March 31, 2011

Yes Girl, Carbs Are Good for You

Spätzle und Knödel - Friedrichshain

Even though ranting about all that is wrong with Germany has by now become my second favourite pastime (the first one being cake), I still have moments of pure “isn’t-Germany-great” delight (strangely enough unrelated to cake). They are usually triggered by the one or the other kind of Spätzle, which would raise the legitimate question about whether Spätzle – the doughy Southern German version of pasta – contains any hallucinogens. I may not have the scientific credentials to analyse the happiness eggy dough instils in a man, yet I can still think of a couple of Spätzle-related scenes in which something greater than just its chemical composition put an “isn’t-Germany-great” smile on my face.

One of them occurred last year in Munich. It was a drizzly day and everything had gone wrong before we ended up at a place called Altes Simpel, which is apparently a classically authentic local experience. It is one of those magnanimous Bavarian spaces with beer and pork in nearly disturbing abundance. The place was packed and we took our seat at one of the heavy wooden tables looming around to quickly realise we did not understand the menu. This is the place to say it was not due to my German, as I was even equipped with a real German sitting next to me who seemed to be even more at odds with the situation than myself. The menu was written in Bavarian, which is – as endearing as it may be – not entirely decipherable for your average Hochdeutsch (standard German) speaker. We needed help and we needed it fast.

The cavalry came in the shape of a nymph-shaped waitress. She was blonder than a Californian and friendlier than a Dundonian. After refusing to serve us a Weißwurst because you only got that for breakfast (Bavarian rules, if you can’t beat them, join them), she took the time to walk us through the menu, which culminated in her description of the “Schwabenpfandl” (a dish which would roughly translate into a “Swabian pan”, which – you would all agree – makes no sense whatsoever). “Oh, that,” said she, “it’s quite simple really: a few pork medallions with a heap of spinach-spätzle and thick mushroom-cream sauce.” She nodded, smiled and added: “und übrigens, das Ding ist ziemlich geil,” which would translate into: “and by the way, that thing is delicious/brilliant/awesome/sensual.”

Now wait a second, a pretty, slim girl in her early twenties just called a pile of pig, carbs, cream and fat “geil?” As hard as I try to avoid blunt generalisations, her London or New York counterpart would smile and say that she has been told it was good, but really, you see, it is just too rich for her to try it herself *giggle*. In Munich, however, that pile of sinful fat overdose was just “geil”. It was a moment of pure elation. I suddenly loved Germany. And that fat spinach spätzle that came along with the food.

I was hoping for a similar experience of too-much-spätzle-in-your-face when I head about Spätzle and Knödel on Wühlischstraße in Friedrichshain. The area has recently turned into an enclave of Southern German cuisine, and the idea of a restaurant focusing its menu on Spätzle and Knödel (German dumplings) had something glorious about it.

The first impression is of a restaurant not entirely “finished”. The furniture is of the Bavarian wooden sort, the lights are dim, but the walls are barren. The general feeling is of a cross between a Bavarian pub and a restaurant. Honouring Bavarian tradition, we started by ordering Bavarian beer and taking a closer look at the menu: there are few to no starters and it is mainly about the main courses and the desserts. According to the restaurant’s name, the customer can order the mains with a choice of either Spätzle or Knödel. We took the Krustbraten with Semmelknödel (pork roast with slices of bread dumpling, 9.40 €) and a Jägerschnitzel with Spätzle (Hunter’s Schnitzel is basically a slice of pork in mushroom-cream sauce, 8.80 €). The pork roast was just right – it wasn’t spectacular, but it was very good: good quality meat, pleasing consistency, convincing seasoning. The dumplings’ quality were a notch higher, as they were absolutely delicious. The whole lot was served together with Sauerkraut, which I would have liked better without the overdose of cumin, but I reckon this is just a matter of taste. The Jägerschnitzel was also very good. The meat was good and tender; the cream sauce was heavy – but definitely gratifying – whereas the Spätzle was close to perfect.
 Even though every normal human being would have been satiated after only the mains, I decided I also wanted to try out the Kaiserschmarrn (for those who do not remember: it is the Austrian version of “scrambled crêpe”: masses of pancake-dough scrambled and fried in butter and caramel, 4.30 €). Now, I love a good Kasierschmarrn even though I am aware of the fact it is a perverse thing to be eating. And this one was good: The dough had just the right consistency, being soft inside and crusty and caramelised on the outside. The prune jam that came along with it was very good, but my only problem was the overdose of raisins. I personally think humans should be banned from using raisins in apple cakes, poppy seed cakes (actually, in cake in general) and in Kaiserschmarrn. But then again, it’s just a matter of taste.

