Monday, December 31, 2012

Laos: man kann nur seufzen

My expectations were pretty low heading into Lemon Leaf (Southeast Asian food being almost universally blah in Berlin to put it mildly). Still, all those positive reviews on Qype. Maybe this place really was above average. Sigh. Lemon Leaf markets itself as an Indochinese restaurant - Indochina being the name for the French colony made up of today's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The folks behind Lemon Leaf have thrown in Thailand because people like Thai food. I could get worked up about that - focus people! - but if the food was really good, who would care? As I've mentioned before, food doesn't stop at political borders, so there is plenty of what we might know as Thai food in traditional Laotian cuisine. But the food's not really good and that, of course, is the problem. The menu is nice enough, with most dishes labeled for one of the four cuisines on offer. Also, most dishes are available with your choice of tofu or preferred meat. I kind of hate this and wish the chef would just decide which protein is best for which dish, but (again) this isn't the main problem here. We stuck to the Laotian offerings and shared a papaya salad, chicken and bean sprouts in a nondescript sauce with sticky rice, and crispy duck and vegetables with basil and jasmine rice. I suppose I should have written down the names of the dishes we ordered, but none of them are worth you tracking them down, so it's not much of a loss. Sigh. I guess the food at Lemon Leaf is a tiny, baby step above what you find at your average Asia-Imbiss (a sort of fast food snack bar common throughout Germany selling cheap stir-fries for little money. Think neon lights and greasy noodles). The rice (both sticky and jasmine) is well cooked at Lemon Leaf for one thing. As are the vegetables - obviously cooked to order so that they are just tender and not at all greasy or soggy. I guess that's not nothing. But the flavors are really muted - there's just no punch or complexity of flavors at all, in any of the dishes. Everything is overly sweet or bland. This is, in my experience, always the case in Berlin when it comes to Southeast Asian food. I'd love to be proven wrong (and yes, I've been to "Thai Park" in Preussen Park). (Angkor Wat was the closest I've come to finding an exception here.) At the end of the meal, I asked the waiter where the cook(s) were from and he said one was half-Lao, half Thai and the other was Thai - specially hired to cook the food that Berliners so love. I wasn't trying to suggest that the food had been bad (it's not his fault), but he seemed to sense something. He became a little sad and said, they can't cook authentic Laotian or Thai food because the locals don't like it. I just don't believe that. Lemon Leaf is in Friedrichshain for one thing - an area full of educated Germans (many of whom have, as Germans do, traveled) and expats. This is not to say that all educated Germans and expats care, because I know that they don't. Most of the Germans I know are thrilled to eat this dumbed-down food and view anything with coconut milk like manna from heaven. But that's not the same as saying that they would turn up their noses as really good, complex Southeast Asian food. I know many of them wouldn't. Sigh.

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