Thursday, July 28, 2011

B für Belgien

I first discovered Liege waffles about 10 years ago when backpacking around Europe with my sister. I remember that we weren't very hungry, but bought one from a vendor in the subway in Brussels because it seemed that one should have a Belgian waffle when in Belgium. But the waffles one finds in Brussels (Liege) have little in common with the Belgian waffles found in diners in America. Liege waffles are made from a slightly sweet yeasted dough (also not to be confused with a yeasted batter a la Marion Cunningham)
that is sprinkled with pearl sugar before it hits the waffle iron - the sugar melts and forms a light glaze. I don't have anything against regular waffles, but if I never eat one again, it would basically be OK with me. Liege waffles, on the other hand, are something that I dream about.

Cassonade, a small Belgian cafe on busy Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg sells both Liege and regular waffles. The bummer is that they make both kinds in advance, reheating them in the waffle iron. This is just nuts as both kinds of waffles benefit highly from being freshly made and neither takes very long to cook. In Brussels, the majority of vendors use thawed frozen dough with delicious success and I can't think of any reason Cassonade couldn't do this as well. That said, the waffle was pretty good and at only 1.60 Euros, a delicious and affordable snack. Still, it wasn't quite as doughy (in a good way) as it might have been had it been freshly griddled, and the glaze was somehow lacking. I'm not saying I didn't like it, but with with a very little effort, Cassonade could remedy these issues. I have to add that the cafe also lacks something in the ambiance department. Aside from a shelf with some different Belgian products (mostly beers) and a plastic table, there really isn't much to the interior. These days you can sit outside, but it's not like Oranienstrasse offers much charm. I say, go early and maybe you can catch them making the waffles fresh, get one to go (do not be distracted by the toppings, they only take away from the sweet doughyness, which is the beauty of a Liege waffle) and stroll down to the canal.

Oranienstrasse 199

Photo courtesy of the Taxi Gourmet

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bangladesch: Nachos und Mehr

I think Dayal Bhandar may be the world's only Bengali-Mexican restaurant. Alongside the traditional curries and fritters, you'll find many variations on nachos and fajitas (burgers, too). When asked, the jolly owner informed us that he had previously owned several Mexican restaurants and his regular customers asked him to keep their favorite dishes on the menu. While I get that from an economics perspective (we were the only customers at 7 on a Saturday evening), it doesn't quite jive with his professed desire to make Dayal Bhandar into a Bengali cultural center, serving authentic food that isn't dumbed down for the Germans (his sentiment, my words). While I was tempted to see if the Fajitas con Vaca came with a real cow, we stuck to the Bengali menu options. We shared Missron Kulipita, fried turnovers filled with beef or chicken served with a tamarind sauce and Bangla Labra, a sort of vegetable curry. I can't say that the food was amazing, but something about the place appealed to me. The fritters were fine; no better or worse than you would expect. The major flaw in the cooking was that the vegetable curry was made with frozen vegetables. I can't defend this (in July no less), but the sauce was good and it was spicy. In a city filled with odd cream-based curries that all taste exactly the same, this dish stood out despite the crinkle-cut carrots. My favorite part of the meal, though, was the beverages. Dayal Bhandar doesn't serve any alcohol, but they do have a few Bengali beverages. The owner's wife (co-owner?) had trouble explaining them to me, so I chose Burhani, which she could only describe as spicy. I liked it, but it was like drinking a glass of creamy, spicy (!) cilantro chutney. I do love me some cilantro chutney and while it might not become my new drink of choice, it's refreshing to be served something with real heat in this town. Spain and Germany have taken a real toll on my spiciness tolerance and between the curry and my drink, my ears were on fire. I was also intrigued by their traditional Bengali breakfast offerings - homemade flatbread with eggs, cilantro, onions, and chilies stood out in particular. Even though the food wasn't mind-blowing, it still seemed like they were cooking for us like they cook for themselves. I have a suspicion that with a little work and by showing some interest in Bengali cuisine, you might be able to eat really well there. Or maybe I'm just getting desperate to believe that about one of these places.

At the end of the day, Dayal Bhandar does have room for improvement. The restaurant's interior is fairly generic and sitting outside means you are essentially eating in a construction site (they can't be blamed for this, though, and in time it will be gone). Still, the food has real flavor and the jolly owner and his family (when we first walked in only the children were present) are charming. I hope that the fact that they only had one table on a Saturday night doesn't mean what I think it means. The off-the-path location will always be a challenge, but they do seem to get that cooking their food as they like to eat it is something special. And that counts for something in my book.

Dayal Bhandar
Goslarer Platz 5

Friday, July 1, 2011

Aserbaidschan: Fast Italien

Baku-Napoli is the classic combination Azerbaijani-Italian restaurant (they also serve Russian and German food). I have to give them credit for pointing to a link between Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) and Naples on the website with a Maxim Gorki quote: "No streets in the world remind me more of Naples than those in Baku" (Baku being the capital of Azerbaijan for those of you not up on your Azerbaijani trivia). I'd so love to tell you that this is a hidden gem, that the restaurant's generic sign and unappealing location on ugly Potsdamer Strasse belie amazing homemade treasures, delights found nowhere else in Berlin. In all truth, on the inside the restaurant is a lot more charming than you would guess. The walls are decorated with murals of what I guessed to be Baku street life and in the back is a nice little Biergarten for outdoor dining in case summer weather ever returns to this city. You can get a good sense of the music they play a little too loudly from Baku's website: Russian pop and funny covers of American show tunes, etc. (we actually thought they had started doing karaoke in the main dining room at one point, but it was a CD). Some of the food at Baku-Napoli is pretty decent, but nothing was so good that I'm planning to go back. And importantly, the prices are way out of line with the portions, the neighborhood, and the quality of the food.

The menu offers a wide selection of Italian dishes: pizzas, pastas, various salads, along with a few German or Berlin standards, such as Chicken Schnitzel, Currywurst, and Eisbein (pork knuckle), but we stuck to the Azerbaijani/Russian section of the menu. The Pelmeni, little ravioli-style dumplings with a ground chicken filling (these are more Russian than Azerbaijani as far as I know) were served with sour cream and oddly with yellow rice and a little salad of a couple cucumber and tomato slices on a spoonful of sauerkraut. They were OK, but I'd guess they weren't homemade and they were quite bland. Also, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on Azerbaijani cuisine, I don't even have a cookbook, but I don't think rice is a traditional or logical accompaniment to dumplings. Especially such insipid rice. Whatever gave the rice it's yellow coloring (certainly not saffron as is traditional) had no flavor whatsoever. Our grilled veal kebab came with the same salad and tasteless rice, but the meat had very good flavor and was served with pomegranate molasses and a sort of plum-based smoky barbecue sauce. The quantity of food was certainly enough to fill up two diners, but was on the meager side by today's restaurant standards. It's not that we needed to eat more (although the menu does claim that all the grill dishes are served with grilled vegetables and all we got was a half a grilled tomato). It's just that for almost 14 Euros (especially in this town) one expects a little more. If the rice had been good and there had been some nice grilled vegetables .... Maybe if the bread they serve was homemade (Azerbaijani Tandoor bread is supposedly quite delicious)...then maybe I can see charging 14 Euros, but what they actually serve and how it's presented just doesn't justify that much money in this town. Sigh....

Potsdamer Strasse 131