Good eats in the big B

Found in the Kaufhof groceries section: a Limquat!! A lime the size of a walnut! GENIUS.

This weekend was the big moment; my new flat had to meet the parents. I’m too much of a compulsive hostess to let them stay in a hotel, so they bunked in my big Berlin bed and I had an excuse to buy a kickass lilo. This was the first time ever that my dad had seen Berlin, having never had any holiday time even in my first stint in the Vaterland. It was my one chance to prove that moving over here and haemorrhaging money by furnishing an empty flat and starting a frantic job was all worth it. How was I going to convince my dad that this city really is awesome enough to never want to leave?

Firstly, by getting a bunch of old-fashioned bikes and pelting around the Tempelhof abandoned airport for a happy hour. He’s an obsessive photo-fiend, and a big wide open airfield full of people flying kites at sunset was a gift from the patron saint of picturesqueness. Plus, boys like bikes and planes. Win-win.

Secondly, by taking him to the Reichstag so that he could have a wander around that amazing dome, a huge glass bowl containing two interweaving helices (seems like a poncy way to pluralise ‘helix’ but have it your way, spellcheck) which make a kind of optical illusion as you walk up and then realise that you are walking down again along a different path which you thought was the same path as the one before. This wasn’t such a resounding success, mainly because Berlin decided to welcome my beloved parents by being as freaking grey and rainy as is possible within the boundaries of Earth physics. We skittered around the dome only briefly, pausing to look at the city from above in all its moist splendour before simply giving up and going to get cake.

And yup, that’s the third thing. The best thing to convince my dad – hell, the best thing to convince any visitor that Berlin is the city to be in right now, is to feed them, and feed them good. There are so many fantastic places in this city and joyfully they are all their own sweet little independent racket because essentially there is no such thing as chain restaurants or cafés over here (let’s not acknowledge the one exception which rhymes with ‘tar ducks’). And maybe you need some recommendations or maybe you need a reason to come here or maybe you just like lists, but either way, sit down and let me tell ya about some of my favourite places.

1. The Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz
Ok, so the food court of a mid-range department store is probably one of the lamest places to hang out. And yes, the average crowd there is less hipster and more hip replacement. But good god, people, the salad bar. There are rows of counters piled high with glittering ice and stacked up with plates filled with the most delicious, often outrageously strange salads, and you just take a plate and load on up. Bowls of seeds and croutons and dressings and bits of this and that and delicious nubbliness are scattered about to supplement your mound of tasty swag. There’s a handsome guy wearing a black bandanna making fresh stir-fries to order with crisp, rainbow ingredients. There’s another bank of ice chilling freshly pressed juices of unexpected fruits like kiwi or blueberry. There is a thing called a ‘vegetable buffet’ which I’m not sure I understand but I like it, a vast selection of fresh and delicious stews and soups, and most importantly: an entire wall lined with your options for cake and strudels. 

 

 2. Knofi, Mehringdamm
This one is a little confusing as there are actually two parts of this restaurant, one opposite the other on different sides of the same road. One is more casual and laissez-faire, a nice place for a comfy lunch with friends (or in my case in my first visit, with a sort-of-friend who was ten years my senior, made a pass at me and then a while later ran away to join a cult) – the other is more mature and seductive and does more dinner-ish options like a killer meze and magical aubergine creations. The latter is superb, but the former, on the north side of the street, is my favourite for the incredible soups and the best ‘Gössis’ – a pancake filled with spiced meat or spinach, Turkish sheep’s cheese and sometimes a bit of potato, cooked up lightning fast and served with a spectrum of dips – in Berlin. The decor is completely nuts, like a room decorated based on the fragmented memories of a feverish childhood dream you once had about an expedition around Turkey having only ever seen a postcard of the place. The service is terrible, the tables are cramped, the chairs are all different heights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Gugelhof, Kollwitzplatz
This is an Alsatian restaurant with the sweetest, smiliest, sometimes winkingest waiters and waitresses in the world. From the minute you enter, you feel like Franco-German royalty, and they instantly magic a huge basket of gorgeous bread with herbed cream cheese in front of you so you have something to chew on while you read the impressively creative menu. Wild boar with pumpkin mash? Winter stew with a roof made of bread? An entire trout poached in Riesling? Yes please, very yes. The breakfasts here are also delicious and always presented like a work of art – these guys really know their way around a garnish.

