October 31, 2011

Korean Hipster Bashing

Kimchi Princess - Kreuzberg

I have promised myself not to start another entry with a new report about the weather. Another weather rant would set the seal on my creative ambitions, as it would – justifiably – appear as if I had nothing else to write about. I mean, I would not like to convey the impression my life had no more substance than discussing the weather and watching Downton Abbey (a fine neo-Victorian combination if there ever was one).

And thus heavy hearted I realised I had no choice but to opt for the second least original activity after talking about the weather (and procrastinating with Downton Abbey): hipster bashing.

I usually try to keep hipster bashing to myself. First of all because everyone else around me (especially Two Broke Girls) does it so much more eloquently than I ever will. Secondly it’s because deep inside I really am a failed would-be hipster. And yes, I’ve finally said it: I see all these young people with a trust fund somewhere in their pantry and coolness smeared all over their collars and I get green with envy. Literally. My insides turn with nausea that is not so much hatred as it is pure jealousy. As we all know, the aspiring kind is usually worse than the real thing.

The obstacles preventing my metamorphosis into a real hipster are manifold. First, I don’t have the right parents. Meaning – no trust fund to speak of. The only trust my parents ever bestowed on me was a grave talk about the lack thereof as I had taken (my parents used the word “stolen”) my mother’s only ring and given it to a friend back in year one. The second reason for my acceptance of being nothing more than an aspiring cool person for the rest of my life would have to be my aversion of stupid hats and neon colours (beside the fact my hair gets too rebelliously curly when I try coaching it into an asymmetric hipster-do). It’s not that I haven’t tried. I once even walked through Dalston wearing skinny neon-coloured trousers, thick rimmed clear-glasses and a stupid hat with a butterfly on top, but I think it was too obvious I had the wrong hair beneath my hat and that I felt like a court jester in what I was wearing. Not owning your look is probably the biggest deal breaker on the hipster credibility (a.k.a. coolness) scale.

For a long time being spießig in Berlin had been my refuge. I had been inherently cool by proxy of being an expat in Berlin and inherently free of hipsters because I usually went for good food. This week’s visit to Kimchi Princess in Kreuzberg taught me that the times, they are a-changing.

So Kimchi Princess, right? I’ve known the place for a while. It was the first credible Korean restaurant in Berlin. It is also – like – designed and stuff. A large space divided into a main space and second floor amidst post-industrial wannabe beams and construction elements. Dimmed lights, nice accessories, the lots. Not only is it all beautifully executed, but they even have a cooler-than-thou club facing Skalitzer Straße. And needless to say, the place is packed. Has been for a while, but this time I was just overwhelmed by the amount of strange neon-coloured hats that greeted me as I had set foot past the threshold. Fortunately enough though, as I had not reserved a table we had to be seated in the crouching corner away from the coolness (where you sit Japanese-style on a higher platform and crouch over a low stool). This way I was actually able to concentrate on the menu.

The menu at Kimchi Princess has always been quite blissfully manageable. It contains a few starter classics, the usual Korean grills (starting with 16 € per person) and a few Korean classics. We did not try any of the grills, but rather chose to concentrate on the more affordable parts of the menu (knowing that the real Korean test is the holy trinity of the pancake, kimchi and bibimbap).

Kimchi Pajeon
Bibimbap (not yet mixed)

The starters were the mul mandu (steamed meat dumplings, 4.50 €) and kimchi pajeon (kimchi pancakes, 6.70 €). It was an OK start. The portions were large, the presentation pleasing and the overall quality was high. The dumplings were fairly well executed – just the right texture and moisture, the right size and all. The seasoning was fine as well, but lacked something in order to be perfect. Alright really. The pancakes were good. The Korean softness was there and the entire thing was a fine experience. No complaints. Other than the fact that the kimchi pancakes are supposed to be heavenly (no exaggeration here. My short life has introduced me to a fair amount of kimchi pancakes that made me want to re-enact the entire orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally and to mean every bit of it). Those were just nice. They tasted too much like pizza and too little like kimchi.

And so we continued to the main courses: the haemul udong (a spicy noodle soup with seafood and tofu, 10.50 €) and the unavoidably classic bibimbap (a hot pot with rice, beef, vegetables, egg and spicy deliciousness that you get to mix up and enjoy, 10.50 €, also available for 9.50 € in the vegetarian variety). They were both served alongside an impressive selection of sides (these change every time. The only obligatory one is – of course – kimchi. That wonderful, stinky Korean cabbage which really is what Korean heaven is made of. This time it was accompanied by bean-sprouts, anchovies, green beans and green cabbage, all marinated in something rather pleasing).

The soup was alright. The noodles were delicious, one could argue about the amount and quality of the seafood used, but the general size of the dish was impressive and the general taste very agreeable. The best thing about it was that broth managed to be pleasingly spicy and have a strong presence all at the same time. The bibimbap, however, was more than just alright. It was really good. And that’s an improvement. I know I’m supposed to base my reviews on that one evening only, but the reason I had not set foot at Kimchi Princess for a while before that evening was because their bibimbaps had been just alright whereas Madang and Ixthys offered superior choices. Well, no more, or partly so. The ones at Madang or Ixthys are still better, but this week’s bibimbap at Kimchi Princess was A LOT better than what it used to be like. The meat was just right, the overall size, taste and abundance of the other vegetables as well as the taste and availability of the spicy red bean paste were very good as well. At last, I managed to actually enjoy a bibimbap at Kimchi Princess without too many ifs and buts. And now to the sides, not any less important here. They were actually all very good. The kimchi, the most important one, was also another sign of improvement – I used to find the kimchi at Kimchi Princess fairly bland. It still isn’t the best in town, but the cabbage had just the right consistency and age, the seasoning was good as well. Definitely enjoyable.

