Sunday, 30 June 2013

Eating out in Berlin

One of the people I've encountered while tutoring is a sports confidence coach. He charges many pounds an hour for people to hear what they already know: there are things you can control and there are things you can't control and when you accept this and concentrate on the controllables, you'll start to succeed more of the time. And worry less. And be more confident. This is a lesson which I learnt in Berlin. I'm a notorious worrier. I'm also incredibly controlling. This has the consequence of me trying to plan and control every little corner of my life that I can, accounting for the fact that there are different possible outcomes. It's like decision maths except probably more boring and slightly more revealing about my mental frailties. But Berlin revealed to me that you can try and control everything but it's ultimately futile because the universe has other plans in store. In the words of Outkast: you can make a pretty picnic but you can't predict the weather (oh noooo). For Berlin, I'd done all I could do. I booked the flights when they were reasonable, found a well reviewed but decently priced hostel and even downloaded bloody offline maps with little pins for places recommended both by my Berlinische housemate and some food blogs. This wasn't all because I was worried, it was primarily because as I've mentioned over the past few posts, I was getting really world weary and just wanted a break from it all. And of course, planning your little break from it all is a great way to procrastinate. Unfortunately, even though we had packed efficiently and were on time for everything and got lost remarkably little of the time, there was nothing I could do about the fact that I was brutally ill. It was as if my body KNEW that I'd been really looking forward to having a great time and decided to stop me in my tracks. LIFE ISN'T FAIR, KIDS. I've learnt this lesson late in life. Nevertheless, taking Gary's advice and controlling the controllables meant that I still had an enjoyable time. It's just that the good bits were interspersed with naps and tears and rants on the lines of 'why me why this why now?' I think it is revealing about how great Berlin is as a holiday destination that despite all this, I salvaged a good time from the wreckage. So, here's a li'l round up of what I did, of course with a particular emphasis on what I ate.