4. Café Nö, Mitte
The best Flammkuchen in Berlin and such good wines you’ll want a whole carafe to yourself. A Flammkuchen is a Germanic pizza, a whisper-thin base of crispy dough topped with a thin layer of sour cream, usually some sautéd onions, and then a topping of your choice, then toasted in a hot stone oven. It means ‘FLAME CAKE’ which is simply kickass, but the ones at Café Nö would be ridiculously tasty even if they were called something unappetising like ‘Schleimplatte’ (‘mucus board’). I mainly mention this place, however, because the atmosphere is terrific; cosy, friendly and beautifully decorated, while the music in the background is rat-pack covers of 90s classics (Frank Sinatra singing ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a tour de force) and there is a projector screening slides of old-time photos of ski slopes, Berlin streets and cheerful alpine lumberjacks. You can always banter with the staff; when I brought my parents there the waitress, a tiny blonde woman whose twitchy nose and hyperactive running around made her seem more squirrel than human, gave me a stone-cold look and said ‘You won’t get a table for at least an hour and a half, you might as well go.’ I gave her my saddest eyes and told her that my parents had come especially from England (never the UK, always England for best effect; it reminds Germans of the Queen) and I had been dying to show them this restaurant. She shook her head, repeated her previous statement, and within ten minutes had cleared a table for us and presented us with the novel-long wine list. Victory. And a delicious victory it was, too.

5. The Fliegender Tisch, Friedrichshain
The Fliegender Tisch (‘Flying Table’) is probably always going to be my favourite restaurant in Berlin. First and foremost, this is because anyone visiting for the first time will inevitably feel that sinking feeling; ‘Uh oh…’ one thinks, perusing the menu which has been meticulously pasted together in Microsoft Publisher 1998. ‘Ooo-err…’ one mutters when one notices that the mood lighting is a lamp with masking tape wrapped around the opening. ‘Oh dear…’ one then thinks when one sees some of the insane things on the menu: beef stew with cheese, potatoes and oysters is one of my favourites, as are the recent specials of brussels sprout omelette or salad with walnut-stuffed sprouts fried in a beer-honey batter. Hmm. And yet, the guy – the Fliegender Tisch guy, the smiliest man on the face of the planet – comes to your table, and you order something that sounds a little more palatable, and soon arrives a dish of fresh and sublime eats which is always handed to you with no less than a beaming grin. Their salads are super delicious, the pasta is tremendous as is the gnocci, and they do the best Kaiserschmarrn I have ever eaten – even better than in the Austrian alps, where it really ought to be the best of the best of the best. Plus, to ensure that the restaurant name isn’t completely meaningless, they’ve suspended a table from the ceiling so that it hangs skewiff over your head and gives you an instant icebreaker. What more could you possibly want?

Frankly, there are so many great places to feast over here I could write a book. Possibly even an ode. But I’ll leave that to other, future posts. For now, go forth Berliners, and get some gourmet grub this weekend!

Best Prenz Forever

In Prenzlauer Berg, graffiti artists simply tag buildings with helpful signs and directions.

When I used to work in Oxford, I sat all day in a cardboard cubicle lined with school-blue artificial felt, pounding at an old Dell keyboard that appeared to contain several primordial stages of life developing between the keys. At lunchtime I would shove my tupperware into my bag and march outside as quickly as I could possibly move, simply to get out and away from that stuffy little enclosure. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much to escape to outside the office. A grey, long and dull walk alongside some uninterestingly pristine hockey pitches, a wander around the edge of a park so waterlogged that you had to wade through the middle of it, and finally a bench overlooking some dying border flowers or, if you had time, a more distant bench where you could observe a depressed duck in the pond.

I’m now fortunate enough to be working in Prenzlauer Berg, or Prezzy B as the cool kids call it. I used to live in the district but that was during a long and very oppressive, so it’s rather a privilege to come back to it and experience it in the midst of its lazy summer glory. The office barely looks like an office but is inside an old and kooky Wohnblock with an enormous winding staircase that is very Hogwarts indeed. I sit in a comfy, airy room with two hilarious and generally excellent people and the soothing sounds of intensive building work drifting through the window. And the best part is that at lunch I can go for a curious little mosey around the streets of Prezzy B.

