More thoughts on Dubai and Bice (Italian) at the Hilton

Bice I was in Waitrose yesterday where you can buy everything and anything. Like black-skinned tomatoes from Holland, baby carrots from the USA (Food air miles are a moot point here). There is a special room for pork, a bit like the room for adult entertainment in American DVD shops.Fried CalamariIt’s the opposite of Berlin where I face day after day of local kohlrabi, cabbage and oh potatoes, miles of waxy potatoes even when they claim to be floury.Pain Quotidien

Margins are similarly different. Dubai Marina, where I am staying, is clogged with Pauls and Pain Quotidiens and the prices are astonishing. A cappuccino is 18 DHR or €3.60. The chains open up so fast that the food bears little resemblance to a Pain Quotidien in London, say. This mushrooming can only be explained by returns. The reason there was a gold rush in 1848 was because one could pick up nuggets of gold from the ground, I think food outlets in Dubai promise similar riches.
IMG_1456But it doesn’t make for good food, or exciting food. My experience so far has been disappointing. Sure I can order Singapore noodles from the Noodle House and they get delivered hot but they are just ok. Much better than the food from Yo Sushi which is barely edible.

I suspect there is a lot of good food to be found, if you are willing (able) to go break free of the chains. My father has a local friend who works for the King (not sure which King exactly). His job seems to be similar to that of a courtier. The other day he woke my father up at 5am to go eat somewhere special. Somewhere special turned out to be a cheap standing only joint for the local Indian taxi drivers. They ate flat bread filled with onions. My mouth watered at the sound of it as I ate my sterile chicken wrap from Zaatar and Zeit with exactly 100g (keeping those margins healthy) of soft chicken breast (they play if fast and loose with the meat tenderizers here). Read more of this post

Da Baffi, Italian Food, Wedding

There is something about the combination of the gold lettering and the white pleated curtains in the window of Da Baffi that makes me think of an old-fashioned box of chocolates.  The kind where once you took the carton lid off, you had to peel a sticker off the seam of the thick pearlified paper.  Each chocolate would be housed in its own ruffled white paper.  Picking one up would create a pleasing commotion of paper wrappers rubbing against each other.We are seated in the back room.  Instead of table cloths, there are tea towels that have been sewn together to make perpendicular runners.  The adornment of the room comes from the squiggly white flourescent light on one wall and the fat bodied vases on each table.  The flowers, not the €1.99 bargain tulips you can get at any Lidl, but a composition of spiky leaves and small flowers you might expect to find somewhere in the mediterranean.There is something of the Lavanderia Vecchia in that back room, the colour scheme, the neon – not as extreme nor as contrived but if the two restaurants were people and I found out that Da Baffi was the son of a cousin twice removed, it wouldn’t surprise me.  I don’t think there is any relation of course.  In fact, Lavanderia employs a young man from Munich (?) as their chef whereas walk by the kitchen at Da Baffi and amid the clinks and the clangs you will here the long ‘a’s’ of Italian.The menu, excuse me as I make the cross (I am not religious you understand but some things just warrant excessive gratefulness), is printed on a narrow piece of paper.  It lists a variety of carpaccios, a caponata, a burrata from Puglia, as starters. Followed by a choice of 3 pastas, tagliolini with truffle for example, or a risotto with gorgonzola, pear and nuts.  No Bolognese although the kitchen kindly makes a small plate of farfalle with tomato sauce for Layla.  Read more of this post

Centro Italia, Cash & Carry, Prenzlauerberg

As I was getting out of my car in the parking lot in front of Centro Italia, a beat up old Alfa Romeo came careening down the hill – gravel flying off to one side.  He switched off the engine before he had parked, crunching into a spot and pulling the hand brake loudly. He slammed the door so hard the windshield rattled.  He had a tan, he wore his hair longer than people normally do in Berlin and walked to the entrance of the cash and carry in long quick strides.

