Friday 1 March 2013

Berlin: Currywurst and Radical Nostalgia

Attention to detail: Restaurant Tim Raue

At Tim Raue’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin’s once-dilapidated but now thriving Kreuzberg district, a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, the lobby is dominated by a large picture by the artist Olivia Steele. It’s a classic technicolour nuclear mushroom cloud with the words ‘The End’ picked out in red neon, movie-credit style. The decor is a bizarre (and oddly relaxing) mix of Prussian blue and fulgent pink. The floor is made of a specialised ultra-durable vulcanized compound, more commonly used for warehouses and industrial complexes.

  If you’re getting the impression Raue pays attention to detail, you’re right. Even the fly-swats in the kitchen are colour-coordinated pink. Raue, born and raised in Kreuzberg (his CV includes a violent stint in a street gang - the area, with high immigration in the 1970s, was notorious for its poverty and instability) has the compelling focus and eccentricity common to most top chefs. His publicist cheerfully told me his sous-chefs regard him with a mix of ‘fear and respect’.

   While Raue is typical of the new generation of Berlin chefs in that he’s striving to create a new style while paying healthy respect to tradition, there’s nothing typically “German” about his food. It is Asian-inspired, a mix of Thai, Chinese and Japanese culinary traditions. Raue says he wants to ‘attain the purity’ of eastern cuisine, and eschews all wheat, gluten and starch. Dishes like crayfish with tangerine and smoked pepper, or jasmin pigeon with peanut and fig, have an intensity of flavour combined with lightness and elegance you find very seldom, however many Michelin stars on the door. Each dish is created around ‘Spiciness, acidity and natural sweetness. I’m not looking for quantity but for this rollercoaster of sensations.’ Raue insists he is traditional – ‘Chinese cuisine is the most ancient in the world – they were using sous-vide 2000 years ago’ – it’s just not German traditional. ‘I’m not looking to cook “German”,’ he says, putting the word in quotation marks. ‘I love Asia but I am a native of Berlin. You can see in these dark blue Prussian colours, and in the way I work, which is very precise.’

    This combination is fitting for a city that fosters creativity. Berliners are open to new things. There’s no industry here. The banks are in Frankfurt, there is no downtown financial district, but plenty of advertising and artists. And, as Raue points out, ‘there are a lot of people who are wealthy and who need an audience, and places to entertain themselves.’

The End by Olivia Steele

    For all its radical self-consciousness, though (much of Berlin is a riot of grafitti and scruffy, hippyish chic) there’s something touchingly old-fashioned about this extraordinary city and its refusal to leave the past behind. History is literally set into the stones here. The route of the infamous Wall is marked out in a double row of cobblestones; cemented into doorways all over the city are tiny brass plaques commemorating their Jewish occupants. ‘Here lived Elsa Guttentag, born 1883,’ says one, ‘Deported 29.11.1942. Died in Auschwitz’. Older Berliners talk about the upheavals the city has experienced – the Nazis, the Communists – and the young are fully aware of their city’s legacy.

      Berliners are mindful too of their rich gastronomic heritage. This is what makes the city’s restaurants so compelling – they refuse to leave it alone. They adjust, and tinker, and re-invent. We’re not going to forget our history, good or bad, Berlin cooks seem to say, but we’re certainly not going to let it get in the way. One chef, Marco Müller at the Michelin-starred Weinbar Rutz, makes this explicit: written at the top of his menu are the words Die rettung der Deutschen esskultur (‘The rescue of German cuisine’).

    Muller’s mission is ‘to make everything new but classic’. In his mind, ‘People like going back to what they know, finding flavours they cherished when they were young. So we’re open to new things but we’re looking back to what is comfortable. But this is not your grandmother’s kitchen.’ Indeed it’s not. In contrast to the menu, the setting is ultra-modern, each dish delicate, tiny, the essence of modern Michelin style. Starters of neukollner schinkenknacker, hambel-leberworscht (neukolln sausage and liver sausage) and schweinebauch (pork belly), main courses of blutwurst (blood sausage), Holstein ox shoulder, and other classic German cuts - accompanied by one of the best wine lists in Berlin. Contrast is all: pork belly and blood sausage may sound classically, heftily German, but the meat is reduced to its essence – a mouthful of leberworscht is intense and flavoursome, but it’s only an echo of the great platefuls Muller’s grandmother would have served up.

