Sasaya, Japanese, Prenzlauerberg

Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc are both self-taught.  Unhampered by other people’s ways of doing things they were able to develop their distinctive food personalities.  What they don’t say (but I think is equally important) is how naive they were starting out.  Had they both been told that they would be working towards multi-michelin stars and helping to change the face of food in Britain I’m sure that they would have seized up with fear and found something else to do.Now, almost two years on (In July) I see my own naiveté in this blog.  I optimistically set out to find the equivalents of my London darlings in Berlin (you will find a list of them on my favourites page).  More often than not I came up empty but at no point did it occur to me to stop because what I was looking for didn’t exist.I was in London for almost a week  recently and riding at the top of a bubbly red double-decker bus, I smiled at what I had been endeavouring to do.  London is a city of choice and excess where anything you want can be yours for the taking - provided of course, you’ve got the money to pay for it.  A good portion of these affluent folks are young, 20-35 young (a lot of trustafarians to be sure accompanied by a minority successful in their own right).  Dinner on Tuesday at Yauatcha, I was flanked on one side two girls their cheeks still plump from childhood, their nails perfectly painted in pretty pastels and on the other by a young couple (the female part of which also had a manicure - prettiness appears to be celebrated in London). At Nopi on Wednesday the crowd was a tick older but a decade younger than you would ever find anywhere charging those equivalent prices in Berlin.I think I might have nailed it, the reason why I can’t find enough of the places I like here; informal, no tablecloths, laid back but knowledgeable service, small plates and above all seasonal, flavourful good quality food with international awareness.   It’s because if there are moneyed people here they are older. They all flock to places like Grill Royal or Borchardt.  Places where waiters hinge at the hips, use crumb scrapers and behave like petty bureaucrats grossly misusing their  teeny tiny allocation of power-  sticking you in the basement by the toilet (Borchardt) if they don’t like the look of you.I didn’t have a clue about any of this in 2010.  When everyone I knew sent me to Sasaya when I asked for Japanese, I wasn’t convinced.  ’There must be better than this.  There must be a place like Dinings here…surely?”

Yeah…not so much…Originally, when I went for dinner, I found Sasaya to be too dark, the classical music too loud, the smell..boiled rice mixed with seaweed made my nose crinkle and the trouble in securing a table seemed exaggerated.  I returned for lunch last week (much to the bemusement of the friends who had recommended it to me 2 years ago).  I found I prefered it during the day, the rainbow theme is easy to spot and playful (the music is still too loud and they really need to crack a window open somewhere). Read more of this post

Traube, Alpine (?) Food (Set Lunch), Mitte

I walked into an opticians the other day, on the Oranienburger Tor side of Friedrichstrasse.  The visual clues of the store told me I would be able to purchase something a little out of the ordinary and of good quality.  The frames are mostly stored in drawers so you have to enlist the help of a salesperson.  This I did, a young man with large frames, with lenses so thin they looked like dummies.  He picked up a pair that he thought looked great (Lindberg, large, thin metal frames.  He stood back and looked at them on my face, nodding appreciatively.“Yes, yes.”

“Don’t you think they look too big?” I asked

“Big? No. It’s only because your frames are so old-fashioned (read narrow), your frames must be at least 8 years old.”

“They are 3 years old actually.”

“Well, the model is 8 years old. These are so modern.”

We get to talking about prices. €30 for the eye test. €405 for the frames. €285 per not-made-in-china lenses. I skewer one eye shut and cast the other one heaven ward why I work out the cost.

“That’s €1’000 for a pair of glasses.”  I’ll readily admit the price caught me off guard.“Let me check.” he says reaching for a calculator (this just in- expensive glasses don’t make you any smarter). “No - €975, the €30 eye test is a gift.” (A gift? That’s like Louis Vuitton giving you a handful of lollipops with the purchase of one of those wallets - Umm, I’m pretty sure I’ve paid for those lollipops!)

I didn’t walk out of there with a new pair of glasses, not that time nor the next when I took along my good friend, a woman of many talents - one of which is the ability to speak the truth without hurting anyone’s feelings.  There was no hesitation, the verdict was a resounding “No!”I recapped the experience, astronomically priced glasses, that didn’t suit me because they were on trend?  Snobs are a funny bunch.  Clearly I had landed on a frame snob but the characteristics are the same whether you are dealing with a highbrow literature snob, or a “I make more money than you” snob, or a “I only eat organic foods, cycle everywhere, have a 0 carbon footprint and when I die I am going to be buried in a cardboard box - which will be recycled.” snob or ‘my marble collection is shinier than yours” snob.

The whole thing put me off, snobs in general on any subject, put me off.  Which is why I when I had to pick a place for a lunch date on Friday I went for something decidedly unhip - Traube.I had avoided it in the past because it just seemed too stiff, an ‘elbows off the table’ kind of joint.  And too expensive, judging from the Michelin stickers by the door (it turns out it doesn’t have a star but a crossed fork and spoon, meaning ‘charming restaurant‘).  Would I have to dress up?  It seemed to be occupied exclusively by males, in their 40′s, wearing navy blue suits and red ties.

