December 27, 2010

Fighting Winter Depression Nr. 1: Italian Food and Niceness.

La Galleria Italiana, Mitte

Last month I started the search for the perfect local Italian. With Christmas and the end of the year looming, it started feeling like I needed to make minimal progress – and soon. Overwhelmed by Christmas markets, half-a-meter bratwursts and a foot of snow, I needed a sense of a mission. All the better if it were a mission carrying the scents of lemons and sun instead of darkness and glühwein. It bears all the marks of a large, fat winter depression.

The fact I was seeking solace from the wintery darkness at Italian restaurants was by itself a sign of dangerous Germanisation. Since the beginning of time, Germans have gone to the country south of the Alps in order to feel worldlier, more Mediterranean and more alive. Goethe eternalised his yearnings for Italy’s sun and natural vitamin D3 in “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?” and my old heroin-addict excuse for a flatmate Astrid used to sober up every time the word “Italy” was mentioned, because it made her feel young and carefree all over again.

With the winter wreaking havoc in my natural defences, I was even ready to shed my inbuilt Italophobia and try out a new Italian place. After a long group discussion, we agreed on going to a small and inconspicuous Italian restaurant on Torstraße in Mitte. Located at the less pretentious end of the street (closer to Oranienburger Tor than to Rosenthaler Platz), the small restaurant is strikingly simple, with ochre walls and IKEA-like furniture. A glass counter contained an array of Italian culinary paraphernalia of all shapes and colours, with the usual olives, cheese and sausages. Behind it stood a genuine Italian waiting to taken our orders.

We started with a few serves of the large antipasti misto (a plate with different starters, 13 €, also available in the smaller version for 7 €). It was a perfect serve: a combination of different ingredients from marinated mushrooms and carrots through salad, cheese and ham. They were all delicious and fresh, with a perfect balance between the various bits. The size was also very pleasing. One serving was more than enough for two persons. The joy was completed by a bottle of cheap, yet surprisingly nice montepulciano (for a mere price of 12€ - not a bad deal).

Spaghetti Marinara

The main courses arrived promptly thereafter. Four of us had pasta: Spaghetti marinara (seafood spaghetti in tomato sauce, 8 €), spaghetti salsiccia e pomodorinni (spaghetti with Italian sausage, cherry tomatos and balsamico based sauce, 7 €), tagliatelle cantarelli (tagliatelle with chanterelles, bacon and truffle oil, 8.50 €) and the daily tagliatelle with pork filet (8.50 € as well). The last one opted for the entrecôte al Barolo (entrecôte with balsamico sauce and potatoes, 14.50 €). The quality of the pasta varied from absolutely fantastic (the tagliatelle cantarelli: perfect balance between the different flavours, with mushrooms, bacon fat and truffle all getting their perfect fifteen seconds of glory) through very good (the salsiccia, which was a very good dish despite or maybe even because of its inherent simplicity) and to disappointing despite being nice (the pork filet, which was nice, but lacked the great quality of the others and the marinara, which had a very good tomato sauce, but had a meagre seafood presence with relatively dry calamari and a slight touch of shrimps). The pasta itself was fresh and homemade in all cases. The entrecôte was more of an escalope than a steak (it was very thin), but that is to be expected at an Italian restaurant. At the same time, please don’t take this as a complaint: it was a perfect escalope: good quality, tender meat in a savoury, brown sauce. There were no desserts on the menu, but the waitress did tell us there was panna cotta, which I then ordered (4.50 €) and was not disappointed. It was the best one I have had in a long time: good texture, not too sweet and with the perfect berry-sauce.

Panna Cotta

As we indented to pay, we realised, once again, what it meant to be dining at an “authentic” Italian restaurant. The waitress was not prepared for the German task of separating the bill. She tried to remain nice, as her basic skills of addition and subtraction were stretched to their limit. Her utter incompetence in the realm of maths would have been a true infliction at any Teutonic context, but she managed to pull it off with an endearing smile and offer everyone ramazotti on the house. True, ramazotti is not exactly my cup of tea, but when it’s on the house I manage to turn a blind eye to my other principles.

