Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Goodbye to Berlin

Well lucky I didn't pack my bowler hat and stockings, I really wouldn't have found any use for them. I was obsessed with the film ‘Cabaret’ for years so a visit to Berlin was a fond fantasy consisting of intimate bars and clubs, divinely decadent people and glamour amongst the ruins...
In reality Berlin is a huge centre-less urban sprawl. It's hard to get a handle on it. I stayed with The Teen in Eisenachestrasse which I never figured out in relation to Mitte (a part of the former East Berlin which is the nearest thing to a centre).
Why does everybody rave about this place? It's grim. It's greyer than London. As my teen said:"Everybody looks ill".
On the U-bahn the majority of the people had hacking coughs. One guy sitting opposite me, who looked like one of Egon Shiele's skinnier nudes, seemed to suffer from tuberculosis. Squeezing away from him as far I could, I tried to cover my mouth and nose. The people still look like extras from a 70s film about Eastern Europe.
I was invited to Berlin by a much-lauded supperclub hostess 'The shy chef' to go eat at her Berlin supper club on Saturday night. Early Friday morning, disturbed by the silence, anxious about the lack of address, I wrote an email, "Please could I have the address as I may not find internet access in Berlin". Casually someone wrote back:
"Unfortunately, due to some complications with both the Chef and the current location, we have had to cancel the dinner evenings for the next couple of weekends. We're very sorry for the late notice but we've been trying everything we could to ensure that it would go ahead, sadly to no avail.
We hope that you have a nice time in Berlin and also hope you will make it to us the next time you're in town.
Kind regards,
The Shy Chef

Whaaat! I spluttered. The whole reason I was going, had paid for flights and accommodation, was to visit this place for my book. I mean, do they live in a world where going to Berlin is a like a trip across the road? Do they know how fucking expensive Europe is for British people at the moment? Do they have children? Commitments? Have to organise their lives differently if they want to go away? Clearly not. They didn't even suggest meeting up...
There have been times when I could have cancelled dinners, due to illness, or legal problems (Amen!) but I never have. Not once. I have too strong a sense of responsibility. I'd have to be  virtually dead to cancel.

Bitterly disappointed, I had one more to visit, something cited on several sites and in several articles as a supperclub 'Cookiescream'. Not only that, it was vegetarian and a fixed menu cost 33 euros. £33 in today's prices, more expensive than mine, but what the hell...
Their website didn't give much info so I emailed and a guy called Peter said he'd reserve a table for two at 8pm. I wrote again asking
"is it in your home?"
No reply. Maybe that was a stupid question, I thought to myself, and didn't dignify a reply. Because of course it's in his home. That's the whole point of a supperclub really.
So dragged self and The Teen up to Stansted. Sat next to scary Otto Dix style hard-faced German woman with plaits piled on top of her head, pancake makeup, dark red thin lips and wearing a challenging shade of russet.
We stayed in the room of a family apartment, it was pretty easy to find from the airport but it would have been better to have stayed nearer the 'centre'. Commuting took a good deal of time and as it was all underground, I never felt like I got to see the layout of Berlin.
Getting off at Friedrichstrasse, we were a little early. Let’s get some chips I said. There was a food outlet selling lots of fried things in batter; fried calamari, fried fish goujons, Indian fried potatoes (green) and chips. They had a bunch of sauces which they served in icecream wafers. Not kidding. But good idea as they are strong and disposable. We ordered something called quarkundgermanishspicish. Actually I made that up but it was a khaki-coloured low fat cream cheese. Not bad.

Down an alleyway...

Round a this can't be right...

Ooh isn't that amazing!

Finally there...

