Pbox Eatery, Kifissia-Athens, Greece

In Athens, I regress back to the lazy teenager I once was. Even though it’s May, it’s hot enough that my brain begins to tick into action after the sun has set. Even then, there is only a skeleton crew operating.  It turns out that interminable grey days are boon to productivity rather than the bane of it.

Yesterday, the radiant sunshine was accompanied by a cool breeze.  This coupled with sucking down two ice laden frappés (turns out that frappés are not a quirky habit but an operational necessity in these parts)  in quick succession made me decide to go down to Kifissia and try out PBox.  A diminutive eatery I had earmarked on my last trip but missed when I found them closed for lunch.I suffer from mild bouts of spring fever.  Among the squat bitter orange trees that line the narrow pavements in my mother’s neighborhood of Holargos it’s not too bad but once I get to Kifissia all villas, nestled in verdant gardens, my sneezing takes on the frequency of machine gun fire.  Entirely worth it, I love Kifissia and its lack of high rises tottering on pillars.  You would never see one neighbor talking to another in a wife beater ribbed white undershirt, hairy nipple poking out through the saggy arm holes in Kifissia (something you will see frequently in most neighborhoods).No, in Kifissia, everyone is elegant, coiffed and sunglassed.  The older ladies wear large chunky jewelery perhaps to complement their large hair (I don’t think they every truly said goodbye to Dynasty).  Every female over 10 years old has a flawless mani-pedi with that telltale sheen that speaks of a trip to the salon as opposed to a home job.  10% of the stores are for rent here as opposed to the rest of Athens where I would put the number closer to 60%.

There are lots of ladies (and gentlemen) lunching and plenty of places catering to them.

P Box is an all day eatery that snags a lot of them.  The menu runs along two different veins, Greek or Japanese / Asian / International.   The Greek part is simple fare, cheeses and meats from around Greece, grilled halloumi from Crete for instance and sausage from Lefkada.  And then a faffy aspirational menu, carpaccio, blue cheese tart, something 3 tables away with way too much truffle oil gaining in pungency as the heat got to it- lots of green salads with things on top, say chicken or tuna.  I’m lamenting this lack of conviction to going with local when it occurs to me that most of the tables have ordered the aspirational stuff with a favouring for the large bowls of frilly salad leaves.Criminal really!  The tomatoes here are so fleshy and full of juice that I cut them straight into the bowl I will be eating them from.  From the two tomatoes I cut up for lunch today, I had over a cup of tomato juice to which I added 1/4 cup of organic olive oil from a greek monastery and a shower of oregano that the 80-year-old mother of a friend of my mothers picked herself in Chania.  Such purity and strength of flavour and there they go eating a frilly leaves with overly sweet Dijon mustard dressing. Read more of this post

Petit Fleury, Café, Mitte

I’ve never been to papa Fleury or the original CafeFleury (no website so have a look on the HG2 write up here) as it’s known across the street. The blue awning caught my eye as I trundled past it on the M1. Along with the menu listing, white on black, in a cluster of different fonts.  And the outdoor seating, provided in the form of stacked ChariTea crates.  Good looking place, it has to be to open on this street where rent must cost a pretty penny.I observed all this and more, jotted the name down and then as usual forgot all about it.  Until a short time later both Cee Cee and Sugarhigh included it in their newsletter in the same week.

Lest I forget again, I quickly made plans for lunch with my girlfriend.  When we arrived,  someone had already scratched some nonsense into the thick pane of glass.  I felt for the owners.  I know how hard it is to open up a business and get it going well enough that you can stick your neck out and open a second place only to have someone deface it within weeks…The spunky awning outside is echoed with a wall of the same colour inside.  A bar is lined with framed photographs of  movie stars (Paul Newman, Marlon Brando type movie stars).  There is an open fridge where you can help yourself to yogurts, quarks, drinks and the likes.  Another serviced vitrine with some cakes and sandwiches.  Or you can order from a small menu.  The kitchen at the back is visible through a large open pass - always a sign of confidence that the cooks have nothing to hide.