As La Galleria Italiana managed to please even hardcore Italophobes such as myself, I could only advise other people to go try it out. It’s good, affordable and pleasing. Good enough to earn four prints.

Overall mark: 

La Galleria Italiana
Torstraße 182, 10115 Berlin
Phone: +49 (0) 30 27 57 29 48

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December 14, 2010

A Taste of Chinatown in Berlin

Aroma - Chinese Restaurant

Some countries seem to be stuck in a time warp looping within a certain decade. France has never left the 1970’s, America is waddling through the 90’s and Italy has never stopped reliving the 1690’s. At the end of the day, it’s all about countries trying to preserve their heydays. Never say never, but it is all too probable that Paris will never again be the intellectual and trend setting capital of the world as it was in the 70’s, America will never regain its undisputed role as the world’s leader as in the 90’s, and Italy will never become a modern country as it was considered to be centuries ago. As Berlin is supposedly the cutting- edge worldly trend-setting capital of the cool and of the now, you would expect it to show a bit of commitment to the aesthetics of the 21st Century. But wait a second, if it really is the case, why does so much here still feel like an embarrassingly bad TV production from the 80’s?

Some of it might be explained by that 80’s comeback we’ve been forced to witness since the late 90’s. But it can’t be all. In too many cases it goes a few steps too far for it to be a backlash of coolness. Think mullet families, think perms and shoulder pads. It’s everywhere. The sad fact is that bad TV productions from the 80’s are Germany’s heyday; the 80’s remain synonymous for a time in which the East Germans had regained their dignity by initiating a peaceful revolution and triggering the fall of the Iron Curtain. The West Germans were living a peaceful suburban joy in their perfect economy and the future just seemed remarkably bright in its all-encompassing greyness. Walking around the older parts of Berlin (basically anywhere outside the Mitte-Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain-P’berg-Kreuzkölln ring), it becomes impossible to ignore the 80’s vibe: the forms, the colours and the general aesthetics. It’s enough to look at the brown carpets or the bright neon lights in areas like Schöneberg or Charlottenburg to beam me over twenty years back to a time I perceive as naïve as it was aesthetically displeasing.

One element I now miss from the fabric of memories otherwise known as my childhood is Chinese restaurants. The ones with awful brown carpets, neon aquariums and fortune cookies. I used to go there a lot and I remember the food as being fantastic. I wanted to say “authentic”, but I doubt my European sense of taste would appreciate real Chinese food. My definition of “authentic” comes down to food with real taste, with fantastic sauces, cashew nuts, dim sum and ducks in all shapes and forms. I have never found any of those in Berlin. But then again, never say never. This week I decided to check out Aroma on Kantstraße in Charlottenburg. This part of the street has been transformed into a Berlin version of Chinatown in the last couple of years. Don’t expect narrow streets filled with masses of people and stores packed with curiosities you wouldn’t find anywhere else. We’re still in Berlin – the streets are wide, spacious and German, yet parts of Kantstraße are paved with a whole variety of Chinese restaurants. Aroma is – despite its name – one of the more authentic-looking ones.

