June 24, 2011

Kreuzberg's Generalissimo

La Tierra Colombiana - Kreuzberg

Germany is a do-it-yourself sorta place. If you can get something done on your own with half the costs (yet maybe double the pain), why would you ever take it to a specialist? And so, every time I hand in my bike to the bike shop with a flat tire, I find myself apologising for not being able to repair it myself. In restaurants, I’ve often found myself fending off criticism along the line of “sowas hätte ich selber kochen können” – I could have cooked that myself.

To be fair, being able to cook as well as what you get at any restaurant is NOT the point. With all due humility, I am able conjure up just about anything as well – if not better – than a fair share of the places around. But going to a restaurant is not about what I could do, but rather about what someone else does for me. It is about not needing to shop for groceries, stand in the kitchen for hours, get your finger chopped off (strangely enough not something that happens to me too often), clean up and do the dishes. Someone else is supposed to do all this for me, treat me nicely and serve me brilliant food in good ambiance. Restaurants are to food like what bike shops are to bikes. If you want to slave around your bike and repair it yourself, be my guest, but isn’t it a lot nicer to pay a bit more and get someone else to get their hands dirty for you?

I don’t necessarily mind the “saving costs” concept. It has allowed me to learn how to do things myself. And yet, I often find it being one of the many root causes of the problem called Service in Berlin (or lack thereof). Because you see, if everything is so do-it-yourself friendly, then why on earth pay that extra buck for something called “service”? This way, the only thing that counts is the product, whereas friendliness and helpfulness find their way into the rubbish bin of history.

So far so good. We have all ranted about the abysmal quality of service found in Berlin and we have all braced ourselves countless numbers of times and accepted grudgingly the fact that we would never be able to change any of it. I, for once, know I have accepted the rules. I’ve stopped ranting about bad service. I just frown at horrible waitresses and cringe quietly in my seat.

And yet, what I experienced last week was far beyond the usual drab service Berliners have grown accustomed to. To be fair, and this may appear naïve to experts, I actually expected friendly and hearty service at La Terra Colombiana on Mittenwalder Straße, just between Gneisenaustraße and Mehringdamm. The place is a cross breed between a shop for South Americans who miss their dulce de leche and a small restaurant for all the rest of us. Like a fair number of venues around that area, it is situated in a basement level shop, which would be perfect for winter, but probably not the best choice for a sunny evening.

As we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by the landlady’s brisk “hola”. It did not take us long to see she reigned over her kingdom with an iron fist and after a few minutes we decided there were many similarities between her demeanour and what we had all heard of South American generals. Generalissimo did not smile, did not answer questions (“could you please tell me what bandeja paisa means?” “It is all written on the menu!”) and generally speaking – had an impatiently militaristic attitude towards the entire concept of service. It seemed to be the same case in Spanish with a group sitting at the next table. Justice be done, though, she was very professional – just not all too pleasant.

After the first service shock, we turned to scrutinise the menu, which was as promising as it was “exotic”. Even though most of the dishes were fairly simple, I soon realised Columbian cuisine was one of the few I had known absolutely nothing about. It seemed to be heavily based on meat (and heavily fried pork-belly), beans and a root called maniok. My only problem was that I had very little to compare it to.

Sancocho paisa
We started with the picada mixta (mixed starters’ platter for 12.50 €). The presentation was visually appealing and the quality was not too bad either. It contained empanadas (with and without meat) which were alright, the ubiquitous fried pork-belly, which was fine for what it was, maniok with its dip, which was interesting (maniok tastes of a mash-up between a potato and a root with more fibres than flesh) and a chorizo, which was frankly quite divine. I have rarely enjoyed eating sausage that much. The platter was a promising start.

We then continued with a sancocho paisa (a potato-based soup with chicken, plantain and maniok, 8 €) and a bandeja latina (a mixed meat platter with chunks of meat of pork, chicken and beef, pork belly and chorizo accompanied by more maniok with dip, 14.90 €). The soup was simple, but hearty and rich. The ingredients worked well together and the seasoning was thoroughly pleasing (with an overriding taste of coriander). The meat platter was a bit more disappointing. Even though we tried to ask the generalissimo whether it would be a good choice, she did not provide any information, which in its turn happened to lead to ordering a main course not all too different to the starter. The chorizo was still divine, the pork belly was still amusing, the maniok still interesting. The chunks of meat were alright, but far from exciting. For the price of just about 15 €, the quality could have been a tad more convincing.

Bandeja latina
Fig, cheese, arequipe
The dessert section was pretty manoeuvrable, as all possible desserts were based on varying combinations between three elements: fig conserve, cheese and arequipe (a sort of dulce de leche). We decided to take all three for the price of 3.90 €. The fig was sweet, the cheese was utterly tasteless and the arequipe was yummy. The mixture was fairly nice, but not very inspiring, considering all three elements had just made their way from a box directly onto the plate. I guess a Columbian ex-pat would see it differently, but as the dessert did not trigger any warm memories of places on the other side of the Atlantic, it was all less than convincing.

