Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg

When I lived in Berlin, it was ALL about Prenzlauer Berg. Getting an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg was the aim of most Erasmus students. Friedrichshain was second rung, Kreuzberg third. Anywhere else was met with derision - you live where?! I lived on the borders of Prenz and more elegant Mitte, and couldn't believe how affordable my rent was compared to London. Oh and what quality you got too.

Eating out back then was all about cheap Thai restaurants, Vietnamese noodles Turkish fast food, and many mid price places made without love. An old favourite back then was Gugelhof, which stood out from the crowd. It served up food from Alsace, and boasted of being the politicos favourite - Chancellor Schroeder took Bill Clinton here one time when he was in town.

Now, Prenzlauer Berg is post-gentrified - it's a little bit like an affordable version of Notting Hill, losing a bit of its edge in favour of mainstream bohemianism. It's still very lovely - glorious streets, a still scruffy epic Sunday fleamarket, and, with its post-gentrified state: good eating options.

Particularly nice was Les Valseuses, a newish French bistro opened up on Eberswalderstr. It has a super short, regularly changing menu - three starters, mains, desserts and a few daily specials - which I consider to be a good indication of quality. We shared a run of tapenades and a salad of buffalo mozzarella, jerusalem artichoke, pear and a light curry sauce. The tapenades were inspired - not something you often see in restaurants, but tasting of salty, summery indulgence. The salad was a really unusual combination but worked really well together.

I had steak with bernaise butter and frites. Very simple, but everything bursting with flavour. The chips tasted like they'd been fried in beef dripping, and had perfect crunchiness from triple frying.

Desserts included classics like creme brulee, but I opted for candied pumpkin with whipped chestnut cream and candied nuts. It was sensational - earthy, sweet, crunchy, burnty.

We loved the service - very jovial and informal, especially for the double whammy of being a French restaurant in Berlin (definitely not famed for service culture). And the interior was very East London - plane white walls, bits of chipboard and vintage fixed gear bikes dotted around.

Kauf dich glücklich is a twee German mini clothes chain, but it's store on Oderbergerstr is home to a cafe too - serving some of the best waffles in Berlin.

We dropped buy after the fleamarket for some - there was a 20 minute queue to order, and then a 30 minute wait for them to arrive. But at around 3.50Euro for a decent portion of waffles, with ice cream and warm cherries, it was well worth the wait.

Round the corner from my old flat is a new coffee bar like no other. At The Barn, coffee is taken so seriously that small children aren't allowed in because they'll spoil the peace. There's a bollard at the door, blocking the entrance to prams. Coffee is served as pure as it comes - no milk, no sugar, no nothing.

The coffee makers (I daren't call them baristas for fear of being reductive) used traditional paper filters and other drip systems to give the coffee the ultimate treatment. After about 20 minutes - waiting mostly  not brewing - my chic black jug of coffee was ready. I was recommended to let it sit for three minutes while it reached its optimum temperature - and yes, it was very nice - caramelly, woody, complex. I enjoyed the ceremony, and it was an incredibly peaceful place to enjoy a coffee and contemplate its every nuance.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Get stuck in to Upper Clapton sourdough

I mentioned recently the beginnings of some exciting stuff happening north of the Leabridge Roundabout in relatively-neglected Upper Clapton. Most notably, some folk who've been making pizzas at the esteemed E5 Bakehouse have recently opened a sourdough pizza restaurant called Sodo at 126 Upper Clapton Road. Loving pizza, sourdough and anything that I can easily walk to, I had to check it out.

Lower Clapton Road is no beauty queen - scruffy, dark and busy with traffic, but Upper Clapton Road can feel even more unforgiving - with bigger estates, faster moving traffic and a sometime sense of abandonment. I've said before that busy roads can be challenging places to make hanging out destinations; that's probably why relatively chilled Chatsworth Road has become such a magnet for cafes.

But Sodo is a brave first, and judging by my experience on Friday night, it will give confidence to prospective businesses that a restaurant in Upper Clapton, done well, can be a real success.