    German wine is the perfect foil for this kind of food. Germany’s climate, the slate soils and vertiginous sloping vineyards of its finest wine regions produce wines with abundant minerality, bracing acids, rich fruit and low alcohol levels. Chefs resolutely promote their country’s wines: in a week’s worth of dining in Berlin, I hardly saw a non-German wine. 

   At Volt, the industrial-chic restaurant in a former electricity sub-station in Kreuzberg, every German wine region is represented on chef Matthias Gleiss’ list. With one of his signature dishes, a succulent grey mullet with artichoke risotto, he served an aromatic, spicy grauburgunder (pinot gris) from Weingut Klostermühle in Nahe. Another dish, a tranch of char with peas, mango and horseradish, is matched with a silvaner from Weingut Wagner Stempel in Rheinhessen. The pungent saltiness of the fish was offset by the wonderful contrast of sweet mango and delicately hot horseradish pannacotta, the whole complemented by the very same flavours in the wine: tropical fruit anchored by brisk acids.

   Tradition and modernity, radical nostalgia: again and again in Berlin one finds the contrast between the enthusiastic embracing of new flavours and foods, and the urge to hold onto the past. ‘It’s in sync with the economic crisis,’ Gleiss said: harking back to better times. But there’s a desire to look forward as well. At the studiedly trendy Restaurant Mani in Prenzlauer Berg, in the old East Berlin, chef Martin Schaninger describes his cuisine as ‘a virtual voyage from Tel Aviv to Paris’ and serves everything from tapas to spiced lamb patties. But he still has to deal with that conservative streak: even Berliners aren’t quite ready for tapas. ‘Shared dishes are quite a new idea here. Germans can be a bit picky about sharing.’

  Everywhere you look though, there is something new. It might be the Nhow Hotel, all mirrored glass outside and blobby pink décor within, designed to attract the international music crowd (so far they’ve had Katie Mehlua and Public Enemy) and where the chef creates Red Bull cocktails with clouds of dry ice. Or it might be the Judische Madchen Schule in Auguststrasse, in the heart of the former East Berlin. A Jewish girls’ school, under the Nazis it became desperately overcrowded as Jewish children were forced to leave the state schools (the walls are lined with poignant photos of little girls squashed three to a desk) then it gradually emptied as families were deported. Now the handsome, airy, 19th century building is home to galleries and restaurants. At the fast-food end is Mogg & Melzer, whose pastrami sandwiches are made in authentic New York style with beef imported from America. They are superb, the meat meltingly tender, accompaniments such as cucumber pickled in salt (not vinegar – it gives a sweeter flavour) spot on.

Cosima von Bonin:  Miss Riley (2007), in Pauly Saal
Along the corridor is Pauly Saal, whose chef Siegfried Danler explained his fusion of old-fashioned German cuisine with lighter, modern touches. ‘In Germany after the war the important thing was to feed people, so food was as filling as possible – as much sausage, meat and potatoes as you could get.’

One of Danler’s signature dishes, put bluntly, is meat and potatoes: pot-roast beef with purée potatoes and steamed herb-mushrooms. But that’s all it has in common with stolid post-war fare. The beef is thin-sliced, garnished with a sauce of mushroom, walnut oil, chives and shallots – it’s robust, yet delicate.

    But what of real German cooking? Forget delicacy and starch-free Asian fusion, where are the lederhosen-stretching, button-popping, cheek-reddening platefuls that have to be washed down with steins of cold beer rather than sips of riesling? Where’s the currywurst, that strange and ubiquitous modern hybrid of hotdog, ketchup and curry sauce, best eaten standing up at one of the dozens, hundreds, of imbiss (fast food) kiosks around the city?

   Well, you can get currywurst on any corner – or at self-consciously downmarket emporia like Curry36 in Kreuzberg (which is cheerful, cheap, and about as genuinely German as a Soho fish and chip shop is British). For a more authentic street feel, locals flock to Burgermeister’s stand-up tables under the arches at Schlesisches Tor station. Here the ingredients are well-sourced, there are tofuburgers for vegetarians, the meat is excellent, the sauces homemade and arrestingly piquant. The finest example of the style is considered the currywurst and crispy shredded potato at Witty’s, across the road from the KaDeWe department store, in Wittenbergplatz. I’m not a connoisseur but the Witty’s did seem to have an edge – there was genuine meat in that sausage (when often it can seem to have a higher percentage of rusk filler than protein), and the potato was deliciously hot and crispy.