A lot of people rag on P-Berg because it’s like totally ‘gentrified’, which essentially means that they’re annoyed because it’s not ‘gritty’ (i.e. violent and falling down) anymore and instead has been filled with lots of nice cafes and organic delis. Gentrified or not, the district has simply developed into an insane patchwork of people and ideas, and because it’s all a bit posh these days everything is just a bit…well, nice. Even the bloke who runs the local Späti is a pleasant and bright-eyed young gentleman with a polite, intelligent air and a crisp clean poloshirt. 

But I did say it was insane for a reason. There are just so many shops around the place, and if you can dream it you can buy it in Prenzlauer Berg. In our little nook around the office we have some great specimens, including a gay clothes shop, a shop specifically selling ‘world musical instruments’ (I don’t think they stock vuvuzelas, however) and another shop which I was going to photograph because of the cool multicoloured plush ostrich standing by the entrance until I realised that the ostrich’s neck and head were actually an enormous rainbow fake fur penis. There is a shop that sells organic fabric – no, I don’t know why – and another that sells food portioned into exact quantities (half a lemon, three teaspoons of paprika, a little vial of soy sauce) for people who want to cook and don’t want to have a single TRACE of leftover ingredients. Near the office is also something which frankly took my breath away: a bad bakery. I have bought bread rolls there three times now, hoping that their family-run, hand-made-from-scratch promise would one day give me what I’m hoping for, but alas. I asked for a pumpkin seed roll and they handed me something so flat I thought it was a large cookie.

In between all the shops are more restaurants than you could ever hope to split the bill in. One of my favourites is ‘Links vom Fischladen’, a micro-oasis of incredible seafood in the middle of a city whose main dietary seafood intake is in the form of small salty fish-shaped crackers. There’s the usual obligatory slew of ‘Asian’ places all selling identical and cheap ‘crispy’ types of poultry, but there are also some truly spectacular ‘Asian’ places such as Mr Ho, who does Vietnamese food so fresh and aromatic you almost forget to make jokes about the unfortunate name of the place (almost). On the way up to the beautiful graveyard where I sit to eat my lunch, I wander along Pappelallee, a gorgeous little street which has several – sigh – macaron and cupcakey places, but also a curious pasta restaurant that advertises ‘Nudelkunst’; literally ‘noodle art’, although I suspect this sadly does not mean they will swirl your spaghetti into a representation of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses. Slightly further up, on Kollwitzplatz, you will find Lafil and the most delicious Spanish brunch imaginable; there’s fresh tortilla, crab gazpacho, chargrilled vegetables, tiny vanilla-y bowtie pastries and a big tureen of homemade waffle batter so you can make your own fresh waffles to order. 

And the last real trademark of Prezzl Bezzl is the children. It is a district which students once settled into and made it cool, but have since then got married and had their first kid on a very comfortable income thank you. There are children swarming around the place left right and center, and so many prams you’d think the babies ought to start a car-pool. This makes things fun, for sure. I watched a man today speedily wheel his pram along the pavement and accidentally drive it with full power directly into a large concrete bollard, then I enjoyed his deserved anguish as the baby inside erupted with indignant rage.    

The mix of it all gives the district a really distinct atmosphere, one that is hard to pin down; if pressed to summarise it I would simply describe it as ‘contented’. No-one in Prenzlauer Berg seems stressed or upset or dysfunctional; the kids keep it a safe district and the shops and restaurants keep it endlessly interesting. And the people simply seem utterly relaxed. Each person in his own little cloud of satisfied peace, wandering up and down Schönhauser Allee.

In the graveyard today, there were lots of people sitting around on the soft green grass, writing and drawing and reading for no reason other than pleasure or idle fiddling. An old couple sat beside me, and the man took two books and two juice boxes out of his rucksack. He gave one book and one juice box to his wife, and then they just sat in the sun and read and sipped. I gave them a big grin, closed my tupperware, and headed off back to work.

Like this? Got something to say? Get in touch: ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com
 

The high life

If I were a Times reporter I’d make a joke about royal wedding hats right now.