Read more of this post

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

Horváth, Austrian / German, Kreuzberg

The former food critic of the New York Times, Frank Bruni, visited Berlin a while back.  He ate at Noto, Tim Raue, Horvàth and Hartmanns and then wrote an article: “Sorry to Disappoint, but I Ate Well in Berlin.”  (I suppose that ‘You’re right, it’s not great’ wouldn’t have been interesting enough to write-up.)  In the almost two years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen small improvements.  Still when I recently came back from a 3 day trip to London a couple of weeks ago and my husband texted me:

“I’m going to treat you for an early Valentine’s. (13 of Feb) Where do you want to go to dinner? Anywhere you want!  My treat.”  3 hours later I still hadn’t replied.

“Hello?! Did you get my message?!”  Came another text.

He walked in early at 7 asking “Hey - don’t you want to go out?”

“No! There is no where I want to eat in Berlin!” I wailed dramatically after which we settled for Hartweizen where, except for the enormous drawing of an Egon Schiele style entwined couple but with much more meat on their bones, there wasn’t much to report.Bruni is right, Berlin restaurants are taking great strides but my (trying for humble) opinion is that the improvements that are occurring are within the relatively safe niche of hearty Austrian / German cooking.  Which is precisely my problem with eating out here.  I don’t have memories of jolly knödel rolling off plates and pork knuckle so large you can’t see over the top of it.  I buy kohlrabi good-naturedly, only to find it weeks later, when I’ve used up all the other vegetables in the drawer, once erect fronds sagging sadly.  Then I google recipes, usually find a salad where it’s cut into matchsticks, make it, eat it and then return to google to find out nutritional value because surely there must be a more compelling reason than taste to eat this funny looking Brassica.  Stodge is not my friend, portions with no regard for where the plate ends and the rim begins have me reaching for a paper bag to hyperventilate in.

The kind of food I like to eat - small portioned, light, high quality seasonal fare, in a non fussy interior, preferably employing the no-reservation and better prices policy that has become popular the world over (see Nicholas Lander’s latest column in the FT for more on the subject) and therefore allowing me the freedom to indulge food urges at short notice - has yet to arrive in Berlin.I hadn’t come to that conclusion yet.  I was still rather thrilled by the former NYT food critic eating in Berlin and liking it!

I picked Horváth (having already eaten at Noto and Tim Raue and having deemed Hartmann’s a bit pricey ).  You can order a la carte at  Horváth but seem to be discouraged from doing so as main courses carry a surcharge of €5.  Alternatively, you can choose from a 3 course traditional menu for €40, a 4 course vegetarian menu for €46 lastly the ‘innovation’ menu 5 courses for €62 or 7 courses €76.  I find the menu’s architecture convoluted, I don’t necessarily like the combinations on the cheaper menu, it’s already 9pm and I can’t fathom making my way through the 5 course menu and paying a surcharge of €5 on what seem to already be healthy main course prices brings out my inner Ebenezer (although two of my companions who are not similarly disabled order the Pike-Perch / Zander and are charged €28.50 instead of €23.50) that only leaves the vegetarian. Read more of this post

La Bonne Franquette, Brasserie (Lunch), Mitte

Did you know that you can have a two course lunch at La Bonne Franquette for €10?  And that includes a drink?  Somehow I missed that when I was looking at their website.  When the waiter angled the chalk menu towards my table I did one of those cartoon moves where you hear a trumpet ***HONK***, your feet come off the floor, your eyebrows lift into the aether and your eyeballs multiply away from your face getting bigger the farther away they are.  (Well in my head. A lot goes on in-my-head.)

If you want the flank steak (skirt steak), and you do want the flank steak, it’s a supplementary €3.  This cut has a lot of chew to it, with visible fibers, which means you order it medium rare otherwise you will be masticating for rather a long time.  To compensate for the jaw work out it packs a lot of flavour.  It’s hard not to eat every last one of those skin on fries (you may ask why one would even contemplate such a thing - welcome to a woman’s mind, it’s all about abstinence, too much of a good thing is very very bad).

