February 21, 2011

The Babushka Vibe

Matreshka - Friedrichshain

I must have been about five or six when I made an unfathomable discovery. It was a hot summer day at my grandmother’s and I had just eaten a revoltingly radioactive-looking banana ice-cream bar. My hands were sticky, my face smeared with yellow substance and I was holding a stick I needed to get rid of as soon as possible. As I stepped into the kitchen and pulled open the lid on top of the rubbish bin, a deeply disturbing scene unfolded in front of my impressionable eyes: the bin was full of dumplings that looked just like pierogi.

The gravity of the matter would surely be obvious to anyone who has ever come across a Polish grandmother. I will spell it out for all the others: pierogi, or Polish dumplings, are nothing less than sacred. Not only is it unthinkable to throw them away, it is a sin to even contemplate any such nonsense. Needless to say, I was baffled. Had an unspeakably hideous crime just taken place in the very kitchen I was standing in? I looked around, hoping it was not a trick to get me framed for pierogi-murder, and as I realised the kitchen was empty, I began screaming and ran to the other room, where my grandmother was leaning over a newspaper with a cigarette in her hand.

“Who threw away those pierogi?!” I cried. I must have gesticulated convulsively to stress my state of distress.
“Pierogi? What are you talking about?” She asked and seemed nearly panic-stricken for just one moment before realising what I had seen. Her nerves brought under control once again, she curved her lips into a sheepish smile. “Those weren’t pierogi. Just Vareniky. Ludmila, that Ruski from the second floor, she made them. She had the nerves to bring them here into my kitchen. I tasted one of them and threw them into the bin. Tasteless – like the rest of their food.” She then coughed as if to show I should pay special attention to what she was about to say next. “Russian food is like the evil witch from Snow White: she just looked pretty, but was foul inside. By the same token, people like Ludmila from the second floor just make their food look like good Polish food, but inside, it is just tasteless.”

I therefore spent my childhood years knowing that Russian food was something I better avoid. It was only years later, long after my grandmother’s death, that I discovered that Russian food could be quite brilliant. What she said was not entirely untrue: more often than not, Russian dishes will be blander than their Polish equivalences. Vareniky are not as rich as pierogi, borsht is not as flavoursome as a barszcz ukrainski and generally speaking, there seems to be less spice used in the Russian cuisine compared to the Polish one. But do we really need to relegate pointless national aversions and comparisons to the culinary world? As this blog tries to promote world peace and eternal love, I will stop perpetuating negative culinary stereotypes and concentrate on all that is good and kind. In this case, it won’t even prove too difficult, as the Russian cuisine truly has a great deal to offer: think of a juicy shashlik (the Russian version of shish kebab, meat galore on a skewer), a hot salyanka (a thick and sourish soup) or just a bowl of pelmeni (meat dumplings) covered with heaps of smetana (sour cream)? I know it doesn’t sound healthy. But you’ll have to admit it sounds good. And this was exactly what I had in mind when I found myself craving Russian food last week.

Following a friend’s advice, we went to try out Matreshka in Friedrichshain. We found ourselves in the midst of a Russian birthday party, with a group of mothers dancing with their five year old girls to Russian Eurovision music. The walls were covered with colourful prints of large babushka dolls, but were otherwise so white and the place so brightly lit that I could not help but thinking of a Russian community centre in Dudley. The cheap IKEA furniture did not make things any better, and looking around, the feeling was of a place cheap and not entirely welcoming. And yet, for some reason it felt just right. It reminded me of Russia.

Beef Stroganoff
 The menu confirmed my first notion, with a choice of very simple, home made Russian food for fairly low prices. We ordered two pints of affordable Russian beer (Baltyka, 2.90 €) and started our meal by ordering soups: a soljanka (a sour soup with tomatoes, gherkins and different types of meat) and a bortsch (beetroot soup), both cost 3.90 € if ordered as a main course or 1.90 € if ordered as a starter. The soljanka was nice, but quite bland. The bortsch was very good. It was not spectacular, but it reminded me of homemade soups in Russia. We then continued with a pork-goulash (don’t expect to get Hungarian or German goulash. Here it is made of pieces of pork in tomato-like sauce, 4.90 €) and the most expensive main course on the menu, the beef stroganoff (slices of beef in mushroom-smetana sauce, 7.90 €). There was very little meat involved in the dishes and they were not what you'd call visually appetising, but it was not very surprising considering the price, and therefore not the end of the world. The sauces were tasty and the overall quality was quite pleasing though – it was neither refined nor spectacular, but it was nice and felt like homemade creations of Ludmila from the second floor, or any other babushka for that matter.