Spätzle and Knödel is a good address to remember: it won’t be a life changing experience, but if you are looking for an affordable example of pleasingly hearty German food in a Berliner ambiance, go there. Do remember that chic is not necessarily included in the “Berliner ambiance”. But then again, who needs chic with good beer, good carbs and good company?

Overall mark: 

Spätzle & Knödel: Schwäbisch-Bayerische Küche
Wühlischstraße 20, 10245 Berlin

View Larger Map

March 23, 2011

Putting Turkey on Berlin's Map

Gözleme - Neukölln

Imagine the following conversation taking place in German:
Me: „Let’s go for food.“
Some blond person: „Sure, any suggestions?”
Me: “There’s this nifty Turkish place down the road…”
That blond person: “I thought you meant real food? I’m not in he mood of having Döner right now.”
Me again: “Urgh… I didn’t mean that either. I was talking about going to a restaurant.”
A bewildered blond person: “Yeah, but a Döner on a plate is still just a Döner, right? I think I’ll pass. I need real food.”
An irritated me: “But… like… a restaurant? With real food? Cooked and all? What’s not real about that?”
An irritated blond person: “Listen, let’s just do something else, I told you I didn’t feel like going for a kebab.”

That dialogue of the deaf can go on pretty much the same way for a couple more minutes before I end the discussion with a sigh and lead the way to the warm embrace of the closest Schnitzel. Not that Schnitzel is bad. I love Schnitzel. But I’ve always found Teutonic disinterest regarding Turkish food to be quite baffling.

As true as it may be that food can be overrated as a sign of entrenchment of genuine multicultural understanding in any society, it’s still bleeding important on an everyday level. In some ways, it’s always the first contact between people, an excuse to start talking to each other and a symptom of people’s readiness to test their own limits and boundaries. Which is why I find it so strange that the Turkish cuisine – although so present in Germany – has not yet been embraced by most Germans to be included into the local food culture, as is the case in France with couscous and in Britain with curry.

The thing about the Turkish cuisine is that it is strikingly rich, encompassing a whole myriad of dishes, shapes and tastes. Yet ask any of the inhabitants of the largest Turkish city outside of Turkey whether they know any Turkish food and most will not get anywhere past Döner. And let’s face it, Döner isn’t even that Turkish, being a local creation invented around Kottbusser Tor. And still, Berlin offers a range of many good Turkish places. The trick is to find them.

Gözleme in Neukölln was initially a friend’s tip. One of the few traces left by an unspectacularly boring relationship with a Turkish ex was a love of Turkish pastries and dough-based dishes. Two of them are Gözleme – the Turkish version of a crêpe – and Manti – the Turkish dumplings. She said we could find both on Karl Marx Straße.

At first glance, the place is barely distinguishable from any Döner joint in town, just a bit larger. This impression is heavily influenced by the fact that the décor is a marriage made in hell between radioactively yellow walls, in-your-face lights and a touch of pink whenever possible. But there is a real menu, the spinning kebab is nowhere to be found and the owner of the place is incredibly nice and welcoming.

The menu is not overwhelmingly large. It offers a fairly limited choice of soups, a never-ending list of gözleme, two different manti and a couple of meat dishes from the grill. We decided to concentrate on the doughy options and started by ordering a lentil soup (2.80 €) and an aubergine gözleme (that Turkish crêpe for 2.50 €) to start the meal. One has to remember that the lentils in Turkish lentil soups are pureed, giving the soup a very smooth texture. Unfortunately, this one came out fairly bland at the end. It was still alright, but just not inspiring. The gözleme was far better: The dough was thin and the garlicky aubergine filling was superb. It was also large enough to serve as a main.

