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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