I know, I’ve not been around for a while and I’m sorry. Last week was a frenzy of activity as I completed entirely unvoluntary voluntary work, went to a bizarre exhibition (more on that in the next post) and saw my friends for the last time before the main event of the week: my grandparents came to Berlin to see my new turf for the first time. Unlike friends or parents, grandparents have a kind of dignity and connoisseurial eye that means that you are driven by self-inflicted terror to find not just good things to show them and do with them but to find the perfect things; the sights they will regard with their experience and knowledge and find worth the effort. It’s not an easy task in this city because my grandparents are, you might say, gourmet tourists. They have been to almost every country in the world, they have certainly been to every continent and they have seen enough walls, cathedrals and museums to know that the ones you might take them to in this city are going to have to work very hard to compete. Being so refined, they are also unlikely to enjoy the kinds of ‘rrrreal, grrrritty Berlin’ things that younger friends or my thrill-seeking mother might like, things like the Kunsthaus Tacheles or the Zielona Gora squat. With all this in mind I have been putting most of my energy and tour-guide zeal into assembling a weekend of the best Berlin has to offer for the distinguished tourist. And where did we begin? With lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the one and only Fernsehturm (TV tower).

You can go up the TV tower without going to the restaurant, of course, and this is fun and exciting and interesting but with a couple of downsides: you have to revolve yourself, and you have to wait so long to get up there that you might just mistake the eventual ride up in the lift as your final ascension to heaven. If you book a table at the restaurant, you can jump the queue, and…well, that’s where the benefits end. We arrived at the tower to be made to buy our tickets for the lift up, as if they weren’t going to squeeze us dry enough with the ludicrously expensive food, which I thought quite unfair; if we were unwilling to pay an extra fee on top of our lunch and the premium put on it for the location we could hardly stand outside, open our coats and hope a gust of wind would carry us up instead. We had also arrived early so that we could wander around the gallery and look at the view before taking our table, but the woman at the counter gave us a specific time at which we were permitted to arrive and NOT A MINUTE SOONER, meaning my poor grandfather was forced to shuffle behind us as we looked at handbags in the Galeria Kaufhof for 20 minutes to kill unexpected extra time. Finally the moment came and we took the lift to the main gallery.

The TV tower features a large round gallery of windows overlooking the city from the most incredible height. The view is spectacular; you can see the incredible straightness of Unter den Linden, the remarkable hugeness of Tierpark and the strange incongruity of the Reichstag dome with almost birds-eye perspective. Helpfully there are also keys under the windows to explain what it is you are actually looking at, the history behind it, and whether what you are looking at is actually a thing or is just a drab building which you have overconfidently assumed is the headquarters of the East German Secret Police. It’s good fun, and interesting, and for 11 euros a ticket it ought to be; you can also enjoy watching people frustratedly trying to take photos without reflections of themselves in the picture thanks to the way the light works on the windows and if you feel decadent even splash out on a TV-tower-shaped lolly or bottle of schnapps. 

But of course that’s for the plebs. Those of us who were reserved into the restaurant were allowed access to an even (slightly) higher floor, a revolving donut of restaurant with a stationary kitchen in the middle and tables lining the windowed circumference, turning at a leisurely pace over the sunlit city. Cream tablecloths and soft smarm-jazz music assert the fact that this is a Nice Place. This illusion, however, did not last long. Our waiter came to the table after a half-hour wait while we sat, read the menu from cover to cover and eventually wrote a good long chapter of our memoirs. With arrogant charm that did not seem to correspond to the fact that his face was covered with some kind of odd yellow crusty ooze he took our order and then disappeared, not to be seen again for another eternity during which time we tried using various methods to calculate how many revolutions per hour the restaurant does. Eventually my grandparents’ antipasti plates came, huge black glass sheets dotted with a sad-looking row of wrinkled marinaded vegetables and a couple of mottled handkerchiefs of proscuitto, followed by my salad, which they had got wrong, so they took it away, evidently grew all-new salad leaves from seed, and brought a new one, which was also wrong, so they took that one away too and replaced it by which time we were ready to eat each other. The bread we had also asked for eventually materialised too. Foolishly we ordered coffee which arrived sometime around sundown and I believe they finally came to let us settle the bill just before the apocalypse. The jovial and infection-y waiter joked around with my grandparents and told me in discreet German that my grandfather is a ‘charming old man’ as if to make amends, and we finally were released back into the wild to make our way to the botanical gardens. Which are spectacular. And at the moment the Titan Arum is flowering. It is an incredible plant, the largest flower in the world, and when it flowers it smells of rotting meat. It was definitely a highlight. 

