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!

Spot the difference

Check it out, I went to the Ostsee!

 Hang on, I think I have another photo from a different angle…oh yes, here it is.










Ho, hold on…that can’t be right…here’s another photo:

And another shot of those dreamy waters:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you. The earth moves around the sun just 180 degrees and suddenly the beach has turned from the shore of the river Styx to the kind of thing you see in fake retro postcards they sell in hipster shops.

Granted, it was beautiful and awesome to see the Ostsee coast in Winter and be fully freaked out by the eeriness of the milky melancholy water/sky gradient that stretched out from the ground. But being on the German coast in early summer, after a morning of rain and grey clouds that did nothing but wash the stuffiness out of the air, was absolutely herrlich.

I think the Ostsee is probably one of Germany’s most undeservedly ignored tourist locations for anyone who isn’t a native Kraut like us. (Yes, us. I’m one of them now.) The images that spring to mind for anyone contemplating holidaying in Germany are striking cathedrals and earnest cultural edutainments like galleries and museums; one imagines drifting around Gothic-looking streets, gorging on sausage and beer with dirndled locals and having your brain twanged by the latest techno hipsterlectrofunkatunes in Berlin. But no-one really thinks they might end up on a beautiful cream-coloured beach surrounded by soft dune-grass and clear waters full of actual real pink jellyfish. 

Like any British coast, the sea is so cold you spasm into attacks of rapid breathing the minute it goes past your ankles, but that doesn’t matter to the hundreds of fearless and naked children being chucked around by their dads in the shallows and the noise of them having a brilliant time is oddly heartening. The surroundings are adorable, with thatched cottages leading up to the pier and little pubs serving Fischbrötchen. This is a much-loved spot for loads of Germans who come up from all over to this little smidgen of coast in the otherwise land-locked mass; next to us were a family who, I am informed, were deeply Sachsisch (i.e. from Saxony) and had such thick accents I could barely understand what they were saying. When their little boy was playing football it just sounded like he was yelling “poop, poop” like Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and I only really tuned in to their dialect when he suddenly stopped and demanded that he and his father take a break to eat something or they simply couldn’t continue. At any rate, this sweet family was a welcome change to the people who had previously been in their space, a ‘robust’ man and his wife who lay motionless and nude in the sun for ages like huge legs of ham dumped on the sand. 


Further up the coast the people begin to give way to wilderness and wildlife, and a small ridge of cliff rose out of the ground which was spotted with tiny cheese-holes. These had been dug into the clay by tiny swallow-like birds who flew in and out of the holes tweeting frenziedly.

The bird-watcher my mother implanted in me when I was little squeeed with joy.

Along the cliff there was a low wood and some bushes with pink flowers, and along the shore lay trees which had slumped down off the cliff the last time there had been a landslide. When we finished exploring our friend Tommy arrived wearing layers of thick black leather and clutching a vast black tarpaulin bag; clearly when we said we would meet him at the beach he misheard and thought we said the matrix. At any rate, once he arrived we committed ourselves to proper beach behaviour, namely licking ice-lollies and getting sand stuck everywhere. All these things are things I couldn’t have believed I would be doing when I first knew I would be coming to Berlin, let alone Germany, and I needed it like a sick person needs pills.

That evening we went to a traditional German Gaststätte and were served by a traditional German waiter who was portly and jolly and wore a nice patterned waistcoat reminiscent of my favourite Germanic waiter encountered thus far. We drank Apfelschorle and propped our table up with fifty beermats to prevent our food sliding off the table and down the steep cobbled alleyway we were sitting in. Now, you may want to bum around Berlin or marvel at Munich, but this is what the real Germans do for their minibreaks and it is goshdarned great.    

Driftin’

Flat#1, Residence#3, Home#5.

I’m moving again. Not here in Berlin, of course; the very sight of WG Gesucht moves me to hysterical panic attacks. The horror….the horror……

No, I’m moving in the UK. One month after I return, one month from today, I and my family will be leaving our current house and moving to another modern little number in the suburbs where my parents will “grow” old together (you can see that I know they don’t read this) and where I will spend a good deal of the rest of my life. Life has never been so schizophrenic – in the last few years, I have moved out of my childhood home, into a wonderful new ‘young adulthood home’, skipped between college rooms and Berkshire bedrooms, ricocheted from flat to flat in Berlin and now am on a path to yet another place that theoretically is supposed to become the emotional and geographical nexus of my sense of being. If I do the correct calculations, I deduce that I haven’t been living in the same one place for any one time for longer than three or four months for about three years. If this was a Western, I’d be one of those people described by the local prostitute as Hank the Drifter: “Well now he just breezes on into town one day an’ afore he’s paid fer his whisky he’s breezed on out agin…”

Nothing in life is permanent, and it’s best to embrace that than to spend your life mourning it. And if I were to give one piece of advice coming from this experience of roaming around it would be this: go as many places as you can and don’t stay too long once you’re there. 