To accompany our meal we also ordered a dish of mixed dumplings with 9 pelmeni and 7 vareniky (pelmeni are the meat-filled dumplings, vareniky are vegetarian, filled with potatoes or potatoes and sauerkraut, 9.90 €). Even though our bellies later came close to the brink of explosion because of the amount of dumplings and smetana we had stuffed into our poor mouths, it was well worth it. The dumplings were just brilliant: the dough was just right, the fillings were pleasing despite being bland and the smetana definitely provided us with much needed fat for the cold winter.

Overall, Matreshka is far from being a refined five-star restaurant. And yet, something about it was just right: it was a cheap place for those who get a sudden urge to get catapulted eastwards. The food is far from being perfect, but it is pleasingly and affordably authentic. Even the babushkas on the wall and the ghastly music in the background were much appreciated as a part of the drill.

Overall mark:
Boxhagener Straße 60, 10245 Berlin

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February 17, 2011

The Berlin Blues: Does it Really Have to Be That Bland?

Good Morning Vietnam - Bergmannstraße

Bergmannstraße was one of the places I was introduced to through Nicole, who later got disqualified as a friend for sending out an e-mail in the first-person-baby to announce the newest addition to her family. I am not sure why I am even mentioning this, other than the fact it might be a shrewd analogy to the fact Bergmannstraße is the perfect street for parental visits.

Yes, whenever your parents come to Berlin for a any amount of time, be sure to take them to Bergmannstraße. It is a generically lightweight version of all that can be appealing about Berlin: It’s young, lively and accessible at the same time. It can be pretty, but not in-your-face-drop-dead-gorgeous. And most importantly, it appeals to a broader segment of the population, exuding a bit of Kreuzberg’s aloof coolness of the wannabe-multicultural and alternative kind without being filthy and run down. I doubt it you could find better examples for Berlin’s commitment to a healthy and relaxed lifestyle than a street composed of mainly cafés, healthy looking ethnic restaurants and organic shops.

Yet unfortunately, therein lies the root of the street’s inherent lack of appeal to yours truly without parental escort in tow. Yes, the Markthalle is really endearing and it’s always nice to have a street with so many things to choose from, but wait a minute: thinking hard, I really can’t name a café or a bar I truly like on Bergmannstraße: most seem to be ubiquitously unspectacular and inconspicuous. Moreover, most ethnic restaurants seem to embody what I often rant about in Berlin: bland dishes, toning down any trace of taste inherent to their respective cuisines to appeal to the broader Central-European sense of averageness. But then again, never say never and never let prejudice dictate your choices. Guided by these two principles, it was time to announce a new mission: let’s find redeeming elements on Bergmannstraße!

Following a friend’s suggestion, I realised nothing was more redeeming than finding a semi-secret restaurant in an inner courtyard, which is exactly what Good Morning Vietnam - an import from Mitte newly established in Kreuzberg - is all about. The estaurant shares its courtyard space together with a supermarket and an impressive number of bike-stands. In February’s bitter cold, the Japanese-looking exterior decoration with its various hanging lanterns and a wooden extension does not seem as welcoming as it must do in summer, when you could just sit outside in that sheltered inner-space and feel protected from the outside world. The restaurant also has a terrace – another summer element. I am sure you could all relate to my assumption, that I would already be a wealthy man if I had a penny for every time I said something in Berlin was “so much more beautiful/amazing/awesome/splendid in summer”? I am sure you feel the same way.