Guten Appetit Berlin!

For those of us blessed with both a stomach and a tongue, Berlin is the best place to be. For all the stick Germany gets for its cuisine (which, incidentally, can still be brilliant) the sheer variety and quality of produce and cookery one enjoys here is truly luxurious; going to any one restaurant always has me feeling a slight twinge of regret simply because to eat at one inherently involves not eating at one of the thousands of other incredible places in the immediate vicinity. Germany has done the same as Britain in that while its own cuisine is still there and available, being dutifully revisited and upheld, they are doing their best and most exciting things in embracing all other genres of cooking and doing them really, really well; the photo above is of a bruschetta stand at the market where they slice you a surfboard-sized plank of fresh bread, load it with tomatoes and parmesan and rocket and roast veg, add a glossy slick of really good olive oil and present it to you with a beaming grin for just 2.50 Euros. I’ll wait a moment while you mop up your drool.

The Friedrichshain/Boxhagener Platz farmers’ market every Saturday is close to torture because it is simply four long rows of things like this arranged into a neat square and heaving with hungry people. Among the homemade tortelloni and glistening stuffed olives and myriad Wurst-hawkers you will find the fish smokers, creating a smell so divinely fishy it made me want to buy an Aran sweater and a pipe.

  There is a man selling eye-wateringly delicious-looking savoury tarts and a woman wearing multiple chiffon scarves who makes her own mother-of-god-that’s-good-marshmallows. I bought a bunch of radishes as puce as a smacked buttock for mere pennies and then met a man who makes his own barbecue sauces from scratch; the steak sauce was so good I have to put his website on here so that you will all go and buy some for your dads immediately.

Eckart Sossen – just, so… yumsville.

But it’s not just the ultra-yuppie domain of the farmers’ market where you’ll find the good eats, and of course it’s not the kind of place where poor self-pitying students are likely to go for any real food shopping unless you count casually trying free samples of everything on offer until you’ve eaten enough to sustain you for a couple of days. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is in this city, for your two Euro buck you can still get a hell of a lot of bang. Case in point: Mio. This minuscule bistro will take your spare change and in return give you a huge segment of Turkish Fladenbrot heaving with (get ready for it): vegetable croquettes, stuffed vine leaves, walnut paste, houmous, couscous salad, sheep’s cheese, yoghurt dressing, olives and sheer bloody human good will. Mercy, it’s tasty. If you want something sweet go to Olivia on Wühlischstraβe, where the hand-made chocolate truffles cost less than at Fassbender and Rausch and will make you see god or whichever deity you choose to hallucinate at the time. The tables in the Turkish markets all over Berlin have bow-legs from the sheer weight of the glorious vegetables piled high and sold cheap, and I may have already mentioned that there are one or two places around where you can get some fairly good bread too.

If you’re eating out, you will quickly learn a whole new level to the meaning of ‘spoilt for choice’. Here are some of my personal recommendations; try them, love them and wink at the Maitre D’ for me.

Sigiriya – lip-smacking and hilariously complicated (there is a two-page key to the spices they put in the various dishes and it took me about four hours to read the menu to my friend visiting from the UK) Sri Lankan food served in portions so huge you will start squeezing food into your kidneys just to make room to finish it all.
Schwarze Pumpe – a reassuringly small menu packed with hearty and delish food and completely without fuss; also features a charismatic and cheeky waiter/barman who one imagines listens to people’s wife troubles as he polishes the drinks glasses with a rag close to last orders. 
Pizza Pane – ok, pizza places are a dime a dozen, but this one’s worth a dollar at least. You can watch your pizza in the making from conception to birth and they are so crisp, so thin and so delicious they make my heart ache with joy.
Papaya – oh, the wanton soup. Fast, delicious, reasonably priced Thai food that comes in enormous buckets and with adorable carrot flowers because I’m easily pleased like that.
Knofi – some of the things in this Turkish deli-restaurant may cause scenes similar to that one in When Harry Met Sally, except this time she’s not faking it.

There are so many places I want you to try that I shall have to stop there to save myself looking like a hog; us poor gourmands have a hard time keeping our figures in a place like this. And don’t even get me started on the breakfasts…