At the end of the day – Kimchi Princess is a good address. Good Korean food in a very pleasing setting. There may be cheaper and better quality Korean restaurants in Berlin. However, what Kimchi Princess lacks in pure food quality, it compensates with the accessories: service, ambiance, presentation and oh yes, how could I ever forget – coolness.

Overall Mark: 

Kimchi Princess
Skalitzer Straße 36, 10999 Berlin

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October 12, 2011

Things to Do With the Last Rays of Sun When Sarah Palin's Already Out of the Presidential Race

Freischwimmer - Kreuzberg

You might not remember it anymore, but last week actually started out as a gloriously balmy one. It showed Berlin at its best: sapphire-blue sky, massive trees shedding their summer green for the sake of yellows and reds, pesky little bees buzzing for the last time. Yes, you heard me, the last time. You can kiss all that goodbye for a few months.

But before we sink into the usual winter depression (there will be enough time for that, I an assure you that much), let’s take a closer look at the last days of autumn. Actually, I like autumn in Berlin. July and August tend to be wet and horrid, whereas September and October always offer a glimmer of joy.

And as this might have been the last streak of good weather for many months to come, I just decided to make the most of it. First of all, I suppressed the fear of a Eurozone collapse, of a dwindling economy, festering conflicts and few more years with the Tories in power. I tried to ignore my disappointment as the dream of seeing a Palin-Bachmann debate was savagely crushed (OK, there might be a positive spin here, with Palin actually opting OUT of the presidential race). I did all that and just went to the Freischwimmer to enjoy the weather.

The thing about the Freischwimmer is that I don’t usually think of it as your local restaurant. Up to last week I had been there a countless number of times, but not once had I actually eaten there. I have always thought of the place of just a perfect place for either a coffee or a beer.

On the other side of the canal from the notorious Klub der Visionäre, the Freischwimmer is probably everything the festering lair of wannabe techno-coolness is not: pleasant, laid back and idyllic (albeit with a bit of techno bits invading the calmness from across the canal). The place makes the most out of its waterside location, offering an inherently urban sensation, which nevertheless manages to ooze a sense of luxurious calmness. It is a bit like what opening a bar on a small side branch of London’s Regent’s Canal would be like, just without the incessant stream of tourists and cyclists. Going back to my political dismay from last week, it is a place Sarah Palin would refudiate as genuinely “un-American” – just like New York, Delaware or Portland (OK, Freischwimmer shouldn’t even be American, being in Germany and all. I just wanted to say refudiate. And maybe also point to the obvious fact it should probably expand and open a branch in Portland).

But enough with that useless praise! We are here to talk about food. And food is what we went for this time. And the bottom line? Meh. But here I am, jumping ahead of myself. So let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The menu was, well, meh. It had a very limited choice of dishes (not a bad thing in itself), but they were all strangely presented. There were no starters, but rather “small things” that included a soup, olives and chips. We skipped that (deciding that it should probably be ordered just with a beer instead of to open one’s appetite for a real meal) and opted directly for the main courses. This part of the menu offered a small variety of classically German bar-food, from Currywurst to Schweinebraten. Simple dishes that could be either a glowing success or what Grizzly moms would call a shot way missing its target.


We opted for the Szegediner Goulasch (the “Hungarian” variation on German goulash. The Szegediner is always made of pork and sauerkraut. It’s a personal favourite of mine, here for 9.80 €) and the Schweinebraten (pork roast, another German favourite for 10.80 €). The result? Not bad. Just to start with a first gush of criticism, the goulash was fairly small, which ruined the entire “simple and hearty” vibe. It was nonetheless very good. The meat was simple, yet as tender as chunks of cheap pork can get. The sauce was very pleasing in itself with just the right touch of sauerkraut. The pork roast was a tad less convincing. Yes, the sauce was nice and the meat was tender, but it was also too fat. The size of the portion was quite pleasing, making it quite a nice choice of weapons, but still, nothing like anything you’d get down in Bavaria.

The cake you should avoid
We then exasperated the unfriendly waitress by ordering a dessert. It was their chocolate cake de la maison in strawberry sauce and cream (3.70 €, also available without the sauce for 2.20 €). And the result? Yikes on bikes! If the food before had actually managed to convince me that Freischwimmer might have been a fair address for a nice meal out despite the menu’s disarray and the waitress’s attitude, now this was just embarrassingly disappointing. There came a large chunk of chocolate cake which was nice and rich inside and not all too edible on the outside (is the idea of an unchewable crust the new parent-friendly fad so that children will not be able to get to the yummy part inside and give up on chocolate cakes altogether?). In a cake-metropolis like Berlin, is it really that difficult to bake a pleasing chocolate cake?

Bottom line? No matter how good or bad the food is, Freischwimmer still is a fabulous location. If October is benevolent enough to send us a few more rays of sunlight, take your friends, parents, lovers or tourist-friends and lurk around at Freischwimmer. The food is quite alright at the end of the day as well and if you are hungry, go for it. Just know that for less money, you’ll get the same quality out of a burger at the Burgermeister just around the corner.

Overall Mark:

Vor dem Schlesischen Tor 2a, 10997 Berlin

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