Lentil soup
 We then continued to our main courses and ordered manti for each, but one dish was vegetarian (with potatoes, 5.50 €) and the other had a meat filling (for 6.50 €). Manti are basically dumplings the size of a dice. Their size is probably one of the biggest challenges when it comes to their preparation, as it is very easy to either stuff them with too little filling and just taste dough or to stuff them with too much and to miss the point. They are served swimming in a yoghurt-garlic sauce. The meat manti were just perfect. The dough was good and the filling had a strong presence despite its miniscule size. The yoghurt-garlic-pepper sauce was so good I did not mind leaving the place smelling like a vampire slayer. The vegetarian manti were, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment. The sauce was just as good, but the dumplings were fairly watery and the filling did not taste of much. It was still alright, but it felt like eating slices of dough swimming in yoghurt-garlic sauce, which is not as spectacularly good as eating delicious manti.


 I’m being fair here and rewarding gözleme with three prints because the bland soup and the watery vegetarian manti were far from perfect, but it doesn’t mean the place isn’t good. It is quite marvellous if you know what to order and feel like having a simple, hearty and inexpensive meal. Otherwise, in case you live and Berlin and have never tasted gözleme or manti, just go there without thinking twice (and when I say gözleme, I do NOT mean those greasy atrocities they sell at the Maybachufer market).

Overall mark:


Gözleme - Türkisches Restaurant
Karl-Marx-Str. 35, 12043 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 613 4134

View Larger Map

March 15, 2011

Eating Trolls

Munch's Hus - Schöneberg

Don’t you just miss these days when everything was clear-cut and easy? When the world had a clear set of rules and you knew what was right and what was wrong? Girls wore pink; boys wore blue and all that jazz? That certainty is bound to cave in at some point, whether we like it or not. The interesting part is what triggers the moral meltdown.

I remember my serene world of infantile certainty collapsed because of trolls. Trolls, you ask? Well, yes, trolls. As a child I understood trolls. I did not much like them (I was a mainstream kinda boy, rooting for the good guys and disliking ugly, hairy creatures with warts the size of a tuna sandwich, whether they were real trolls or just that dodgy guy who used to haunt Digbeth Coach Station), but I got their essence. They were big, revolting and scary. And most of all – they had a purpose in life, which was just that, to be perfectly hideous and then be slain by the good guy. And then came the 90’s with their strange deviations. Do you remember those little plastic trolls with the neon-coloured hair that suddenly invaded every school class on the face of the planet? They were all about being sweet in a revolting kind of way, with nostrils the size of half their faces. If they were real trolls, these nostrils would be hairy, but alas, those colourful look-alikes had nothing natural about them, and hairy nostrils were definitely not cute. Suddenly every child in the country was obsessed with those little dolls, and I could not get to the bottom of it. Why on earth?

Nearly twenty years later, I had a troll flashback on a flight between Paris and Oslo, as I had the pleasure to sit next to a French Erasmus student who happened to be going back to Oslo after spending Easter at her parents’ in the Bauce. She was happily ranting about the woes of a Frenchwoman forced to spend a year in the Norwegian wilderness: no baguette, no cheese, and the rest of the food is so bleakly horrid. “It tastes like eating trolls, you know?” She pouted her lips before she continued, “but Norwegian trolls, not real ones.”
“Real ones?” I asked, “Aren’t the Norwegian ones real enough?”
“Oh no, real trolls are so cute! You can play with their hair for hours!”
How could I forget? The Erasmus students of today were born in the 90’s. For them trolls are no Norse mythological beings, but rather toys made in China. And yet the girl had a point: Food in Norway often felt like biting one’s way through a troll. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good on paper, but it usually ended up being served without the slightest hint of seasoning for the price of three meals in any other country. With all of my awe and admiration for the country’s stunning natural landscapes, the best thing about eating there was usually nibbling on the sandwiches I had prepared in Sweden before crossing the border. I was therefore intrigued when I heard there was a Norwegian restaurant in Schöneberg which was supposedly wonderful.

