Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gambia: ein spontan Reise

Our visit to Senegambia wasn't exactly planned, but I had found the restaurant online and made a mental note of the address. So when we found ourselves nearby one Saturday evening, it was obvious where we should go for dinner. Alas, knowing almost nothing about Gambian cuisine, I did a very bad job of noting or remembering what we ate, but I'll do my best.

Senegambia is really a hole in the wall. It's run by a Gambian woman and a Gambian-Senegalese woman, hence the name (though Gambia is actually in Senegal, so....). There are maybe four tables (a couple more outside for nice weather). When we arrived, someone was skyping in the corner. When I asked to use the bathroom, the proprietress went in first to spray disinfectant (it was clean enough). The large tv was broadcasting a Gambian wrestling match, which seemed an awful lot like sumo wrestling sans obesity. The place was packed with young Sene(gambian) men. Senegambia is clearly more than a source of meals, but also a sort-of Sene(gambian) cultural center.

Somehow, this was my first experience with West African food and I realized that I know almost nothing about it. We decided to share four dishes (out of the ten or so on offer) between four people (literally more than enough food) to learn as much as we could. My favorite of the four was domoda, a peanut butter stew that we ordered with vegetables (almost every dish is available with a choice of fish steak, lamb, or vegetables or for a few extra Euros, a whole fried fish). Also interesting, yassa, a mustard-based stew that we ordered with fish (some kind of bass, I think?). Unfortunately, I don't remember the names of the other dishes, but one was a ground beef stew with lots of palm oil served over pieces of yuca (aka manioc). It was ok, but the beef was ground a little finely ground for my taste. The final dish was a tomato-y stew that was supposed to come with fish balls, but was instead served with another fish steak. With the exception of the dish that came with yuca, all the stews were served over a hearty portion of rice. The waitress gave us all a dab of hot sauce out of a little tupperware container. A warning: this is seriously hot. Too hot, in fact, for any of us to eat. Senegambia doesn't sell any alcohol (or pork - Gambia is a majority Muslim nation), but in addition to a couple standard soft drinks and some bottled juices, they make their own ginger and hibiscus drinks. We sampled the ginger, which was zesty and delicious. We were stuffed with no chance for dessert. Next time, I would split one entree and sample the Senegambia donuts or chakery (a yogurty pudding with couscous and maybe fruit and/or nuts).

Knowing almost nothing about Gambian food, I'm not equipped to say if what we ate was well-made, but I can tell you that the other diners (who I am pretty sure were not eating Gambian for the first time) were cleaning their plates and eating dessert. Not to mention that by the time we left, it was standing room only. Despite my ignorance, I enjoyed almost everything we tried. And, as I've said here before, it's refreshing to discover a restaurant in Berlin where they are cooking from the heart and not dumbing things down for the locals.

Reichenberger Str. 72a

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Frankreich: ein verdammt guter Deal

I left La Bonne Franquette thinking that I'd had a great lunch and marveling at the amazing deal they offer: three courses for 13 Euros, including a nonalcoholic drink. All of that in a chic modern Brasserie complete with a chalkboard menu. Now that it's been a week or so and I've had a chance to reflect on the meal, I still think it's a good deal, but the food quality was pretty spotty. Out of six dishes, one dish was very good. So good that I have been thinking about it since and next time I'm somewhere between Nordbahnhof and Hamburger Bahnhof around lunchtime, I will very likely return. The flank steak with frites bumped my bill up an extra 3 Euros, but it was worth it. Flank steak isn't a common cut in these parts, but it's one of my favorites. The meat had great flavor and an excellent charred crust. But the frites! Best I've had in Berlin hands down. If/when I go back, I'll skip the appetizer and dessert and have a great steak lunch for 10 Euros (LBF offers one course for seven Euros plus the three Euro supplement).

In addition to the excellent steak, we also sampled the French (obviously) onion soup and the pork pate, which were both good, but not life changing. The onions in the soup might have caramelized a tad, the broth could have had deeper flavor, the bowl should have had a nice crust of Gruyere on top instead of a single small Gruyere crouton, but it was a decent bowl of soup. I'm sure they don't make the pate, but it was good, not great, but for the price, good. The real low point of the meal was the red mullet with zucchini gratin. We should have known not to order fish. It's rarely very fresh in Berlin and this fish had an off taste. That alone would have ruined the plate, but the wan zucchini gratin wasn't heated through. I know it's a 13 Euro lunch deal, but they need to figure out how to get the food hot.

With such low prices, LBF surely can't afford a pastry chef, but they need to figure out how to make a few simple desserts well. We split chocolate mousse and coconut flan. The mousse tasted suspiciously like it came from a mix (specifically the one my husband made me years ago - the ONLY thing he's ever made me). If it's not a mix, they're using terrible chocolate. The flan was rather soggy and lacked any real coconut flavor, but there was a delicious smear of salted caramel on the plate. A decent brasserie needs to have a few good desserts, especially chocolate mousse. No excuses here.

