November 28, 2010

Vampire Francophilia


At the end of the 21st Century, even vampires seem to have realised French restaurants were a girl’s best friend. Just before True Blood’s Vampire Bill’s ludicrous proposition to Sookie in a splendidly romantic French restaurant, he justifies his choice of venue by the fact “humans love French restaurants”. As much as I dislike Vampire Bill, he has a point. Not only do humans love French restaurants, but posh humans seem to like them even more. French restaurants are the quintessential definition of expensive poshness. That is, until one actually finds their way into a French restaurant in France.

Yes, of course, there are quite a few awfully posh French restaurants in France. No doubt about it. Yet at the end of the day, the very institution of going out to dine at a restaurant is a lot more accessibly down-to-earth in the Republic of the Rights of Man, frogs and snails. Therefore, most restaurants are actually quite simple and they often are a lot more affordable than their counterparts in – let’s say – that island just across the canal.

As we all know, Berlin is quite an affordable place, but French restaurants are still a taboo when it comes to design, taste and affordability. They are usually there for Francophiles with the required taste and the money to support it. Yet no more! A few years ago, an alternative opened its gates in the most implausible place of all: on Augustrstraße in the very heart of Mitte. It is called Nord-Sud and it is run by the short, ginger Jean-Claude, a chti (that’s how you call people from the North of France) playing on people’s desire to get a “true French experience”.

You see, the deco is not entirely endearing. We’re talking about large wooden tables and simple chairs. Quite IKEA-like, yet very welcoming. The place exudes accommodating, nearly studenty simplicity. The owner-waiter runs around and tries talking to people in French. People who come there usually also want to speak back in French and to bathe in the sense of being in a true French place. The food concept contributes to that overall feeling: there is no real menu. Every day there are three set menus composed of a starter, a main course and a desert, an entire menu for 7.50 €.

We were a group of three and were therefore able to cover all the menus. At first we just ordered a bottle of Merlot (for the price of 17.50 € - definitely quite affordable. The problem was the water. The only non-French custom Nord-Sud has allowed itself to copy from the Germans was not serving tap water. In France tap water is actually a human right. But then again, we are in Germany, so we’re used to it). The first menu was a potato soup, émincé de dinde (sliced turkey in mustard sauce and potatoes) and a cherry cake. The second menu consisted of a pâté de campagne, two merguez sausages with couscous and ratatouille and a rhubarb cake. The third menu was a fish menu, with a fish terrine, rosefish filet with spinach and a cheese plate.
Fish Terrine
Paté de Campagne

Now, assessing a set menu for 7.50 € means you know the restaurant will have to cut corners somewhere. In this case I reckoned it would be better to cut on size than on quality, and was therefore not overwhelmed by the small portions. The soup was unspectacularly nice. Both pâtés were good, yet miniscule. The good thing was that we got an interminable supply of baguettes. The main courses were better. The turkey was drop-dead fantastic, and its size was quite pleasing. The sauce was splendid and the small, round potatoes appealed to my baby-hating friend Alisa’s motherly instincts. The merguez were a simple course, but still very good. Not to mention the fact it’s hard to get good merguez around here. The fish was a bit of a disappointment. It was a miniscule portion and the actual fish could have been better. But then again, the sauce was very good and the baguettes compensated for the otherwise small portion. The desserts were quite good as well. Both cakes were small and amusing, but not grand. The cheese plate was tiny, but its superb quality compensated for the initial size-related disappointment.


All in all, Nord-Sud is one of Mitte’s most amusing places. It’s probably not the place posh-humans would choose in order to propose to their girlfriends, but it will do for an affordable and amusing experience of what real France tends to be like.

Overall mark:
Auguststr. 87, 10117 Berlin (Mitte) 
Tel: +49 30 97005928

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November 24, 2010

Bavarian for Beginners

Valentin on Hasenheide

It would probably be best to start with a confession: I like Bavaria. Now you know. It really is quite embarrassing. After all, the first thing you learn in Berlin is to despise Bavaria unconditionally. A good newcomer is always able to recite all the reasons why Bavarians should stay in their Freistaat and out of Berlin. My first few months in Berlin were a time in which I looked at Bavarians with disdain reserved for the lowest freaks of nature: rich, fat and Catholic.

