April 16, 2011

The Last Supper

L’Assaggino - Kreuzberg

My visit to Milan a couple of weeks ago was culinarily pleasing, but left me at a touristy loss. After the obligatory five minutes at the Duomo followed by a stroll through the Vittorio-Emmanuelle Gallery and a futile attempt to get into La Scala for less than 200€, I realised there were very few attractions left to be seen. Not that it bothered me too much, there was enough to keep me busy: from sampling pleasant cafés and restaurants through discovering lively areas to spotting fashion victims on the street, it was all there.

The one thing I managed to miss was the Last Supper. Exactly, Leo’s Last Supper, for a glimpse of which you have to register about three months in advance, or so it appears. As that weekend was supposed to be spontaneous, planning ahead was not a part of the shopping list. We followed a stream of busses loaded with Japanese tourists to the Corso Magenta to try the “We’ve come such a long way, you wouldn’t happen to be able to let us in? There must be a couple of cancellations” approach. Unfortunately, those Italians were already one step ahead of us, with a “TODAY NO CANCELLATIONS” sign looming just across the entrance. And sod off to you too, thank you very much. I left Santa Maria delle Grazie baffled: since when is not cutting corners an option in Italy?

With the bitter recollection of failure still etched into my membranes, I could not help drawing the parallels when I came to plan my very own Last Supper. It was a day before a tonsillectomy, which I knew would mean no real food for the foreseeable future, so it needed to be good. On the other hand, as I could not be bothered travelling far out of my comfort zone, it needed to be close. As I was already into digging up old Milan analogies for this supper, I thought L’assaggino just across the street would be a good way to get some Italian closure before entering a period of painful culinary deprivation.

L’assagino on Gneisenaustraße is one of these fairly new pastel venues on the Südstern end that were all opened around the same time. As pastel should be left in Prenzlauer Berg where it belongs, I have never experienced the urge to try out any of them. In addition, L’assaggino looked like one of these places that are not able to decide whether they were a shop or a restaurant: It had this strange balance between shelves and tables, which I just did not find to be too convincing from the outside (combined with the fact it always seems to be empty). The epiphany came when I read its opening hours and realised that a place that started doing business at 5 PM was rarely there to get you to buy produce that you’d still need to cook later.

As we had taken our seat and began scrutinising at the menu, I slowly started thinking this place might just be the perfect Italian: it was small, cosily inviting and exuded the family business vibe you expect small Italian restaurants to have. L’assaggino’s menu changes daily. It is fairly limited, with pricey antipasti, medium-priced primi and two desserts (yes, I know I was supposed to write “dolci” in there). As I was getting ready for surgery, I had to pass on the wine despite the wine menu’s promising contents. We started by sharing the Antipasto “fantasia” (for two, 15.50 €), which came promptly. It was fine, really. The dish was composed of a nice variety of sausages, cheese and the usual fried vegetables, all very fresh and nicely done. The portion was not huge, but the quality was good. I found that pricing it on 15.50 € was stretching it a bit, but that is just my notion. It was good, just not exhilaratingly so. The only thing about it which really was fantastic was the bread that came along with it.


We continued with the two most expensive dishes on the menu, the tagliatelle neri “satore di mare” (black tagliatelle with mussels, shrimps and calamari, 12.50 €) and polenta gnocchi with beef ragout (polenta gnocchi being fairly large and dumpling-like beings, 12.50 € as well). My first reaction to seeing the dishes was a sneer of disappointment, as again, the portions were not very large. Living in Berlin you forget people elsewhere appreciate smaller, yet refined dishes. That notion faded into this air once I had taken my first bite. Both were nothing less than fantastic. The tagliatelle were the perfect pasta dish: the pasta (clearly homemade) was savoury, the spicy touch of the sauce was inspiring and the seafood was done just right. It was overwhelmingly tasty. The gnocchi were not any less impressive. Their form reminded me more of some strange cross breed between Italian gnocchi and Germn Klöße and they tasted accordingly: they were large and doughy and still astonishingly pleasing. The sauce was just perfect. It reminded me of a bourguignon rather than of a pasta sauce, but it was brilliant nonetheless, so who am I to pass judgement.

Crème brulée

Even though we hadn’t planned on doing so, we ended up ordering both desserts on the menu: white chocolate mousse with red berry sauce (for the mere price of 5.00 €) and a crème brulée (served with caramelised figs for 4.50 €). What can I say? Pure joy served on a plate. The crème brulée had a citrusy taste to it, a perfect texture and the best caramelised figs one could ask for. The mousse was great as well, it had the perfect balance between lightness (texture + not too sweet) and taste. The sauce was… well… you can’t get berries wrong.

Not much to add as far as the bottom line goes. L’assaggino is quite a gem. It is not necessarily the place to go to with friends in order to bond over pint-induced burps and with the size of the portions, I needed a whole menu to leave feeling satiated, but don’t miss it if you are planning on spending a quiet evening with marvellous food and good company.