The best thing about Cookiescream was the journey; following instructions to go down an alley between a large posh hotel and another building, it felt like we were venturing into some kind of industrial estate. Surely it can't be here, we thought. Suddenly I noticed a massive chandelier handing from the rafters, this gave a clue to something more happening in this alleyway than deliveries to the back of the hotel. We teamed up with an Englishwoman also wandering around cluelessly knocking on doors, and found the entrance. Winding our way upstairs, we passed a disco, then it opened into...a restaurant, a normal standard restaurant. We were led to our seats.
“Is this a supperclub?” I asked the waitress.
“Well there is a club downstairs...”
“Who is Peter, I thought this was in his home “ I repeated stupidly.
She looked at me pityingly.
I scanned the menu. It was very expensive. The cheapest bottle of wine was 28 euros. That's £28. Gagging for a drink, I ordered it and while not bad, it was sweet white, not something you could drink much of.
"Would you like water?" the waitress asked.
"Just tap"
"We don't do tap. Still or sparkling?"
"Why not? "I squeaked.
"It's like that everywhere in Berlin, no one will give you tap water."
"You'd instantly get a bad review for that in London" I muttered.
They gave us a plate of bread and a little dish of cottage cheese with some kind of herb in it. Couldn't recognise the herb. It lacked salt. I asked for salt. This is one of those vegetarian restaurants that thinks you shouldn't put salt in food. Food fascism I call it. Designed to make life even more miserable than it already is.
My starter...oh what to say? It's the kind of food I detest. It's the kind of food where I want to kill the chef. Pretentious, tasteless and expensive. No salt again. I would like vegetarian food to have a better reputation, to be seen as more than brown slop, but this is not the way. Stupid pompous plating. A quenelle of this, a dirty protest of that. Itty bitty. Ingredients that make no sense, do not connect or converge but look exotic on a menu.
I looked around. People were sitting down at their tables. When their plates arrived they looked happy not angry. I wanted to stand on my chair and scream at them.

"You fucking morons. You know nothing about food. This is food for fucking moron people who know nothing about food."
But the Germans are famously law-abiding (we spent the whole trip resisting the urge to jaywalk, people will stand to attention for hours at crossings, even when the road is empty, waiting for the distinctively leprechaun-like green man) so I quenched the urge to smash the place up in a punk fury.
What was it,  this starter that so offended? It was recommended by the waitress and was called 'Stuffed brioche with quail egg'.
It consisted of a stale brioche hollowed out to contain some kind of cheese inside, ah no looking at the menu it was 'truffled foam of potatoes’ on a ‘bed of redwine shallots’ that tasted like red cabbage. The red cabbage completely overpowered any other taste. It was disappointing for £9. And small. The picture above is life size. Ok, I slightly exaggerate but it isn't much bigger.
The waitress, bless her, did bend 'die regeln' and bring us two glasses of tap water.
Mains: I ordered, again on recommendation, 'puree & grilled Hokkaido pumpkin with gnocci of chive, gelly (sic) of balsamico, redwine sauce, wild herbs'.
I specifically said to the waitress that I disliked beetroot. This main came with slices of beetroot hidden under the school dinners purée of pumpkin. It was absolutely horrible. I've been cooking with pumpkin recently and there are ways to make it taste interesting. This didn't achieve that. The gnocci, all ten of the little bastards, were rock-hard and tasteless. As for the 'gelly' and the redwine sauce, well I suppose that accounts for the little droplets and squiggles.
I've said it before, if a sauce is good I want a jug of it not a smear. A proper puddle at least.
Who likes this kind of food? Dieters, food faddists, Pro-Ana thinspirational 'wanarexic/fauxlimics'? Fashion folk who want to be seen eating but not actually eat?
The teen got 'tomato-tandoori-risotto with baked praline of goat cheese, chickweed and tomato fumet'. The pralines, two, were great, hot and tasty. The only successful element of the meal. The tiny oblong of 'risotto' was flavoured with ready-made curry powder. When I make curry, I grind and roast my own spices. I know the difference between shop-bought instant curry powder and the real thing.
Hey if chickweed is a chic ingredient I’ve got tons of it in my garden due to lack of weeding.
Puddle of tomatoey liquid.
The Teen definitely got the better deal. But both of these mains cost £18 each. I can go to a decent restaurant, hell I can even go to a Michelin starred restaurant and get a nice main for that.
We couldn't even be arsed to order pudding at £9. I imagine it would be a couple of squirts from a squeegy bottle and a quenelle.
Still hungry, we went to a late night shop and bought a load of sweets (Lindt chocolate balls and some salty liquorice) and a dvd to watch on our laptops 'Rachel's getting married' good acting, rather depressing. Anne Hathaway doing her prettier Liza Minelli thing, all lugubrious brown eyes and mobile mouth.