Authentic would mean – in this case – a random array of lights, aquariums and naff Chinese looking patters. Oh, and yes, the crowd is also quite Chinese. The menus are all written in four languages, with Chinese and Russian being the main two followed by English and German. With over 400 different courses, the menu is frighteningly vast and does not seem to offer and logical structure. We decided to start with a variety of six different dim sums: Há cáo (steamed prawn dumplings, 4.30 €), Bánh lec gá (steamed lotus leaves filled with rice and meat, 4.50 €), Bánh bao xá xiú (fluffy buns filled with sweet roast pork, 3.20 €), Bánh xúon (steamed rice leaves with prawn filling, 4.50 €), Dau hu ky chiên (soy dough with pork filling, 3.20 €) and Chân vit háp (steamed duck feet, 3.20 €). Some were excellent (the pork buns and the prawn dumplings), some were both interesting and very good (the lotus leaves) some were nice (the rice leaves), bland (the soy dough) and then the duck feet were just a bit… different. They were pleasing once you got to understand which parts were edible and which parts were not. Another unexpected difficulty was dividing the lotus leaves in two. Now – you might say we should have just eaten them as they were, but there were four of us and two of them and each one was big enough to feed two people. The leaves were quite dividable, but they were held by their veins that were as solid as a man’s tooth (I might be exaggerating here, but it still was not possible to cut through them with a spoon). We had to order a knife, followed by a cross examination by the sceptical waiter, after which he frowned and handed over a set of silverware with a look of pure disdain covering his face. These white people, they can’t use their sticks properly.

Dim Sum in all its glory
Main courses

We then moved to the main courses, which were not easy to choose, as we had a list of 419 options to choose from. We compromised on a Cantonese stew of eel and grilled pork belly (also served with tofu, 18€), two kinds of squids in shrimp sauce (two kinds basically means the dry one and the rubbery one, 12.50 €) and two kinds of crispy ducks (Cantonese – with hoi sin sauce, and another one served together with different vegetables, both for 12.50 €). The food was served with one large bowl of white rice, which was actually more than enough for the four of us. All the portions were very generous, the stew was even nearly too big. The stew was great value and fantastic quality. The squids were quite alright: they were not fried to death and the texture was quite interesting, but the shrimp sauce was a tad disappointing. Both ducks were very well served: the meat was tender and the batter was just right. The hoi sin sauce was also quite good. The vegetables and the sauce of the second duck were a bit bland and did not add much to the overall taste.

We left thoroughly pleased and satiated. It felt like dining in one of the Chinese restaurants of my childhood: good food surrounded by perversely bright lights or just obscenely tacky images and figurines. I could not help but appreciate the element of fun and can only recommend the place for an amusing night out. Four prints, fair and square.

Overall mark:
Aroma - China Restaurant
Kantstraße 35, 10625 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 3759 1628

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December 08, 2010

Reconciliation the Hanukkah Way: Going Greek

Berkis - Taverna

Something awfully strange happened this week: I celebrated Hanukkah (albeit half-heartedly) for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house. I went to that preposterous Hanukkah-market at the Jewish museum, bought a menorah, fried some greasy latkes and finished with unspectacularly dry doughnuts from the Turkish bakery. Personally, I find Hanukkah food uninspiring, but for the first time ever, I realised the entire holiday was actually quite a fine tradition.

Hanukkah is not a religious holiday, and is therefore considered to be a relatively marginal event in the Jewish calendar. Yet living among people who get into that embarrassing Christmas frenzy every year, European Jews decided they needed something to keep them busy while their neighbours went bonkers over shopping and pre-Christmas-dinner therapy sessions. Celebrating a festival of lights for eight days in a row probably seemed like the appropriate solution in the cold, dark and otherwise depressing Northern European winter.

Hanukkah’s religious outsiderness might explain the fact it is one of the only happy Jewish holidays. All the important Jewish holidays usually involve commemorating collective suffering through more collective suffering (may it only be because they involve being trapped around a table with large, dysfunctional Jewish families). It is usually about how someone did something awful to us at some point. But Hanukkah is different: It is about how we kicked the Greeks’ asses 2.500 years ago. Those pesky Greeks had conquered Judea and done all of the things conquering nations do, until lo and behold, the Jews rebelled and regained their independence (albeit for a short time, the Romans arrived soon enough to happily enslave them yet again).