Yet after a while the inner rebel in me gained the upper hand and decided it was about time to see past the official version. The result was frightening: I soon had to admit I actually liked Bavaria. It was not only about the obvious advantages: they have real mountains, they know how to brew their beer and the can enjoy the in-your-face heritage of an insane king who built ludicrous castles. I go beyond that. I even find their dialect endearing. And now and again I get uncontrollable cravings for Weißwurst.

A few weeks ago, when I read that Valentin, a Bavarian bar just across the street from my flat, had started serving food, I did not need much persuasion to go and try it out. Even though I live on Südstern, I rarely go to places around the block. Most restaurants give a stale impression, and Valentin’s address on Hasenheide did not do much to raise expectations. However, this was one of these precious occasions that teach us mortals not to trust simple stereotypes. We were greeted by a crowd that was older and more down to earth than is normally the case in Kreuzberg. The place also had something pleasingly local to it, something that would usually turn it into a hideous Eckkneipe, but it wasn’t the case.

The decoration was unpretentious and tasteful, going for a Wirtshaus feeling without falling into the trap of naff rustic kitsch. The image was completed by a pint of Augustiner (very good Bavarian beer, 3.50 €), which was served with a smile, an experience I find nearly exotic in Berlin.The new Valentin menu is tiny. It is made of an ever changing daily menu with one starter, one entree, two main courses, a desert and another small sausage-and-bread menu (which is available all day). There were only two of us, yet we managed to cover nearly everything on it.

We decided to drop the cauliflower soup (as we both agreed on disliking cauliflower) and shared a pair of impressively high quality Weißwürste with bread and sweet mustard (anally enough, real Bavarians only let you have it for breakfast. I, on the other hand, think every time is good for a Weißwurst, 3.70 €) and the entree, which was Fingernudeln mit Sauerkraut (large and thick noodles with sauerkraut, 6.80 €). I don’t think everyone would enjoy the idea of a dish consisting of massive doughy things in sauerkraut, but it was a very pleasing dish with the right expectations.

We then moved to the two available main courses: Schweinebraten mit Knödeln und Kraut (pork roast with dumplings and sauerkraut, 9.70€, also available in a smaller portion for 7.70 €) and Gänsekeule mit Blaukraut und Kartoffelknödeln (leg of goose with red cabbage and potato dumplings, 11.70 €). Both were very good – down to earth dishes for the cold, dark winter. The pork was succulent without being greasy and the sauce was pleasing. The goose was excellent as well: the skin was joyfully crispy and the meat was tender and fantastic. The side dishes were alright, as things like sauerkraut, red cabbage and German dumplings can be. I then felt like trying out the daily dessert, which was Grießknödel mit Kirschgrütze (semolina balls in gooey warm cherry sauce, 3.50 €). Again, it is not a dessert anyone would like. The dish is probably the pinnacle of Teutonic peasant-cooking. It’s all about a doughy thingy in berry-like sauce. It’s heavy and not too sweet. I like it a lot, and this particular case of it was very good, but quite a few people would probably pass.

Valentin was a surprisingly good choice of venue. It was neither too refined nor too spectacular, but this was exactly the point: It was the perfect German bar-food experience. Good food, pleasant atmosphere, humane pricing.

Overall mark:
Hasenheide 49, 10967 Berlin
Tel: +49 30 548 131 67

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November 17, 2010

Nam Can Be Fun!

Miss Saigon

One of the arguments against the preposterous claim that Berlin is in any way a worldly metropolis is its weak record on non-European food. It just lacks food that strikes Germans as too „exotic“. It makes a fair number of ex-pats whinge endlessly about the blandness of the local food scene. I even know a few who sneak chilli sauces in one form or another to Asian restaurants in order to get the food to taste a bit less German.

But even though these moaning ex-pats are endearing, they usually exaggerate. The truth is that Berlin is getting better. Six years ago it was a true wasteland for those searching real non-European food. There were restaurants serving “Indian” or “Chinese” food, but it was all just an orgy of generic blandness. At the end of the first decade of the 21st Century it has become easier to find more and more places serving more experimental food.