Sodo's premise is simple: a short menu of sourdough based pizzas, a couple of specials and sides, Hackney beer (bottles of London Fields and Beavertown), Borough wine, and a couple of desserts. The look is, naturally, light industrial - exposed bricks, white, chipboard, lots of wires and low hanging bulbs. It feels spacious, fresh and fun - and the waiting staff are very friendly and efficient.

We ordered a Sunny Goat (goats cheese, sundried tomato, rocket) and a Lorena (feta, butternut squash, rosemary, pine nut). Both really excellent combinations - the goats cheese was top quality because I could eat it without needing to replace the taste with something else (!), and Lorena tasted very autumnal - the pine nuts and squash giving a real earthy warmth. The sourdough pizza bases were excellent - nicely tart, just the right balance of springiness and crispiness.

Their dessert menu was equally succinct and on-the-money - tiramisu or affogato. Tiramisu is my all time favourite dessert, so I had to see how theirs fared. Served in a dainty glass, the mascarpone was not-too-sweet and the sponge was soaked in nice bitter coffee - it felt like a puritan's tiramisu, stripped back and good for it.

We loved Sodo - it had a really laid back atmosphere, and quick enough turnover that meant everyone who rocked up over the course of the evening got a table straight away without the bustle ceasing. It's a no-bookings place, so it will be interesting to see whether its very likely increase in popularity will manifest in queues or other places moving in to soak up the demand. Either way, get yourself to Sodo if you love pizza.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Hello Kreuzberg

North Eat Eats went to North and East Berlin over the weekend - except compass directions don't mean too much in Berlin these days. It's all in the name of the 'hood, and the sub 'hood or kiez - a particularly effective German word to describe a micro level neighbourhood centred around shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.

I used to live in Berlin, and I go back to visit my friends there whenever I can. It's such a dynamic city, always changing, always building. I studied at the Humboldt university, researching my dissertation on East German political identity after the fall of the wall. At the time Ostalgie was big - a nostalgia for East Germany, as it was. Goodbye Lenin had recently been on the screens, and many bars and restaurants were decked out in a kind of Soviet kitsch.

But always changing, Berlin's bar and restaurant scene is coming into its own. I'm going to do a short series of posts covering the exciting offerings in the different nabes.

Kreuzberg is one of my favourite districts - it's where my wonderful friend Elizabeth lives, which is where I stay in her apartment in an old jam factory with her excitable white alsatian, Pip. It's the Turkish heart of Berlin, and was an enclave of rebellion in the former West Berlin. It's still scruffy and rebellious, but it's increasingly home to some great restaurants and bars.

We visited Daniel Brühl (yes, he of Goodbye Lenin fame!)'s tapas bar, Bar Raval,  just opposite Kreuzber's Görlitzer Park. It's a big, open, informal affair, all high ceilings and open kitchens. We were there with another old friend, and a friend of Elizabeth's who runs Feast down the road in Neukölln - all proper foodies. 

The food was definitely a cut above. We had some very high quality classics - chorizo in cider, tortilla, jamon, manchego, padron peppers. 

 Some of the more interesting stuff including a spiced lamb tartare on bread with pear and caremalised onion - exquisitely combined, lightly battered aubergine stacks with honey, avocado and tomato tower, chicken and ham croquettes - the chicken was brown meat, oozing flavour, almost pungent.

We had so much food, cava, coffees and desserts, and the damage was 25Euro a head before tips. The service started off a little cool - at one point the waitress poked a bit of fun at me for taking photos of the dishes - I explained I keep a food blog. Suddenly the service defrosted, explanations were given (busy day yesterday) and free shots brought over. Ha! Don't let that put you off - Berlin isn't known for its service, but the tapas here is EXCELLENT. Reservations pretty much necessary on Friday and Saturday nights.

Mexican Food is getting big in Berlin - and there's a number of nice little taqueiras opening, crowding out the touristy tex mex. Last time I was in Berlin I went to Santa Maria (utterly excellent, also in Kreuzberg). This time we checked out Ta Cabron on Skalitzerstr.