But with all due respect for stories, lights and traditions, in the current political climate it feels wrong to celebrate one’s crushing victory (as ancient as it may be) over a nation that’s currently struggling with insolvency. Those pesky Greeks are on the verge of a financial and political meltdown and only Germany under the leadership of one sour Frau Merkel is there to save the day. Talking about gloomy perspectives. This was enough to convince me to bury the hatchet: show some Jewish spirit of reconciliation and to try out a Greek restaurant.

We chose Berkis on Winterfeldstraße, just off Winterfeldplatz. The place does not look inviting from the outside and the inside with its overall crème vibe and brown leather theme is not too cosy either. I could add the fact that the lights were painfully bright, but at the end of the day I was positively surprised by the decoration, since the restaurant managed to avoid the dodgy pillars that usually ornate every Greek establishment in Germany. To be fair, even though every little village in Germany can boast a local Greek restaurant, they are usually cheesy and bland at the very same time. Without pillars, Greek gods or that annoying Greek font everywhere, Berkis allowed us to hope it might be authentic and yummy. The authenticity seemed to be enhanced by the immediate reaction to our entrance: the owner grunted at two blokes - who seemed to be the local representatives of the Greek mafia - in order to clear their table for us, which they gracefully did (after a bit of grunting of their own).


The food came quickly. The portions were all pleasingly big, which yet again helped the authentic vibe. We started out with the daily soups: Psarosoupa (fish soup with too much dill, 3.50 €) and rewithosoupa (tomato soup with chic peas and other vegetables, 3.00 €). Both came in big bowls, but were a bit too salty. Alright, but nothing too inspiring here. We then ordered three starters from the otherwise overwhelming variety of appetisers: Kolokithokeftedes (courgette balls with tzatziki, 3.00 €), dolmadakia lemonata (warm dolmas with meat and rice filling in lemon sauce, 4.50 €) and sikotakia poulerikon (chicken liver in lemon sauce, 4.50 €). They were all very good, with the dolmas and the liver being close to excellent. The portions were large and the sauces all had something special about them. Even the tzaziki was a lot tastier than what Greek restaurants in Germany usually serve.


We were quite happy to continue to the main courses: Bifteki gemisto (ground steak filled with feta cheese, 8.50 €), mousakas (well, mussaka, layers of minced meat, potatoes, aubergines and courgettes, 7.50 €) and a chicken souvlaki plate (chicken skewers, 8.00 €). Unfortunately, they were turned out to be a bit less exciting. The souvlaki and the bifteki came with a mountain of low quality chips (those frozen ones that were not fried long enough for them to lose that “really bad quality supermarket food” aftertaste) and dry and horrid pita bread. The chicken skewers themselves were actually quite fantastic – soft with a strong seasoning, whereas the bifteki was a different story altogether: it would have been nicely seasoned, if it hadn’t been for the copious amounts of salt used on them, and the meat was just dry. The mousakas was quite good. It was big and pleasing, quite good quality, but too bland to be a revelation. We then left after witnessing another exchange of grunts between the owner and the two mafiosos over at the next table.

Berkis was quite alright overall. It served us nice, decent food and was definitely a lot better than most Greek restaurants around. It was not excellent though. It wasn’t even exciting either. Greek food actually is very simple, so it’s usually all about the large portions and the quality of the meat and other ingredients. Even though the portions were all pleasantly large, the seasoning tended to be too salty and the quality of the meat – though organic – was not entirely convincing. However, one thing I would like to do is to return and just compose a meal out of the many starters on the menu. They were the best part of the meal and would be an experience between four and five prints if it weren’t for the boring soups and the inconsistent quality of the main courses. For the time being, it will have to be satisfied with a solid, decent three print mark.