The biggest surge of good and a bit more authentic Asian food came with the rise of Vietnamese restaurants a couple of years ago. Their success can probably be explained by two factors: first of all, and that can be seen as one positive heritage of the former GDR, Berlin has a real Vietnamese community. The second part is that in comparison to other Asian cuisines, the Vietnamese one is the least offensive to a tongue used to Central European cooking. Going to a Vietnamese restaurant has the advantage of going to an exotic place without actually being confronted with tastes that seem too difficult to handle: the food is refined and nice without being too strange. Yet more than anything, it does not commit the unspeakable sin a fair number of people in this fair country are just unable to accept: being too spicy. Add the lefty heroism attached to the name Vietnam and you’ve got a magic formula allowing every Berliner to take down the American Empire with their own bare hands.

One of these new Vietnamese restaurants is Miss Saigon around the corner from Görlitzer Bahnhof. It overlooks the square on the corner Skalitzer Straße / Manteuffelstraße and can therefore be seen as one in a series of new arrivals alongside the new Islamic Cultural Centre and the Korean Kimchi Princess together with their fried chicken parlour. It is a small place and cannot support large groups indoors. The small space is brightly lit, but the lights are not uncomfortably in your face. The overall impression is one of a pleasantly local restaurant. Another positive aspect of the place is the pricing: the most expensive dish will cost you 6.90 €.


We started by ordering the house cocktails. The non alcoholic ones all cost 3.40€ whereas the alcoholic ones come at a unit price of 4.90 €. We ordered the Mango Rumba, which was described as a drink of mango and rum. Out came two huge glasses, filled with all the joy a mango can be squeezed into. I did not taste too much alcohol, but was nonetheless pleased with the nice presentation and the overall quality. It was still great value for the price. We then continued with the starters. Two of them reminded me of the Vietnamese version of Dim Sum. Those were the Ha cao – Xin man (two different types of steamed dumplings filled with shrimps, 3.90€) and Bánh bao (a steamed bun stuffed with a mixture of minced meat and shrimps, 3.20€). The dumplings were superb. The bun was very good as well, even though its sweet taste will not be appreciated by anyone. The third starter was the ubiquitous fresh roll or Gòi cuon thit Bò (two fresh rolls with beef filling, 3.50€). It was good quality, but had something disappointingly bland to it.

Bánh khot
Bò lá lot

As a main course we chose two noodle dishes and another doughy one. The noodle dishes were Bò sot (chunks of beef served on noodles in a rich sauce with a very strong cinnamon flavour, 5.90 €) and Bò lá lot (small sausage like creations of minced beef rolled in pepper leaves, served on noodles in a pleasing South Vietnamese sauce, 5.90 €). Both were good quality. They were not spectacularly exciting, but they were good options for considering the price. The third dish was Bánh khot (thick rice pancakes with minced chicken and prawns, 5.90€). The portion could support two more of those pancakes without becoming too weighty, but what was lacking in size was compensated through quality. Those pancakes were quite splendid, even though their taste was still not excitingly strong. After the main courses we ordered a few more of those cocktails and foolishly decided to order desserts. I never order desserts at Asian restaurants, as I usually don’t see the point. This time we took a fried banana wrapped in a crispy tapioca-dough and coconut balls stuffed with coconut cream in coconut sauce (both for 2.90 €). They were good for what they were, but I just don’t go for the fried- banana-vibe.

At the end of the day, Miss Saigon is a good address for a pleasant evening. It’s not overwhelmingly fantastic, but the prices don’t set the expectation bar that high either. There should be more of these places in Berlin: affordable and fun Asian food.

Overall mark: 
Miss Saigon
Skalitzer Straße 38, 10999 Berlin

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November 12, 2010

In Search of the Lost Local Italian

L'ulivo di elio - vineria

Before I start, I should probably say I will never understand the general notion that Italy is romantic in any possible way. I will never understand the idea of Italy as one of these places where people make “beautiful things”. Italian taste in fashion (or anything else for that matter) always strikes me as conservatively vulgar. I don’t think the noise and the vespas are endearing in any way. The fact that the country is overpopulated with nuns does not unleash any unconscious sexual fantasies, and don’t even get me started about the political mess which the country has become. Yet there are two things I cannot deny: yes, the country really is incredibly beautiful. And yes, the food is good.

