November 30, 2011

Teutonic Pizza: A Guide to German Cultural References

Rocco und seine Brüder - Kreuzberg

Who owns a city? I’m not talking about rich people who own the land (who may not even live there) or the municipality that provides the services. What I’m aiming for is to get to the bottom of deep philosophical issues. I can see you are frowning at the screen and thinking of closing this window. Be my guest if you want to, but this is serious stuff! I stumbled over this question yesterday after the 4th G&T at a new, cooler-than-thou expat venue in Kreuzkölln. It was packed with trendy people. Yet it was the first time I felt a pang of superiority beside the usual feeling of pure, green envy.

I think the superiority bit came after listening to a girl from North London with a butterfly pinned on her beautifully coiffed head explaining why Berlin was HER city after mere 1.5 months. And why she was here to stay. She was giving tips and recommendations, talking about areas that are cool and others that are “so passé”. There was a lot of sneering involved. And the only thing I could think was: “Really? Your city?” So I just smiled back as if you’d smile to a slightly retarded child who had just done something resembling a failed imitation of a snotty Pug.

This girl actually made me feel superior. Not because I’m any better. All I can say for myself is that I’ve been here long enough to speak the language and get a feeling for the culture. It’s merely about time. And yet. Her sheer chutzpah, ignoring the time factor and the hard-earned lessons it brings, made me think: what makes a person own a city? Is it enough to know your geography and know the cool safe-havens in town? I believe it takes more than just that.

Because at the end of the day, even though Berlin may seem so un-German to the untrained eye, it is still in Germany (as the saying goes). And immersing oneself into the folds of Teutonic culture requires a deeper understanding of local codes, local aesthetics and local references. Unfortunately for the newcomer, local references are not always pleasant or easy to learn. Being exposed to deep-end Germany often requires developing a 6th sense for repellent schlager singers (I still wouldn’t be able to distinguish Roland Kaiser from Udo Jürgens even if my life depended on it), commenting the latest Bauer-sucht-Frau developments, and moreover, recognising Inka Bause (Bauer-sucht-Frau presenter) if you saw her walking down the street in lederhosen. These are things locals know automatically. But for us expats, learning all these references is a long, excruciating process.

The ever-elusive game of German references was the defining experience of this week’s dinner at Rocco und seine Brüder – a popular pizza restaurant behind the church on Lausitzer Platz in Kreuzberg. A couple of VIVA presenters had taken control of the next table and as the conversation drifted to commenting old German TV-presenters, I found myself at a loss. To make things worse, Rocco und seine Brüder is one of these themed restaurants, based on an Italian film from the 1960’s that used to be extremely popular in Germany. Most Germans around me seemed to have regarded the film as an integral part of West-German culture (even though it was about the Mezzogiorno. Oh, the intricacies of European culture), which made the photos on the walls and a few of the pizza-names accessibly witty for them. I, however, could only nod and smile as my table companions commented different aspects of the ambiance.

And yet, the place is pleasingly alive and nicely unpretentious. The tables are crammed on top of each other and the service is jovially accommodating. The menu is fairly simple, with starters and pizzas making out the two only categories available. We began with the anti-pasti platter (for two, 12.80 €), which I found to be fairly disappointing. It contained all the right things: a bit of cheese, a bit of sausage, a few oily vegetables and fresh ingredients. But the quality was not quite there yet. The cheese was very simple (the taleggio was alright, the mozzarella was the cheapest version available and the bland slices of the Gouda-looking rubbery cheese were completely unnecessary). The meat was alright, but nothing more. The other ingredients were not bad, but on the other hand, they were not refined or pleasing enough to justify those 12.80 €. 

Mario Adorf
And then came the pizza. The menu contains two whole pages of different pizzas, for prices starting at 7 € and ending with 11.90 €. We chose the more luxurious ones: the Mario Adorf (mozzarella, taleggio, cèpes, 9.50 €) and the Tartufo (truffle, rocket salad, 11.90 €). They were both quite good, but far from perfect. The biggest problem was the dough: it was a bit too thick and dry in all cases. In that same vein, slicing through the Tartufo was quite an ordeal. The toppings, however, were fairly generous and pleasing. The Mario Adorf (a German speaking actor from South-Tyrol in Italy) was more wholesome than the Tartufo, which came hidden under a mountain of salad, which was as dry as it was green. There would be other details which were not perfect, but at the end of the day, the pizzas were quite enjoyable.

Rocco und seine Brüder is a thoroughly enjoyable place. The food would not be the first and foremost reason to go there – it’s not bad, but it’s not exciting either. However, the ambiance makes it a perfect location for a friendly evening with a few friends, a hearty pizza and a gargantuan carafe of wine. Before you go there, be sure to google the Luchino Visconti’s film Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco und seine Brüder). This way, you’ll always have a  knowledgeable remark available for any witty exchange. 

Overall Mark: 

Rocco und seine Brüder
Lausitzer Platz 13, 10997 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

November 22, 2011

Berlin's Worst Tourist Trap?