Sat: Big big breakfast in first cafe we saw. A huge spread of different cheeses on a large grey slate. The cheeses were rather processed and tasteless but I made a couple of sarnies for later, wrapped them in napkins and then tussled with the teen about who was going to carry them.
"I've got a camera in my bag" I pleaded
(I have ruined so many cameras by carrying food in the same bag). 
I won.

The teen had tomato soup. At first sight we were pleased because it looked homemade, it didn't look like Heinz (although I do actually like Heinz Tomato soup). But it was pasta sauce served as a soup. Weird and not very edible. But nice big portions for a reasonable sum of money. Unlike...well I won't bore you to death...because I think you now know what I think of 'cookiescream'.

Then we walked down the road and saw some squats...Tacheles. Finally, I thought, a bit of the famed Berlin alternative scene. We took some pix and had a beer (you had to pay a deposit for the glass) at the Zapata bar. So interesting squats but nothing you wouldn't find in Hackney on any given day of the week.
Then we carried on walking. And walking. Because everything is really far. All the streets are enormously wide. Perfect for rolling tanks down. Oops.
We found the holocaust memorial. A subject of contention, according to the guide book for having been built 'on prime real estate with little historical significance'. I found it moving. The large oblong stones ressembled a cemetary, but this time the tombstones were without names. As you got further in, going deeper as the earth dipped, it perfectly summed up a feeling of oppression. I was a little shocked at German youth jumping on the gravestones, pulling funny poses for photographs. I couldn't stop myself from telling one off:
'This is inappropriate, you wouldn't do this in a graveyard would you?'
She stopped 'You are right but we are so happy!'
A cubist portrait of the memorial
We moved onto the bunker where Hitler shot himself. It's now a carpark. A void. It seems Berlin is constructed around embarrassment of one sort or another. There is not yet, despite promises, a museum about the Nazis and yet fascism and communism is what most people associate with this place. The communist past is easier to deal with: there is a section of the wall left standing and 'ostalgie' a play on the word 'nostalgia', a longing for past memories for the East, of the time when the East was blocked off behind the iron curtain. But even this period is scantily dealt with, a series of temporary looking boards with information in English and German near to Checkpoint Charlie.
On Sunday we did little, the weather looked so dispiriting, except visit a Bavarian restaurant Kuchekaiser (they love that word Kaiser, it's the one part of their past of which they are not embarrassed). This was the cheeriest place we visited. The food was heavy: my starter of blinis and smoked salmon was laid out into a multi-level sandwich, cemented together by the ubiquitous quark, which could eminently grace an upperclass version of 'This is why you are fat'.
The teen's starter of goats cheese on toast was not à la francaise which is generally fine toasts graced by a roundel of chèvre, here it consisted of doorsteps of bread, with an equivalently doormat thickness of cheese.
My main dish were two-ton home-made noodles, a gluey net of onions and a covering of shrapnels of fried brown something on top. This is food to fight off the Russian Winter. This is the culinary equivalent of Gore-tex and thermals.
The teen was delighted with her fish fingers and mash: battered goujons, as opposed to Birdseye, with buttered mashed potato.
Dessert was disappointing: apple strudel with heavy pastry, not much filling, cold creme anglaise and irritating irrelevant bits of decorative exotic fruit. Got the feeling it wasn't home-made.
Still we enjoyed our meal. The atmosphere was family-busy, we were asked to watch a pushchair outside, and the waitresses friendly and helpful. Does this reflect Bavarian warmth?
Venturing out into the drab, we were too weighed down to attempt sight-seeing so we dipped into a cinema to see Ken Loach's latest prole-flick 'Looking for Eric'.
To be frank I groaned when I saw that it was a Ken Loach film. Europeans fucking love Ken Loach. Just as they love Woody Allen. I lived in France for years and every Ken Loach film was greeted like the second coming. I like some of his films but many of them are incredibly patronising about the working class who often come across as clueless victims. Still his films afford one of the few opportunities, apart from reality TV, to actually see the working class (or non-working) portrayed unvarnished on mass media. This film has the stellar presence of Eric Cantona, humour and an optimistic ending.
We got the U-bahn to Schoenberg airport in the morning where I had the single most enjoyable gastronomic experience of the trip: a large chewy pretzel bought at an underground stall (I love pretzels small and large and have made them myself) through which was mined a seam of, oh joy, butter. Every mouthful of this tube of lye-boiled dough, salt and butter was divine. Those Germans know their bread.
Sausages in croissants...this is a country where it is pretty much acceptable to put a sausage in anything...
You order a beer and half a metre of it arrives...
Even the U-bahn stations look like beer signs...