That wasn’t my dish by the way, it was my friend’s.  Mine was an aubergine cous cous dish.  When I went to University in Paris, my friend Giulia and I would often lunch at a Moroccan place on Rue de Grenelle.  I pictured a vegetarian tagine of chickpeas and aubergine and a steaming bowl of cous cous like I used to eat there.  The nostalgic water works in my mouth abruptly dried up when I got my order.  A shallow filled eggplant skin, where the flesh had gone off to, I don’t know.  The cous cous filling bland and dry, the handsome broccoli florets unsalted and cold and the accompanying salad a repeat of my appetizer (beetroot and apple with balsamic mustard dressing).  Hope manifested itself in a miniature bowl of sauce.  Something salty perhaps? Or a tangy  yogurt with a breathe of garlic to liven everything up?  Alas, no it was cream (huh?) with cinnamon (whaaaaa….?) and it got left behind.

I blame myself really.  (That’s another thing women readily do)  It’s a brasserie and I should have stuck to what brasseries do best instead of going off on some Don Quixoten/esque (?) quest to find a tagine as good as the one I used to eat on Rue de Grenelle when I was 18 and you could have gathered up all my culinary expertise, dumped it into a chickpea skin and still had space to spare.  Read more of this post

Carmens Restaurant, Regional Food, Eichwalde

Where I live in Mitte, it’s all concrete, grit and black snow, I was hankering after something different - probably spring but I was willing to settle for a foray outside Berlin.  And not Potsdam.  (Heaven preserve us from overly sweet hot chocolate and towering ‘kuchen’).  My husband, having grown up in a suburb, within a suburb, within a suburb, in other words 3 houses clustered together or where the fox says goodnight to the owl - has an acute fear of anywhere without a Starbucks.  Not that he has a thing for Starbucks per se but you need a certain population density for a crowned green mermaid to take over a coffee shop near you.  I on the other hand grew up in Athens, up in the mountains.  From the age of 5, I could walk out by myself and get a Snickers bar from the kiosk to sustain me on my 5 minute amble to the video store.  So I want a garden and he dreams of living in a hotel, where the ketchup and shampoo is miniature and sealed.Predictably, I started cooing over all the tree houses I saw in the large gardens.  ”Imagine how much fun children must have out here!’  He got tense and started driving faster, presumably reasoning that the faster we got there, the faster we could get out again.  ”And how did you hear about this place again?” he asked.  ”Someone I follow tweeted me the recommendation.”  ”You and twitter.” he mumbled.  (See “I Tweet, Therefore I Am” in the NY Times)Carmens is about an hour outside Berlin.  It is, as my husband’s rigid body language testified, very rural.  A former butcher’s is now home to a restaurant specializing in regional cuisine.  The Michelin guide lists it under best value and charming restaurants.  We walk in, Hrabi carrying Layla, Layla carrying an armful worth of Disney characters, a Muller yogurt and a plastic spoon. A roomful of older people, stop eating, cutlery poised mid-air and breathe a sigh of relief when we are discretely shown a table on its own by the window.  Not a place that welcomes children then.  The feeling I got is that Carmens is a place that families (with older children) go for special occasions and where they eat food like they used to find in an interior that would go well with the outfits in Debbie Gibson’s 1989 video Electric Youth.  Remember that time? The chairs are metal and painted in matt black paint, circular metal cabinets with glass shelves hold rows of glasses.  The carpet is blue, the tablecloths are yellow.  It has been a long time since the place was updated.

The food was similarly nostalgic.  The components of the salad that came with my fish were all peeled.  Everything; green peppers, tomatoes (deseeded), cucumbers (deseeded).  The fish had been wrapped in an intricate confetti of potato and fried in butter.  Fried in butter was the theme of the our main courses, it was wafting out every time the kitchen door swung open.    Hrabi’s schnitzel had been similarly bathed in butter, the potato salad came with the superfluous addition of mushrooms.   Read more of this post

3 Minutes sur Mer!, French Food, Mitte

*Update (March 2012) 3 Minutes sur Mer now have a lunch menu.  

