Now that Rach’s opinion of the phrase ‘fat pig’ has been taken to a whole new level, to preempt my swinish laziness from redefining it even further, I have decided to emerge from my hibernation. While Rach traveled to French Riviera and all its glory, I visited their best friends – the Germans – in their capital, Berlin. Now I know that it is a common mindset that if you visit a place, you should strive to try local food as it would be an experience unique to the land. However, I disagree – I mean, why would you deprive yourself of objectively good food in general just for the sake of having an arbitrarily local experience – especially if the locals themselves have been receptive to outside influences and cuisines? That doesn’t necessarily mean that certain local foods are less delectable than others (to each his own, I guess) but so long as good food is available does its provenance really matter??? It’s like choosing 100 Zimbabwean Dollars over 100 USD just because you’re physically in Zimbabwe? (FYI the Zimbabwean Dollar has been indefinitely suspended since 2009, but you get what I mean)
OK. Enough of Zimbabwe; back to Germany. I was there over my Easter break – yes, it was eons ago – and wasn’t expecting much gastronomically. After all, Berlin isn’t well known for her culinary identity, unlike say Naples in Italy, among others. Heading into Berlin, the most uniquely-Berlin dish I could think of having heard of was currywurst – even then it turned out to be more a street snack than a wholesome meal. More on that later though, let’s zoom in on the heartier highlights first.
As I mentioned, coming to Berlin one does not necessarily have to only try authentic Berliner food. After all, not all geographical or social bodies have cuisines that are unique to them and them alone. More often than not, their culinary development would have had been influenced by outside cultures and hence diluted into something more universal. The same applies to Berlin I guess – a city with a rich cultural history but also one whose past was intertwined with many external incursions, bringing along with them new influences.
Most culinary cultures have comfort foods of their very own. For instance, as a Singaporean, I’d hazard a guess that most of my countrymen would pick Hainanese chicken rice as their go-to fare. Likewise, in London, it is never surprising to see Londoners going for their fish & chips or fisherman’s pie as their fail-safe option. For German cuisine schnitzel and roasted pork knuckle are two that immediately comes to mind. Despite not being dishes native to Berlin, they have become standard fare for Germans in general. Hence that was what I looked for immediately upon my arrival. We found this beer garden near Alexanderplatz called Hofbräu München, Berlin – a beer garden chain from Munich. The restaurant was styled after traditional Bavarian beer gardens with its long wooden tables and benches. We ordered a schnitzel each with a pork knuckle to share plus a beer…….little did we expect the beer to be more filling than the actual food.
The schnitzel was fried to perfection, crispy on the outside with just enough batter used and the meat inside was soft and juicy. What I loved most about it, however, was the mushroom sauce that it was coated with. Not that the schnitzel would have been too dry without it but the sauce – which I must add was extremely buttery – brought a mellowness to the savoury fried fillet.The pork knuckle was another delight – the skin was so crispy and and flavourful; it was as though all the essence of the meat had been sucked out into the skin. It wasn’t a trapping of oil, just like many mediocre pork knuckles are, and the meat was soft and rather juicy.The only pity was that the meat wasn’t as tasty as the skin itself (which was to be expected) and that there was too little skin for the meat underneath (maybe they should roast me instead since my skin is so thick). Thus once the skin had been devoured, there was nothing much to complement the meat with. Bavarian delights in Berlin – so far a good start.
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 30, 10178 Berlin, Germany
As we had to see the Brandenburg Gate in its lit-up best at night, we were left scrambling for a place to have dinner after. No worries though for there was a highly recommended Vietnamese restaurant called Monsieur Vuong which we heard is open till late. As we made our way there, we were excited about how we managed to find an eatery whose opening times suited our itinerary and that we’d arrive post-peak hour, hence avoiding the dinner crowd. We were wrong, however, as off-peak does not seem to exist in Monsieur Vuong’s vocabulary. It was 9:45pm and it was still packed. Thankfully the turnover was pretty fast and we only waited 10 minutes to be seated. The dumplings were heartwarming, literally – in the coldness of Berlin’s pre-spring and the minced meat was soft and well-seasoned. Even the dumpling skin was tasty. We also ordered a cold dish – glass noodle salad with chicken shreds. I felt it was a good contrast to the warmth provided by the soup – it was light and refreshing. What I absolutely adored about the salad was the fried shallot. It was simply divine and added a whole new dimension to the taste of the dish – crunchy and flawlessly-fried, with the shallot oil shamelessly oozing out as I sank my teeth into each piece. It was like having whipped cream with your frappuccino (Rach – remember Starbucks happy hour craze before Panama??) – not necessary but a wonderfully decadent addition. However all my praise is reserved for the main course – the pho. For the uninitiated, pho is a form of Vietnamese noodle soup, a form of street food served with a topping of chicken or beef. The reason why Vietnamese restaurants are aplenty in Berlin was due to the city’s Cold War legacy where the East Berlin, under communist control, hired workers from Vietnam – who were also communist then. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, these Vietnamese settled for good in Berlin, contributing to its strong Vietnamese community and hence a propagation of its mouth-watering cuisine. Here we decided to go for the chicken pho. It doesn’t look much but, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Indeed, despite its plain Jane look, the pho tastes anything but. Its broth was sweet, blending the taste of the chicken and other spices which I couldn’t distinguish – and I think that’s the beauty of the broth: to me the fact that one cannot identify the constituent components despite its rich flavour is testament to a perfect balance of ingredients. Lots of beansprouts and a fair dosage of small chilies – perfection! It was wonderful and, having been to Vietnam before, I still feel that this was the best pho I’ve ever eaten. Just look the smile of obvious satisfaction on my friend, Anish’s, face after slurping every drop of soup and every strand of noodles from his bowl. If the bowls could be eaten we would probably have done so. Simply put, it was phontastic.
