July 24, 2011

Comfort Week or Berlin's Mexican Spring

Maria Bonita - Prenzlauer Berg

Every now and then, when everyone around me allows themselves to wallow in Berlin-nostalgia about those times before Berlin became hype and rents started rising, I like thinking of my first year in Berlin. It was ex-pat paradise. Everything was new, exciting and affordable. And Berlin was good to me. The peak of that year would probably have to be my obligatory ex-pat-romantic crisis, which I – together with two friends whom we shall call Sarah and Maura – exaggerated into oblivion in 7 days of the most exhilarating self pity otherwise known as Comfort Week.

Why all three of us felt the need to seek solace in each other’s problems is beside the point. We all thought we had romantic issues that were greater than ourselves and enjoyed the drama involved in the combination of tears and ice cream. It was absolutely fantastic: we played Cowboys and Indians in the Tiergarten shooting plastic arrows at happy looking couples (while screaming “Die, Motherf%&ckers, Die! Another neurosis that will have to remain beside the point), we stuffed our face with buckets of ice cream, drank champagne in the middle of the day and decided we had to leave the country (which ended in a coach ride to Copenhagen and a hung-over half-marathon upon returning to Berlin). In one week, we did everything we wanted to without thinking of any ramifications, consequences or small hurdles in the way of acting on any of our young ex-pat whims.

This was the best of being an ex-pat in a city that offered you the cover of anonymity and the luxury of affordability. We discovered the downsides merely a week later. Maura was having a home sickness breakdown and it felt like we needed to console her with something she actually missed. Being a Southern Beauty, what she missed most was her car, apple pies and Mexican food. The latter had actually developed into an obsession. Maura would be able to work herself into rage tantrums because she had not had any guac and beans for any period of time.

So we tried to find a Mexican place. It was a mistake. Mexican restaurants in Berlin of yore were Teutonic variations on greasy meat and thick dough. None of them had ever heard of real avocados or spicy sauces. There were always mounds of Gouda and cream and a couple of bland beans on the side. If any, it only seemed to enhance Maura’s home sickness.

With these experiences etched deep into my memory, I could hardly believe it when American friends of mine recommended trying Maria Bonita on Danziger Straße, saying it was “just like in New York.” So there I went.

The place definitely looks like a typical hole-in-the-wall you would find in New York. The space is tiny and the only seating arrangements are a couple of bar stools inside or a few ramshackle picnic tables outside. The menu was one promising page of Mexican joy, the prices just right for the ambiance and for the area.

We started with a large guacamole (for 5 €, also available for half the price if you happened to crave the small version) and totopos (refried beans, 2.5 €). Both dishes were very generously served with copious amounts of corn chips. The guac was good. It was not the best one I have had in my life, but definitely the best I have tried in Berlin: made of real avocados with good seasoning. The totopos, on the other hand, were a bit dull (yet still a lot better than the usual excuse for beans you get in other so called Mexican places in Berlin).

Quesadilla de pollo

We moved on to a burrito puerco especial with extra cheese (with marinated pork, guacamole, red salsa and chipotle cream for 7 €), a veggie quesadilla (with melted cheese, sheep cheese and chipotle cream for 6 €) and a quesadilla de pollo especial (with melted cheese and tinga de pollo for 7 €). The burrito was great fun. True, it was greasy and over laden with just about everything that can be subsumed under the title “too heavy”, but isn’t that exactly the purpose of eating a burrito? It was well seasoned (albeit could use a bit more spice) and really did feel like New York (yet not like the best ones in New York and not nearly anywhere close to California or down South, let alone Mexico). The quesadillas were fun as well, but not as good as the burrito. The veggie quesadilla was one big pile of melted cheese in-your-face, which can’t be bad, but did not much taste of anything else other than melted cheese (and left you with the sick feeling you get after inflicting unnecessary levels of pain on your stomach). The chicken quesadilla was slightly better, as it had more “stuff” in it, but it was still too blandly cheesy to be truly pleasing. This being said, it probably still is the best quesadilla in town.

Veggie quesadilla

Maria Bonita is not the best Mexican in the world. I’m not sure I’d return there any day. But at least it’s a start. I would have given a lot to have it around six years ago, and I’m sure Maura would have done the same. Having a place that serves real guacamole would have saved our little ex-pat group serious pain and tears. Nonetheless, it will have to live with mere three prints. Being (probably) the best Mexican in Berlin is not all too difficult at the moment, and most of all, it still has work to do on improving that menu. More spice and more taste are required. A wee-bit of refinement might be an idea as well.

