Dining in Deutschland

/ Friday, January 16, 2009

So here we go, my research in Berlin was conducted to fulfill a requirement for the Dean's Research Travel Colloquium at NYU. All of who attended explored different topics and will come together sometime this spring to present our papers and contribute to a mixed media gallery installation. 

My travel buddies were happy to help me chip away at my research topic. Each night we exposed ourselves to a different type of cuisine and a new adventure. Although nothing, at least in my mind, can compete with the creativity of our fusion food in NYC, I was pleased to learn that the cuisine of Berlin is just as complex as its history. 
The first meal we shared in Berlin was at a Italian-German cafe Blaues Band. We discovered this place in a travel guide on our way to the hotel. The description was simple, explaining that Blaues Band was known for his simple menu, modern decor & trendy cliental. We were famished, we were jet lagged and none of us had our bearings yet. Thankfully Blaues Band is located in the middle of Mitte, an area in East Berlin just a few blocks from our hotel. We splashed some water on our faces & set off for our first meal in the icy city.

We were pleasantly surprised to find the cafe was as warm and inviting as the guide depicted it. The walls were painted two toned in vibrant mint and golden yellow. The plush burgundy booths sucked the chill right out of us. I really enjoyed the continuity of the simple wood furniture, floors and counter space. It created the clean european appeal that you can find state-side at places like Le Pain Quotidien or Le Gamin

A toast to the beginning of our German adventure consisted of a variety of beverages. One lady went for the traditional Berliner Weisse, a wheat beer that originated in the 17th century. The beer itself has a bitter flavor to it so it's mixed with raspberry or woodruff syrup to sweeten it a bit, giving it either a red or green color. The drink is served in a "Snow White-esque" goblet with a straw. Think of it as adding a shot of flavored syrup to your Starbucks order. "I'll take a tall, iced, low-carb brew with a shot of sugar-free green please?" Others went for the Heifer Weissen. I chose to begin the trip with a glass of reisling. At first I was ashamed of drinking a wine that we usually only serve during balmy afternoons on the patio or on the boat, however when in Germany...drink German liquids, right? Or something along those lines. It was tasty regardless of how cold it was outside. 

For dinner I chose the Italian Salad. I was pleased to see different elements of Italian and German cuisine come together subtly on my plate. The greens were a combination of arugula, red leaf lettuce and endive, which at the turn of the 20th century was typically only exported from Germany and France to other countries. I'm in the process of researching the modern endive trade. More to come. Other components of the dish: cherry tomatoes, green olives, black olives, diced mozzarella, and bean sprouts in a balsamic dressing. Visually the salad was beautiful. After a long day of traveling it was nice to dig into something simple, fresh & healthful. 

We all chose to share a dessert. They have a fantastic advertising ploy at Blaues Band actually. The desserts all sit out on the bar when you first walk in. From the moment you enter, all you can think about are those delicious treats that welcomed you. Of course they were on the back of our minds throughout the entire meal. We settled on the chocolate cake. Bad decision. It was a black forest cake I suppose. It tastes as though it was filled with dried cherries soaked in rum. The cake itself was completely dry. It was difficult to eat since each fork full crumbled before you could get it to your lips. Very disappointing. 

Over all dinner #1 was successful. Italian-German fare, check!

The image below was of our very first breakfast at Hotel Agon. I became captivated with the idea of "continental breakfast" buffets during this trip. If we're promoting the idea that these buffets are reflective of the classic cuisine of the region, or continent, what is it that we choose to display of ourselves through these early morning meals? I think back to all of the continental buffets I sat through as a little girl traveling around with my mom & dad on the golf tours. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, bagels, cereal, bacon, juice, coffee, oatmeal, muffins, toast...all seem to be the through line of my experience. The most extravagant breakfast buffet by far was always at the Embassy Suites in Orlando,Florida. Is that the kind of food what we would deem as "Classic American"? In my humble opinion, I would say yes. When I think of classic american I think comfort food, diner fare, dishes you can find in cookbooks passed down from great-great grand people. Of course each family has their own variation of "American" cuisine depending on the origins of their own family. Yet I feel our stereotypical fare is the homey eats from greasy spoons & mom's kitchens nation wide. Stereotypical, that's interesting. When we speak of other matters stereotypical indicates a grave misunderstanding of someone or something. Is that true in this case? That will take a bit more exploration.