All I can say is I was wrong on all counts.  I went there for lunch with my new friend Lucy (who writes a wonderful food blog called The Colour of Pomegranates).  I was slightly nervous that I had corralled someone I didn’t know all that well into an awkward lunch but €15 for 2 courses and coffee on starched table cloths seemed too good to pass up.

Here is the thing about Traube - it’s good.  It’s supposed to be Alpine by the way (I know. Right? Because that is what we are missing in the city of Berlin) but what we had for lunch was far removed from the Alpine fare I normally eat.  A lot of the food had garlic in it, good garlic, properly cooked, adding flavour in all the right places.  It was intensely coloured almost mediterranean in some cases and full of textures - my potato rösti had a homemade potato chip on it.I started with a salad and Lucy had a cup of what had been described to us as a red pepper and tomato soup.  When it came to swapping plates, it tasted differently from what I had imagined. Sour for example with droplets of oil jostling with the spreading sour cream.  ”What’s this meat?” (Polish Kielbasa I found out later) I asked holding up a morsel.  Then “Is this salami??” And finally “No way, did they put pickle in this!?” (they did and pickle brine)  I motioned the (incredibly nice) waitress over and asked her to confirm all the ingredients I had identified.  ”It’s called Solyanka, it’s a soup from the Ukraine.” she explained. “Oh! I love Solyanka, it’s the only thing I enjoyed eating in Moscow.” Lucy added.  It’s also one of Angela Merkel’s favourite foods (see this article in the Guardian ‘East Germans are still different” - thanks Lucy for the link). Read more of this post

Hofcafé, Garden Cafe, Wannsee

Can it be?

One and a half days of brilliant sunshine seem to confirm it.

Although the trees are still brown and bare with no promissory green buds.But today as I sat in the courtyard of the Hofcafé in Wanssee, I could hear euphoric bird song and pretty flowers dazzled me every which way I looked. They were all greenhouse grown and potted but it didn’t matter to me.  My eyes fixed on their brilliant colour.  I grew optimistic and slid my sweater off, exposing my bare arms - ah well, perhaps a smidgen too early for that but a whisper of what is to come.My first week in Berlin, I remember chatting to a Brazilian father in Kollwitzplatz, I was delirious with the excitement that seems to afflict nearly all those moving to Berlin.  I gushed about how wonderful it was.

“Yes…” he paused, perhaps considering whether he should quash my enthusiasm.  ”The winters though…  They are very hard.  Grey skies every day, for days, for months…”  His voice trailed off and so did his gaze, as if contemplating something unsettling.Pah!  Probably seems that way to a Brazilian used to seeing everything in Technicolor I thought then.  Now two years later, a Londoner entirely acclimatized to setting out with an umbrella even if there isn’t a cloud is the sky and a person who believes that SAD is just another made up Western affliction to keep company with lactose intolerance - I say

“Yeah, WOW! Those Berlin winters will knock all the ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens‘ right out of you!” Until all that’s left is, well the grey fluff you find when you move the sofa.

If what my iPhone tells me is to be believed, Spring may just be coming to town next week.  I hope it plans on sticking around until buxom Summer knocks it aside. Read more of this post

Berlin Cooking Club, German Food (and a word in your ear about Supper Clubs)

Mel and Kelsie are probably strolling down a stretch of beach in Castelldefels as I write this.

It was their idea, the Berlin Cooking Club. The inaugural club had just 4 cooks and guests. Then it moved on to The Dairy. And yesterday it was hosted in Caroline and Tobias’s (of the famed Thyme supper club) spacious flat. 6 cooks, a cocktail girl and 11 guests.Included among the guests: Kristi and Dave who host a supper club of their own called Zuhause that is tearing its way to the top of the “Supper Clubs in Berlin you MUST visit” list.  (If the stunning photos on their website are not reason enough for you to go, Irish born Dave and Canadian Kirsti are immediately likeable, the kind of people you want to make dinner plans with within 10 minutes of knowing.)A cooking club is different from a supper club, it’s a group of cooking enthusiasts who meet regularly.  Each cook makes one dish, or perhaps pair up to make one big dish.  At our cooking club, we always set a theme (yesterday was German food, the time before Swedish, the time before that Lebanese) but with all those cooks in the kitchen, each with his or her own aesthetic, palette and idea of portion size, there are quirky variations between courses.  Unexpected sights in the vista occur, you know, you are driving by, pine trees whooshing past you, pine tree, pine tree, pine tree and then - oh, coconut tree.  Makes you want to stop the car and get out, or wake up (depending on which way you are inclined).  As a guest, the inevitable incongruity might appeal to you or not, the hook being the rock bottom cost (€15 per head yesterday including drinks) and the chance to meet other people’s vetted friends.As a cook, it’s as a convivial way as I can imagine to spend a few hours, utterly devoid of competition, replete with encouragement and ideas.

