August 05, 2011

A Show of Savoir Vivre in West Berlin

La Cocotte - Schöneberg

Das Auge isst mit is a German saying translatable with „the eye takes part in the eating.“ Its point is the usual “presentation matters,” which we all know. Most people would (most probably) not like to eat anything that looks like troll excrements or a squashed frog. So far so good. But what about different sorts of presentation? Let’s say more theatrical ones?

The element of show involved in owning a restaurant had not bothered me in the slightest before Tom and Jamie, two London acquaintances of mine, decided to venture into the world of culinary service and open a café in East London. As London’s all about added value and exclusive identity, Tom and Jamie needed a concept and they needed it fast. They came up with the idea of an “entertainment café,” which would move its focal point from the banal idea of coffee into the value of its owners’ exquisite company and their ability to entertain their customers.

I found the idea utterly ludicrous. Call me old-fashioned, but I get the urge to punch people in the face if they happen to be trying to entertain me while I’ve got a chunk of quiche stuck down my throat. Tom and Jamie actually never got the opportunity to prove me wrong (as the entire business proved to be more expensive than what they had had in mind), but with time, I realised every restaurant had an element of showbiz attached to it. It can be the loud kind, like the 90’s classic Beverly Hills 90210’s obnoxiously annoying Brenda metamorphosing into the Southern Laverne just to keep her customers’ complaints at bay, or it can be the French kind, as I discovered last week in Schöneberg’s La Cocotte.

The restaurant seems to be a West Berliner institution of sorts. It enjoys the best location Schöneberg can offer on Vorbergstraße, a pleasant side street off the cute (and slightly overrated) Akazzienstraße. It has a charming garden outside, but fate so wished and we found our way there on a cold and rainy summer evening, which induced the discovery of La Cocotte’s interior space. And a discovery it was. Not because it was all too well designed. It wasn’t even that pretty. Yes, it had daft homo-erotic art works on the walls and the lightning was quite nice, but it was a bit drab with its dirty-grey walls. And then there were these tables crammed up on top of each other so that you got the feeling you couldn’t escape eavesdropping on your neighbour.

But wait a minute, a French restaurant with grey walls, filthy loos and narrow seating arrangements? Gosh, it sounds a bit like actually being IN France. Which it really was. Bit by bit, I realised La Cocotte was just one big show. It was all about recreating an authentic French restaurant in West Berlin. It doesn’t have the je-ne-sais-quoi feeling of posh aloofness attached to the traditional British or German perception of French culinary institutions. No trace of that perfect ambiance from an imagined utopia of beautiful things. This one is what the real stuff is made of.

And last, but not least, one could not recreate a credible impression of France without speaking to everyone in French and visibly expecting them to follow suit. I didn’t mind the bonjours and voilàs and the general underlying francophone snobbery, but then again, it can come across as intimidating (which some of the waiters clearly enjoyed in a fair number of cases). Quite unnecessary, at the end of the day.

And yet, going through all this effort to create a French Disneyland would not have done any good without the appropriate food quality. The menu was quite promising to begin with. It was not regional, like most restaurants in France would be, but it did make a point out of living up to the restaurant’s name and serving lots of casserole-based dishes (cocotte is – surprisingly enough - French for casserole) and a couple of unavoidable French classics like steak tartar or bouillabaisse.
Terrine de Crustacés

We started by ordering two relatively simple starters (we decided to leave the likes of foie gras, noix de St. Jacques or escargots for another occasion, as they all cost between 7.50 and 9.50 € and we decided we could just as well stay below 6 € with the starters): the terrine de crustacés (shellfish terrine, 5.90 €) and the pissaladière (a Provencal onion confit with tomatoes, anchovies and black olives on a thin layer of bread-dough, 4.90 €). Both portions were well presented and large for the price (and for the fact it was a French place, where you know the chef actually has an excuse to keep the portions miniscule). The pissaladière’s quality was quite good with the only complaint being too little anchovy-olive presence. The terrine was harder to comment, as it was just perfect. Everything about it was just right: it was delicious with the exact right taste of sea; its texture was smooth and pleasing and even the rouille that was served on the side was a perfect match.
Crème Brulée

If the starters were enough to teleport us to France, then the main courses were nothing less than a stroke of joy. We ordered the bouillabaisse (a fish and shellfish soup from Marseilles, served with croutons, rouille and cheese, 17.90 €) and the boeuf Bourguignon de joues (a Bourguigon made of veal cheeks, 13.90 €) together with a side of potato-olive-rosemary mash (for an additional 1.90 €). As both dishes came in their black, steamy iron casseroles, we could not help noticing that the quality was impressive even here. The bouillabaisse might not have been the best one I have ever had, but it was generous and refined. A Marseillais might frown a bit at it, but it was more than pleasing for our local Berliner circumstances. The Bourguignon was even more exciting. The meat was perfectly tender and the sauce was perfect. It was strong and refined at the same time – not originally so, Julia Childe wouldn’t mind eating it either.

What’s left? Oh, desserts. We went for the crème brulée (5.90 €) and the tartelette au citron (4.50 €). Both were no-bullshit-cookbook-standard desserts, which means they were not too original. And yet, both were perfectly executed, being perfectly tasty. The same applies to just about anything about La Cocotte – it is a standard French restaurant with all the froglike knots and bolts. If you can handle the French show aspect and want good-quality, to-the-point and in no way overpriced French food, La Cocotte’s team of squeaky waiters are waiting with just what you’re looking for!

Overall mark:

La Cocotte
Vorbergstraße 10, 10823 Berlin

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