September 30, 2011

JWD deliciousness in Treptow

Treptower Klause - Treptow

Where would you start if you wanted to provide a list of the best YouTube phenomena? Well, there is Rebecca Black’s worst song ever, Southpark’s In the Butt (a worthy classic if there ever was one despite the fact it’s about YouTube stardom rather than actually being one), the undoubtedly magnificent Leave Britney Alone and that’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg. Same as reality TV, YouTube has enabled the creation of yet another category of stardom, which is basically all about people whose exhibitionist streak is just enough to get other people excited on their tiny screens for about half a minute of their precious time. Germans call this sort of excitement fremdschämen – to feel embarrassed for someone else. Getting people to fremdschämen for you seems to be a perfectly reliable shortcut to stardom.

And speaking of YouTube stardom, embarrassment and me explaining new German words for you: Do you remember Marina Orlova? You know, the Russian tarty looking blonde who teaches Russian words in short artsy films (one word per film, that is). The art is – of course – all in the eye of the beholder and consists mostly of the validation of any Western stereotype about how well tarty Russians pat their lips and bat their eyelashes between nauseating attacks of giggles. Needless to say, she’s my idol.

For a long time now, I have been considering imitating Marina Orlova, just with German. I would be making videos of my tarty self explaining random German words to the great YouTube community (without being German myself, but then again, nobody’s perfect). There will be important words like Ohrwurm, Zeitgeist or Fremdschämen, but I think my debut video will have to be something local. I’ll have to start with a Berlin word. Like the entire Berlin dialect, it will have to be rude, displeasing and not entirely devoid of self-irony. And I have the perfect word in store: JWD.

JWD (pronounced yot-veh-deh) is an expression, in itself the initials of “janz weit draußen”, Berlin dialect for “ganz weit draußen”, which is German for “bleeding far away”. If you took the expression at face value, it would have to relate to the unattainable outskirts of Berlin (and as Berlin occupies a massive chunk of land, they are far, FAR away). But then again, most people use it just to describe the district adjacent to their own, as most Berliners need a pistol pointed at their heads in order to even consider travelling out of their “Kiez” (another Berlin word, which would vaguely translate into “hood”).

I’ll put my cards on the table and admit I also find it difficult to venture too far out of my comfort zone. Which was one of the reasons I was very proud of myself for going to Treptow for the sake of this entry. Treptow is what I have considered for a long time as true JWD, despite the fact it’s the next district to both Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the area just seems to be synonymous with its massive park, which (with all my love for green spaces) is not what pops into your mind when catering to bustling urban communities.

Which is why I am glad to (partially) make amends for my mistake. I have heard rumours of Karl Kunger Straße becoming a new epicentre of something, but have been to lazy to actually go and check things out for myself. Which is a pity, because it is a fairly pleasing street altogether with a sense of unpretentious, down to earth Berlin vibe (or whatever that means. I start to sound like a walking Lonely Planet). This week, however, two friends of mine dragged me to Treptower Klause, which from the outside looks like a filthy Eckkneipe (another German word! We’re full of those today. It just means a neighbourhood pub, but a foul one of that), albeit with a handwritten menu that reeked of posh.

The latter impression was confirmed inside. It was one of these heavily wooden spaces with dim lights and minimalist furniture, all done in perfect taste with attention given to just about every detail. This is usually the moment where Berlin offers the possibility to chime in with an objection about the low quality of service. But the Treptower Klause was kind enough to spare us that. Even the service was friendly, accommodating and professional.

The menu (of the changing variety) offers a limited choice of dishes that do not seem to have too much in common other than sounding vaguely nice (the main courses were mostly local, whereas the starters were from all over the European scale. I was grateful for not spotting anything based on curry powder, though). The starters we went for were a dish of mussels (served in a tomato-garlic sauce, 6.50 €) and a goat cheese-bell pepper terrine (for 5.50€, served with pine nuts and a small salad). They were both good. The mussels were excellent – good quality, nice quantity, perfectly well executed (I usually think mussels are better off without tomatoes, but that’s a matter of taste, and these were quite perfect regardless), not to mention good value. The terrine was fairly pleasing, but not inspiring. It had a good texture and the goat cheese made for a refreshing dish together with the peppers, the presentation was nice as well, but here, alas, the value was less convincing. For the price it lacked a more indulging taste.

We continued with osso buco (cross-cut veal shanks, served with polenta for 14.50 €) and a filet of cod (served with potato-gratin, spinach and mustard sauce, also for 14.50 €). Again, they were both tasty and both offered perfect value. The osso buco was even very good. The meat quality was impressive, the dark sauce was as refined as much it was tasty and the polenta was the perfect choice of sides for that very sauce. The cod was also good. The fish was convincing: Well done, yet fantastically juicy. The sides were fairly pleasing as well. The only problem was the sauce – it wasn’t bad – but it was no grand success either. It was too watery and the mustard was not well incorporated – somehow it was just bitter without conveying its actual mustardy-deliciousness.

Atrocious mousse

So far - even with the minor critique - Treptower Klause would have been able to be short-listed for a five print mark if it hadn’t been for the dessert. I ordered the mousse au chocolat with a pear marinated in white wine (a miniscule portion of two minor balls of mousse served alongside a pear served for 5.00 €). After the initial size-related disappointment, I found myself relieved it had not been any larger. The pear was nicely marinated and fairly pleasing (or as pleasing as a marinated pear can be). The mousse, however, reminded me of the supermarket variety my mother used to buy in the 80’s. Unfortunately, not all childhood memories are positive. I still cannot get how on earth Treptower Klause managed to recreate the same taste without using chemicals instead of chocolate and let the end-product lurk around inside a plastic container for a few weeks.

