Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Kantine Cuisine

When I first got to Berlin, I was so relieved. “They have pho here! And good Korean food! And salad!” I proclaimed to all that would listen. Ignorant as I was, I had feared deeply that all I would be able to consume for the next four-ish months was sausage and beer, and was nearly convinced that Germans didn’t know what vegetables were, save for the tragically wilted and colorless cabbage that makes up sauerkraut (which for the record, I actually love). But what I found was quite the opposite: vegan and vegetarian restaurants, Turkish food on every corner, Italian, Korean, Vietnamese, whatever. But then I made an unsettling observation. Where was the German food I had so seriously feared? Sure, I’d noted some Currywurst places and sausage stands, many a beer garden, but I’d hardly seen a single real traditional German place. Because I am a food snob by birth and hopefully some day by profession, I began to panic that I might be missing out on the “real” food culture of the place I was living in. For the aforementioned reason, I’m always on the hunt for the most “authentic” eating experiences. Bring on the blood sausage, I said to myself, I am terrified and intrigued! And so I began asking around. That’s when one of my teachers brought up the idea of the German “Kantine."

Strictly speaking, kantine just means "cafeteria," normally with a cheap menu that changes daily. I knew I needed to eat my first Berlunch at a place that was guaranteed to serve no-frills and no nonsense German food, in all its inelegant glory. Because I was looking for somewhere that a tourist wouldn't think of visiting, where the real, working German people eat lunch, the quiet and unpretentious basements of the Berlin city halls became the perfect starting point. As an added bonus, I discovered that the soup there only costs 1 euro. As an avid appreciator of both soup and bargains, I was immediately attracted to the idea. 

And so I set out with my faithful dining companion to the ominously named "Ratskeller" (surprisingly enough this does not mean "rat cellar", if that's what you were thinking) of the Rathaus Schöneberg . We entered through an inconspicuous door on the side of the city hall into a dining room that was probably considered quite grand in its heyday, as indicated by the arched hallways, intricate ceiling, and small carved heads (?) embedded in some of the wall tilings. These details were contrary to the rather shabby-looking chairs and dingy tablecloths, which lent the dining area a sort of small town community Bingo hall effect. Unsure of how to proceed, we began to doubt ourselves. Were we even allowed to eat in here? No one was stopping us, but no one was seating us either. Correct me if I'm wrong but I'm pretty sure that in America, at least in my town, you're not allowed to waltz into the employee cafeteria of the city hall.

I began to notice the crowd. While the dining hall was fairly full, it was almost completely silent. We quickly realized we were the only people there under the age of about 65. What are all these old people doing here? I wondered. Is this, in fact, a Bingo hall? Besides the large elderly contingent, it seemed that the rest of the diners actually worked in the town hall. For the most part, theses types were wearing suits and eating alone while reading the newspaper. I began to feel a mischievous sense of excitement  that we, a couple of random American 20 year olds, had found a sort of secret underground Germans-only restaurant that we maybe weren't even supposed to be at. We got in line in the food hall off to the side and I was slightly disappointed to find that it looked exactly like an American cafeteria. With a highly eloquent system of hand gestures and whatever German words we could muster, we both managed to order something that looked like food. 

Schweinefilet-Spiess mit Kartoffel-Rosenkohlragout, Balsamico-Rosmarinjus
This is what I ordered. Though the brown sauce pool covered a bit more of the plate's surface area than I would have liked, I appreciated the colorful and caveman-like presentation, and approached it with only the tiniest amount of trepidation. 

I was pleased to discover that the pork was cooked almost perfectly, not overdone as it so often is in its American incarnations. The grilled meat and array of flavorful vegetables were only improved by the rosemary Balsamic sauce, which, though plentiful, was well-spiced and savory. The same cannot be said for the ambiguous slop of potatoes, which might have been edible had they not been bathed in such a thoroughly questionable sauce.

Forgive me for the iPhone photo

Though we were skeptical when we saw the ham being scooped with a ladle from a pot of boiling, opaque broth, it turned out to be an excellent choice despite its almost Medieval appearance. From the first bite of ham onwards, it became clear to us that meat was the thing to get at this particular Ratskeller. Some might be bothered by the amount of fat left on the piece of ham, but this only adds to the flavor, much of which comes from the salty brine it seemed to have been cooked in. Though it might feel like basic human instinct to avoid meat at a cafeteria, in this case it would most definitely have been the wrong choice. Those looking for health food need not apply—the vegetables here are doused in butter and, while sort of delicious, will probably give you an eventual heart attack.  If however, you’re looking to get blissfully full in the middle of the day for a mere 4 euros and 90 cents, look no further than the Rathaus Schoneberg. Though far from glamorous, this is an ideal place to escape to in the middle of a freezing weekday when you just need some comfort food and peace and quiet. 

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