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!

Moonrise Kingdom is Medicine

Oh Wes, the Fargo lady too? You are spoiling us…

They say say that predictable is dull, unspontaneous, lifeless. But the trajectories and orbits of the planets are predictable, and we still find them hypnotic and beautiful.* 

Wes Anderson’s films are, in many ways, endlessly predictable. You have a feeling you know what you’re letting yourself in for as you settle down in the cinema, and inevitably there it comes: the yellow type (and swathes of yellow costumes and set-pieces), the centre-focus shot, the steady pans across dolls-house sets…A tweaky, plunky soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh and/or Alexandre Desplat…deadpan conversations…and of course the Old Gang (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, do come in!). It’s a conventional enough formula and an unmistakeable visual signature which I am constantly terrified is poised on the verge of plunging into the abyss of over-the-top pointlessness.

But unlike Tim Burton, whose visual signature started as a charming stylistic quirk and quickly festered into a furious and aggressive eyeball-punching of spirals, purple and black, pale faces and Helena Bunsen-Burner, Wes Anderson still manages to avoid the abyss every time. His quirks and motifs are as recognisable as a familiar mole on your grandma’s chin, but, like the mole, you love them for being there and would miss them if they were gone, even the unsettling long black hair in the middle. Let’s face it, Moonrise Kingdom did not even sound hugely promising: the title is reminiscent of a Manga Nintendo 64 game and the premise of two kids running away from home threatens bucketloads of sentimental twee. But it worked, and I spent the entire time beaming at the screen like a mesmerised baby.

*They say that foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum. But it’s cool to the paw; try it.

I think the thing that makes Wes’ films work is that they never sacrifice anything at the expense of having a rock-solid cast and script to work with (something which Tim Burton might fancy splashing out on sometime). The cast tends to be the same old regulars, sure, but they are all also incredibly – often startlingly – good at acting. I needn’t even mention Bill Murray because we all know he is Touched By Greatness, but give Owen Wilson a part that isn’t a weed-smoking surf-fart and he can be hilarious, tragic and very unexpectedly subtle. A new one is Bruce Willis, who turns out to be terrific when not holding a gun or…well, firing a gun. I do slightly despair sometimes when Wes Anderson insists on showing us the aged and softened faces of the people who in my mind’s eye have always been running around saving an alien goddess, reexperiencing the same day in increasingly hilarious ways or sobbing into the vast bosoms of an obese man (Ed Norton was brilliant, by the way). But these people are all so brilliant at what they do that you are glad to see them carrying on, being excellent and skilled in possession of their new personae rather than becoming ‘go-to old person #3’ (and I do sympathise, Julie Walters).

The story alone is glorious too. Yes, two kids run away, but one of them’s a scout so there’s an old-fashioned Just William style knockabout feel to the whole thing, while the side story of the crazy parents trying to find them is sweet and funny and sad in a different way. And I defy anyone to be too sceptical about the sight of a bunch of kids just going a bit feral for the length of a film anyway; it worked for Son of Rambow and proves that all you have to do for real cinema gold is put a few young boys in the wilderness holding sticks. You’ll get the granny vote with that approach at the very least and the tickets sales from that alone will see you through the winter.

And what’s more – the film’s just fun. It’s not trying to be anything but fun. It’s a proper, real adventure story where things happen and there is real peril and unrealistic events occur which you forgive because you’re sucked in by that point already. And isn’t that what you want from summer cinema rather than a typical, dragging girly film about the embittered single lady or anoooottthhherr superhero film which is so laden with CGI it looks like it’s been made with clips from The Sims? I want a film that is ginger beer and barbeque, not cocktails and olives or nachos and PepsiMax. 

I love Wes Anderson and I’m not ashamed to say it. Some of you will find him annoying and akin to staring at a cross-stitch of a wishing well for two hours. But loving Wes Anderson is nothing to be ashamed of, if you know what you like and know you will like what you expect; he delivers, and it’s not boring or predictable, but like the classic lasagne that your mum always makes it still always manages to be gosh-darn delicious.