So, got there on Friday afternoon. After confronting the ticket machines which managed to remain confusing despite having an English option, we got a couple of S-bahns to our incredibly well located hostel. PLUS Hostel on Warschauerplatz. It's the nicest place, hotel or hostel, I've ever stayed. Our room was roomy and tall and tasteful. It was wonderful. Our every need was tended to. Excellent. Still, since I was there for three days, I was keener to hang around Berlin rather than the hostel. (I didn't even get to see the fake beach.) So we trotted off to the Jewish museum. We handled it completely incorrectly, seeing the interesting architecture but not much of the history side. We had museum legs by the time we got to the bit explaining Jewish history proper. And then I had my first illness-related episode and that prevented us learning that much. But after a short break and a sit down, I was ready to queue for Mustafa's. We thought we were being really clever by getting some currywurst from Curry 36 while we waited for our kebabs but actually, we saw a few others doing that too. The currywurst's fame was really down to the sausage: crisp and moist together. Indeed, I'm not sure much is added (except a tonne of grease and salt) by covering it in curry powder and ketchup. Still, who's complaining? I love both of those things. 
What we hadn't envisaged, however, was how long we'd be waiting for our kebabs. We were patient. Even with the belligerent, chatty American who decided to speak to us about the Woolwich attack. ('Yeah, I think most Americans would've attacked him with a rock. That's just the kinda people we are. Braver and better than you Brits.') But an uncontrollable popped up: Mustafa's revolving meat stack ran out. We were almost at the front at this point so we'd invested too much to give up now. Anyway, we were in Berlin, there was beer, the meat was thawing. What was the harm in waiting? I doubted this opinion at many points during the wait but when I bit into my garlic slathered, roasted-veg stuffed kebab I dismissed all regrets. Salty, sweet, slightly spicy, fresh, wet, tomato, courgette, aubergine, umami. Just so much going on. Best kebab, ever. By some way. Which is what we made me even sadder about the fact that after my greasy treat I had another little bout of 'oh God what's wrong why do I feel so crap' (probably all the beer and salt, Ari) after our dinner and so felt too unwell to attack the durum. I felt very touristy carrying my kebab and my beer whilst pissing everyone on the subway off though. Oh well, I deal with it in London. 
The fever broke and I woke up feeling strangely energised on Saturday. I didn't want to tempt fate by finishing the rest of my kebab from the night before, though. Instead, I settled on a coffee from a shack in Alexanderplatz station before taking a leisurely walk towards the Pergamon. A surprisingly fun museum! I enjoyed our walk down Oranienburgerstrasse past the Neue Synagogue and Kunsthaus Tacheles though. And the stroll down Linienstrasse was even better and showed me why Berlin is prettier than London. Street art and flower boxes. Gritty colour from one and lush from the other. Anyway, our ambling took us to Monsieur Vuong. We sat and saw some people get their food. As vibrant and lush as the window boxes. That wasn't what I wanted. I wanted big portions and steaming mouthfuls, not dinky plates and raw cucumber. We tried White Trash Fast Food next but that was both closed and looked a little too expensive. We agreed to wander on a little longer but hten I remembered the Snickers 'you're not you when you're hungry' advert and remembered how, like a baby, I get really cranky if my body is in discomfort. And I was already more uncomfortable than I would've liked to be. I am not a sturdy gal. So we went into the first decent seeming place. It was called Louisiana Kid and we went for the gumbo and the chilli burger.
I was impressed that the chilli burger was hot and spicy and stacked with plenty of cooling lettuce. But aside from that, there wasn't much that could be remarked upon about it. The rice in the gumbo was a minute away from being properly cooked and the chicken breast pieces weren't particularly flavoursome or moist but I wasn't upset with the meal. But I probably wouldn't mention or recommend this place. But the service was good and the waiter kindly informed us of the best route towards the Brandenburg Gate. Back to Alexanderplatz where we'd started the day. We covered the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburg Gate with a little too much haste thanks to my body having its third tantrum of the trip. That meant that my idea to walk down Unter den Linden to our hostel was thwarted. An hour and a half of nap later, I was refreshed and ready to put on my shabbiest clothes for the East Side Gallery followed by some dancing. Dinner that night was at Flescherei Domke, a deli style place serving cute home cooking. I had a schnitzel with potatoes and sauerkraut.
Whenever I mention schnitzel, people invariably say something like 'I didn't know schnitzel could be that good'. They haven't tried this schnitzel! I think it was my favourite meal of the trip. It was just so tender and meaty. There is no other way of describing the flavour other than meaty. It had that warming, slightly salty, gorgeous umami flavour and it covered your mouth entirely. Oh, and that gravy! Just so gentle. It was all so subtly flavoured. I don't know how you can call something so artful boring. And at less than five euros, it was probably the cheapest meal of the trip. That was mainly because we shared a portion (my illness was settling in again) and that meant we got hungry later. After several drinks, a Turkish pizza seemed irresistible. I don't remember where it came from or really what it tasted like but I know that it inspired me to seek lahmacun next time I was making a drunk trip home.
I was feeling surprisingly fresh the next morning. In fact, I thought I was cured from my illness and miraculously not hungover. It turns out that it was just the caffeine and slight leftover alcohol having that effect. This became clear when we were in the idyllic 3 Schwestern in Mariannplatz so I wasn't too traumatised. Although it took a while for the soothing effect of our surroundings to kick in. ('Can we just be silent please? I can't handle conversation at the moment.') I make strange decisions when I'm hungover and deciding to get a spread at this breakfast place was one of them.
I'm not sorry. What you see there is a cheeseboard (alpine breakfast), a bratwurst (bavarian breakfast), eggs (a little treat on the side) and fruit salad. All with a multitude of breads. I know that sounds heavy but it was all clean and crisp and executed in a stereotypically German, efficient fashion. The yolks were perfectly runny. My favourite was possibly the spiced apple mustard that accompanied the sausage. Or maybe the grapes combined with the various creamy cheeses. Unfortunately, hungover people aren't known for having the biggest appetites so much of our cheeseboard went to waste. We were planning on visiting the Berlinische afterwards but then I literally thought I would die so we hopped on a U-bahn straight to the hostel for naptime. I felt lame because we got in ridiculously by Berlin standards (five) but I was ill, OK? I shouldn't have been out at all so I did really well. I was a trooper. We only napped for about an hour and then we headed out again on a tram in the opposite direction towards Mauerpark. If you are in Berlin on a Sunday, definitely visit Mauerpark. It highlighted the difference between British and German cultures. They aren't judgy there! They are just as bad at singing but they don't care, they clap and don't taunt or heckle. 
I felt less enthused about Berliners in Il Ritrovo, a pizza place we visited in the evening. Look, I know it's our national shame that we are lazy and can't speak two languages as standard like most other countries of the world. But we try! I was saying my dankes all over the shop! And ordering in my pastiche of a German accent. That is no excuse not to read us our specials or help us with the all German menu. I don't know if it was the service or the fact that the pizza was a touch burnt that left me disappointed in this dish. Too salty, too many of the same notes. But mainly that acrid taste of burnt toast. It was time for my post-food feverish ill phase so we headed back to the hostel and I shivered and sweated until I fell asleep. 
Still determined to make up for my poor immune system, I insisted that we go to the Berlinische on Monday morning. On the way, we stopped at a cafe for one of the best hot dogs I've had. Germans do great snacks. It was followed by a woefully brief (about 2 hours) in the gallery and Huhnerhaus. We had saved this for our last meal because it was described as 'like the Nandos of Berlin but actually really tasty'. A good last meal before the return to health and wellbeing in the UK. This was a great half chicken. Is a half chicken interesting? I think it is when you manage to char the skin but keep the flesh moist. And it manages to pair that headaching saltiness with a touch of sweet. Oh, the spicy sauce and garlic sauce really helped. It was properly spicy sauce. I appreciate that. And the salad came well dressed but fresh and a little watery but that's what you wanted to counteract the heart attack of the rest of the plate. Much better than Nandos. And about £5 cheaper too. It kept us full until we returned to England, back to cleaning and drudgery and chores. It's not all bad, my cold went away too.

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