Alte Schönhauser Straße 46, 10119 Berlin, Germany
Burgermeister is a burger joint converted from a public toilet underneath a bridged motorway. Its provenance alone was worth the visit but the food too was thoroughly deserving of a trip down as well. If my memory serves me well we got a Meisterburger and a Hausmeister. Here is the menu and just look at the pricing – I felt we got a really good deal, especially when you look at the burgers themselves. I mean, a hearty, juicy patty with such a generous serving of caramelised fried onions to perfection with a strip of bacon for less than 4 Euros? Not to mention the Hausmeister which has cheese, jalapenos and roasted mushrooms for slightly more than 4 Euros? The patties were juicy and well seasoned, the meat finely minced and fried just right, not overcooked unlike many other burger joints. It was a pity I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the open kitchen to show you how the chefs worked but, hey, that just means that you gotta head down to check it out yourselves!
Oberbaumstraße 8, 10997 Berlin, Germany
This was a restaurant we stumbled upon whilst checking out an old abandoned building which used to house independent artists. It purports to serve authentic Berlin food and had a historical feel to its layout with many photographs of old Berlin as well as artifacts representing Berlin across her history. The service was really friendly and as my dining partner and I enquired about the portions, they were really upfront about the serving sizes and even recommended that we downsize our order (swinish behaviour, no doubt). This is bratwurst in beer sauce with sauerkraut and potatoes and the portion was really hearty for only 7.50 Euros. The bratwurst was well seasoned and you could taste of herbs and spices was really strong.We also ordered this smoked pork served with bacon and potato omelette and if the bratwurst was hearty this was lungy. The mixed veggies were nicely buttered which made them even more delicious and the omelette was crisp and light, not too much oil used. The bacon and potatoes in the omelette complimented each other very well, the former giving a savoury taste and the latter providing a smooth fluffy texture. The pork unfortunately was a tad tough and dry, but the gravy was thick and flavourful and it added moisture and taste to the otherwise pretty disappointing portion of meat. Given the charming historical ambience of the restaurant we decided to stay for a bit more and each got a desert – a cherry and raspberry compote with cream and vanilla sauce which was refreshing after the onslaught of meat and carbs. However whilst the serving of fruits was generous, the vanilla taste was sorely lacking. If ambience is a big factor in your choice of a dining location then this is the place for you; otherwise the food, whilst more than decent, may not be worth a trip down specially for.
Linienstraße 133, 10115 Berlin, Germany
Fassbender and Rausch
Everyone has a sweet tooth so when we discovered this chocolatier in the heart of Berlin’s business area, it blew me away (it was so good, however, that it blew me back again the very next day). It was raining and cold so what better beverage to have than a hot chocolate? Fassbender and Rausch have an entire catalogue of beverages for one to choose from, but being traditionalists, we each went for a conventional hot chocolate with cream topping – one dark, one milk. No surprises when our drinks were served that a small piece of chocolate, containing the actual chocolate blend used to make the hot chocolate, came together. What I found interesting was the serving of water that came with the beverage. It was meant to cleanse one’s palette after each sip so that, I believe, the purity of each taste is preserved. However, after trying a sip of the hot chocolate, I would never have wished to clear my palette as it tasted heavenly. Now Belinda Carlisle’s song finally made sense; and for that moment it resided in the cup in front of me.