Overall mark: 

Berkis: Taverna
Winterfeldtstraße 45, 10781 Berlin

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December 02, 2010

When Burgers Met Australian Backpackers

The Bird - American Steakhouse and Bar

Lately I’ve been having these strange dreams about sitting in a diner, being served by a large waitress, let’s call her Maybelline. She’s one of these feisty women you only get in dreams about diners somewhere in Alabama. Her obesity is somehow contained by a radioactive pink uniform. She wiggles and wobbles her way to my table and asks me whether I would like to have my usual. I nod, she winks and a couple of minutes later a plate miraculously appears in front of me. It’s bestowed with a huge burger and even bigger chips and it’s all greasy and delicious and makes me want to start moaning like Meg Ryan did in When Harry Met Sally, just that this time for real. And then I wake up.

I get these burger cravings every now and then. I think everyone does. It’s as normal as being grumpy in the morning. Nowadays it also seems like you can get burgers just about anywhere in Berlin. But sometimes I do miss that overwhelming feeling of too much grease in your food, which you can only get in the great US of A. I was told the Bird in Prenzlauer Berg would be as close as it gets to Maybelline and that diner.

Even though it was still fairly early, the place was packed. Yet as I walked into the room, I could not help feeling I was being punished for a perversely forbidden fantasy. The place felt like Australian-backpacking paradise, or just my own definition of pure hell. Everyone there was a young tourist looking for cheap alcohol, naff music and all the bad taste they can get back home in abundance. The fact that not a single one of the staff people seemed to feel the need to communicate in German just validated my impression. I was in tourist hell.

I was shown to a table at the far end of the room and waited for my partner in crime to join me for what I feared would be a traumatising experience. In the meantime I was able to scrutinise the menu and to gladly realise it was mostly about burgers and steaks (with another small section of other random unspectacular American extravaganza like chicken wings and club sandwich). At the end we decided to order one burger each, as the steaks were – though tempting – out of our price range. All burgers sounded good and I quickly forgot about the bad music and the Australians at the bar playing with that scary beer jug that smelled of vomit.

Breakfast Burger
Da Birdhouse

As our Irish waitress came to the rescue, I had to acknowledge the fact that being in a place full of ex-pats and tourists was not entirely bad. It meant the service had to be as good as back home and I suddenly realised how long it had been since I had last met a waiter as nice or as helpful as the ones in Britain. She was splendid and sweet and helped us choose one Da Birdhouse Burger (the house burger with two patties, American cheese, bacon, fried onion and the rest of burger joy, medium 11.50 €) and another breakfast burger with extra cheddar (bacon and egg, medium rare, 11.50 €). They were both large and came accompanied by a pleasing pile of greasy and tasty chips. The house burger was very good. The patties were delicious and it was thoroughly satisfying. However, the breakfast burger was just astoundingly marvellous. It was stuff fake orgasms are made of. The meat was thick and juicy. The egg was perfectly soft and the bacon was just bacon. The only source of disappointment came from the buns: they were far from perfect, small and tasteless. We then ended the meal by sharing a perfectly delicious New York cheese cake (the only dessert on the menu, unfortunately, 3.00 €). Together with one beer each, we ended up paying 16.50 € per person, which is not the cheapest price on the local market for just a burger and half a cake, but it was definitely worth it.

A sneak peek into the kitchen

The Bird’s burger experience was great fun at the end of the day. The food was delicious – a clear four print level - while the service was brilliant and therefore worth whole five prints. The only problem was that I still need a therapy session for that overall Australian backpacker feeling, which would normally earn the place somewhere between one or two prints. I therefore had to compromise on a solid three. But then again, don’t let these mean backpackers scare you off if you ever feel these inner calls for burgers. Just go to the Bird and don’t let the atmosphere sink in.

Oh, and one last remark: what’s with the no card policy? If there’s one thing I miss about daily life just about anywhere else outside the Federal Republic of Germany, it’s the fact one can always pay with a card and can avoid carrying copious amounts of cash around. Not accepting credit cards in Berlin is not cool and anti-establishment; it’s just Teutonically boring and annoying.

Overall mark: 
The Bird - American Steakhouse and Bar
Am Falkplatz 5, 10435 Berlin

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