May 24, 2011

A Spring Diatribe

 Jäger und Sammler - Schöneberg

Veronika, der Lenz ist da“ is probably the most accurate representation of Berlin’s quirkier side to this date. It became a hit in 1930 when the Comedian Harmonists, the first ever German boy-band (who had to flee the country for the bonus of being Jewish) started performing it: A spring serenade to a certain Viktoria about phallic asparagus growing in pre-war Berlin. Oh, springtime!

To be fair, the world that produced the Comedian Harmonists is long gone. Viktoria is probably dead, as are most of Berlin’s Jews together its pre-war flair. What’s left is that pure joy and excitement that never fail to arrive alongside the first day of spring, when everyone suddenly becomes nice, accommodating and flirtatious. The sour faced cashier at the supermarket who had grunted resentfully at the very sight of a customer just a day earlier suddenly winks suggestively as she licks her upper, voluptuous lip and asks the first male customer she spots whether he’d already seen their fresh Spargel. Spargel? Really? Now, that’s another example for the Comedian Harmonists’ legacy.

Spargel, or white asparagus, is the local spring obsession. During the asparagus season, every place in town - including Chinese, Indian and Mexican restaurants - will offer a bland asparagus menu for double its weight in gold. Inquisitive TV shows will screen special reports about this year’s Spargel-consumption and greedy farmers will erect half legal stands selling organic Spargel to those who can afford it. If it weren’t for the fact I found white asparagus completely useless, I would find it all quite amusing.

I grew up knowing that green asparagus was a delicacy, whereas white asparagus was used to feed the hogs. And I fully agree. White asparagus’s phallic form might be appealing to some, but it still has the consistency of sperm, being rubbery, stringy and mushy all at the same time. Before this diatribe takes me to places we all should avoid, I really should say I don’t mind white asparagus. I just do not see the point of serving it absolutely EVERYWHERE. What I find even more baffling is the fact people here actually eat Spargel as a main course with only potatoes as a side. To each his own, but I find that particular combination a tad too much.

And thus I was looking for a spring feeling without too much Spargel and decided to go and try out Jäger and Sammler (Hunters and Gatherers) in Schöneberg. It was one of the first sitting-outside-evenings of the year, and we decided to make the most out of it despite the fact that the interior was remarkably attractive. We soon discovered the place had a very limited seasonal menu, which suited us just fine. The only problem was that the only starter was a (Spargel) soup on a warm day, so we decided to just share the “spring risotto” to kick start the evening (risotto with beans, asparagus and spring onions, 10 €). And what can I say? The dish was perfect. Risotto is a tricky one. Especially in Berlin it can be either extremely bad or perfectly endearing with very few middle-ground compromises. This one managed to get everything just right with a perfect texture and a pleasingly light taste.

We continued to the main dishes, which were the Finkenwerder Mai-Scholle (a dish of fried flounder with bacon and a side of potatoes, 14 €) and Rinderschmorbraten (beef roast in a vinegar-cream sauce with a side of mash, 14 €). Both main courses were quite alright, but not inspirational. The fish was impressively large, nicely fried with greasy bacon, which made it quite pleasing in a piggy sort of a way. However, it was too greasy to be refined and the bacon tended to outshine the fish, which was, unfortunately, not the main idea when we had ordered a fish. The meat was good. It was tender, high quality and the sauce was also nice. If it had been a bit cheaper, the first course a bit less impressive and the restaurant a bit less fancy, I would have approved whole-heartedly. But it was not cheaper, the first course had set the bar fairly high and beautifully decorated restaurants raise expectations as well. Tough luck.

Panna cotta

Even though these main courses were more than filling, I am glad I was smart enough (not to mention obliged by the blog) to order a dessert. The only sweet treat on the menu was a panna-cotta (served with strawberry sauce for 5 €), which turned out to be a dream come true. For some unknown reason, panna cottas tend to be fairly unimpressive. People who don’t know how to cook think vanilla creams are always an easy option and usually get it wrong (or bland, which is even worse). But Jäger and Sammler was one big exception to the local rule. It managed to get everything right: the cream, the texture, the strawberry sauce and the visual presentation. It was a fantastic way to end a meal.

At the end of the day, Jäger und Sammler is a good address. It is a sterling example of how some restaurants manage to raise expectations before getting to the main course, just to create disappointments with food that is fairly good, but just not enough to rise to the challenge of perfect ambiance, ambitious menu and wonderful starters and desserts. And yet, don’t let it scare you off. It is a perfect four-printer.