  1. This post is thunderously epic. If I were Charles Foster Kane I would give youse a column. As for 'quarkundgermanishspicish'- copyright and trademark it straightaway!

  2. Great post. Shame 1 supperclub was cancelled and the 2nd one wasn't a supperclub.

    I was in Berlin back in August and enjoyed it (though I lived there as a child so have memories of it). I found the holocause memorial a powerful place.

    I think I know the pretzel stall your talking about as I also grabbed one on the trip back to Shonefeld. mmmm pretzels!

  3. I haven't read the rest of your post yet, just had to say that I am now seriously coveting your bowler hat and stockings!

    I've been to Berlin twice, once in 97 and once in 2000. The difference was incredible: in 97 they were still reconstructing, and in 2000 it was all done and there were skyscrapers everywhere. In 97 we stayed in Potsdam which was gorgeous. Really posh neighbourhood with palaces and stuff in former East Germany, so half had been redone but half of the houses were still flaking paint and bullet holes.

  4. Chickweed!?! Talk about rabbit food! Actually we used to give it to our bird, it was his favourite food.

  5. that sucks. Hate those foams on plates, looks like spit!

  6. Hi, i love the blog, I am looking for good food writers to join my site and submit a few restaurant reviews. Would be great if you could join

    Thank you

    Luke Williams

  7. Another great read. Sorry the trip was a little disappointing. If ever you need more 'Chickweed' I have plenty on my allotment.

  8. A bit much to expect CookiesCream which is quite clearly a "trying to be trendy" restaurant to be a cheapy bargain- it never suggested it would be on its clearly expensively built website, and a cursory google search reveals immediately it is a restaurant of style rather than substance. You can't accuse them of not being clear on being a Restaurant rather than a supperclub, when every review calls them a restaurant.

  9. Hilarious and at once, rather sad. 'A challenging shade of russet' is one of the most wonderfully descriptive things I've read!

  10. Ah, Ms. Marmite Lover, I feel like you got a bum deal on Berlin. I should have hooked you up with Sascha, my photography teacher. He's a pretty cool dude. And there are so many fantastic and inexpensive places to eat! I loved this recommendation, from Sylee of Berlin Reified:

  11. I think we can beat your Berlin trip. We arrived the same day as a massive neo-nazi rally. Police and roadblocks everywhere. Totally freaky!

    Catherine -

  12. YOU are the food facist!

  13. So outrageously pricey - sort of maybe defies the point of a supper club, as like you say, you can go to an amazing restaurant for those prices. Unless the atmosphere was fab-tastic?

