Tuesday, February 22, 2011

5 excellent reasons to visit Berlin...or Berlin Currywurst in Silver Lake

Berlin's Cafe Anna Blume: a lovely spot to while away the morning

I wasn't sure what to expect from eating in Berlin for two weeks while working at the Berlin Film Festival. While I heard that Berlin had excellent restaurants, I also remembered my last trip as an economizing backpacker when I nearly overdosed on a steady diet of wurst and doner kebab. It turns out that just like L.A., in Berlin it's easy to find mediocre food on every subway platform but it also doesn't take much effort to find really good food.
Plus, there's the effect of European bloodlines or ancient soil or whatever: the yogurt, quark, butter, meats, vegetables and bread often seem to have a deeper, earthier, more authentic flavor than what we're used to.
First, the bad news: Due to a combination of working too much and a sometimes-uncertain stomach, I never got to try Berlin's number one specialty, the currywurst. But the good news is that Berlin Currywurst fortuitously sprang up in Silver Lake while I was gone, conveniently located next to Pazzo Gelato, so I can try it if I ever recover from jet lag.
Here are some of my top restaurant experiences in Berlin, aside from the foodcourt in the Renzo Piano-designed Arkaden mall where I grabbed lunch while producing Variety's daily festival issues.
simple, satisfying fried chicken at Henne
Henne is an atmospheric hundred-year old tavern with just one specialty: fried chicken. Actually there are wurst on the menu, and you can order either potato salad or cabbage salad on the side, but basically you go there for the free-range chicken, which is fried without a coating, just a fairly salty seasoning directly on the skin. It takes a while to cook, so you'll have to try at least two beers while you wait, or some of the mysterious liqueurs and Berlin specialty drinks.
non-ironic antlers on Henne's venerable walls
I liked the slightly bitter Jever beer. It makes for kind of a plain, but satisfying and very historic meal, since the Berlin wall was built within a few feet of Henne, and waiters apparently used to pass beers over to East Berlin in the early days, and JFK had a drink there but left a letter saying he wish he could have stayed for the chicken.

Gugelhof is a traditional Variety staff dinner spot in the charming hipster Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Like Henne, it's many decades old with walls with a homey patina of age, a relaxed feel and menu in English. While they specialize in Alsatian dishes like choucroute and tarte flambee, I had a huge salad with prunes and hearty slabs of cheese and trout that tasted much closer to freshly-caught than any available in L.A.

Venison stew at Schneeweiss
Schneeweiss is "nouvelle German" cuisine in a sleekly modern white space in funky Freidrichshain. Here you'll find dishes with local ingredients like venison steak in a truffle crust with juniper gravy, hazelnut potato cakes and lingonberry beets. I had guinea hen stuffed with wild mushrooms, while my colleague had venison stew with bright orange carrot fettucine and a savory cabbage/bacon cylinder. Prices are reasonable for the quality, though you'll feel more like you're on Beverly Blvd. than in Berlin.

Cafe AnnaBlume is just down the street from Gugelhof in Prenzlauerberg, and was probably my favorite stop in Berlin. The art nouveau cafe is adjacent to a flower shop and specializes in the "breakfast etagere" -- a three-tiered tower of fruits, pastries, meats, smoked fish, cheese and eggs, and there's also crepes, cakes, pies, egg dishes and coffee drinks on the extensive menu.

My organic coffee came with buttery biscuits, my scrambled eggs with bits of ham and onion and a huge slab of butter for the delicious brown bread. With babies sleeping in their prams and a stylish local clientele, this is a wonderful place to pass a chilly morning.

Currywurst of lobster
pike perch, bok choy
dessert de-construction
Paris-Moskau is even more "nouvelle" than Schneeweiss. Its historic location in a former stationmaster's house near the Hauptbahnhof doesn't give a clue to the cutting edge menu which includes items like sous-vide cooked veal heart with tangerines and salsify or caramelized haunch of bison with cashews. It all sounds a bit pretentious, but despite slighty overwrought plating, the dishes were clear and intensely flavored, especially a terrific amuse of smoked chicken breast with berries. Lobster currywurst was a fun elevated play on the local specialty, while my pike perch (sourced from Fisherman Lechler!) was perfectly cooked with two kinds of lentils and savory braised bok choy. Three of our party gamely ordered "variations on horse" with brussel sprout puree: Berliners in general are much more adventurous with their meats, regularly ordering wild boar, venison, horse, bison, liver and heart.
Berlin is a wonderful place to eat, both high and low, old and new, but even more than the sophisticated restaurants, I was most impressed with the variety of small bars and cafes to suit every taste, whether a gothy place with pool tables and punk music, a tiny microbrewery more like a living room with beer drinkers all gathered for Wii bowling, or a tiny, dusty cafe looking more like an antique liquor store than a place for tea.

Going to Berlin? Here's a few places to research the food scene.
Good Food in Berlin is an English language blog with an active Facebook page. 
Berlin on a Platter is a blog from the author of The Wednesday Chef with both restaurant and shopping advice.
Berlin Unlike is a city guide in English with an alternative slant.
NPR Berlin Blog often has useful food-related content like this guide to microbreweries in Berlin.


L.A. Story said...

Yum! Will have to try Berlin Currywurst in Silver Lake!

David Ng said...

I've always wanted to go to Germany. I like your recommendations and the food looks wonderful.

P.S. Checking those blog recommendations at the moment.

Food GPS said...

Looks like an eventful trip. I know very little about the Berlin dining scene, but since it's such a large city, it makes sense you'd find things like lobster currywurst. Sounds like they enjoy game over there, which is also promising.

While you were gone, I managed to check out Berlin Currywurst and it's definitely a good addition to the neighborhood. In addition to the sausage, they also have some of the best French fries in the city.