Overall Mark:


L'assaggino - Italienische Küche, Enoteca & Café
Gneisenaustraße 61, 10961 Berlin

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April 06, 2011

Jesus Loves Kimchi

Ixthys - Schöneberg

Let’s talk about the concept of a hole-in-the-wall: shops of miniscule proportions that often combine a run-down urban charm with industrously independent character. To put it more bluntly: they are family run dumps. Some people love them; others would never set foot past their mangy thresholds.

My father is a sterling example of a holes-in-the-wall-enthusiast. You can’t really blame him for it either. There is something authentically appealling about these urban grottos. Eating in a hole-in-the-wall, you realise you are in it for the food. Most people will not be there for the superb ambience generated by the fat stains, the old cutlery or the lack of space (my father might, but I hope you will allow me to politely sneer at the idea). With a hole-in-the-wall, you get the feeling you know where the food comes from – if only because you can see the kitchen behind the counter with your own eyes. And then, you know who does the cooking, sometimes you can even talk to them. It is small enough to see past the “business” character and be admitted into a family. Take a closer look and you’ll see it is a bit like paying a random grandmother to cook for you, and just like with your own grandmother, you’ll get the food directly from that battered aluminium pan into an old plate adorned by a decade-old scratch on the side.

Holes-in-the-wall can be either extremely good or extremely bad, and it is impossible to know which one it will be in advance. And then, the really good ones have a psychologial added value. Having a truly delicious meal in a grotto equals a major discovery. It makes you feel like a 2011 urban version of Christopher Columbus, sailing in the dagerous waters of a big city (because let’s face it: holes-in-the-wall are an inherently urban phenomenon), trying to immerse yourself in the local structure and culture, unlike all those lard assed tourists who just go to Starbucks’ because they know what they’ll get over there.

Berlin has less holes-in-the-wall than cities like New York or London because – let’s face it – there is no need for any. The spaces here are usually large and often affordable. Squeezing a restaurant into a lightless cell of 100 square feet is entirely unnecessary. Which was why I had to raise an eyebrow when I had walked into Ixthys, a Korean place in Schöneberg. Alright, I did not only raise an eyebrow, I was overwhelmed and did not know whether to laugh, cry or run for my life. The place was not only a classical hole-in-the-wall, but it was a missionary one at that. Ixthys is not a word in Korean, but rather the Greek name for “fish” and an early Christian symbol. The walls are completely covered with old and dirty canvases crammed with handwritten psalms and biblical texts. The small space is not unpleasant, but for a non-believer such as myself, it was nothing less than frightening (with a pinch of exotism).

The menu did not provide much relief either. The textual treasures hidden under the layers of grease referred more often to Jesus than to food. The last page was a highlight of sorts, as it started out explaining kimchi’s merits, describing to what extent the Korean cabbage dish can improve one’s health, just to recap and decide that end the end of the day, the “richest ingredient in life” was really just the love of the Lord. Yeah, right. The added value of the Christian faith was soon forgotten, as we finally found the food references. It did not take long to realise that the choice of dishes was astonishingly promising despite its being very limited. The menu was comprised of about five vegetarian and five meat dishes, and they all sounded good.

The walls...
We then ordered the Za-Chang-Myun (a noodle dish with bean sauce, pork and various vegetables, 7.50 €), the Doesi Bul-Go-Gi (pork and onions in a spicy sauce, 7.00 €) and the Bibim-Bab (a “mix it yourself” dish with beef, rice, vegetables and a fried egg, all the joy in the world for 7.50 €). The dishes came with a side of kimchi, which was very convincing (yet not as good as the one at Madang). It would probably be best to start describing the Bul-Go-Gi, which was tasty, but not too inspiring. The meat was nice, the sauce was extremely pleasing, but nothing more, really. The noodle dish was definitely a couple of notches superior. Not only was the noodle-quality superb, but the sauce was just brilliant. It was refined and exciting at the same time, with random slices of meat and vegetables to chew on (which were fine, but still secondary to that fantastic bean sauce).

Delicious bibimbab

And then came the bibimbab. Alright, I might be biased. I believe bibimbab is one of the things Adam and Eve managed to smuggle out of the Garden of Eden and then went on to hide somewhere in Korea so that God wouldn’t find it and punish them. I think Bibimbab is pure joy and good bibimbab is a virtue. And this one was definitely good. Everything in it was just right: the meat, the vegetables, the quantity and the spicy sauce (which was served in a large, filthy jar, which was so much more pleasing than the embarrassingly small quantity seen elsewhere around here).

Needless to say, we did not stay too long. I did not mind the Christian theme as much as I was bothered by the uncomfortable chairs and the lack of basic facilities (yes, I mean the loo. For a place that offers tea on its menu, not having any toilets can be equated with crime). After a while we just had to go. And yet, I can only recommend Ixthys warmly. As far as holes-in-the-wall go, this one was just perfect, with the best possible value: good quality food for affordable prices.

Overall mark: 

Pallasstraße 21, 10781 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 814 747 69

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