Leapfrogging from place to place is the absolute best thing! This year has been nothing if not varied, and every single flat I have been in has made me live a different way and experience an environment with a different flavour. Charlottenburg was pretty, well-developed and underrated, but was also rather quiet and lacking in curiosity. The general slightly-greater wealth of the area is so obvious you could probably taste the difference by licking a lamppost there and in Friedrichshain. My local restaurants in Friedrichshain are generally all-purpose ‘Asian’ cuisine or a hilarious and cheap little Indian place where the staff sit on the doorstep and chain smoke. In Charlottenburg the local restaurants included a lofty French bistro called ‘Pistou’ where I ate medium-rare duck liver and rocket salad and the waiters all wore tiny black waistcoats and had real-live little white towels resting over their left forearms. But another local place, Suppinger, was just a sweet little local nashery where you could get a trough of delicious soup for 3 euros, the whole place was decorated with seasonal felt shapes, and the people there clearly ate there every day and were on ‘how-are-the-kids’ terms with the waiting staff. That seems to be the main difference between east and west that you can really feel: in the west it’s posh but when it’s not it isn’t trying to be anything else apart from simply worthwhile and of good quality. In the east when something isn’t posh it is immediately “oh my god this amazing place where like all the walls are covered with pictures of famous people’s earlobes and and it’s like really cheap because no-one knows about it and it’s in the cellar of an old bombed barrel factory”. In other words, east vs. west seems to be hipsters vs. mums; American Apparel vs. Marks and Spencers.

Prenzlauer Berg was different again, in that it’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s very pleasant and at times picturesque, and there are parts of it that are really coming on in the world whereas other parts are still about as appealing as stacked wet egg-boxes. It’s heaving with bitterness on both sides: from those who used to live there when it was secretly cool but before it became openly trendy, before all the young people surged over there to indulge in the alternativeness and excitingness of the district; and from those young people who have only just moved here and accidentally caused everything to become refined and expensive simply by their mere presence. It’s now, as I have mentioned before, full of babies, but then again there are babies pouring onto the streets both in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain so I suspect the whole ‘Preggslauer Berg’ idea is rather a myth. 

In fact, from my seasoned perspective I am of the opinion that Berliners should stop trying to compare and argue for their districts as if they were football teams. All the districts in Berlin are essentially doing the same thing and simply have different aromas, like blends of Tschibo coffee. All the districts are ‘alternative’, from the bits of the west where individuality can flourish because it’s not gripped by the determination to be individual to the east where the more different you are the better. All the districts are littered with dogs, children and bicycles, and no matter where you go none of these three groups can accept that they don’t have main priority on the pavements (although they do all agree that regular pedestrians can suck it). All the districts have odd little structural similarities, somewhat like cats that all look completely different but each have a windpipe going from mouth to lungs. Each of the districts I know well revolves around a long and horrible stretch of road, whether Frankfurter Allee or Karl-Marx-Allee or Schoenhauser Allee or Spandauer Damm, and this is always a huge, terrifying ribbon of grey malaise. This is never where the real action happens as the really good and popular parts of the district are always in one or two main capillaries joining this straight long Berzirk-artery. There is always a square where cute and community-friendly events take place and a little intersection of streets where all the 9am-drinkers hand out and toast the passers by (I once actually did raise my coffee cup to an elderly alcoholic when he raised his vodka bottle to me at 7.30am and yelled “PROST!!” – he cheered at my gesture and took a celebratory gulp).

So move around a lot, dear reader, because you will never get more of a sense of a place or of the wider world until you can hold up lots of different places up against each other in your mind and figure out how cities, countries, people work. You can go to the cool places and find them lame, and the lame places and find them cool (or just hilarious). Hell, do what my family are doing in the UK and move from isolated country house to isolated country house, because there’s still something to be gained from seeing a different type of sheep from your bedroom window. And I have to say that I would give anything to see a sheep or two around here. Perhaps their bleating would drown out the sounds of my neighbours’ suddenly awakened late-night ‘Summer loving’. 

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…