Overall mark: 

Jäger und Sammler
Grunewaldstraße 81, 10823 Berlin

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May 09, 2011

Discovering Mitte

Chén Ché - Mitte

Could you believe I once lived in Mitte? It was over six years ago. Just around the corner from Rosenthaler Platz. Quite a few of the buildings over there had not been renovated yet and I enjoyed the romantic decrepit atmosphere. The flat was adorned with a couple of canon walls from the war, one of which forming a large crater between my room and the bathroom. Yes, it was a dump, but an exciting one of that.

Things happened in Mitte at the time. And by “things” I don’t mean a group of drunken Brits riding on a pedal powered beer bike screaming “blobby-blobby-blobby” or a bunch of Spaniards nonchalantly vomiting with a grin in front of their hostel while mumbling “Berlin, so alternative!” At the time it felt like real people lived in Mitte. Today, I am aware of the fact that some of them still exist, but I don’t know any of them anymore.

Do not get me wrong, I am not lamenting what’s happened over the years to Mitte. I whinge because that is what I do, but the tourist locust infesting Berlin’s geographic centre is not entirely negative. One big difference from the Mitte of yore is that fact things have become more international, worldlier. Six years ago - at a time when everything was still authentic – Berlin also felt more provincial. So it was time to go back to Mitte. To try and follow the zeitgeist and feel cool.

The Vietnamese tea house ChénChè (one of three partnered restaurants in Mitte) felt like the perfect choice for a zeitgeisty venue with its impressive homepage. Otherwise, its choice of location inside an inner courtyard on Rosenthaler Straße could not have proved to be any better. An inner courtyard is both intimate and secretive. Makes you think you’re special. The decor also deserves acclaim. It succeeds in combining the generically horrid Vietnamese/Japanese grand scale restaurant pomp with a touch of good taste and pleasing design. The lightning could use a bit of dimming on the edges, but otherwise it was surprisingly nice. My only disappointment was that the weather did not allow us to sit in the garden, which looked quite charming.

The menu is not overwhelmingly large, which was quite an advantage. Another thing I found quite sweet was the fact that most dishes were presented as vegetarian by default, yet possibly served with meat. From the list of eight possible starters we ordered three: Xôi Gà (sticky coconut rice, shallots, lotus root and chicken breast for 6.20 €), Hoành Thành (baked won-tons which we ordered with spicy tofu filling, 5.80 €) and Cha Giò (baked Vietnamese spring rolls with coriander dressing, ordered with pork filling, 5.80 €). The spring rolls were the only thing that was just alright. Their taste was nice, yet uninspiring and the coriander dip was too lemony to taste of anything else. Yet the other starters were just splendid. The won-tons were strangely crispy with filling that tasted of joy and the Xôi Gà was just perfect. Each of its ingredients had kept a distinct taste that created quite a splendid mix when randomly scooped out together.

Bùn Riêu

We then continued to the main courses. There are three main courses in the usual menu and three other changing dishes. We went for the Bùn Riêu (vegetable soup with tofu dumplings and rice noodles, 9.40€) and the Reistafel menu (a changing selection of dishes for 8.40 €). The soup was quite good. It was mildly spicy and was nice to eat, but it had a heaviness that felt nearly Central European. The Reistafel came with a number of various elements. It had a small bowl of Phó (Vietnamese chicken broth), which was hearty and good, but again, was so stodgy it reminded me of my grandmother’s Polish cooking. A chicken leg fried in pleasing sweet sauce greeted me from the bamboo hamper, and another dish of chicken in mild and tasty red curry was served in a plate on the other side. And then the obligatory rice and various vegetables. It was all fairly good. Nothing was too inspiring, but it was definitely pleasing. We ended the meal with a surprisingly and quirkily tasty Ché Choi Nuoc (rice balls filled with peanuts and chocolate swimming in coconut-mango sauce, 5.60 €). I usually don’t enjoy Vietnamese desserts too much, but this one was worth every Cent.

What can I say? The place was worth the trip to Mitte. Not only was it good, but it also provided us with some of the added values of going to the “centre”: It was the posh version of the sort of Vietnamese places you’d find in Kreuzberg. It was slightly pricier, but the difference was justified by a nice ambiance and good quality (which was exceptional in the cases of the starters and the dessert).

Overall mark:

Chen Che - Teehaus
Rosenthaler Straße 13, 10119 Berlin

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