Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interview with Zitty Berlin

I'm using this opportunity to post the rest of my miscellaneous pictures
Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Denk, a journalist for the magazine Zitty, which is sort of like the Berlin hybrid between Time Out New York and New York magazine.  We had an extremely interesting and useful chat about the state of German food today and how it’s changing, and he proved to be an excellent source of knowledge. Over the course of the hour or so, we strayed from the format of a formal interview into more of a conversation, so I think the best way to get across what we discussed is to summarize Felix’s main points.

For some background info, Felix has been working as an editor at Zitty for four years writing reviews and features in the food and drink section. The magazine is produced every two weeks, and features mostly seasonal topics, with a stress on small businesses and self-starters like, for example, independent craft beer brewers.  Zitty writes about the small things, and aims to expose and promote independent and new food producers and launch them into the public eye.

Now onto his points:
  • German food is a trend, as well as regional food. This idea started out in Scandinavia, notably with Noma in Copenhagen, which appeared on the exclusive San Pellegrino list. This highly visible list decides the best restaurants in the world, and often defines the major food trends for the year. Looking at this list, you can see how a lot of regional concepts are coming back, especially in the vein of very strict local food.  For the last 4 to 5 years this trend of local cooking in has been getting more prevalent in Berlin, as many restaurants are returning to the roots of regional cooking.
  • In other regions of Germany, there’s not as much of a renaissance in cooking because more high quality cooking already existed there. Berlin doesn’t have much of a culinary tradition.  The Brandenburg region doesn’t have much of a gastronomic identity, as it doesn’t have much food tradition to rely on. It has, for example, currywurst, bouletten (meat balls), and Berlin Schnitzel, which is from a cow’s udder and which no one would eat today, and that’s about it.  
  • Part of the reason Berlin doesn’t really have a food tradition is because the city never had a rich bourgeoisie, like Paris did. It was always a city for soldiers and poor people, different even from the booming beer halls of Bavaria.
 Q: How can you have a renaissance with no identity? 
  • The chefs of the German food renaissance answer this question by trying to use local products and products of the season, in order to create an identity for the region.  One problem this cult of regional cooking encounters is that good restaurants often have trouble getting local food products in a reliable number. Some even source from their own farms, which is difficult and time consuming. These restaurants are very basic in a way—they don’t use expensive products like lobster, but simple ingredients instead. These restaurants focus on simple things done well. They’ll get game from one farmer, beef from one farmer, and sausage from a third. There is a rise in very old-fashioned cooking like your grandmother might make. Nostalgia is rising.

Q: Do you get the sense that younger people eat a lot of “traditional” German food, or is it mostly older people eating this food out of a sense of nostalgia?
  • The impression is that it actually seems to appeal to younger people very much. The thing about German food is that it doesn’t exclude anyone—anyone can relate to it. There seems to be a rising interest in cooking and doing things yourself. For example, these days it’s normal to bring a jar of marmalade you made yourself as a hostess gift to a dinner party, whereas 10 years ago no one would have thought of doing that. 
 Q: How is this new wave of German cooking dealing with the more health-conscious attitude of today?

  • This isn’t really a factor because restaurants like these are more special occasion restaurants, like for weekend evenings, not for every day. It’s a memory and nostalgia thing—young people seem to be growing more sentimental.
  • The new German food movement is linked to a post climate change cuisine. There is a rising mistrust of things you buy in a supermarket, as well as an unease towards things that come from far away. We no longer want mysterious, foreign ingredeitns, we now long to know how our food is made. We want to meet the farmer and know the roots of our food. For example, at My Little Farm in Brandenburg. (more info here:, you can pick out a pig at farm to be slaughtered for you to eat. This is to make you more aware and conscious of exactly where your food is coming from.
  • People are buying more organic food even though it’s more expensive and not necessarily healthier, because it’s more eco-friendly and much more assuring. It’s not really based on science, but on feeling good about what you’re doing for yourself and for the environment. Buying organic food used to be more of a hippy thing, now it’s come to the forefront.
  • Best examples are probably Paulysaal, whose chef calls himself the “Savior of German traditional food,”  Hartmann’s, and Rutz. Rutz presents Berlin food in a way that is interesting.  These kinds of places serve forgotten classics of German food, things like pig’s feet, which no one would have eaten 10 years ago. Also innards are coming back and becoming trendy—what was once peasant food is becoming gourmet. 10 years ago you couldn’t have had a German restaurant with Michelin stars, today, there are several.
more info here:

  • The resurgence of German food says a lot about identity. Germans didn’t used to be proud of being German, but it doesn’t really matter any more since reunification. Now that 60 years have passed, maybe it’s not so bad to be German any more, and this trend reflects that.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Zum Schwarzen Hasen

I think I may have found my favorite German place in town: Zum Schwarzen Hasen. (at the Black Hare's), which just so happens to be the final destination in my long trek through the cuisine of this strange and wonderful country. 

I immediately fell in love with the menu and the atmosphere. Both are fresh and stylish, yet somehow harken back to a certain old-world German flair. The restaurant's website calls it "a surprising and modern interpretation of German cuisine," which transforms "heavy meals into fine delicacies." This is a true German tapas joint, but here the concept works flawlessly. The dishes are reasonably priced and delightfully bite-sized, seamlessly combining traditional elements with fresh and unexpected flavors.  

We ordered four small plates, but I would've ordered the whole menu if I had the means. I think six plates would have been a better number for two people who were looking to eat a full meal. First we had the semolina dumplings with sauerkraut. These were the exact size that I would want a dumpling to be. When I popped one of these into my mouth, I was brought back to my very first night in Germany, when we were dragged, jet lagged and delirious, to a classic German restaurant. I ordered two colossal bread dumplings that were so filling I had no choice but to leave a full one on my plate, which I hate doing. They were just too much. With such a miniaturized version of this dish, I could actually enjoy the flavor, without eating so much of it that I felt sick. It's just so obvious-- the problem with German food is that it's too big, it comes on too strong, and it doesn't apologize for being bad for you. And the answer is just so simple--reduce it, clean it up, and today's Berliners will embrace it with open arms. 

Next we had the saddle of hare with celery mash, a baked plum and a pumpernickel crouton. This is how to do game elegantly. It's also a great example of simple, seasonal/regional products used in creative ways. The baked plum was an especially special companion to the hare, which really improved on the flavor. Plums are actually quite a staple of German cuisine, especially dumplings with plum filling.
As soon as I saw the word "pickles," I knew we had to order this dish: roasted bread with nuts, goose confit and homemade pickles. I am so obsessed with pickles, and have been so excited that they've become such a trend in the food world recently. Homemade pickling has really become a trendy hobby, who could have foreseen that. These were excellent, and I wouldn't have guessed they'd go so well with goose. The house made nut bread was also fresh baked and amazing.

Last we ordered the wild boar sausage in red wine sauce. This dish won the prize for attractive sausage presentation by a mile. While I love wild boar, these were a little bit tough, but the flavor was still there. Whatever the green sauce was really made the dish, I wish I knew exactly what it was, maybe some sort of pea mash. 

I think this was a perfect place to finish my project. It was simple but not forced, beautiful but not over the top, and new without sacrificing tradition completely. While I wish I could've tried some of Berlin's Michelin starred restaurants, I just couldn't shell out 100 euros for a tasting menu, and a mid-range place like this was more than adequate in letting me try "haute German" cuisine. When I left, I was still hungry, but my taste buds were more than satisfied. I felt like I'd seen the future of German food, and seen how it could have global appeal. Maybe if this is the direction German food is going in, we'll start to see German tapas popping up in America, not just kitschy faux-Bavarian beer houses that are only full during Oktoberfest. There's really something to be said for the cuisine, and it'd be a shame to see it die, which is what I think might have eventually happened if it hadn't undergone this update. Zum Schwarzen Hasen is 2012's answer to German food, and I'd say it's a complete success. 