3 Minutes sur Mer!

Exclamation point indeed.

Ask and certain people will tell you.  Berlin isn’t ready for pricey restaurants.  That is why so many places open up only to close.  The market is just not here yet.  Give ‘em cheap and give ‘em lots.


Exclamation point.I made a lunch date at 1:30 with a girlfriend.  ”Should I call ahead to make a reservation.” she asked.  ’Who needs a reservation for lunch in Berlin? On Torstrasse? On a Wednesday?  Even for an offshoot of Bandol Sur Mer, bound to be popular.’  That was my thinking at least.  Flawed thinking I soon came to realize, as I huffed and puffed my way up Torstrasse in my two pairs of trousers, 4 shirts, 1 fleece and 1 coat and a cashmere pashmina wrapped around my waist to combat the devastation this arctic weather is wreaking on my lower back (Born in Kuwait people - which by the way - is where you will find me if this cold doesn’t let up.).The place was throbbing with custom.  Screen away the surrounding buildings and 3 Minutes could have been off the Seven Dials in London or in the Latin Quarter in Paris.  Blockbuster cities with a fair number of wealthy inhabitants.  I snagged the only table just in time. Read more of this post

Essen Fassen, German Food, Charlottenburg

I went to Essen Fassen over a year ago and had such a mixed experience that I just took the whole thing, put it on a virtual shelf and promptly forgot about it. Then last week a friend suggested we meet there for lunch. A friend whose goulash I love and whose 3 male gendered children eat calves liver on (while my child only eats white food; pasta shaped like zoo animals, Philadelphia cream cheese, yogurt with crunchy pieces shaped like hoops, or stars, peanut butter with jam - no bits in either component).  Needless to say if this girl says it’s good, it must be good and I must be wrong.Still…

“Really?” I asked “Don’t you just want to go to Brot und Butter?  I had some weird food there last time.”

“Huh.  I had a lentil dish the other day and it was very good.  What did you have?”

“Leg of goose, I think there may have been some chocolate involved in the sauce, red cabbage, spaetzle.  All delicious if ridiculously enormous a portion large enough to feed two - which by the way it ended up doing because Hrabi’s dish of spaetzle with sweet and salty peanut sauce was inedible.  Then for dessert a dry chocolate brownie, corners showing signs of age, with a yummy plum compote of which ironically, there was not enough.”

“Ok, let’s go to Brot und Butter.”

“No, you know what? I need to get out of Mitte, my blog is becoming overly Mittecentric.And so we did which is a good thing because my lunch was great and I realized that I much prefer the restaurant during the day.  At night it’s a little bit too dim and quiet, it makes me think of long winters spent visiting my grandmother who only ever had (still has) one feeble lightbulb in her 10 lightbulb chandelier.  During the day, light bounces off the large white oval table (Ikea, I have the same one) onto the lovely silver and slate wallpaper.  There are more guests adding warmth to the surroundings.  The large (in stature) waiter, who because of his height, can give you quite a fright when he appears, lurch like, out of the shadows is significantly tempered by daylight.I’m not sure if this is a lunch thing or a-year-has-passed-since-you-last-ate-here thing but the food arrived on trays, with the napkin folded into a triangle to one side, cutlery on top.  You keep the tray under your plate as you eat.  I quite liked that detail, it made me think of times (long, long ago) when I used to look forward to what surprises and delights my airplane meal might have in store for me.  Or when I am oh so blissfully alone (can count on my pinky toe how often this happens) because someone else has my child and is taking care that she is eating her white food, my husband (often culinarily challenged) has made other arrangements and I can make my food exactly how I like, place it all neatly on a tray, perch it on my knees and watch something I want to see while eating food that is not only delicious but still hot!  (Ah, the craziness that such trivial details can induce.) Read more of this post


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