Yet at the moment we are unmistakeably still suffering under the yoke of the local winter, which will have to take us back to the warmth of the interior, which was promising, albeit not as inspiring as the lanterns and the wooden-vibe of the exterior space. The restaurant is divided into a few spaces, all very brightly lit and strewn with low tables. There are benches set alongside the glass walls, whereas those unfortunate enough to sit on the other side of the tables will need to come to terms with sitting on very low and not very comfortable stools. The general atmosphere is of a modern, inexpensive and yes – generic – Asian restaurant. The menu seemed to be quite promising though, serving a relatively limited offer of inexpensive Vietnamese dishes.

We started by ordering the vegetarian Nem Hanoi Deu Phu (cold summer rolls with tofu, rice noodles, eggs, herbs and a sauce for 2.80 €) and Nem Saigon (fried spring rolls filled with minced meat, served lukewarm for mere 2.80 €). The cold summer rolls tasteed of absolutely nothing. It felt like eating the fuzzy thing blandness is made of. Despite a general touch blandness, the fried spring rolls had a clear taste, and it was quite pleasant. However, they tasted of German meatballs rather than refined Vietnamese food.


We then shrugged and hoped the main courses will improve our first impression. We ordered the Pho Bo (the clear soup you have to order at just about any Vietnamese restaurant, the bouillon can be either vegetarian, or as in most cases – based on chicken. This time it was beef for 6.90 €), Dau Phu Sate (a vegetarian dish with tofu and vegetables in sate sauce, 6.90 €) and the Ga Xoai (chicken skewers with sweet potatoes, vegetables and chunks of mango in mango sauce, 7.40 €). They came rather quickly and looked quite beautiful. The sauces all looked very appealing and the portions were not the smallest. Which was why we felt the bitter sting of betrayal when we had realised they all were all blessed with the same identical taste: blandness. Despite the different shapes and colours, these dishes had no taste whatsoever. The Pho’s broth tasted of the liquidy thing you get if you put Knorr’s mixture in a litre of water and stir. Even the 89 Cent ready-made glutamate-based Pho noodle soup from the Asian supermarket down the road is more inspiring than this soup (and I should know, this is exactly what I had to eat when I got back home.

Skewers in Mango

At the end of the day, Good Morning Vietnam is not BAD. It is just boring. I reckon bland food is better than bad food, but it doesn’t make it any more deserving of your hard-earned Euros. Go there in the summer for a cocktail in the inner courtyard if you want to appreciate its good sides. Otherwise, Berlin and Kreuzberg have more than enough Vietnamese options to choose from.

Overall mark:

Good Morning Vietnam
Bergmannstraße 102, 10961 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 62 90 13 77

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February 10, 2011

Dancing on Tables? If You Say So

Ypsilon - Kleistpark, Schöneberg

When I was about six years old I asked my mother at some point why Greeks enjoyed breaking plates. “They don’t”, she answered with a grownup sigh. I sneered back and said I had seen them with my own eyes. And I was right. My easily impressionable nature was repeatedly traumatised by the loud gentlemen standing in front of Greek “tavernas” on touristy streets. All they seemed to be doing was to shout “ouzo” and throw an endless supply of plates with impressive force on the ground. For me it was clear there was something fishy about these Greeks and their strange affection to smashing objects. I could not fathom what on earth would cause a whole nation to live in a perpetual Birmingham-City-fan state of mind.

What I did not understand at the time was that some restaurant goers actually perceived this useless display of violence as exciting. And that was exactly what Greek restaurants in Northern Europe are all about: they sell an image of a land abundant in hot-blooded and colourful agitation that is so much more exotic than the drab gloom present in all of our everyday lives.

And then, when a friend asked me whether I wanted to try out Ypsilon on Hauptstraße (just off U-Kleistpark) because he had seen people dancing on tables there, my reaction was simply “I’m in as long as nobody’s going to break any plates”. Dancing on tables was exactly the right amount of excitement I could deal with: lively and utterly pointless. I could not quite call it exotic, as the only time I saw people dancing on tables had actually been actually in Warsaw.