But still, odd mousse or no odd mousse, go to Treptower Klause. It is a perfectly enjoyable spot with perfectly enjoyable food. Besides, going to Treptow will make you feel adventurous!

Overall Mark:

Treptower Klause
Karl Kunger Straße 69, 12435 Berlin

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September 27, 2011

Haunted Addresses: Vietnamese à la Central Europe

Chez Dang - Kreuzkölln

Returning to Berlin after a long holiday always involves a moment of reconciliation with the local greyness. Even after all these years, I still find the vast empty spaces, the dimly lit streets and the general scruffiness surprisingly daunting, if only for a short moment. Then there is the second post-holiday impression I have to cope with. It usually relates to a new venue that as a sign of sheer rudeness decided to open its doors in my short absence. There is always some element of visible change inherent to the city, even with holidays that do not exceed three weeks.

It’s not like you haven’t heard it all before. Berlin is all about change and many areas have transformed senselessly, entirely reinventing themselves in the last few decades, with Neukölln being the latest of a long list. We all know the main stories – Prenzlauer Berg transformed from a run-down-post-socialist-ruin into yummy-mummy-paradise or Kreuzkölln exchanging its old rugged Berliners for international wannabe hipsters. Yet these are made of a fair number of smaller stories. Some of them are clear success stories of venues establishing themselves as clear institutions. Some just get by. Whereas a tiny few just seem to be cursed.

I don’t know whether Friedelstr. 31 is an example for such unlucky address, but truth be told – it has already seen three different venues come and go in the last few years. True, the first restaurant was a success story, it was the pan-Mediterranean Kantina von Hugo, which after a few years decided to expand and move to a better address in Kreuzberg just on the other side of the canal. It was then replaced by Hellgrewe, which was ludicrously expensive for local standards and failed to establish itself as Neukölln’s new rising posh star. In fact, it did not as much as survive a year on the ground before it had to fade away to restaurant heaven and make way for Chez Dang.

And so we decided it was about time to pay our tribute to Neukölln’s latest newbie. Chez Dang would be the second Vietnamese restaurant on the street (with the relatively canonised institution Jimmy Woo being the usual alternative at no. 24), so it needed to find an identity of its own. Strangely enough, even though three inherently different restaurants have occupied the same spaces, the general atmosphere has not changed much since the Kantina’s first heyday: The restaurant is composed of a single, large and white space with dark wooden tables, agreeably dim lights and a mildly posh (and mildly sterile) feeling to it. The space has an inevitable Central-European vibe to it, which is not what you’d expect of a Vietnamese restaurant. Chez Dang seems to embrace and own that feeling, which is always a nice thing. I can only approve of any place that makes an effort to confront old clichés.

Chez Dang’s menu goes along the same line. Even though the dishes are clearly of the classically Vietnamese variety, the menu’s structure felt “Westernised”, if not plainly Germanised: A selection of random starters followed by a random selection of fairly balanced main courses, albeit with an endearing twist, allowing dishes with names like “pig fought tiger and lost” to take the centre stage. The pricing was very humane with most main courses around 6.50 € and the service earned rare points for professionalism and niceness.

Tempura Temptations
Lucky Bags

Which brings us to the actual food. We started with the “lucky bags” (fried wan tans with chicken filling, 4.50 €), “tempura temptations” (vegetable tempura, 5.50 €, also available in the shrimpy version for 6.50 €) and the “coconut thrill” (coconut-milk based soup with chunks of chicken for 3.60 €). The bags were mainly fried. They weren’t “bad”, but were too bland to be “good” either. The vegetarian tempura was a bit more amusing with different kinds of vegetables from aubergines to broccoli involved in the endeavour, but hey, it wasn’t too exciting either. Both fried dishes came with a sweet-and-sour-sauce that appeared directly out of my 80’s childhood. The soup, however, was a lot more pleasing. It was no revelation, but it delivered fairly well on the taste front: it was nicely spicy, thick without being ridiculously coconuty and its pricing was fairly perfect.

Bamboo Me Baby

The main courses continued along the same lines. We ordered the pho (the one true Vietnamese must-have, which is just clear broth with stuff in it, it was available with different sorts of meat, but the waitress recommended the beef, so beef it was. 6.70 €) and two more dishes from the self proclaimed “evergreen” section: the “dark side story” (vegetables and beans with chicken in thick soy sauce, served with rice for 8.50 €) and “bamboo me baby” with beef (sautéed bamboo with chilli, garlic and stuff for 8.30 €). Both evergreens proved to be nice and average. The names promised a lot more than the actual dishes delivered. They were pleasingly large, yet lacking on the inspiration front. Don’t get me wrong: there was nothing foul about them. They were not bad. They were probably an alright quality for the money and they tasted, like, nice. A bit like what Chinese restaurants in the 80’s in Britain felt like – nice. The pho was also nice, but on an entirely different level. It was actually savoury, amusingly thick and strangely familiar. But wait a minute, familiar? Oh yes, wait a minute, it felt like facing my Polish grandmother’s chicken broth. It had this Central European gratifyingly stodgy je-ne-sais-quoi. Which is nice. And healthy. But not necessarily appropriate. A pho is actually a fairly refined soup. The broth should not be heavy and should allow a light mixture of different flavours to toy with one’s sense of taste. So again, nice, but this was one niceness gone too far.

At the end of the day, Chez Dang is not bad. The ambiance is accommodating, the service is excellent and the pricing is perfect. And the food? It wasn’t bad. It was rather just… nice.

Overall Mark:

Chez Dang
Friedelstraße 31, 12047 Berlin

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