When I say the food is good, I don’t mean I think it’s the BEST. I strongly disagree with those who consider Italy to be the cradle of the world’s finest cuisine, but it’s a matter of taste and you are all allowed to boo in the comments. What I like is the Italian capacity to combine simplicity with fantastic produce, creating something that has the potential of being satisfyingly joyful. The sort of Italian place I’d like to see would be a simple, local restaurant offering a small, yet excellent variety of simple dishes. I’d never say no to a gourmet Italian restaurant either, but I do think Italian food has the potential of being good and at the same time accessible to all – also price wise.

 Which is exactly what I found is lacking in Berlin. The city has a never-ending variety of Italian restaurants, often trapped in one of two extremes: they either go for the unpleasingly simple extreme with bad strip lights and grotesquely bought-it-for-50-cents-at-my-local-Lidl quality food, or they turn out to be too expensive. My mission (amongst others) will be to find the perfect local treat: not too expensive, good quality, good value and a pleasant atmosphere. A few weeks ago I was told there was just this sort of place on Nostitzstraße just off Bergmannstraße. I decided to check out the rumour and went out for an evening meal in L’ulivo di elio.

On first sight, it seemed to be the perfect choice, but it was also a matter of luck. The place is small and not very visible from the main streets. The restaurant is divided into two spaces: the front one around the bar overlooking the street is dark and romantic, with a beautiful bar, small wooden tables and perfect lightning. The menu is written on the wall, giving the place that “local”, accommodating touch. We moved there after getting a table in the other section. It lies in the back, which feels like the back room of something better. The walls are lighter and somewhat sterile, the lightning less flattering, and overall it is not as pleasing as the other end. It has one advantage though: real tables. Some of the tables on the romantic end are aesthetically pleasing in their miniscule roundness, but they make eating quite difficult.

After deciphering the menu we realised the place was not necessarily on the lower end of the price scale, but we decided to try out the things we could afford without blowing our budget and have the time of our lives nonetheless. The choice of dishes was fairly limited, but the wall was full of traces of chalk, meaning the menu changes often enough. We ordered two glasses of wine, even though it was quite difficult to get the waitress to tell us what it was or how much it would cost. I am sure she thought her mysterious smile was endearing, I just wished I could read the wine list on a real menu. We then decided to share the large antipasto di salami e verdure (antipasti, available for 7 € in its small version and 12 € for the grande). Out came a plate bestowed with quite a few high quality sausages and very few other marinated vegetables. It was good, but not too pleasing. The sausages were high quality, but neither exciting nor abundant for the 12€. The bread served on the side was nice, but not pleasing enough to accompany an expensive starter.


We then decided to go over to the main courses, avoiding the secondi in an attempt to keep the meal on the affordable edge of the menu. We opted for the agnolotti alla Selvaggina (a type of raviolis filled with game in tomato sauce, 7.50 €) and the fonduta di Fromaggio al Tartufo (truffled cheese fondue, 9 €). The agnolotti were fine, but not half as exciting as the expectations. The game filling was unspectacular, even though the pasta itself was just right. The fondue, however, was a different story altogether. It was not the Swiss fondue served in a pan, but rather a mass of melted truffled cheese served on a plate. It was thoroughly satiating (with bread, of course), and as I have already written: you have to be really stupid to get truffle wrong. The dish was downright fantastic. We decided to end the evening with a desert, and the only available one was a chocolate cake (for the amiable price of 3 €), which we shared and did not want to finish. It was embarrassingly horrid. Another unpleasant surprise was the not-all-too-affordable pricing on wine (6 € for a glass of nice, yet unspectacular Cabernet. There were prices listed on the wall in the opposite dark corner, but they were undecipherable and only applied to the 0.1L glasses as it were).

After having that splendid fondue I really wanted to give the place a high mark. The atmosphere is awfully nice and overall, it’s a good address for a nice evening. I was trying to scratch additional points for service. The waitress was nice in a distant, psychedelically loony way, but it meant she was neither accommodating nor communicative. At the end of the day the problem was that the food just was not always convincing. I will have to leave the place with the doubt that the secondi might have been better and actually changed my mind, but for the time being it will have to be satisfied with three prints, knowing it has the potential to achieve greater things.