It was thick, creamy, smooth and the taste of the chocolate distinct and fragrant . I preferred the dark chocolate over the milk as the latter was a little too sweet (but I concede this is nitpicking as I would have found the milk chocolate faultless had I not tried the dark one). As it was lunch time and the rain was still pouring, we ordered lunch dishes which use chocolate as their main seasoning. This was fascinating to us for never had we expected chocolate to be used in savoury food. This was venison sprinkled with a dark chocolate coating – the meat was tender and juicy and the potatoes had a nice roasted taste to it. However, I felt the taste of the dark chocolate was too overpowering and the taste of the meat was lost in the strength of the chocolate. It was a shame as the venison was really cooked immaculately as the edges were crisp and the inside supple; and the meat was, by itself, very tasty.The chicken with milk chocolate was far better as the chicken itself was saltier hence offsetting the sweetness of the chocolate. Also, the use milk chocolate instead of the darker variant gave a sweetness that was not too intense, in fact it blended in nicely with the saltiness of the chicken to give a rather rounded taste. Yet all things considered, we felt that the chocolate infused lunch dishes were a tad indulgent by Fassbender and that chocolate is meant to be a sweet treat and probably, in our eyes, will remain that way. With all the chocolate on show, we had to go for a course of dessert. Again, there was a plethora of tarts, pastries and cakes available – ah, the agony of choice. After much consideration we settled on a dome dessert with dark chocolate and walnut mousse, another dome dessert with white chocolate mousse and raspberries, and lastly a marzipan pouch with raspberry jam – the latter specifically chosen because we saw tables around us ordering it. The mousse on both deserts were creamy and smooth, the sponge biscuits blending in nicely with the walnut mousse and white chocolate respectively. My pick of the bunch however was the walnut dome, with its rich dark chocolate outer complementing the thick yet light walnut mousse inside. Just look at mousse oozing out! The marzipan pouch was a real disappointment – the only thing we gained from it was a lesson learnt in not following others blindly. The marzipan layer was so thick and chewy and its sweetness did not mix well with the raspberry jam. Despite a mixed experience with the deserts, the hot chocolate was enough to bring us back the very next day; and again we tried our luck with some sweet treats. This tiramisu-based confection was so good – it had a rich tiramisu taste and the sponge cake was really smooth. It also contained some coffee and rum which added another dimension to its taste, without overpowering the tastebuds. This is a cream-based dessert topped with cherries and kirsch mixed with a dark chocolate coating. The kirsch and dark chocolate went well together as the chocolate’s aftertaste blended in with the mildness of liqueur the cherry. It wasn’t too sweet and the cream gave the desert a nice silky texture. Fassbender and Rausch is definitely a place that I will return to, if only for its chocolate desserts and its hot chocolate – which is to die for. Even if you don’t have time to eat-in, check out their amazing chocolate shop – I mean just look at the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag! And compare it to the vehicles and people walking outside. They are HUGE. And their selection of chocolates for sale can possibly rival the Rolling Stones for number of smash hits. You have to see it to believe it, taste it to savour it. Best (hot) chocolate in the world? Very possibly.
Fassbender and Rausch
Charlottenstraße 60, 10117 Berlin, Germany
On our last night in Berlin we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal (not that all our meals hadn’t been nice) and we came across this quaint cafe on a street off the main business district. It was highly welcoming with its warm yellow lights and compact cozy layout. Despite having to wait for our table, we were still attracted by the restaurant’s decor. In fact it’s the kind of place to go out on a dinner date to – not that it would detract 2 maleswines from checking it out.Pretzel to accompany the sausage!My favourite: boiled sausages – which was so juicy and silky.I was so excited to try it when tragedy struck………Unfortunately, our clumsiness with our utensils left us with only one of the two sausages and the sense of loss probably augmented my opinion of it. *SOBS*Here is venison with potatoes and asparagus. It was really herb-y and rich in the taste of thyme and lemongrass. I mean just look at the whole stalks of thyme served with the dish! Well cooked meat with a generous serving of spices – and how fresh and fragrant they were; I sucked the thyme stalks dry! – what more can one ask?
I guess the fallen wiener was forgotten, for a while at least. What I liked about this cafe was its ambience fused with the close attention of the service staff, who constantly check up on how we were finding our meal; had they offered to replace our sausage, I’d have given them a 10/10 for dining environment. Nonetheless the food was extremely fine, very polished – unlike our handling of utensils – and the meal definitely well worth the money.
Glinkastraße 23, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Some more pictures of the rest of the food we ate!
Vietnamese coconut cream soup!Fried dumplingsStir-fried glass noodles with mixed veggies and chicken. The chicken was so succulent; according to the restaurant owner, it was possible because of no MSG used!!!Schnitzel with Spezi, an orange flavoured cola drink popular in Germany. It was super refreshing and nice – this coming from a non-soft drink fan…….
No one can say that they have been to Berlin without at least trying the iconic dish of the city: currywurst. Here are some pictures:This version was rather sweet, the tomato taste still very distinct and strong.This was saltier – just look at the curry powder sprinkled on top! I reckon it’s more than the amount of gravy?
Sausages being cooked.
As I mentioned, currywurst, is to me at least, more a snack than a meal – which is good because of its portion size, many portions can be had a day without guilt! The sausages tend to be very smooth – in Germany one can’t really go wrong with sausages anyway. The yardstick to measure if the currywust is good or not is, for me, the gravy – usually a tomato based base with curry powder. Some are sweeter whilst some are a bit more savoury. I guess in this regard it’s a personal preference. I personally prefer a slightly savoury incarnation, as it tends to complement the saltines of the sausage. However, since the servings tend to be small, I guess the onus is on you to try as many to suss out your personal choice!
Berlin is an amazing city: her nightlife, arts scene and history are possibly amongst the greatest in Europe. Indeed one event Berlin will always be remembered for is the tearing down of the Berlin Wall; I, for one, will forever look back at Berlin and recall how my stomach walls almost tore, bursting with such diverse gastronomical goodness. Looks like Panamanian pigs aren’t the biggest after all; a Singaporean swine in Berlin can now lay claim to that crown .