Zum Schwarzen Hasen
Krausnickstr. 1
10115 Berlin
Tel: 030 63965032
Open daily 12:00 pm -1:00 am

Wurst Pate

The other day I was too lazy to lug myself through the snow to a fancy new German restaurant, so I decided to just bite the bullet and get currywurst from the stand around the corner from my apartment.  While it's not exactly high-class eats, it's most definitely popular and prevalent enough to be included in the scope of German food today. I think I can even say that it's the most commonly eaten German thing in Berlin. Apparently it was "invented" around 1950, but I'd still call it "new" and not really "traditional" cuisine.  I probably should've made the trek to the iconic cult favorite, Curry 36, but given I didn't really feel too enthusiastic about currywurst I opted for the convenient choice and not the famous one.

Anyways, I was glad to find that the stand had set up a sort of currywurst-eating pod for the winter months, in which they made a tent over the tables so you'd have a place to stand up and eat while being slightly less freezing. Even so, I left after a few minutes to eat it while walking down the street and be judged by the passersby. One thing I miss about America is being able to eat things on the go without getting weird looks.
Maybe it was due to the fact that I was starving, but I kind of loved it. My favorite element was the cute plastic fork. Leave it to Europeans to eat a hot dog with a fork, even their fast food is classier than ours. It wasn't as much of a hot dog as I expected, it was an almost sweet pork sausage. I expected the sauce to be ketchup with curry powder, but it actually tasted more like curried barbecue sauce. The fries were the crowning glory of this plate---hot, salted, and just crisp enough. 

While I get the obsession a bit more now, I don't think I'll ever be a die hard currywurst fan. I hear it's best when eaten while drunk in the middle of a night out, rather than on a snowing Monday afternoon, but I don't have enough time to test that theory. This experience didn't really give me much new information for my project, but I couldn't write about food in Berlin and omit currywurst, so there you go. 

Wurst Pate
Köpenickerstr. #?


I picked this restaurant out of the Tip Berlin yearly Speisekarte (menu) issue, which has been my bible throughout this project. It contains lists of the best restaurants of the year for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a full directory of notable eateries arranged by both cuisine and neighborhood. The 2013 edition marks "haute German cuisine" as a trend for the year, and contains a huge list of German restaurants in Berlin.

This one stuck out to me because of their "märkisches" tapas plate, which consists of ingredients specific to the Brandenburg region of Germany, which Berlin is a part of. This unpretentious and welcoming tavern is the only place I've come across that seems to be trying to serve true Berlin food, using local ingredients from the immediate area. Most places seem to serve food from other regions whose food is more noteworthy, opting for some combination of Saxon, Bavarian or Swabian cuisines. 

Given the heavy and filling nature of German cuisine that I keep going on about, I usually don't want to finish my whole plate of food. The concept of German tapas seems like it might be the perfect solution to this problem.  Scaling down this intensely hearty food into a smaller size brings it into the modern world of eating. I think it's much more pleasant to eat a few bites of sausage than a heap of sausage links, or take a nibble of potato gratin as opposed to  digging into a mound of boiled potatoes. Also, because I was aiming to try as many different German specialties as possible at this point in my project, I thought this assortment would be the best choice. 

That said, the tapas plate wasn't exactly what I was picturing.  It was more of a German antipasto platter, with meats and cheeses, but nothing hot. Also, the menu didn't describe what the different things were, it just called it a tapas platter. Had I been a bit more confident with my German, I would've asked, but I'll just have to guess. There was a meatball (called a boulette), a piece of bread with some sort of tartare and onions, a piece of quiche, quark with dill, a brie-like cheese with dried cranberries, and various other cured meats, including blood sausage. I know I've talked this to death, but I had a tough time with the blood sausage. If you're wondering what it tastes like in its cured sausage form, it tastes like blood. It has that same metallic taste, and I just cannot get past it. Also, the slices of bread each had a huge chunk of butter underneath the meat, which just wasn't really working for me. Though the concept of tapas seemed current and I could tell they were trying to serve traditional food in a fresh bistro-style way, it still felt stuck in the past in a way that didn't feel quite right.
One of my friends got the Käsespätzle with onions, which I have to say was the best version I've tried yet.