Despite it's flaw, I really enjoyed my lunch (I was starving, though, and the company was good). That said, one good dish (or three if we're rounding up) out of six even for a good price isn't all that spectacular. There are a lot of lunch deals in Berlin and I've yet to find a place that really knows how to make this concept work. That said, LBF knows how to make steak frites and I'd go back for that in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Finnland ist für Feinschmecker

I couldn't find a restaurant in Berlin serving traditional Finnish food, but I did find the Quadriga, a (one) Michelin-starred restaurant with a Finnish chef. It was all I could find, so I had no choice, but to endure a delicious if pricey Finnish-accented lunch. The Quadriga is located in the Brandenburger Hof hotel, a small luxury hotel in a sort-of no man's land bit of Charlottenburg. I'm not sure who stays here and there was certainly nobody else eating when we were there (at 12:30 on a Tuesday), despite their business menu deal: three courses served in 45 minutes. I am fairly certain that this can be explained by the fact that the Quadriga has priced themselves out of the business lunch realm. The food we had was very good and worthy of a Michelin star (NOT always the case in Berlin in my experience), but 52 Euros is a lot for "a quick bite to eat," particularly by Berlin standards (even in Charlottenburg).

If you're going to shell out for lunch though, it's nice that the food is so tasty (not always the case in Berlin ... coughFacilcough). At lunchtime you have the option of the "lunch in the garden" menu (aka the lounge menu), a set menu (two choices per course) at 52 Euros for three courses or 62 Euros for four or the "Taste of Bliss" menu (also labeled Edition I ... there are an awful lot of titles here), which offers a la carte options. We hemmed and hawed a bunch, but ultimately decided to go a la carte as the Taste of Bliss menu had more of a Finnish flair. We shared "Salmon & Scandinavia" aka Nordic Pot-au-feu (which are two fancy ways of saying salmon soup or chowder) and "Reindeer & Tarragon" aka Sauli's Osso Buco (Sauli being chef Sauli Kemppainen), which came with the guarantee: "'Rudolph' was spared – Promised!" In my humble opinion, there are too many words on the menu (the club sandwich even has a link printed beneath it), but both dishes were delicious, so who really cares. The soup had large chunks of perfectly (as in barely) cooked salmon with a few cubes of vegetables and some crispy bit of fried dark bread. Not an earth-shattering dish and certainly over-priced at 19 Euros, but delicious and very well-executed. The same goes for the Reindeer: the meat was deeply flavorful with a perfect glaze. It came on a bed of pearl barley in a delicious winter squash (or carrot?) sauce. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you that it goes for 32 Euros, but it was really very good. Would they have more customers if they knocked 10 Euros off that? Perhaps.

Portions from the Taste of Bliss menu allow plenty of room for dessert. My friend was allowed to order from the Lounge menu: a very pretty strawberry mousse with mascarpone ice cream. I went for the "Classical sweeter, Edition I" aka Cloudberries & Rosemary. The menu also informed me that "the berry is immortalised on the Finnish Euro coin ... the flavour: gold value!" I did finish (no pun intended) my dessert, but this was probably the worst dish of the four. The rosemary was in the form of a creme brulee - making for a rather dingy looking custard. It was also sprinkled with rosemary and the flavor was just too strong for dessert. I edited a Swedish cookbook in another life and the author raved about cloud berries. I so want to love them, and thought that perhaps it was just the poor quality of Ikea's seedy cloudberry jam (my only cloudberry experience before today) that was hindering my full appreciation of the fruit, but Sauli didn't really convince me either. It may have been the pairing with rosemary because the fruit's flavor - in both a quenelle of cloudberry ice cream and a blob of cloudberry puree were too mild to really appreciate.

At the end of the day, I do feel that I experienced a little something Finish in Berlin. My main issue with the Quadriga (aside from making fun of its wordy multiple menus) is the price. That said, I'd rather pay 52 Euros to eat at the Quadriga again than repeat my disappointing meal at Facil (39 Euros for 3 courses) -- not really a fair critique because I've only eaten in each restaurant once, but Facil was weird without being interesting or good and the service ranged from snobby to negligent. I complain a lot about people wanting to spend as little as possible for food regardless of flavor or quality or hidden costs, but there are limits. And just for comparison's sake, a three-course lunch at Cafe Boulud (a very nice restaurant) in New York will set you back just 32 Euros. And I may not have mentioned it before, but when it comes to ethnic food or really almost any food at at all, Berlin is not New York.

Eislebener Strasse 14