Phoebe in Berlin, Chinese Supper Club, Friedrichshain
February 6, 2012 8 Comments
Expectations are a funny thing. Honed over years of living to have the smallest margin of error possible. People rely on preconceived expectations to a greater or smaller degree, depending. I rely on them a lot, have become adept at gathering information and vetting the personalities who may have offered me the tip to come up with as accurate a picture as possible.Consequently, I am not often surprised. Or let’s put it this way, I am rarely positively surprised.
Caroline and Tobias of the Thyme Supper Club recommended Phoebe in Berlin’s. Their words “It’s something different. She’s a professional chef, not an enthusiastic amateur. She does French food and Chinese. The Chinese is special, not like any Chinese food we’ve ever eaten before.”It wasn’t.
It took a couple of months, a flurry of emails and one cancellation for enough people to be interested to make the Chinese themed evening viable. Good things are worth waiting for and the shifting date meant that I didn’t go into overdrive imagining what it must be like. In fact when the email finally came: “Hallo! Happy to see you! Tomorrow night 7:30” it caught me totally off guard, I didn’t even know if my husband was in town to watch Layla.We were asked to leave our boots at the door and invited to help ourselves to a pair of slippers from an overflowing wicker basket (love that, stealing that! I too make people take off their shoes but I don’t provide any slippers).Phoebe is from Taiwan, where she ran a successful French restaurant (Louis XIV) for over 10 years. Her apartment is large, bright and Ikea free with plenty of unfamiliar decorative pieces that give the place an Asian flair. Not Asian like you or I could achieve, trawling the shops around here, more like bits and pieces you might find in a Mandarin Oriental in Taiwan.Phoebe struts decisively in knee-high black boots with waist length hair and an awesome air of authority. I have an odd thought, primal in nature: ‘if we went into battle, I would follow Phoebe’ – which is weird really, because normally I would expect people to follow me into battle. All these thoughts tumble into my consciousness in the hallway, in a matter of seconds.Phoebe has already left us to speak to the journalist that is doing a piece on her supper club for a Norwegian publication. She is showing them ingredients that will feature in tonight’s meal. She speaks quickly, gesturing a lot, often hard to understand. Even though I am speaking to other guests, I catch snippets of what she is saying “this is like lychee, we dry it…this is a special pepper…good for skin, gets rid of water.”I had been expecting a nice Chinese meal but this sounds medicinal, mystical.
When the rest of the guests arrive, we are invited to start with the canapés. Peeled tomatoes in vinegar, to get the appetite going we are told. Deep fried green olives in a Parmesan and wasabi crust. Ricotta and soy panna cotta with a sprinkling of cracked pepper in a pool of vivid grassy olive oil.We are asked to adjourn to the dining room, where the table is laid with a black velvet tablecloth, large white plates set off black ceramic plates, orchid in the center, deep groves radiating outwards. Tucked in on the left the evening’s menu. The table setting and dining room are arresting.The ten of us sit down and are immediately immersed in the menu. There are many ingredients I don’t recognize; rubber bush mushrooms, white wood ear, job’s tears, black sugar.The food starts coming out. Each course is served in a different dish. There is a build up of flavour complexity and richness as we amble pleasantly through the meal. The pan-fried mushrooms with silken tofu is a favourite. The steamed cod in caramelised soy sauce is dreamy, succumbing to large succulent flakes with just the gentlest of prods. A plate of slow cooked pork belly is put in front of me by Phoebe’s husband, only to be whisked away by Phoebe moments later.
“I give you a better piece, more fat.” She reappears with another plate, the ratio of meat to fat roughly equal. “Fat is best part.” (In my slow evolution- I can hear my friend Giulia giggling as I write this- from pernickity child eater to foodie adult, fat has been a difficult issue. I would often push away plates of pristine chicken breast schnitzel because they allegedly contained ‘fat’.) I take a bite, the play of soft fat to flesh is delightful but the whole is topped with a bouncy piece of fat, the texture of a Haribo gummy bear. There is a moment of hesitation, I admit, until I transcend my Western bias against unfamiliar textures. Once I do, I quite enjoy it. And beam happily when Phoebe notes that I alone appreciated my fat. The best comes next. A dumpling filled with black sesame in a pool of black sugar, stewed fruit (something like a lychee but not, Phoebe tells us) and sweet walnuts. The combination is foreign but sensational, the table falls into a quiet reverie, the only sound that of scraping spoons. And still there is more, a green tea cake with sesame snaps and a special tea. By that time, midnight has rolled around. I want nothing more than to be horizontal, I am stuffed. The company has been good and I can’t wait to get in front of my computer and tell you all about it!
Suggested donation €50 with a €3 extra per glass of wine