I can understand his urgency, it was ten to four and Centro Italia closes at 4 on saturday.Finding good Italian food is a challenge in most cities, not just Berlin (in London I recommend the River Café, Locanda Locatelli for a sophisticated  glamorous approach, or Zucca).  Sure you can find mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, pizza, limp pasta with arrabiata sauce or a grainy Bolognese.  But that’s like pretending those refrigerated plastic trays of sushi have any relation to the real deal.  Italian food is so varied and nuanced, you only have to look at the number of grape varieties they have – thousands, to understand why an authentic Italian meal proves so elusive. Read more of this post

Muret la Barba, Winebar and Bistro, Mitte

After having lunch with my friend Katie at Muret la Barba the other day, I’ve decided she should definitely have a Berlin restaurant blog.  She eats out about 3 times as much as I do and is always trying new places.  She’s already been to Hartweizen on Torstrasse (her verdict, good, a lot of game dishes).  Restaurant 3 (which I had never even heard of but of course the New York Times had already written about in 2009 for chrissakes!).  And she’s been to Das Lokal  or Kantine which was featured in Cee Cee‘s 24th newsletter.
When she suggested a long over due lunch, I said “Let’s go to Muret la Barba.”

“Don’t tell me you still haven’t eaten there!” she teased.

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t.  I don’t know what I’ve been eating lately?  (Oh yes, I do!  The large krakow sausages, straight off the grill with jagged blackened pieces covering one side and an obscene amount of mustard at the Christmas Market behind Galeria.  It’s a Polish sausage and Polish sausages, IMHO, RULE.  They’re firm fleshed, dry, smoky, spicy, with an extraordinary snap to the skin, you need to give it a really good tug before it breaks off.  I’m particular to a stand directly behind Galeria, exiting through the make up and bag department.  They only sell two things; a bratwurst – €2.50 and the Krakow – €3.50.  Confession? As I write this I am plotting one last trip to the Krakow stand before I fly of to Miami on the 27th).
Back to Muret la Barba.  It’s one of Katie’s lunch places, she always get’s the homemade ravioli (whatever the filling) and a salad.  I followed her cue and did the same.  Out came 5 large square ravioli, the size of my entire hand, filled with ricotta and greens, sitting in about 150g of Parmesan flavoured butter (€7.50).  We shared a salad of beetroot, apple, cracked wheat and lettuce – something I could imagine making for myself at home, the freshness of which cut through the richness of the ravioli.

A delicious homemade ravioli lunch for €7.50? Perfect.  More than that however, I’m totally seduced by the vibe of MLB.  It takes leave from the typical Italian places around here, which feel contrived, the available Italians working within, turning up their Italianess to pander to the locals who seem as addicted to all things Mediterranean as they are to the sun.  Instead they keep things simple with a few unexpected bits, each one telling me a story, like: Read more of this post

Sale e Tabacchi, Italian, Mitte / Kreuzberg border

George Vernon Hudson, I don’t like you. So it’s 1898 and things are a bit dim, you don’t get enough daylight hours after work to pursue your entomological pursuits, I get it. But why, pray tell, are we still doing this? This being ‘daylight-saving-time’. I’m no scientist but my instincts tell me that if the days are getting shorter in the winter anyhow, perhaps if we are going to be screwing around with time, we should be doing it the other way around so that we add an hour of sunshine rather than subtract one? I don’t know, just and idea.My other big gripe with the lack of light is the murky yellow photos I will now be posting on the website. Speaking restaurants, I would hazard a guess that a good 70% of Berlin establishments are closed for lunch opening only at 6:30 for dinner. Meaning my pictures look like they were taken by a cusk eel, which is a misleading name because it’s not an eel but a fish which has been spotted some 8,000 meters below sea level, get it? Really deep underwater hence the dark pictures?! (David Lebovitz wrote a great guide to blogging, in it he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald who said “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” Too late, silly is the fabric from which I was cut.).Back to the review. I’ve been to Sale e Tabacchi a few times, usually when friends suggest it as an eating spot. The only colour present in the front and back dining room is blue, the blue of the Sale e Tabacchi sign. There are no paintings, the large half orbed lights that line the walls and ceiling are so striking, I can’t imagine any art that would stand up to them. The waiters are all male, in floor length white aprons, they address everyone in Italian, and if you don’t order properly (Primo, Secondo and so on) they just hover over you, pen poised until you (I) succumb to the guilt and hastily add a dish.