Munch’s Hus is located directly on the Bülowbogen, an area which might as well be recognised for what it is: A sterling example of West-Berliner utter desolation. As we entered the restaurant, the 90’s hit us again, and not from its brilliant Ace-of-Base angle. Even though it was aiming for upscale, the overall deco was far from being a success. With radioactively yellow walls, bright lights and reproductions of Munch densely covering the walls, I had to sigh disapprovingly before taking a long look at the menu, which was endearingly didactic with random pieces of information about Norway and Norwegian food. Slowly, I felt the Scandi-phile in me gaining the upper hand. The yummy Norwegian food I never got in Norway seemed to be accessible in Berlin for about a third of the price I’d have to pay in the land of fjords and trolls.

We started with a Nordmeersuppe (North Sea soup: a creamy soup with prawns and lumpfish caviar for 3.90 €) and a Rondane-Teller (we’ll call it the Norwegian antipasti mix: a mixture of elk and reindeer sausages, Norwegian cheese and a scrambled egg for 5.90 €). The soup was surprisingly perfect. I am not the biggest fan of cream soups, as I think they have the tendency to end up being just stodgy, but this one was good. It was delicate, had the perfect texture and most important: the cream did not cover up the taste of the other ingredients. The Rondane plate was also quite a success. It was a mixture of the best Norwegian products one can find, with meat and cheese stuff that incorporate a wide array of different tastes.

 We then continued with the Elchbraten (elk roast with potatoes, lingonberries and chestnuts, 16.90 €) and the Kveite (halibut filet in blueberry sauce with leeks and potatoes in saffron, 13.50 €). The roast represented one of Norway’s eternal culinary woes: it sounds a lot more exotic than it really is. The sauce was delicious, but elk never really tastes that good. We’re talking about very muscular animals here, and their meat in accordingly stringy. It was good, but not fantastic. On the one hand, it was to be expected, but on the other, it would mean other elements of the dish would just have to make up for it, which the potatoes and the relatively boring chestnuts did not do. The halibut, however, was a different story altogether. The fish was tender – not to raw and not too dry, while the blueberry sauce was very exciting indeed. I guess not anyone would fall for this dish because of the sweet and sour touch of the blueberries, but if you are into experimenting, it will be worth your thirteen Euros.

We then both decided to take the same dessert: crème caramel with cloudberries (for 5.10 €). Now, crème caramel is a fairly boring choice, I know. And the pricing might also seem a bit odd. At least until you take a closer look at the second ingredient: cloudberries, my friends, are probably the last remains of heaven of our little planet. They are one of Scandinavia’s true treasures: they look like golden raspberries and taste like…well… heaven. In Scandinavia, they are usually found in diluted form (jams, ice cream, etc.), partly because the fruit itself is so expensive and partly because it has such a strong taste. My pure enthusiasm upon finding a dish with real cloudberries was unimaginable. Alright, you can’t get any fresh cloudberries in March. And even if you could, you would pay more than 5.10 € for them. But I even enjoyed their de-frosted version (oh yes, and the crème caramel was good. Unspectacularly so, but it was perfect for what it was).

The marking business with Munch’s Hus is fairly tricky: the service was excellent, the pricing was very good and the food was good – from fantastic to just nice. The problem with the “just nice” was the fact that it was their house speciality (the elk roast). And then you’ll have to add these horrible yellow walls and yellow lightning (which ruined the photos this time around. My apologies indeed). Alas, Munch’s Hus will be awarded with only four prints, knowing it has what it takes to make it to five. Go there. It’s good.

Overall mark:
Munch's Hus
Bülowstraße 66, 10783 Berlin

View Larger Map

March 04, 2011

Curry Cravings No. 1: The Sri-Lankan Option

Chandra Kumari - Kreuzberg

A couple of months ago I was reprimanded for being negative. It was a dark mid-winter Berlin afternoon, so who wouldn’t be? Yet it was not the first American (actually, the girl in question was Canadian, but please bear with my blunt generalisations for the sake of the argument) telling me off for exuding an aura of negativity. Not that I care much, but now that spring is coming and I even got to see the bottom of a crocus this morning, I decided it was about time to try a more cheerful, positive approach to life and other people around me, and there is no better place to start than right here.