Overall mark:

Maria Bonita (not to be confused with its spin-off venue, Maria Peligro in Kreuzberg)
Danziger Straße 33, 10435 Berlin

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July 19, 2011

Ace of Base Go Tapas

Manuela - Neukölln

Do you remember the 90’s? I must say I rather liked the time. Everything was so nice and fuzzy back then. From the fall of Communism through the fall of the Tories all to the Peace Process in the Middle East, the world that surrounded me seemed to be under an unbreakable spell of optimism. It is hard not to miss a decade that produced wonders on the calibre of Belle & Sebastian, Fiona Apple and the grand Ace of Base... Oh, Eurotrash.

But the unmaking of the 90’s was sown with the very seed of their success. For those who looked hard enough (or for those – like myself – who take a moment and look back at their adolescent years with the intellectual tools acquired during hours of discussing Foucault, handbags and more Foucault on the benches of any faculty for cultural studies/history of art), signs predicting the downfall of capitalistic optimism were all around: Britney Spears, New Labour, tapas.

Tapas, you may ask? Well yes, tapas. Those jovially Spanish selections of small dishes. Take a hard look back at the end of the 90’s. What is it you’ll see, flickering there in front of your eyes at every street corner? Tapa bars, tapa meals, tapa everything. The fashion suddenly was about minimising dishes for maximising profits. Getting people to feel all Spanish by paying a fortune for potatoes in aioli. But let’s cut the political ball breaking crap for a second. This is a restaurant blog and not a stage for me to rant about the woes of modern capitalism.

Yet the fact remains that I find it hard to take tapas seriously just because I cannot help thinking about them as a relic, a culinary fad from the 90’s. Every time I see a tapas bar, my brain gets me back to Bill Clinton saying “I did not have relations with that woman” with Ace of Base singing The Sign in the background. But tapas can be brilliant. At the end of the day, the problem is not tapas, it’s me. So trying to exorcise my tapa-demons, I decided to go to Manuela, a modern looking Spanish restaurant-café on Friedelstraße, Kreuzkölln’s culinary heart.

We sat outside on a balmy summer’s evening and were therefore unable to comment the music (even though I couldn’t blame them even if they did play Ace of Base. The Sign is one ace piece of music). Yet from the frequent walks to the toilet and to the bar, I can say the (surprisingly large) interior space is nicely done, walking on that line between a restaurant and a café with colours and furniture cosy enough to sit on, but comfortable enough to eat in. The service was friendly and the Spanish barwoman (who was also responsible for the tapas) had the ubiquitous Spanish mullet.

I ordered a glass of the red house wine (3.50€, bitterly heavy) and turned to look at the menu. It offered a fair choice of Spanish food, starting with tapas, moving to soups, Catalan meat dishes and sharing-classics along the paella lines. The menu’s size was just right, with enough choice for it to be interesting, yet not so much to make it less trustworthy.
Lomo Adobado

The tapas are neatly priced at 2.60 € a unit, 5 units for 12 € and 7 units for 16 €. We were greedy and thus ordered the seven deal. We chose the chorizo, a courgette tortilla, salchichia, mushrooms with bacon, Catalan spinach, Catalan chick peas and meat balls. They were served promptly on a tray that was aesthetically pleasing and seemed fairly promising. The quality did not oscillate much between the dishes, all being fairly nice, but not downright inspiring. The meat balls were the best choice with a sweet tinge and a curiously appealing overall taste. The chorizo and the salchichia were both alright, with OK sausage quality and nice presentation. The chick peas and the spinach were both fairly good, served with a pleasing mix of vegetables. The champignons were well executed (no fuss involved) and last, but not least, the tortilla was very good: it was light (for a tortilla) and flavoursome.

Manuela Teller
Crema Catalana
We then continued to Manuela’s “Catalan Classics” and ordered the lomo adobado (pork loin, served with tomato jam, apple-cabbage salad and cerdanya – a version of rough mash with Savoy cabbage and ham, 8.90 €) and the Manuela plate (lomo adobado and smoked pork chop served with date and bacon skewers, apple-raisin compote, potatoes and red cabbage in red wine, 9.50 €). Both dishes were fairly similar: simple meat you don’t mind, but that you wouldn’t otherwise consider inspiring, served with intriguing, well presented and high quality sides. The ceradya with the tomato jam in the one dish and the date/bacon skewers with the apple raison compote in the other actually managed to turn dishes based on fairly boring slices of pork into a pleasing experience. We ended the meal with a crema catalana (the Spanish equivalent of a crème brulée, 3.70 €), which was large and well presented with the perfect balance between vanilla and that lemony tang, but alas, too watery.

