad the food is, Freischwimmer still is a fabulous location. If October is benevolent enough to send us a few more rays of sunlight, take your friends, parents, lovers or tourist-friends and lurk around at Freischwimmer. The food is quite alright at the end of the day as well and if you are hungry, go for it. Just know that for less money, you’ll get the same quality out of a burger at the Burgermeister just around the corner.

Overall Mark:

Vor dem Schlesischen Tor 2a, 10997 Berlin

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