The bottom line: La Tierra Colombiana is a tough case for an assessment. The overall quality was not bad and the food presentation was definitely pleasing. Not being very familiar with Columbian food, it had that added value of discovering something fairly new to me. And yet, the service was problematic to say the least and the prices too high for the quality (especially the meat). It is one of these places one should check out at least once, but not necessarily return to.

Overall mark:

La Tierra Colombiana
Mittenwalder Straße 27, 10961 Berlin

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June 10, 2011

Turkish Delight

Mercan - Kreuzberg

Parents are strange creatures. And stranger still is how often we can anticipate each and every one of their reactions. And yet, the strangest of all is how we – after dozens of years around them – still let these reactions get to us. My father is easiest to anticipate in restaurants. He has very clear tastes and preferences. They start and end with the word “simplicity”.

Everything that is not “simple”- which might mean dimmed lights, a structured menu and superfluously agreeable design - is quickly branded with the annihilating Hebrew umbrella term “faltzany”, which literally translates to the adjective form of “farting through one’s teeth”. For the sake of transgenerational fairness, I should state that this is a fairly modern word (unlike the rest of my father’s Hebrew vocabulary, which usually remains a relic from the jolly 1970’s, when Israelis still wore khaki trousers and wrote songs about peace). The only thing is that my dad uses it generically to slag off whatever he might dislike or consider as too middle class.

My own interaction with my father is usually based on feeble attempts to hide the fact I have become an espresso-drinking-blog-writing-twat who likes working in cafés – unmistakeably middle class to the bone. Making it work requires the right background, which is to take him to places he’d like: family owned cheap restaurants with good and hearty food. Plastic flowers and strip lights are only an advantage set in place to put him at ease. And yet, even with Berlin’s abundance of Eckkneipen, finding a down-to-earth place that actually serves good food is quite a challenge.

Which is why I was bound to end up at Mercan on Wiener Straße at some point. Never has there been a place so perfect for a father-son talk as Mercan. It is one of the few accessible places left in Kreuzberg that remind you the place had originally been a Turkish neighbourhood. The space inside is generous, with over two rooms decorated with the best colourful overdose of oriental kitsch you’d find in living rooms of the likes of my aunt (whose porcelain dole collection epitomises her life’s work). It all seems to be just right – the bright lights, the plastic flowers, the mirrors and the colours. It is just right.

It was a warm summer’s evening though. We chose to sit in the improvised garden outside and went inside to order. Dinner is based on a fixed-rate menu of 6 € that includes one main course to be chosen from a collection of promisingly steamy pans, a side of either rice or bulgur and another small dish from the display case, which can be either a salad (tomato salad or yoghurt dip) or a dessert (either sütlac, kompot or revani). Any additional element costs one Euro. Now that’s a pleasingly simple system.

Meat balls

Our main courses were meatballs in yoghurt sauce and a stuffed aubergine, both with a side of bulgur. We then had a tomato salad, a revani (sweet semolina cake drenched in rose water) and a sütlac (rice pudding) for dessert. Everything had a pleasingly high quality. The meatballs were tasty and the yoghurt sauce was rich and savoury with a touch of spiciness that enriched its general taste. The aubergine was good as well: soft and juicy with flavoursome filling. The sütlac was good, assuming the person eating it was into it (I personally think that rice pudding is one of the most repulsive inventions made by man, but I was assured by my partner in crime that it was good quality Turkish rice pudding, which is generally softer than the Greek or German ones). I enjoyed the rivani very much as well. It was soft and pleasing and it kicked the sugar level in my blood up to levels I do not wish to imagine.

Next time my father finds his way to Berlin I will have to take him to dinner at Mercan’s. The food was basic and far from being a revelation, but it was a throroughly pleasant experience with high quality, firendly service and stuffed bellies as a result. It felt like the right place to appreciate Turkish food.

Overall mark: 

Wiener Straße 10, 10999 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 612 85841

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June 03, 2011

Knowing Nina (Greek Galore)

Ousies - Schöneberg

Studying in Paris, I got acquainted with a number of characters I would not have met otherwise. Amongst them was a young man who always scribbled down the word “Prince” under the field “profession”, a girl who often arrived in tears because her parents would not allow her to employ more than three cleaning ladies for her 700 square meter flat (which they had maliciously bought for her in a posh suburb rather than in the city centre) and then there was Nina.

She was a mousy girl; quiet, timid and fairly introvert. Being Greek, she spoke French with an accent most of our fellow students frowned at. It was not entirely simple to become friends with her, yet I liked her and we got along very well from the very beginning. It did not take a genius to realise we had grown up in different circumstances and with different values. We were interested in different things and reacted differently to just about every possible situation. And yet we did not enquire too much into each other’s backgrounds. Knowing she had come from a very sheltered home was more than enough.

I learned more about her on a spring day after an excruciating set of exams and presentations. We needed a walk in the polluted Parisian air to get over the day’s traumatising start and we began by wandering aimlessly between some of Paris’s most expensive shopping streets. On more than one occasion, Nina would see a shoe she fancied in one of the shop windows and without blinking would then step decisively into the shop and come out two minutes later with a completed transaction and a colourful bag in her hands. I did not ask how she was able to afford any of it, as my mother had told me it was not polite to talk about money. Every now and again, however, Nina would murmur an undecipherable sentence about her father needing to wire her shoe money.