The margaritas were excellent, as was the guacamole.

We both ordered the chocolatey chicken mole in a burrito. The chicken mole itself was delicious, but the burrito itself was not so well composed - it was more of a wrap, sour creme and salad served separately, and the other fillings lacked panache - not enough coriander, black beans, tasty salsa.

A top recommendation for drinking in Kreuzberg is the John Muir cocktail bar on Skalitzerstr. We went for a couple after dinner one night (cocktails are a big deal in Berlin), and wow - these were some of the most interesting cocktails I've ever had. John Muir has a monthly changing menu, changing with the seasons.

I had a Narcissist - gin, lime, creme de violet and ginger beer - it was fragrant, sweet and out of this world in a Willy Wonka kinda way. My other call was the Number of the Beast, priced 6.66, which had crushed blackberries and a bitter slice of liquorice, leaking into the cocktail like engine oil.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Running a business 101

I once read that the average life expectancy of a new restaurant is six weeks. I'm not surprised - I've seen some shockingly misconceived places pop up over the last few years.

Although I have absolutely zero experience at running a business, I think I'd do a much better job than some in coming up with a concept for a restaurant, cafe or food shop than many that I've seen open in the last few years. I am the ultimate armchair dragon - peeking in as I walk past and gasping with despair to friends afterwards. Never intervening.

But I do know a little bit about audiences, markets, insights and communications. And it is this process that seems too often to have been skipped over when a restaurant fails to succeed. There's a few mistakes that have really struck me:

Mis-reading your target demographic
I've seen this in a number of areas which have had a recent increase in middle class, disposable incomed populations. The pattern is such: a few pioneer cafes and restaurants open, they attract unprecedented demand, a few others join them and do well, and potential business owners step in to capitalise on the newly articulated market.

A recent example I've spotted is Twilight on Lower Clapton Road. LCR has seen some interesting new places open, including, most recently Dreyfus Cafe and Blue Tit hairdressers. They are both spacious, light and so so modern. Twilight looked like it could have been the makings of a Turkish Ocakbasi restaurant - grills, mezze etc. Instead it is selling paninis, bakes potatoes and fresh juices - all quite high margin products and priced highly for the area. The video on their website shows the decor and the menu, and you can't help but feel it's not hitting the market they thought they were targeting.

I could be proven wrong - and I'd like to be. I want local businesses to succeed. And they could be targeting a different demographic. But it feels like it could be a missed opportunity to bring something more interesting and with a bit more love to the area.

Entering a crowded market without a strong enough offer
Pasta Rustica on Newington Green Road opened in autumn 2011, with a slightly swanky interior - all leather seats and exposed brick. But specialising in pasta dishes, some pizza and then a random selection of steaks and grills. Just up the road was Trattoria Sapori - a great Italian cafe/resto with some of the best pizzas in the area, and a small selection of fancy pasta dishes.

Focusing on pasta is a risky move - my suspicion is that many wouldn't eat pasta out, knowing that you can make a nice pasta dish pretty easily at home, and that it's cheap meal. In a recession people won't want to eat food that is so clearly high margin.

Last time I cycled past Pasta Rustica, it was closed: boarded up, signs removed. It lasted less than a year.  I can't help but feel that if they'd done a better analysis of the local market, identified a gap and come up with a stronger, more distinct offer it might have had more success.

Not getting the communications right
Cynically, brand is important. It has to speak to the target market. Names like Pasta Rustica sound a little bit cheesy, and the look of a place matters too. But in competitive markets, where people can eat at one of many places vying for their businesses, you can't assume that people are just going to come to you because they've walked past or proactively googled your webpage. You need to get on their radar, get them interested, excited even.

Dreyfus Cafe did a great job of getting people excited in advance. They gave a story of their refurbishment of the premises on the Yeah! Hackney forum, built up anticipation. They launched a Twitter and Facebook page and tapped in to other local social media sites with lots of followers. And were overwhelmed with customers when they opened. They knew the channels their target market used and made sure that they were on people's radars.