For all that authenticity in decoration, waiter behavior and menu, I don’t like the food. I was trying to figure out why that is last week. As a table of 15, I had a good overview over what the dishes looked like (good) and everyone seemed to be enjoying them. I ordered 2 starters. Octopus with celery (€11.50), which was bland, the only highlight being the inspired addition of celery which I had never encountered before. Then I had the vitello tonnato (€10.50), which came straight from the fridge and whose puddle of tuna sauce was too reminiscent of something else. There were two slices of seedy lemon so mangled, they looked like they’d been fished out of a bin somewhere when the kitchen ran out of lemons (I’m sure that’s not the case but that was what the story their appearance told me).

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Lavanderia Vecchia, Italian, Neukölln

Everyone seems to be talking about this restaurant (it’s on the cover of Zitty’s Essen + Trinken and listed as No. 1 Italian restaurant in Prinz). Some are even being very London about it all and saying it was all the rage when it first opened but not so much now. All I know is: it’s bloody difficult to get a table.  So I did something I often used to do in London, I called 3 weeks before, booked a table for four and then found some friends to go with me. 

It’s rather far away, I drove past the grand old Tempelhof airport and the large green expanses of Volkspark, marvelling at how every time I think I’ve got Berlin figured, it shows me yet another of her faces.

From light and airy, to congested and dingy, Flughafenstrasse is a smutty narrow two lane street.  When you look for the restaurant, it’s best just to look for the number, 46, rather than any obvious sign.  The 3 hanging towels and flourescent tube lighting give a taste of what’s to come.  The most theatrical set up I’ve seen since Pret a Diner: exposed brick walls painted white, flourescent tube lighting everywhere – even, under the table to light up our feet, domestic scenes set up behind glass and lit by yet more flourescent light.  The theater continues when our waitress turns out to be an older woman, in a black house dress with small white polka dots, worn black loafers and silver hair.  It’s wonderful, although entirely unusual to be served by a woman over forty.  We find out later, that the woman is called Andrea and she is half of Lavanderia Vecchia (the other half being her husband) and the crazy interior is her brain child. Read more of this post

Piazza Italiana, Italian Food, Hermsdorf

Funny story.  Hrabi is trying to get his boat license.  Not because we own a boat, or because we like to rent boats on the weekend, or because we are even vaguely seduced by the concept of a boat, but in case one day, someday, he might own a boat and then he wants to be prepared.  That’s like getting a really nice key chain (now) for that gorgeous house in the South of France I will some day own (maybe, possibly, if I win the lottery, wishing on a star, someday).

One of his classmates owns an Italian restaurant.  “I have 30 people working for me.  30.  Italians, not Romanians pretending to be Italians.” He told Hrabi.  “It’s all about ingredients, even a bad cook can seem like a good one if the ingredients are good.  With me, the fish is so fresh the hook is still in the mouth!” Apparently said with index finger hooking dramatically into the corner of his mouth for effect.I don’t often want to eat Italian food, chiefly because it does rely on good ingredients.  But there is no stopping Hrabi once he is on a mission.  And his mission on Saturday was to take me out for Italian.

We drove out 35 minutes to Piazza Italiana in Hermsdorf.

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Rebecca makes Ravioli

Last week we had a new student join our German class at Pro-Log, Berlin.  We all had to re-introduce ourselves for her benefit, we did the rounds and when it was her turn, she said:

“Ich heisse Rebecca, ich bin italienish und ich bin kochin.” (My name is Rebecca, I am Italian and a chef).

My ears pricked right up at that one and when we had our 15 minute break I perched on the seat next to her and started chatting away.  We arranged to visit Wittenbergplatz Market (last week) and Winterfeldtplatz Market (this week) after which she invited me over to show me how to make ravioli.

The minute we entered her cheerful pink kitchen, her pace changed, she began to move with purpose – setting her ingredients down with swift precision.
“Wow, she must be a pro.” I thought. “So how many times have you made ravioli?” I tentatively asked.
“Ravioli? Well, probably 3 times…”
“Hey that is as many times as me!” I thought.
“…a week.” she finished.

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