My other friend got the potato and broccoli gratin, which turned out to be a serious cheese situation. I love cheese more than most things, but we all agreed that the cheese was overkill here. It wasn't a gratin, it was a fondue with broccoli and potatoes floating in it. While I'm sure the ingredients were locally sourced and native to this region, the concept of simple, clean German food with a modern spin didn't come through here.

Still, I enjoyed the theory behind the restaurant. Situated in the histories Arminiusmarkthalle (market hall), the idea is that it serves as a meeting point for the residents of the neighborhood and the customers of the market hall, acting as a shared space for communication in a social setting. It's connected to a room where various talks, lectures, and performances take place, one of which was going on when I was there. The name of the restaurant means "guild," and this is what it feels like in a way. It's an old idea brought back along with an old cuisine, and it does end up feeling fresh. 

Arminiusstr. 2-4 (in Arminiusmarkthalle)
10551 Berlin
Tel:+49 1705810100
Mo-Sa 4:00 pm-12:00 am

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kater Schmaus

I think the blurriness actually captures the vibe quite well
It was 11 pm. We were in the top floor restaurant of an insane funhouse-like club, being jeered at by a drunken Santa. A beautiful drag queen was singing "Santa Baby." It was Berlin at it's finest, but to my great displeasure, no pictures were allowed.

This is the scene at the quasi-secret restaurant "KaterSchmaus." It's not a secret restaurant but it feels like one, as you weave your way through a labyrinth of strange rooms up a grungy staircase past an old vending machine into a unmarked door. Once you get there, you're greeted by a bright and boisterous room of revelers, decked out in Berlin's signature graffiti and mismatched knickknacks style. Perhaps the most surprising part of this situation is that it's home to a serious modern German food operation, and it's not cheap either. It's an upscale restaurant, Berlin-ified. It also wins the award for best name--- I thought it might mean cat and mouse because that's how it sounds, but it actually means "hangover feast." It's also a double meaning, because "Kater" also means tomcat, and the whole restaurant has a cat theme. As an added bonus, they give you gummy cats with the check.

The reason I'm writing such a detailed report of this place is the strict no-pictures policy. I guess it adds to the allure, but for my purposes it was quite inconvenient. I grabbed the picture above from google images, and managed to snap a few stealthy iPhone shots when the waitress wasn't looking, but they don't do the meals justice at all. We were also limited by our limited wallets, as most of the entrees were almost 30 euros. We just got appetizers, much to the chagrin of our already-irritated waitress.

I got "homemade potato ravioli with field hare filling, radicchio, and red currants," and my friend got the "truffled Brussels sprouts soup with potato matchsticks and homemade venison jerky." You can see how these things are fancy German. You might think ravioli isn't a German thing but there actually is a Swabian version called Maultaschen, and I think these might have been a play off of those, except with potato pasta (similar to gnocchi dough but made into pasta). Hare is such a wintry German meat, and something we don't see on menus so often in the states. I personally love it, and the gamey flavor with the homemade ravioli was incredible. Germans seem to put berries in a lot of their dishes, which is something I feel like I haven't portrayed enough. Currants seem especially popular, and somehow they really made sense in this dish, as an acidic break from the richness of the hare and buttery pasta. 

Of course, anyone who knows me would know that I was obsessed with the homemade venison jerky. It was so moist and salty and good. We liked it so much the day after this we ate a venison sausage. Only in Germany does one eat venison twice in two days. The Brussels sprouts soup that accompanied the venison jerky was also delicious, and not overpowered by the truffles, which is often a danger in truffled things. 

Another feature I enjoyed about this place was the open kitchen, which I had an excellent view of from our table. I noticed all the chefs were young, hip people. My one negative comment on this place is that it did have an attitude, in both the staff and the food. Maybe I'm just not used to getting German food like this but it just seemed like a little much, like maybe it was trying a bit too hard. I almost missed the simplicity and starkness of the German food I'd been eating. But whatever they're doing must be working. The food tastes great and the restaurant seems to be really popular, especially with the in-crowd. It's a German restaurant that's truly tailored to the younger, cooler masses in the modern day Berlin. I mean, it's inside a club, I don't know what's further from a humble old German butcher shop than that. 