I volunteered to make dessert, I imagined a ‘schwarzwälder kirschtorte’ (black forest cake to you and me).  I love the combination of sour cherries and chocolate but I didn’t fancy the syrup laden, whipped cream plastered, chocolate shaving covered cake with gaudy glacé cherries perched perkily in yet more whipped cream.  I also didn’t want to be wrestling with a large cake or baking two cakes for that matter.  My vague idea was that I would make a sheet cake, use a circular cutter to portion it out (something that saved me when somehow our party increased in number from 14 to 18 in the last half an hour).  Syrup on top of that.  Sour cherry compote thickened with cornflour and flavoured with cinnamon, orange juice with a good glug of my grandmother’s homemade cherry liquor.  Mini meringues on the outside of that.  A small scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream on top of that.  Then a crazy wig of chocolate squiggles.Except the chocolate squiggles didn’t quite come to be.  I nabbed the idea from Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz’s Mission Street Food.  The idea being a homemade version of chocolate magic shell, made up of coconut fat and chocolate (ratio of 1.5 : 1).

“So I am supposed to squirt this chocolate into ice water and then it will set into squiggles.” I enthuse to some of the other cooks.
4 of us hunch over the bowl of ice water, I squirt, we hold our breath.  The chocolate sauce spreads out like an oil spill, not a squiggle in sight.
Tobias walks into the kitchen, finds us all huddled together, heads inclined over a large metal bowl.   He joins us to see what we were looking at.  ”Why are we all staring at a bowl of mouldy water?” he asks.
“It’s not mould, it’s chocolate, we are trying to make chocolate squiggles, it’s not working.” I reply.
“Try holding the nozzle underneath.” suggests Caroline.  I do, I squirt, the squiggles looked vaguely fecal.  We abandon that idea.
“Why not just use normal chocolate without the coconut fat?” Stephan asked “Or more chocolate?”
“No, you know what, let’s just do it as Smucker’s intended,  as a chocolate hat for the ice cream.” I resolved (although I’ve still got the stuff in a squeezy bottle in my fridge and believe you me, this isn’t over, I am going to figure out this squiggle business!)
That my friends, is the beauty of a cooking club.  It takes you from bumbling along silently in the kitchen, where mishaps are deflating and lonely, to part of a group of curious people pitching in to save your day or less dramatically your dessert.  And lets face it, would I ever make a dessert with 6 separate components for my family of 2 adults and 1 seriously fussy 3-year-old?  Umm, no.  For a dinner party of 6? Well if I’m also making, canapés, a starter and main course - then probably not (although sometimes I do it).  For 14 people and eventually, 18? Yes! I like that challenge, especially when people end up enjoying what I’ve made.

To attend the Berlin Cooking Club, you have to be invited by one of the cooks (so get to know us!) but of course you can always start your own.  I thoroughly recommend it, more fun than a book club!Supper clubs are open to all.  And you really do need to go to a supper club because some of the best food you will eat in Berlin may just be at a supper club!  Certainly that is where you will find people behind the stove that care about what they are cooking and the ingredients they are using, you will be treated nicely, usually you will meet interesting people and pay well under what you would expect to for a similar meal in a restaurant. Read more of this post

Bulgarian Salad (Salată Bulgărească)

When I was doing my MA in London, I met a girl whose last name was Mihai.  Her first name was very Romanian sounding as well.
“Hi, I’m Suzy.” I smiled “My mother is Romanian.”
She answered me in English, “I don’t speak Romanian.”
“What?” I balked.  She was as Romanian as they get, I would have guessed she was Romanian even without hearing her speak or knowing her name.
As I got to know her better, she took the liberty to advise me “You know, you aren’t really Romanian, it’s only your mother after all and you have a Greek passport, just tell people you’re Greek.” (Obviously this all happened way before the current financial crisis) As if admitting to be a Romanian or even part Romanian was tantamount to saying “I like to pick my nose in public.”  And that people were going to give me wide berth once they knew.In spite of her advice, whenever I meet someone and they ask me where I am from, I hit them with the “I was born in Kuwait, my father’s Jordanian, my mother’s Romanian and I was raised in Greece.”

I am surprised by how many people don’t know where Kuwait is (over Saudi Arabia, invaded by Iraq in the first Gulf War, a country which in August can reach temperatures of 55°C).  And since the Middle East is like the dark side of the moon for most Western people (although I find overall perception of Arabs is improving since the start of the Arab Spring), the part they latch on to is the Romanian part.  (And Eastern and Southern

Europeans are now more than ever becoming the new target for xenophobia, see Simon Kuper’s article ‘Meet Europe’s New Scapegoats‘)

“So Romanian huh? They have a big problem with orphans? And stray dogs? And prostitution? And corruption?”  I am assaulted by a barrage of negative associations and I understand why Romanians often skirt around their nationality but it also really bugs me. Enough already!

There is a little bit of that going on in Berlin, sometimes when I am introduced to someone new at a party, the next comment, whispered with a shifty look is “She / he is East German.”  ”And?! So Freaking What! What exactly does that mean?  Hide my silverware?

Read more of this post


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