At any event, gushing glee was my initial plan. And then I remembered I was going to write about curry in Berlin and realised it was not going to happen. Now you see, I am curry’s biggest fan. Nothing makes my day like a good curry, and in fact, I like it so much that I can even settle for a mediocre one. It’s just that curry in Berlin usually manages the task of falling short of mediocrity, being simply atrocious.

Let me guess, you’re sitting in front of your iBook, frowning and calling me a food snob? You may have a point there, but it still doesn’t make the local curry any better. In my first year in Berlin I sampled 61 Indian places and did not find a single one that served edible curry. The sauces were usually very heavy instead of light and nearly always sweet where they were supposed to be spicy. More than once I even ordered a naan just to receive something that looked like Camilla Parker Bowles’s grin strewn with Gouda. Have I mentioned the Vindaloos on the base of cream? Or the sweet Madras? I could go on for hours on end with examples of more and more crimes against the virtues of Indian cuisine. The bottom line remains the fact that Indian food is Berlin’s biggest black hole.

You can therefore imagine my reaction when a friend of mine told me she had just had the perfect organic Sri Lankan curry at Chandra Kumari on Gneisenaustraße. I did not believe her, but decided to try it out. A few weeks later I went there with a friend, who was as sceptical as I was. It was the middle of the week, but we found the small space full, with a single small table awaiting empty at the corner. Surprisingly enough, we were not greeted with an overdose of gold and glitter. The number of Buddhas was kept to a minimum and the wooden furniture was aesthetically pleasing, even though not entirely comfortable.

Hoppers and Curry
Rice Platter

We started by sharing a dish of four “hoppers” accompanied by a beef curry, described as the Sri-Lankan speciality (for the price of 6.90 €). We did not know what hoppers were, but discovered they were a bready dish that looked like Jewish skullcaps (or German müsli bowls, whatever you find more appetising). They are thin and crispy on the sides and thick and soft in the middle. Their overall taste was fairly unspectacular, but we both enjoyed the novelty and the texture. As they are supposed to be eaten together with curry, we turned to the brown mass that was served with it for inspiration. At first it looked interesting. The sauce was brown and did not look like the yellow mud one usually meets in Berlin. Its taste was nice, but far from convincing. It was still better than any other curry I had eaten in Berlin before, but it remained fairly bland nonetheless. One positive thing to be said is the fact it was a lot more refined the usual Berliner curry.

As we turned to explore the menu for main courses, we realised most of it was fairly generic, with “curry”, “madras” and “biryani” in most categories. At the end we ordered something called Reistafel (rice platter – four small curry dishes with basmati rice in the middle): one was the “chicken platter” (it contained a chicken curry dish, a dahl – lentil curry, aubergine curry and a sambal salad with rice and pappadums for 12.10 €) and the other one was the “lamb platter” (containing one lamb curry, bean curry, cabbage curry, sambal salad, rice and pappadums for 12.90 €). The curries were fairly different from one another. The chicken curry was absolutely bland and fairly tasteless. It had a bit of the beef curry’s taste and lacked a spicy tone along the same lines. The lamb curry, however, was quite good and had a nice twist of ginger. Both sambal salads were tasteless with a strange texture and the aubergine curry was strangely stodgy. The dahl and the bean curry were nice, but again – bland, whereas the truly positive surprise was the cabbage curry, which was rich without being too heavy and had a taste which was both spicy and refined.

At the end of the day nothing was truly abhorrent as curry in Berlin tends to be like. There were no disgustingly sweet or embarrassingly stodgy experiences. The worst thing to be said about some of the dishes would be that they were fairly bland and thus uninspiring, but the overall quality was still a lot higher and each dish a lot more refined than what I had to get accustomed to around here.

Overall mark: 

Chandra Kumari - Originalküche aus Sri Lanka & Südindische Spezialitäten
Gneisenaustraße 4, 10961 Berlin

View Larger Map