Now onto the German continental breakfast. I admit I was a bit distressed by our buffet during my first lap around the dining room our very first morning in Berlin. I was confronted by the odor of big bowls of pickles, platters of cold meats and various pates spread upon cheese and bread. Buckets of pudding lay directly next to trays of different cured hams. All of the "fruit" came directly out of a can, diced into neat little cubes of various colors. "Maybe this fruit comes from "pre-wall coming down" cans" I thought to myself. At least that would make it a bit more appetizing, as if I were ingesting a piece of history before my morning coffee. Negative. I navigated the buffet strategically, avoiding most of the continental fare for items that most resembled my own continental breakfasts back in the states. As you can see above, most mornings I stuck with sausage & scrambled eggs, muselin with milk and coffee. In retrospect my morning meal completely went against my research for the week. I was there to study German cuisine! In my defense I spent the rest of the day chowin' down on foreign fare, but I needed to start my day off with something familiar. Which brings me back to the whole idea of a continental breakfast. Since they're typically served at hotels, it's very interesting to me how these buffets are designed to feed into our "comfort food" cravings. It is as if they anticipate that when lodging in a place that is now our home, we need to begin our day with something familiar to feel at ease. However when you're traveling in different countries, these "continental" meals lack that consistency we're used to since they adhere to the classic food items of that region. Just as I was put off by the stench of pickles at 7am, a German might find the neo-light show of a bowl of early-morning Fruitloops to be a bit alarming. Is the continental breakfast an unadorned piece of our regional cuisine? 
On to lunch. Later that day we had a tedious morning filled with museum visits and miles of walking. We were pleased to sit down and refuel at Vapiano, an upscale German Italian chain restaurant that will hit the States March 2009 in Washington, DC. My favorite part of this resto is the way in which you pay. As you enter each diner is given a card. You can go to whatever station you'd like to order your meal, choosing from salad, pizza, pasta or antipasta. There's an espresso bar, beverages & dessert. As you order each item is swiped onto your card. At the end of your meal, you scan your card at the door and pay whatever you owe. Especially when dining with large groups of people, it's super convenient to have each of your meals on separate bills. It's even more convenient to have each meal on separate cards. 

The inside of Vapiano was quite stylish. I'm a sucker for menus written on blackboards, what can I say. Although the place was hectic, the tables seemed to turn over quickly enough that everyone could find a seat. I had a bit of difficulty speaking to my salad master since he couldn't understand English. They referred to shrimp as 'prawns' in the very small english translation at the bottom of each dish. Shrimp always seem to be called prawns in Europe actually. Anyway, when I asked for prawns on my salad he had zero idea what I was asking of him. We had to go through the menu together and follow the word 'prawn' up the menu to the German word that was about 5 x's longer in length. Each serving of prawns was packed into a little plastic container waiting to be cooked. Mine were grilled up with some chili oil and black pepper, potentially very tasty but they held onto a strange plastic taste that was not enormously appealing. The prawns were served over a salad with shaved parmesan, carrot, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc. I also ordered a small tomato soup. Hopefully you can see it well enough in the shot above. It was served in this amazing bowl. How desperately I would have loved to have taken that bowl with me as a artifact...but no that would have been illegal. The circular spoon fits right on top of the deep ceramic bowl. It was so interesting to look at. Also take a look at the place setting on each table. What looked like a marble window box was filled with fresh herbs, a pepper mill, olive oil and olive oil infused with red chilies. You're welcomed to use any of the seasonings to enhance your meal. What a fun, interactive way to set up dining tables. You could totally steal that idea and use it for a diner party, taking potted herbs and using them as inexpensive and eco-friendly centerpieces that also double as a flavor enhancer. 

Kritika ordered an amazing gnocchi dish that I must share as well. It was gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce and toasted walnuts. It was super simple but oh-so tasty. The gorgonzola was just salty enough to make a great sauce on its own. Between the soft gnocchi and the crunch of the nuts, overall this was a phenomenal lunch dish. 
Our second dinner date took a bit more searching to find. Masal was about an hour away from us after all was said and done, partially because we got lost. It's located in west Berlin in a beautiful neighborhood that seemed much more residential than anything else. I had read about Masal at length. Some feel it's the best Indian restaurant in Berlin. After walking around in the freezing cold looking for this place, we were welcomed inside of a warm dining room with six glasses of complimentary champagne. I'd like to think it was karma for our arctic journey to find them.

We were lucky to have Krutika with us because she was able to decipher the menu that was obvious lost in translation from Indian, to German and to English. Everything had "cottage cheese" in it. It didn't sound right. Indeed, cottage cheese was a mistranslation that was used in every single dish on the menu. Whoops. Krutika amended their mistakes and guided us through the lengthy menu dish by dish. 

We shared a few baskets of butter naan and garlic naan. I was partial to the garlic naan, though I wonder how our bus mates felt the following day being stuck so closely to us for an extended period of time with limited ventilation. The naan was served with mango chutney, mint yogurt sauce, another tamarind like sauce and a yogurt sauce above with curry, paprika and some unidentified green spice. 

For dinner I order the chicken tandoori. It was served in the skillet with sliced fennel, cucumber, lemon, broccoli and onions. The chicken was cooked perfectly. It came with a bowl of basmati rice & a spicy tomato sauce that I soaked up with anything I could use: chicken, rice, naan, anything. I was really pleased with my meal. It was spicy, filling but also really healthful which is always a bonus when you're eating out three times a day. I thought fennel was an interesting inclusion. In the past I've never encountered it in an Indian dish. Today fennel is grown in both India and in Germany, interesting tid bit of information to ponder. 

For dessert we shared an order of Gulab Jamun, dumplings soaked in rose water. Kritika criticized the dessert saying Gulab Jamun is usually crispy on the outside and tender on the inside from deep frying them. These dumplings were moist and dense all the way through. Personally I was not a fan of the texture. Another things Kritika found off putting was that they were served with ice cream and a chocolate-cinnamon sauce, very unusual by her standards. In Germany is seems almost every dessert is adorned with cream, ice cream, custard, something sweet & saucy. Perhaps this was a Germany twist on a classic indian dessert? 
Just another breakfast. 