   Even currywurst has had a modern, upmarket makeover. There are places like the brand-new Meisterstück, just off Freidrichstrasse, which sources its hundreds of organic, handmade brats and würsts from all over Germany, and it has an ever-changing beer list that covers a dozen pages of the menu. Here you can choose your sausages from every corner of the country – nürnberger, irschenberger, coburger, duck, salmon or turkey sausage, currywurst with a range of different mustards, horseradish, and different traditional cabbage dishes, from sauerkraut, the classic pungent cured cabbage, Bavarian coleslaw and white cabbage with wasabi – hot enough to need several swallows of beer to wash it down. Each variety of meat  is cooked over wood burners, and the large, barn-like building is filled with the enticing aromas of wood smoke.

  Berlin has myriad means of gastronomic seduction, and one of the most compelling is the magnificent food hall at the KaDeWe department store. To say it is an Aladdin’s cave of food is to do it an injustice. Aromatic acres of cold cabinets groan with every type of German and international delicacy, from Serrano ham to foie gras, a cornucopia of wursts, close-packed trays of florentines, petit fours and törtchen, heart-stopping ranks of chocolates, pralinen and trüffelen in a hundred different flavours, pungent cheeses in crowded profusion, fruits, vegetables, there are oyster bars and wine bars, all under the soaring glass roof on the sixth floor of the huge building. It makes Selfridges or Harrods look like a village shop.

Turkish market at Maybachufer in Neukölln
   There’s a different kind of profusion to be found in the markets. The city is home to the largest Turkish community outside Turkey, and no place paints a better picture of this than the Tuesday and Friday Turkish market at Maybachufer in Neukölln. Stretching for hundreds of metres along the canal, with the heady, bustling atmosphere of a souk, the Türkischer Markt has aromatic Turkish breads, olives, vine leaves, heaving mounds of watermelons, cherries, a dozen different kinds of pepper, forests of dill and coriander and whatever else is in season. There are shoes, umbrellas, beads, garish tee-shirts and every kind of ethnic gewgaw.

  A wonderful place to spend an hour or two, but thirsty work, so we searched out a beer on the terrace of the eccentrically nautical AnkerKlause bar. Opposite, on the other side of the canal, market-goers sat with coffee and newspapers at tables set out under the trees. There’s nothing more charming than a canalside café in the sun – and it’s a peculiarity of Berlin that even the most popular spots are uncrowded: on a fine Friday in June, by a bustling, touristy market, at mid-morning, there was no scramble for a seat.
Larry Clark exhibition, Postfuhramt, Oranienburger Straße

It’s even more notable when you consider how Berliners love café culture. In Prenzlauer, the district of East Berlin that was colonised by artists and buskers and is now rapidly gentrifying, places to eat and drink jostle each other on the pavements. A stroll down Prenzlauer Allee and its by-streets shows what this part of Berlin is, was, and will be. Here you will find Indian fish thali restaurants, milk-and-yoghurt bars, delectable cake shops like Patissier Guido Fuhrmann where you can learn to make Süßigkeiten (wonderful lollies Willy Wonka would be proud of), or avant-garde Hochzeitstorten (richly decorated wedding cake). This is progress: just off Knaackstrasse is a Robert Lindner, a branch of the very expensive, very upmarket delicatessen, which looks absolutely in the right place. No wonder rents have doubled in the last few years.

'High in the sky, dazzlingly bright': the Nhow Hotel
   The kind of people who can afford higher rents also invest in their neighbourhood. They want clean parks and friendly cafes, places like Café Anna Blume, only open a few years but famous already, with a broad expanse of pavement tables where locals sit with their Mutschel – the sweet star-shaped roll that goes so well with strong hot coffee.

  The Danish architect Jan Gehl measures a city by its public spaces: the more pleasant it is to walk around, the happier the city. In Berlin, one strolls. Our last day dawned cloudless, and we determined to photograph the famous Badeschiff at Arena Berlin, the urban beach and swimming pool, which is decorous by day but later on – by all accounts – is the scene of Caberet-style high-jinks, being part of a run-down warehouse complex that houses some lively nightclubs. In Gorlitzer Park, where couples sat cross-legged, their faces towards the sun, dog-walkers ambled and joggers padded by. The trees, still fresh and early-summer green, shaded a collection of ramshackle riverfront dwellings, some of them with rustic balconies reflected in the water. A pair of swans floated imperially around, dipping their beaks in the weeds. You could barely hear the sound of traffic on the three-lane Stralauer Allee a hundred yards away. But you could see the future: the mirrored sides of the cantilevered box that is the penthouse of the Nhow Hotel, high in the sky, dazzlingly bright.

[This article first appeared in Food and Travel magazine]

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