But it all starts with understanding the demographic you are targeting, what they are willing to pay, how they get their information, what they go for. The age of social media means it is easier and cheaper to at least reach these people and get them excited.

That all sounds a bit commercial and marketing-speake, but it's the reality of the world we live in. If we want local businesses to do well we need to help them be savvier. So here's my offer: I'm no expert in running a business, but if you are thinking of opening a new food premises in E5 I would be more than happy to chat to you about your plan and share my thoughts! Please do get in touch - I want you to do well.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Hackney Croissant Watch #1

Weekend breakfast is important. It's the big thing that demarcates the week from the weekend, where breakfast is a leisurely and enjoyable pursuit, rather than just fuel to accompany the Today Programme while you try and wake up.

I love food rituals – the comfort of familiar tastes and sensations. When we lived in Newington Green we had on our doorstop (in the view of many) the best viennoiseries and green grocers for miles around – Le Belle Epoque and NewingtonGreen Fruit and Vegetables. So most weekends one of us would pop out to get some croissants and berries, while the other would get the coffee on.

The croissants at Le Belle Epoque were amazing. I have literally never had such good croissants as those ones, especially their weighty almond croissants – a veritable meal. But now that we've shifted two miles East, it's a bit of a schlepp that you don't want to do every weekend.

Over in E5, croissants aren't so much in the DNA of the area. But there is no shortage of cafes selling them, so I'll be charting my experiences eating my way through the neighbourhood's pastry options.

First up, the recently opened Dreyfus Cafe at the corner of Clapton Square and Lower Clapton Road. Dreyfus Cafe is describing itself as both a cafe and bakery – focusing in particular on the cuisine from around the Baltic Sea. I've also been following their setup and opening on twitter eagerly, and I know they have ambitions of baking their own croissants etc eventually.

For now, they are happy with their supplier – and I am too. We each had a plain croissant and a pain au chocolat – you could taste the quality of the butter and the flour, and were just the right denisty – nicely chewy, not too heavy; substantial. At £1.50 for a plain and £1.80 for chocolate, prices are a little higher than Le Belle Epoque – and not quite hitting that (admittedly VERY high) bar. But still very good, and we've already been back.

They hadn't ordered in almond croissants that day, and I cleared out their last four at about 10.30am. But it's early days and I look forward to sampling the almond next time they have them in.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Peruvian in your backyard

At the start of the year, food pundits looking for 2012's big food trends in London were almost unanimous in tipping Peruvian food to be the big one. Openings of trendy restaurant/cocktail bars in Soho, Noho and (soon) Shoreditch happened, and the joys of pisco sours became better known. But for those who don't need exposed brick and industrial lights to enjoy good food, a good Peruvian option could be enjoyed without leaving North/East London.

Tierra Peru opened early in 2012 on a slightly forgotten strip of Essex Road, the main traffic artery connecting Islington with Stoke Newington, Dalston and Hackney. When I lived in Newington Green this was my main route into town – there were a few interesting looking places on Essex Road  but none ever looked too busy. Busy roads can be unforgiving places to hang out: the traffic discourages street life, the lack of street life discourages interesting cafe life.

But Tierra Peru is busy every night, with it's good value, generous portions of authentic Peruvian food. There are no nods to Lower East Side NYC in the décor here: it's all leather chairs, glossy surfaces, plasma TVs, slightly garish in a different cultural interpretation of 'stylish'. I'd always rather restaurants focused on good value food than instagram friendly interiors.

Ceviche is the big draw – fish and seafood marinaded in lime and chili, effectively curing it and making it edible without losing any of its freshness. Some of my friends were a bit sceptical about the thought, but the plate we ordered was hoovered up in no time. It came with cassava, crispy corn kernels and fried plantain. Mmmmm.

We also shared some potato in a cheese sauce – like the horribly synthetic nacho cheese ala Dorritos – but GOOD. Slithers of black olive and slices of hard boiled egg making for an interesting taste combination. That, and a chicken pastry with a salsa.