I figured for the sake of research (ha!) I'd have to establish a control group, a traditional German meal by which all over meals could be compared. We took the advice of our comrade and advisor Joe Salvatore who had been to Der Alte Fritz the night prior and decided to take the short walk to this classic German joint. A few days prior I was picking the brain of one of our guides about what traditional Berlin cuisine really is. I listed off a few dishes I had researched before the trip. Out of all of my options, she confirmed that the pickled pig knuckle is by far the most traditional to the area, especially when food was difficult to come by. So, as we settled into our booth at De Atle Frtiz and the menus were passed around, I knew what I must do...

Doesn't it look beautiful? Okay I admit I was surprised when they brought it to the table. I had trotters in Paris and they looked nothing like this (and tasted nothing like this either, I'm afraid.) There was a large piece of fat/skin that hung on top of this particular pig knuckle that jiggled as the plate was set down. The two vegetarians who sat next to me nearly gagged. Regardless, I bravely pushed the fat aside to get the the tender meat lodged between the knuckles. The meat was bright red and smelled of vinegar. The best way I could describe the meat is a pungent version of corned beef you might eat on Saint Patrick's Day. The texture was very similar, soft yet slightly stringy. It fell apart as you touched it with the fork. The pickled flavor was a bit overwhelming. It tasted like corned beef x's 10. The pork was served with mustard, horseradish sauce and sauerkraut. They masked the flavor a bit, which was nice. Also the meat was served with mashed potatoes and green beans cooked with pork. I admit the side dishes are what I mostly dug into. I ate as much of the meat as I could, checked it off as an experience I wanted to have but will probably never seek out again. 

Krutika on the other hand had an amazing vegetarian dish. It was fried potatoes and a poached egg. It was supposed to come with bacon but she asked for toast instead. It was like a classic american fry up. Gazing at her meal over my mound of giggly pork extremities made me envious. 

We shared an apple strudel for dessert. Eh, it was ok. I'm definitely not a strudel fan. They taste bland to me. Overall I've been really disappointed by German desserts. There hasn't been one that I've actually liked. If ever I need a dessert detox, maybe I should move to Berlin. Then again, why would I ever want a dessert detox?

Our last free evening we chose to dine at Monsieur Vuong, one of the "trendiest" Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin. It was explained to me by a local that Vietnamese is the new a la mode cuisine for young Berliners. "Sushi used to be in fashion but now it's old news. If you want to eat hip & trendy food people are going for Vietnamese now. It's very popular", she explained. After another long day out in the cold, the warm spice of Vietnamese cuisine sounded perfect to all of us. 

Inside, the crowd was just as my new friend had explained: young & trendy. Magazine racks lined the back wall by the bathroom and young couples sat wrapped in each others arms as they flipped through German Vogue and lapped up bowls of wanton soup. We were enamored by the fish tank that was sunk into the back wall where we were seated. We definitely stuck out like sore American thumbs with out big heavy sweaters but we were all too cold to care. Once I had thawed a bit, I ordered a mango shake; just a simple smoothie of fresh mango and coconut milk. I could only image how delicious it must be on a hot summers night. 

For dinner I ordered the spicy glass noodle salad. A big bowl of glass noodles was served in a spicy ginger broth with cabbage, carrots, chicken, peanuts, cilantro and water chestnuts. It had such a great heat to it, I was happy to have my mango shake to cool down my mouth. I was really pleased with my meal actually. You could tell that all of the ingredients were super fresh and they seasoned the dish perfectly. 

For dessert we shared the banana wrapped in sticky rice and red beans served with a tapioca pudding. The pudding was my favorite part. The sticky rice dumplings were way too hard to eat in my opinion. I think I'll have to work a bit harder to develop a taste for red beans in desserts. Does anyone have any good recipes to change my mind? 

The last day we were in Berlin, Lauren and I lunched at a Turkish kebab stop and had falafel plates that were totally delicious. The falafel came with all of the fixin's as well as a small salad and couscous. For those of you who know my love of falafel, I was a happy happy camper. 

The last meal we had in Germany was a dinner with the students at Hombult University. I had a curried pear soup and salmon in a saffron cream sauce. I wasn't overly impressed but I'd love to toy with the idea of curry-pear soup on my own. 

Over all I was completely satisfied with our excursions out into the culinary circus that is Berlin. We were confronted by so many different sights and smells, it's a miracle we were ever able to decide what we wanted to eat at any given moment. When speaking with a Hombult student, I asked him what he thought the common cuisine of Berlin really is. He spoke of how Berlin itself has lost its tie to the culture that originally resided there before the wall came down. In his opinion, as soon as Berlin opened up to the rest of the world, the rest of the world took over. "To be honest, Turkish food is the food of Berlin", he explained. "There are mostly Turks here so the food is mostly Turkish. We're influenced by whoever decides to come here." 

Fusion food indeed. Enjoy! 

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