Overall mark: 

L'ulivo di elio - vineria
Nostitzstr. 49, 10961 Berlin (Kreuzberg)

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November 07, 2010

Josef - die Austrothek: Austrian Brilliance

Picking a restaurant for birthday festivities is no laughing matter. It needs to be somewhere on the thin line between fine quality and compatibility with the lowest common denominator in order to enthuse the masses. It needs to be exquisite enough to rise to the festive occasion, yet it can’t be too special if you want to please a heterogeneous group of people invited. I usually avoid making difficult decisions on my birthday, but this time I was not the one celebrating. I found myself merely in the ungrateful position of the advisor.

After realising the crowd was about to be even more varied than I had expected, it became clear there was no other choice left but going for Austrian food. It is both refined and not too exotic. The Austrian cuisine is not too different to the German one. To be fair, like everything else in the Alpine Republic, it is quite inherently German, yet with an endearing Central European touch. It is undoubtedly a version of Germany. If only just an upgraded one. It tends to be more refined, more exquisite, and most of all, it has the capacity to beguile just about everyone. German food with a touch of Sissi.

At the same time, one has to keep in mind that despite the romantic connotation of everything Austrian (with the exception of just about every 20th Century Austrian political figure known for posterity), Austrian food can still be extremely simple, so do not let the endearing Austrian names mislead you too much. Fritatensuppe – despite its haughtily French sounding name, is only a clear beef broth with chopped pancakes simmering inside it, and the desert with the intriguing name Palatschinken is – yet again – only a pancake. So with these warnings in mind, we ventured out all the way to Charlottenburg to try out Josef - die Austrothek on Leonhardtstraße.

The setting was promising. First – and despite the (not completely unjustified) problem most people around me seem to have with going to Charlottenburg – Leonhardtstraße is always a good address. It is a sweet little street, paved with several pleasing cafés and restaurants. Josef is a relative newcomer, opened just over a year ago. The restaurant consists of two rooms: the main one downstairs, the space between the red walls being well lit under the steady gaze of a massive Sissi portrait, while the second one is upstairs, darker and more romantic. Both are well designed, setting the tone as a refined restaurant without being either blatantly extravagant or annoyingly posh.

The wine menu is good, mostly made out of good quality Southern German and Austrian wines, mostly priced on the upper scale of Berlin’s otherwise more accessible wine prices. It was the food, however, that made the trip worthwhile. The menu is fairly small, and choice is not abundant. The prices were mostly just right: too high to be anywhere near cheap, but justified by the quality of the food. The starters on the table were the Fritatensupp’n (broth with chunks of pancakes 4.50€), Kürbis-Ingwer Süppchen (pumpkin-ginger soup, 4.90€) and the Carpaccio vom Tafelspitz mit roter Beete (Tafelspitz carpaccio with beetroot, 8.90€). All were very good quality, yet some people at the table had actually expected something more spectacular in the case of the Fritatensuppe and could not hide their disappointment despite the waitress’s attempt to turn the soup serving into a whole event. The pumpkin-ginger soup was downright brilliant.


But the best was to be saved for the main courses. We ordered most of the dishes on the menu: Gulyas (Hungarian goulash, 13.90€), a Wiener Schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel, 16.90€), geschmorte Kalbsbäckchen (braised veal cheeks, 16.90€) and Entenbrust gebraten (roasted duck breast, 16.50€). The Goulash was perfect: it had a tinge of spice and it swam appetisingly in its reddish-dark sauce with perfectly tasty Serviettenknödel on the side. The schnitzel was huge. The meat was tender; the batter was not too greasy and had its own taste. The duck breast was of fine quality with a gratin on the side. But the biggest surprise was the veal cheeks, served with truffled mash. I know, you can’t go wrong with anything truffled, but this was pure joy. The meat was splendidly tender and the mash was a wonder in its own right.

We then finished with a large and pleasing Kaiserschmarrn (pieces of dough, really. Always good as a shared dessert, 6.90€) and the daily dessert, which was a small, yet otherwise perfect mousse au chocolat (5.90€). Dinner went for just over 30€ for three courses including wine. It’s not something I would pay any day of the week, but Josef is definitely worth every penny on special occasions.

Overall mark: 

Josef, die Austrothek
Leonhardtstr. 1, 14057 Berlin (S+U Charlottenburg/Wilmersdorfer Straße)