As the day came to a close and we were both getting hungry, Nina suggested food and asked me whether I knew a nice place. I proposed an Indian restaurant I knew behind Gare du Nord and we began making our way northwards in silence, which was not our usual state. A few minutes later it was Nina who broke it by saying she had never before been anywhere around Gare du Nord and that she was afraid. “Is it dangerous? Are there any... you know... strange people over there?”
“It’s alright,” I shrugged. “I’ve never had any problems over there.”
“Oh, OK,” replied Nina, not too sure about whether to trust me or not. “But I heard there were Arabs up there.”
I shrugged again. I did not like these conversations and could do without another one of her lectures about why Greeks felt unsure around Muslims and why I should not put her in danger. We had already had that same conversation a few times before. The girl should grow up, I thought. My sense of conviction did not seem to put her at any ease though. A few minutes later she asked whether Indian food was hygienic.
“You see,” she began, “I’ve never had any of it before.”
“Oh... it’s fine. It will be an experience.” Which it was. Upon entering the place Nina wanted to turn on her heel and run away as fast and as far away as possible. Her eyes balls seemed to want to pop out of their holes and every little muscle on her body twitched in utter panic. I made her stay though, as she kept staring at the mainly Indian crowd sitting around us.

But she liked the food. She kept on nodding in pure amazement, whispering she would never have imagined she could like it.
“You see,” she said, “I’ve never liked anything besides Greek food.” It was my turn to stare at her in pure amazement. Thinking she had lived in Paris for such a long time and that she had been able to afford buying pairs of shoes for a few thousands of Euros in one afternoon, it did not strike me finding good food in Paris would be all too difficult.
And yet, to her it was. It turned out she was a billionaire’s daughter. She had lived in a sheltered Greek paradise with access to every shoe brand on the face of the planet, but food diversity had never been all too high on her shopping list. To be fair, she did not enjoy discovering new food stuff. She just liked the homey feeling Greek food gave her.

After this evening, as more and more of our conversations turned to the subject of food, Nina would spend more and more time describing the wonders of the Greek cuisine. I was not always convinced, but these long stories about the abundance of meat served in a friendly atmosphere she obviously missed in Paris made me think of Greek food as a potentially utopian thing. As I later realised most Greek restaurants in the countries I lived in were of the greasy-and-bland type, I started recalling Nina’s descriptions ever more often as an alternative for the actual unspectacular quality I was otherwise confronted with.

And then last week, I was time to try out a new restaurant with a friend from Paris which somehow evoked the memory of Nina. The bizarre association called for trying out a Greek restaurant and we opted for Ousies on Grunewaldstraße in Schönberg, having heard it was a lot better than the average Greek experience in Berlin (little birds usually whisper in a cacophony, the place is always crowded. Reservation recommended).

We sat outside, which was nice in itself, but even if we had decided to sit inside, it would not have been any worse, as the usual columns and Zeus figurines are pleasingly absent from the large indoor space. Instead, the restaurant looks like a scene from a retro film about 1960’s Italy with pink walls, light tables and endearingly overused tablecloths.

Beans and sausage

The two of us were soon overwhelmed by a menu long enough to keep an army eating for a good week. Moreover, it was more expensive than most Greek restaurants in Berlin. This called for a clear strategy and we decided to order a number of “representative” dishes. The starters we opted for were the eleosalata (slices of tomatoes covered with olive paste and a slice of goat’s cheese, 5.00 €), dolmadakia (those stuffed vine leaves, served warm for 7.30 €) and gigantes me loukaniko (large white beans in tomato sauce with slices of Greek sausage, 6.50 €). All were very good quality. The vegetarian starter was fresh, the dolmas had the right consistency and a very distinct taste and the beans were just beans with very good chunks of sausage. And yet, it felt like paying a lot of money for what was – at the end of the day – just very simple food.

The main courses went along the same line. We ordered mousakas (a dish based on layers of minced meat, potatoes and aubergines, 13 €) and a bifteki gemisto (a minced steak with a cheese-pepper-tomato filling served with a side of potatoes, 12 €). The mousakas was very authentic – it was a simple, hearty dish with the right seasoning and the right amount of grease. The bifteki was too heavy to be pleasing, but the meat was well seasoned. The side of potatoes was utterly dry and not very appealing.

Bifteki gemisto

We left with bloated bellies and mixed feelings. Generally speaking, the food quality was pretty impressive compared to every other Greek restaurant I’ve been to in Berlin. And yet, the otherwise well known Berliner pattern of excellent starters and less inspiring main courses repeated itself even here. Moreover, even though the quality was definitely a bit better than anywhere else, the prices were also a lot higher, which was not necessarily justified by the fact that the food was not yet “amazing” or “inspiring”. If you are like Nina and crave Greek food in big portions – Ousies is probably one of the best choices around. If not, there are other things to get through an evening.

Overall mark:

Restaurant Ousies
Grunewaldstraße 16, 10823 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 216 7959

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