Michaelkirchstr. 22
10179 Berlin
Tel: 030 51 05 21 34


November is a fitting name for this little corner restaurant, which feels like it would be an ideal place to get cozy in that particular month.  The interior is subdued yet comforting, much like the food. The menu consists of German food done simply, but in an updated and perhaps more delicate way. They had a bloodwurst dish with turnip purée, stewed apples, and thyme that sounded really good, but I shied away from it with the memory of my last experience still resonating in my heart. I decided to come full circle and order one of the first German things I ever ate here: dumplings in white sauce. That way I could compare the two to see how the exact same dish would be done in two different eras of German cooking. To remind you, here’s a picture of what I’m calling the “traditional version.” 

And here’s the version I got at November:

I guess the first obvious difference is that November’s version has parsley on it (do I detect a few stray parsley pieces in the first? hard to say), and the second would be that the potatoes are more intact. Also the first didn’t have capers, a traditional element of the dish. By the way, I figured out after the first Rathaus version that this dish is called Königsberger Klopse. The meatballs in this old Königsberg specialty are made of a combination of beef, pork, veal, and—here’s the surprising part—anchovies or herring. They’re then boiled in salty water which is turned into a white sauce with flour, cream, capers, and more anchovies/herring.  I was kind of mad at myself for not tasting any fish in either of these dishes. I knew the meatballs didn’t taste like any I had ever had before, but I couldn’t figure out on my own what was in them. I thought that their rather depressing color the first time I had them was an error of the cafeteria cooking, but I was wrong. Even at the lovely November, the gray color remained. Also, they honestly didn’t taste that different. The texture was much meatier than the suspiciously smooth interior of the ones at the Rathaus Neuköln, but the taste was largely the same.  While the potatoes were much better, the most improved element was undoubtedly the white sauce. Like I mentioned in my last post, German tradition loves to over-sauce things, as you can see in the first picture. While the second one was also swimming in sauce, that’s kind of how the dish is supposed to be served. In this case the flavor and consistency of the sauce made it okay, while the first sauce was thick and gluey. The sauce here was thinner and much more like a broth, seeming to rely more on the flavor of the meat than an overabundance of flour or salt. Overall, it made the meal so much more pleasant to eat, though I admit I still wasn’t that into the meatballs.

However, I was clearly in the minority, as I realized looking around the room that almost everyone was eating the same thing. Of course, as I was yet again finding myself at lunch at around 4 pm, the restaurant was empty when I came in. Before long, it became filled with a lively bunch of people around the age of 60, all eating Königsberger Klopse. I’ve noticed that’s a bit of trend—when there’s a restaurant that has both specific regional dishes and more modern, gussied-up dishes, most people opt for the traditional food, and most people order the exact same thing. Like when I went to Anaveda, technically an Indian restaurant, and almost everyone was eating Schnitzel. I don’t think I can make any real conclusions yet about the average age of people eating at German restaurants in Berlin, especially because lately I keep going at this strange time and catching people eating early dinners. I don’t think it’s an incorrect stereotype that older people tend to eat earlier, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons.

Anyways, while it was interesting comparing these two dishes, the experience of eating them wasn’t as different as I expected, in both taste and presentation. I suppose I felt somewhat healthier after eating at November, but just as full. This is making me lean towards the conclusion that “new German” isn’t all that different from “old German.” There are tweaks to correct the obvious, fixable issues, like parsley to give some color to the whiteness, or a thinner, more flavorful sauce, but the idea remains mainly the same. There are imported products replaced with local ones, and a stress on regional, seasonally inspired flavors, but the main ideas of comfort, satisfaction, and hominess still seem to remain. 

Husemannstr. 15
10435 Berlin
Tel: +49 030 4428425
Mo-Fri from 10:00 am
Sat-Su from 9:00 am