East Side Blick - Friedrichshain

Last week, as I happened to cross the Admiralsbrücke on the way back home, I found myself stuck in the middle of a loud demonstration of dreadlocked young Berliners. They were the angry, disenfranchised youth of a city in turmoil. They needed a well-earned outlet for their anger. But instead of doing something useful like occupying the Reichstag or Potsdamer Platz, they decided to demonstrate against the tourists.

It may only be my problem, but why this burning hatred for tourists all of a sudden? True, I occasionally make fun of lard-assed tourists. I will be the first to frown at drunken Spaniards vomiting in front of the few available Berliner landmarks after a night out at Berghain. Moreover, I refuse to go to touristy places and will always make a point out of showing I actually live here, thankyouverymuch. But from here to demonstrating against tourists? Why on earth?!

At the end of the day they bring in money, experiences and impulses. And we also enjoy being tourists in other places. The only reason I am here is because I once had the chance to enjoy this city as a tourist. Imagine what would have happened, had I landed straight on to an anti-tourist demonstration? Of course, you may say I have always been a good tourist. I respect the locals, try to embarrass myself ordering things in their language, I never vomit on the pavement (just on a cat once, but it was a mistake and it was inside a flat. So there you go). But this is all beside the point. Tourists have rights too.

The point is, however, that tourism changes cities. City centres become appropriated by shops catering for people who will not be coming back anytime soon. Aesthetics and quality usually suffer as a result. This often means locals avoid the most representative parts of their cities, leaving them instead to hoards of people who buy “My sister went to London and all she got me was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts. When was the last time you heard about a Parisian going for dinner at the Eiffel Tower? Or a Berliner going out for a fun evening at the Brandenburg Gate? You haven’t, not in a long time, and that’s because these places have been forfeited to tourist-aesthetics and prices. But isn’t it a pity? Wouldn’t it be nice to dine and simultaneously have one of these views that are usually reserved for tourists?

A new mission thus materialised: to find a spot where locals can feel like tourists and enjoy a Berlin landmark. For some reason I had the bad idea to start by testing the East Side Blick on the Spree-bank just next to the Eastside Gallery. I know, the daft name “East Side Blick” should have sent me a clear warning. When I entered the place and saw the bored expression on the face of the girl behind the counter I should have turned on my heel and left. The final straw should have been the menu (somewhere between a bad canteen and a bad idea of a restaurant) or maybe just the plastic ambiance? But I stayed nonetheless.

We should begin with the positive vibe. On a sunny day, the location actually is as stunning as Berlin gets. Being on the Eastside-Gallery bank, you don’t get any of the bleakness of the actual Eastside gallery or the O2 Arena. You get to sit on the riverbank, look towards a couple of nice buildings in Kreuzberg and even more importantly: the Oberbaumbrücke in all its glory makes for a truly pleasing setting.

And now to the less positive things. We started with the antipasti (priced at 6.80 €) and a Kartoffelsalat (for nice 1.60 €). The potato salad might have actually been home made. The antipasti was nothing but. Take a chunk of frozen mix of antipasti vegetables (mushrooms, courgettes and the lot), heat them up in a microwave (to get that extra soggy feeling) and sprinkle soy sauce all over them. 


Main courses? Ahem... they didn’t have any real salmon in stock (the only real main course on the menu was a salmon-steak. Probably hadn’t found any at Lidl?), so we ordered one dish of penne with smoked salmon and rocket salad (8.80 €) and another dish of pasta with shrimps and tomato sauce (8.70 €). The shrimp pasta was edible. The sauce had come directly out of a can and there were a few shrimps to be seen lurking in it. The smoked-salmon dish, however, was nothing less than horrifying. Dried/burnt strips of salmon, a bit of olive oil to make it sound Mediterranean and lots of dry rocket leaves. 

Truly horrid pasta
Bad pasta
I know, I should have known. The only place around Eastside Gallery is basically there to exploit tourists. So why would anyone take advantage of a splendid location and actually make something out of it? It doesn’t have to be pretentious. It doesn’t have to be posh. But even basic studenty pasta can be done right, and if it is done right, it can be enough to make people come and savour the presence of Berlin’s central waterway. Unfortunately, however, there is no reason to stop at East Side Blick. 

Overall Mark:
East Side Blick
Mühlenstraße 70-71, 10243 Berlin

Größere Kartenansicht

November 11, 2011

Berlin's Only Curry? A Birthday Post

Sigiriya - Friedrichshain

It’s that time of year all over again. It’s cold and damp. People seem to enjoy being rude and grumpy. Leaving work in the dark, sunlight belongs to a distant memory of the past. Oh, the gloom. And yet, the Footprints are in a celebratory mode. Yes, you heard me; you are now reading blog’s 40th post, which also marks a whole year of incessant cyber-ranting about Berlin’s culinary landscape! Yay.

It did not take too much brooding to reach the conclusion that the most appropriate birthday gift to readers would be a recommendation about real curry in Berlin.