Considering the fact I was lured all the way to Schöneberg under pretence of seeing people dancing on tables to the sound of a buzuki, the place was awfully quiet. Ypsilon has quite a large space and the overall design was rather tasteful compared to what Greek restaurants in Berlin usually deliver. No in-your-face bright lights, no pillars and no random Greek gods lurking around the place. This is not to say the place was entirely pleasing. The walls were too red and it felt like a mash-up of a cheap cocktail bar and a posh restaurant. A stage with a microphone was set in a central location, looming. A promise of live music and dancing on tables. It was still too early for that yet. We could concentrate on the food instead.

We started by ordering dolmades (stuffed vine-leaves, according to Chris the only true test of every Greek restaurant, 4.30 €), melitzana (mashed aubergines, 4.20 €), spanakopitakia (puff pastry filled with spinach, 6.30 €) and kalamarakia (pan fried calamari, 5.90 €). The starters came on large plates, decorated with fresh looking vegetables. They were also rather convincing on the quality end. The dolmades were not too sour and the rice filling was soft and nice. The aubergines were bland, as were the spanakopitakia, but they were not entirely bad. The calamari, however were even quite good. Not too rubbery and not too greasy. For pan fried calamari they were even rather pleasing.

The Wall

The main courses were a bit less convincing. We ordered a souvlaki arni (lamb skewer, 15.50 €) a bifteki gemisto (a piece of minced meat stuffed with feta, 10.90 €) and the moussakas (a dish not entirely unlike shepherd’s pie: a casserole based on layers of minced meat, aubergines, potatoes and cheese, 9.80 €). Generally speaking, the portions were very large and the presentation was appetising. The seasoning of all three dishes was also quite convincing. The only problem was the quality of the meat, which was lower than simply disappointing. It did not matter much in the case of the moussakas which is all about the sauce and the seasoning anyway. It had just the right consistency and the right touch of just about everything. It was no work of art, but it was thoroughly pleasing, even though a tad overpriced. The bifteki was fairly mediocre – with the meat not being exceptionally good, but it was still alright with the chips served on the side. The souvlaki turned out to be the main problem. When the entire point about a certain dish is eating chunks of meat off a skewer, you can’t really camouflage its poor quality with anything. Add the fact it was the most expensive dish on the menu and you’ve got stuff bad reviews are made of.


As we turned to the perfectly friendly waiter and ordered the bill, we looked at the stage and the microphone one last time, feeling cheated and betrayed. The place had not become any more exciting or promiscuous, even though it was already long past 11. Without any dancing on tables to cloud my better judgement, I feel obliged to give Ypsilon three prints and feeling rather generous about it. It was not bad, but far from being good for the not-too-low pricing. Checking out their website I saw why we missed the action though: It says they have live music every Friday and Saturday after 11, but we went on a Sunday.

Overall mark: 

Ypsilon - Restaurant/Café/Bar/Sommergarten
Hauptstraße 163, 10827 Berlin

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February 04, 2011

The Importance of Eating Kimchi

Madang - Korean Food

A few years ago I spent the evening sitting across the table from a South-Korean lady of sixty in a fairly nice Parisian restaurant. We were both waiting for my French aunt, who eventually showed up two hours later than planned. By that time we had been forced into making useless conversation about the weather, the restaurant and the French in general. The Korean lady was petite and fashionably dressed in white. She was wearing a white turban and was holding a white dog on her lap. Its white face had the shape of a white snail.

The one thing that kept the conversation going was our fantastic ability to whinge about nearly every possible subject: the sky, the noisy tourists at the other table or the low quality of French television. And yet, I thought she was taking it one step too far when she had started moaning about the bad food in France. I actually regarded food as the one advantage of living in France. When I finally asked what the problem was, her answer was just as cryptic: “No kimchi”.

“Kimchi?!” I thought. Yes, I knew kimchi and I had always liked it. But does lack of kimchi automatically disqualify any other cuisine? She nodded. “You’re not Korean,” she frowned, “you’ll never understand.” She then told me a story about how the Japanese uncovered North-Korean spies by serving large meals with a bit of kimchi in them. Most of the real Japanese around the table would sneer at the red stinky cabbage, while the North Korean spies – otherwise the perfect image of good Japanese men and women – would be the only ones who would devour it with unmistakable enthusiasm. “Alright, if you say so”, I shrugged.