  14. Look Anons (by the way I do have your IP addresses)please at least have the courage to leave your name.
    I've never left an anonymous comment in my life. It's cowardly. Hate me, sure, but identify yourself.I do publish hostile comments as long as they within the bounds of legality.
    If you follow the link to Cookiescream you will see that the New York Times and others call it a supperclub. Perhaps it's lazy journalism but when I questioned the waitress, she did call thems a supperclub. But actually they are a restaurant with disco attached.As I said in the post, I tried to find out more and they didn't reply to my email.
    I'm happy to pay when the food warrants it, even though I don't have much money. But in this case it was style over substance.
    Catherine: that's so funny. I'd actually find that quite interesting.
    Jules: pretzels mmmm
    Fingerandtoes: watch this space for chickweed recipes!
    Bellaphon: you reckon?
    Faithfulfoodie: will check your site but am so busy keeping up three blogs,bringin up a teenager and running the supperclub that I can only write for money at the moment due to lack of time.
    Krista: yup, I'm all outta luck it seems. What it taught me was that other cities take the whole thing less seriously. London is now the centre for supperclubs in Europe.
    Bakelady and Hugh: thank you. My speciality I think is humour with sadness.
    Anon: the atmosphere was soso.
    Anon: Yes I am.

  15. Please stop whinging. London is a lot more expensive than Berlin (google some sites about cost of living) and we all know the reputation of English "gastronomy"...

  16. Michael: nobody is obliging you to read this blog.

  17. A moment ago there was something on German radio (Deutschlandradio Kultur, a bit like Radio 4 crossed with Radio 3 and Radio 2 and, a radio station then) on "secret restaurants" - I think those who cancelled you were the main interviewees - the report was a good mixture of a brief history of the 'movement' (from Speakeasys in the 1930s in the USA to illegal bars/restaurants all over East Berlin for the first few years after the wall came down) and the situation today. But as it was a 'lifestyle' programme, it wasn't too detailed.

    Interestingly one point was that most of the guests (at the home restaurant concerned) seem to be Americans and other English-speaking ex-pats; possibly because those running it move in such circles.

    If a transcript gets put online I'll let you know and translate the most interesting bits, if you're interested...

    A brief summary is here

  18. thanks matthew. To be honest if I'm going to Berlin as a tourist, I'd really like to attend a German supperclub with German food.
    The shy chef is I believe Irish. There are very few 6-8. More of a dinner party than a restaurant.
    The other...Cookies and Cream...are not a supper club and their food is pretentious overpriced crap.

  19. Hm, I think we've all established that Cookiescream isn't (and never was) a home restaurant (and itself never pretended to be one). I'm afraid you'll have to blame some lazy New York Times hacks (and some bloggers who copied the links I presume) who needed seemingly *anything* to fill up their article.

  20. I'm somewhat a "local", e.g. a native German speaker having lived in Berlin for 7 years now. And I'm so sorry you collected these bad food and drab travel memories of Berlin - and it's frightening that probably many visitors in this city will suffer from the same experiences. Maybe it was just bad luck - but I assure you there is better. As you noticed also some real supperclubs have seen the light of the day - or shall I say evening... Mostly they are run by English speakers (Irish, British) or Scandinavians. I know of no Germans - yet.

    Reading through your blog I once more noticed that misunderstandings between English and German speakers are programmed if English speakers take the Germans use of English as 1:1. The "thing"/"concept" an English speaker sums up in the word "supperclub" hardly was established in Berlin at the end of 2009 and would certainly not be known to and understood by an average person such as a waitress or even restaurant manger. "Supperclub" in the German understanding means "Having supper in the same place where I will spend the night at the Dance Club" - that's a "supperclub"...

    As for the bland and greasy cooking: I totally agree and it is indeed epidemic. Staying in a rather residential area such as Eisenacher Strasse certainly did certainly not help the cause of finding the more audacious and groovy places to dine out.

    Should you like to return - please get in touch with me and I'll try to line up some more pleasant encounters...

    Liebe Grüsse, Claire

  21. Hi claire,
    What a lovely comment. Yes it seems to be the same in Paris, only foreigners running the supper clubs. Which is a shame. As a traveller I want to see typical German/Parisian houses/kitchen's/cooking.
    I think some German food can be awesome even though I don't eat meat which makes it more difficult for me to eat typical food.
    I've heard their flour is the best bar none and would like to try it.
    The germans are bakers really aren't they?
    I will go back at some point. I was kind of pissed off when I wrote that post above, I was so looking forward to going to the Shy chef and to be cancelled so casually when they had asked me to come on that date was upsetting and well, expensive!

  22. Hello Very funny post...


I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)