Just to recap – curry in Berlin is a problem. Always has been. I just blame it on the German psyche, which seems to be inherently incompatible with spicy food. Or with anything all too different from home. You are bound to see where this ends: sweet Vindaloos, creamy Daals, Gouda sprinkled over Naans. In other words: curry genocide. Let’s not exaggerate. Worse things have happened in history than expats unable to appease their ever growing hunger for curry. My stomach rarely stays empty (there is enough non-curry food around, as numerous posts here must have proved beyond doubt). I have not yet starved, a blank expression over my face and flies hovering over my head in a street corner somewhere in Marzahn. And yet, curry deprivation is psychologically taxing and should not be taken lightly. Oh, the gloom.

Yet no more! I come bearing the gift of the first edible curry in Berlin. But let’s not rush things. One step at a time.

It all started with Sarah’s (who knows her curries) discovery of the Sri Lankan Sigiriya in Friedrichshain. I’ll be frank about it: I found it hard to believe her at first. Add the fact that we were talking about an Indian-style restaurant in the heart of Friedrichshain’s Südkiez, which – for the sake of all fairness – did not help dispel any fears or misconceptions in advance. But it’s hard to doubt a Bradfordian’s judgement about curry. Every possibly edible curry is worth a shot. So there I went.

The menu’s layout, the overall ambiance and the insistence on putting organic symbols all around the place reminded me of Chandra Kumari on Gneisenaustraße (which had left me lukewarm at best). I should also add that I am less keen on Sri Lankan/Southern Indian food, as I grew up feeding on Pakistani/Northern Indian deliciousness. But we are in Berlin. We shall not be picky. Or anal. Or stupid. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was time to meet my maker.

We began with the three starters on the menu: Roles (vegetarian roles with a potato-based filling, 2.50 €), vadai (chick-pea balls served with sweet-sour sauce, 2.70 €) and the elavalu roti (samosa-like coconut-bread dumplings with vegetarian filling, 2.80 €). I’ll have to admit they were not breathtakingly spectacular. Far from it, actually. The roles were nice – the filling was a nicely seasoned, stodgy samosa-like-filling and the dough was thin and light. The vadai was... well... dry. The chick-pea balls were nicely seasoned, but it felt like biting into a piece of dry cardboard. The elavalu was, however, very pleasing. It was perfectly seasoned; the dough was good with just the right touch of coconut. They were quite alright, but not much more. As such, I was still dubious about the next phase.

Elavalu roti

We then ordered five dishes: Niviti dhal hodhi (vegetarian red lentil curry with spinach, 6.30 €), chicken curry with paripoo hodhi (a dish with both a chicken based curry dish and a daal – red lentil curry – for 8.90 €), chicken curry with wamboutou hodhi (a chicken curry dish with another aubergine curry, 8.90 €), mutton saag (mutton curry in spinach served with an extra raita-bread, 8.90 €) and mutton curry with ratu ale hodhi and sini sambole (a dish of mutton curry, beetroot – coconut curry and caramelised onions, 9.50 €). The first three we ordered “originalscharf” – which is trying to say we wanted it really spicy, and the latter two were ordered “German-spicy”. Which means not spicy at all, which kinda misses the point, but oh well. In addition, we ordered two pol-rotis (delicious coconut bread, 1.50 €).

The good news is that everything was good. Unlike curries I’ve so far encountered in Berlin, Sigiriya actually uses real spices and not just pieces of “things” swimming in a tasteless, generic curry batches made of blandness and cream. It’s all nicely refined. The bad news is that it’s not Pakistani. I am not sure I am the biggest fan of coconut-based dishes, and Sri Lankan food is big on coconut. But then again, this is my problem, not Sigiriya’s.

Chicken and daal
Mutton and beetroot

I’ll start with the daals, because we all know daal really is the ultimate test. Both daals were good: rich dishes with a real palette of tastes. I found them a tad too coconutty, but then again, this is only me talking. They had enough spice to have more presence than anything else I’ve found in Berlin, but I did not think they were spicy enough. The daal with the spinach was a tiny bit better than the pure daal. The aubergine curry was perfect. Again, too coconutty for me, but otherwise rich in taste, spicy and quite wonderful. The chicken curries were good as well, with the chicken and the spices taking centre stage together (so different to any chicken-curry you’d order anywhere else in town, where you just get a bland sauce with tasteless pieces of chicken lurking around in it). If only, the sauce was not powerful enough, but it was all in the right direction. The mutton dishes were not bad either. The saag was nicely refined, but I found it lacked a bit of presence. The raita was perfect, however, and compensated for the relative blandness of the dish. The second mutton was a lot better. The beetroot curry was very pleasing and the spicy caramelised onions were quite fantastic: both had just the right presence, well balanced and well spiced. The mutton curry on the same dish was a bit more disappointing. Not spicy enough and tasted a bit more generic than the rest. But still light years away from anything else around.

Bottom line: Go to Sigiriya. Like... you know, NOW. Compared to curries in Birmingham it might still be lacking in more than one way, but it could still be a fairly good choice on a London scale. On a Berlin scale, which is what we are dealing with a the moment – it may just be the only possible choice.

Overall Mark: 

Restaurant Sigiriya
Grünberger Straße 66, 10245

Größere Kartenansicht