After this conversation I also started developing kimchi-cravings. As I said, I had always liked Korean food, so it was not entirely new, but for some reason, it was only after the fashionable Korean lady’s stories that I started appreciating its due place in the pantheon of world cuisines. With time I learned that Korean restaurants were just about the best thing you could get. And for a long time, the lack of kimchi in Berlin stood as a symbol of the city’s culinary inferiority to food capitals like New York, London or even Glasgow and Stockholm. And then a few years ago something quite wonderful happened: Korean restaurants started appearing in Berlin. In order to start mapping Asia’s finest outposts in Berlin, we ventured out to Madang on Gneisenaustraße, just off Mehringdamm.

Tiny pancakes and noodles

The inside is quite spacious and the ambience is a fairly pleasing middle ground between poshness and an Asian hole-in-the-wall that serves greasy noodles. The lights are a tad too bright and the chairs are a tad too reminiscent of furniture you got in the 80’s if you happened to step into any generic Chinese restaurant in the West Midlands. But then again, none of it is really disturbing. The waitress seemed to be overwhelmed by the job, but was otherwise professional, nice and helpful in a way you rarely get to behold in Berlin. The prices were all humane and the menu was large enough to be intriguing, yet not so vast it got confusing.

The first round was an array of starters, ordered both from the “appetizers” section as well as from the “sides” section. The waitress hinted the sides were just larger and better appetizers, and it turned out to be true. The Chljeonpan (tiny pancakes with five miniscule different vegetarian fillings and mustard sauce, 3.50 €) and the Chung mu Gimbab (three pieces of sushi-like rice rolls with a tiny portion of squids and radishes in spicy sauce, 2.90 €), both ordered from the “appetizers” section, were both nice, but too small and unspectacular to be really pleasing. The good thing to be said about them was that you got your money’s worth and the spicy radishes and squids were very good. However, the “sides” were a different story altogether. The Gogi Chanche (noodles made of sweet potatoes with vegetables and beef, 4.90 €) were very good and the Kimchijeon (pancakes with kimchi, 5.50 €) were nothing less than spectacular. They were soft and conveyed a myriad of different tastes. In fact, they were so good we found ourselves obliged to order another round of them.

The grill in all its glory
Ideally it would be eaten like that

For the mains we concentrated on two types of dishes: my beloved bibimbap (rice, vegetables, meat and egg all mixed inside a hot iron pan together with spicy sauce. I chose the “Imperial Bibimbap” or the Jeonju Bibimbap with beef and nine different types of vegetables for 9.50€. It is also available with tofu or with other types of meat and costs less. One can also get them in a boringly normal bowl without the heat factor for one Euro less. But what’s the point in ever doing that?) and the bulgogi (a grill dish in which you witness the meat grilled in front of your face and you can eat it together with various different sides. Madang offers a variety of grill platters for a minimum of two persons. Our table went for the Sabulgogi, or the beef grill for 13.50 € per person).

The portions were quite large in both cases. The main dishes came with fresh kimchi, marinated beans and marinated potatoes. Before I get to the description of the actual dishes, a word: the most important indicator for the quality of Korean food is the kimchi. And this one was perfect. The texture, the spiciness, the taste and that awful stench were all just right. The dishes were brilliant as well. I could have used a bit more spicy sauce for the bibimbap, but it was perfect otherwise: the size and the quality of all the ingredients were both just right, the pan was sizzling and it was highly enjoyable. The bulgogi was just as good. The cornerstone of a good bulgogi is the quality and taste of the meat. It scored well on both. High quality meat and fantastic seasoning. The meat came with rice and the aforementioned sides, while the whole lot was supposed to be stuffed into a leaf of lettuce. However, the meat itself was so good that we found ourselves eating it “freestyle” with the rice and the sides serving for pleasant distractions.

Bottom line: Go there. Good quality, good value. It doesn’t offer the posh experience other Korean restaurants do, but the quality of the food compensates for it. At the end of the day, very little compares to good kimchi.

Overall mark:

Gneisenaustr. 8, 10961 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 488 27992

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