The main courses were meat and carb heavy – a couple of us plumped for seafood and rice options, the others had big bits of juicy meat on the bone, with croquettes and plantains. My seafood stew was good – full of fresh tasting seafood, chunky squid, plump mussels and juicy prawns. They didn't skimp on the good stuff and the flavours were nice, but it was less interesting than the first course.

The pisco sours were great – tangy, and frothy from the egg white whisked in.

I think if I was to go again, I would do it more tapas style, sharing a greater number of interesting starters and supping on more piscoes as I went along. But if you want to sample Peruvian cuisine without the queues and hype, and without leaving the 'hood, Tierra Peru is a good start.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Swedish tidings in Hackney

A joy of living Hackney is the constant change – there are always new bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries opening. It is incredibly dynamic, and the frontiers of where interesting places open is being pushed all the time.

While Chatsworth Road in Lower Clapton and Hackney Central have seen a number of interesting openings over the last few years, just in the last month both a gallery and a fancy pizza place have opened on a previously 'untouched' (i.e. slightly grim) stretch of Upper Clapton Road, while the transient feeling Dalston Lane bit on the gyratory have seen a Spanish deli and Scandinavian furniture shop-cum-cafe open in recent months.

Understandably, the excitement for some has been labelled as sweeping gentrification by others. It's clearly a live issue – where an incoming middle class are highly visible in supping 'short blacks' and tucking into open sourdough sandwiches, many live in abject poverty. There is hardly a 'middle' in Hackney, and the worry is that cafes and boutiques will take over and make the long-standing population feel more excluded.

I completely share those concerns, but am sceptical that the process will ever be all consuming – Hackney has one of the highest proportions of social housing in the country, which puts a structural stop on full-on middle class domination. The worry is that the divide therefore becomes more extreme. My personal view – as someone who spends their working days campaigning to make housing accessible and affordable for everyone – is that Hackney Council must ensure they build affordable homes for people on low and middle incomes to ensure that the next generation has a future here too. Not an easy sell, but other councils are finding creative ways of getting lots of affordable homes built.


That said, I do enjoy frequenting my excellent local cafes (alongside pound shops, convenience stores, Percy Ingles and take-aways!) and would say many are worth making your way over for. A particular favourite at the moment is Cooper and Wolf, a Swedish cafe on Chatsworth Road as it meets Millfields Park.

Cooper and Wolf opened at the beginning of July, and within a week it was packed with brunching and lunching locals like it filled a massive void that nobody (apart from the canny owners) knew existed. I've been three times since then, eagerly showing it off to friends ('look what *I*have at the end of my road!').

The menu includes a range of sizes of savoury dishes – cold open sandwiches, filling and interesting salads, and warming potato-based dishes, freshly baked sweet treats, exceptionally well made Caravan coffees, and lots of fruit juices.

The meatball open sandwich was my first choice – served cold, and to grandma's recipe – the balls were properly meaty and subtly seasoned, served on top of a beetroot and apple salad and lavishly topped with fresh chives.

The most brunchy option is fried potatoes (with or without bacon) and topped with one of the healthiest, yellowest eggs you've seen. That one comes with a bit of beetroot and lightly pickled cucumber- wonderfully fresh.

My favourite dish so far has been the potato pancake with their wonderful, locally smoked salmon by Hansen and Lydersen. The salmon was just amazing, so fresh tasting, clearly high quality and generous in portion. The pancake was very substantial, and topped with crème fraiche, lemon and lots of dill (a favourite herb) it was one of the best brunch dishes I've had. Ever.

I also loved their chicken, bacon and avocado salad – full of fresh herbs and with a remoulade to make it all a little less virtuous.

When it comes to sweet stuff, their cinnamon buns are to die for – especially when they are warm and fresh out the oven. Be warned: they go quickly. The folk running Cooper and Wolf sometimes tweet when they're out the oven – a reason, if there ever was one, to be hooked on twitter.

I think prices are reasonable for the quality - £6 - £9 is the range, but you can save 10% on everything with a Chatsworth Road Traders and Residents' Association – which only costs £1. You can sign up at the stall at the market on Sundays.