Overall, Manuela was fun. It was a thoroughly decent experience, with well executed (and well priced) simple food with ups and downs. Some of the dishes had an edge to them that was both pleasing and promising. It would be nice if Manuela followed that edge and developed it into something even more satisfying, but even at the moment (and with the current prices, ambiance and service), it’s worth a visit.

Overall Mark: 

Manuela - Tapas
Friedelstraße 34, 12047 Berlin

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July 02, 2011

Old Traditions Die Hard

Altes Europa - Mitte 

Considering the fact my life in Berlin is heavily based on lurking around in cafés and consuming copious amounts of cake, this blog has so far not been appreciative enough of one of the pillars of Berlin’s food culture: restaurant-cafés. Cafés with a real kitchen that serve real food. They are open all day long with most customers not necessarily showing up for the food, but rather for the coffee, cake and ambiance.

One such place is Altes Europa on Gipsstraße. With the years it has become one of my favourite institutions in Mitte (mainly facilitated by the fact I had discovered it in my first year in Berlin and it has remained literally unaltered since). The café is one of the nicer, more accessible and less pretentious spaces one can still find in Mitte, with nice cake, good coffee, and pleasingly appealing ambiance. The furniture is dark with ornate wooden chairs and random marble tables, all aiming for a second-class vintage feeling. The walls are directly painted on with naff pictures pertaining to various aspects of the European nature, my favourite being a rough brush work of a (blondly European) couple fornicating over a table.

Ever since I discovered it on a dreary February afternoon, I have considered Altes Europa to be more or less the only acceptable option for a caffeine-laden tryst around Mitte. Yet over the years I have constantly failed to sample the café’s culinary end, and strangely enough not for lack of wanting. With lunch and dinner menus changing on daily basis and a selection of intriguing German/local cuisine, I’ve always wanted to check out what Altes Europa had to offer beyond its espresso machine. And so, after years of waiting, one of many coincidences made me find my there way on a Sunday evening last week.

The evening menu was shabbily written on a piece of xeroxed paper handed in to us by the bitter waiter. The selection of dishes was fairly limited, and we started by ordering the only real starter on the menu, which was the Suppe von jungen Karotten mit Sesam und Koriander (carrot soup with sesame and coriander, 3.50 €). A large portion of a fairly delicious luquidy substance with tiny bits of carrots in it, it was both aesthetically pleasing as well as tasty.

We then continued with the Riesen-Pffiferlingsravioli mit Spitzkohlgemüse und Gruyère überbacken (large chanterelle-raviolis, baked with pointed cabbage and gruyere for 7.90 €) and an entrecote (made of what was supposed to be Argentinean meat with avocado paste and rocket salad and sweet-potato mash for 14.50 €). I have to say I did not like the sound of either dish. The baked raviolis sounded like a random “look what I’ve got left in the fridge” ordeal and the avocado paste together with that sweet-potato mash sounded like something that wanted to be pretentious, but fell short of getting anywhere near high brow. The raviolis were what they sounded like: random. They reminded me of the good old “beggars can’t be choosers” days in Berlin, when restaurants came up with the strangest ideas of the most disturbing mixtures that usually tasted the same: two things that didn’t work together (in this case chanterelles and pointed cabbage) strewn with cheese and baked in some random oven. It looked like an alien on a plate. And yet, everything covered by cheese is good, and it’s even better when it’s cheap. The steak was surprisingly far better. The meat was decent, that Northern European version of guacamole was pleasing (don’t even try to compare it to the real thing, but you can’t really whinge too much when you get something made of real, fresh avocados) and the sweet-potato mash was downright delicious. Somehow I ended up not minding that bizarrely mind-boggling combination.

Alien looking ravioli

The finale was the only dessert on the menu: Mango-yoghurt mousse with pistachios and grilled pineapple (for the price of 3.90 €). Another strange combination, I agree. We’ll start with the fact I absolutely despised gilled fruit. I find it to be a perversion I will never understand. But if you like grilled fruit and large desserts, you will like this one as well. The mousse was more than decent for the price and the pineapple was strangely juicy despite it being grilled.


Bottom line: Altes Europa is a really nice place. The uninspiringly random dishes were well executed and the pricing was more than humane. I am not a fan of the menu selection, which would have otherwise left the place with solid three prints, but the pricing and the high quality of its ingredients (not to mention the place’s atmosphere) all convinced me to wiggle out a generous fourth.

Overall mark: 

Café Altes Europa
Gipsstraße 11, 10119 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 2809 3840

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