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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1 comment:

  1. Hey!!!! Its great to know I was not the only one thinking the service left a really bad feeling, in what could have been a nice concept of a restaurant. This is my amateur review:

    At first it was great to have found a typical colombian place in Berlin, however the warm and welcoming feeling one could have expected, was not there. The first thing we were asked upon our entrance was if we had a reservation, even though the place was completely empty. The reaction of the lady running the place was of great discomfort, as if were had annoyed her with our presence. Having gotten over that, we decided to make the best of it. The food was ok., the traditional flavor, of course, was not the same as at home: First of all, the meat needed more salt, whereas the beans and rice had too much. The empanadas were not so tasty, they seemed to be frozen, and also lacked salt. The manager lady (who also acted as waitress/cook/manager) had always this fake and somewhat hypocrite way to adress us. It was as if she impersonated a "always-annoyed" mean mother, whose child invited a friend over, and she was obligated to share her attentions towards someone else. When we paid the check and gave the tip, the costumery "Thank you, come back soon", was never there. To summarize, the feeling of "costumer service" was not nice at all!!! I really do not understand what was going on, and it is a true shame to have this "little stone in the shoe" experience, when it could have been much better. Unfortunately, I guess I will not be returning, in other words, one potential faithful costumer less for the business! :(