Sunday, 19 July 2015

Top eats in Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, Berlin

When I lived in Berlin from 2005 to 2006, it was not the place for exciting, high quality food. Eating out was cheap and cheerful - there were heaps of generic "national cuisine" restaurants which did watered down versions of curry or noodles, and it kept us happy as Erasmus students. You could probably say similar of London back then. The fetishisation of food has benefited both cities, and it's always a pleasure to go back to Berlin and see how the food scene is developing.

Like London, the last decade has seen the city's gravity shift. In Berlin it's all slunk south-east from Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg to Kreuzberg and Neukölln, which have that potent mix that leads to hipster-led regeneration: a history of protest and radicalism and melting-pot feel from being the home to decades of waves of migration.

I was lucky enough to stay with my amazing multi-talented friend Elizabeth Rushe, who has worked for many years in food, design, travel, start ups and music in Berlin, and is an excellent source of knowledge for what's new, old and interesting in the city. Follow her on twitter, instagram or just admire her photos.

For older tips (google them to see if they're still open), check out my blogs on Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg in 2012, and a five year old general round up.

Stella is New Yorker Suzy Fracassa's cafe and take-out on Neukölln's Wesestrasse, which is like a much more sleepy, low key version of Kingsland Road, or a suped up version of Lower Clapton Road. Suzy's been doing gorgeous catering of fusion-y salads, meals and sweet delights for many years, earning a big enough cult following to open up this permanent space. There's a daily selection of cold dishes a single hot dish, decent coffee, cakes and cold drinks.

Suzy's Italian background, time in New York and admiration of Ottolenghi's dab hand at Asian and middle Eastern fusion influence the cooking. There's a pretty price guide setting out the cost of all the combinations of portions of cold and hot dishes and different sizes.

I go for three cold salads, but have a nibble on a friend's meatballs in tomato sauce - sublime. I try the sesame noodles - a homage to a late-night New York Asian fast food staple, made with Italian spaghetti, expertly seasoned with a sesame dressing, spring onions and toasted sesame black and white sesame seeds. There's a broccoli slaw, which has a lightly creamy dressing and lots of toasted bits, a wild rice salad with sweet potato and asparagus (Germany goes WILD for Spargelsaisson!). I also try a friend's wild garlic pesto potato salad. Everything is delicious, with carefully balanced flavours that sing in your mouth for ages afterwards.

We finish sharing some rich and gooey chocolate brownies and marshmallow Rice Krispie cakes. There are tables on the pavement outside, and a lovely back room with a big table, views of an overgrown garden, and a beautiful mural of verdant plants along one wall.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

Suzy knows how to feed the soul and put a smile on her customers. Watch this space to see how Stella develops.

Street food nights at Markthalle Neun, Kreuzberg
Markthalle Neun is a stunning old covered market building in an understated Kiez in Kreuzberg. Through the week it's a mixture of farmers selling vegetables and other produce with a good few specialist mini delicatessens selling booze, olive oils, salamis, cheese, smoked fish and much more. But every Thursday night lots of street food stalls and bars open up inside, and people flock from all over Berlin to savour the food, drink and atmosphere.

There is so much to choose from, but we try Korean hot dogs (available vegan too), loaded with kimchi, sriracha, cheese and crispy onions.

I love the bar siu steamed buns, made by a Chinese lad and his mum. The pork mince filling is nicely pungent, full of flavour. The rice dough is light and pillowy and literally steaming from the steaming.

Bao Kitchen's open steamed bun (Momofuku-style, so now) with pork is more pulled than those perfectly cooked, glazed pork belly slabs done by the pros, but it stills tastes good.

And I'm blown away by the smoked veal ribs from Big Stuff Smoked stall - one of the most popular, demonstrated by all the beef brisket and short rib gone by 7pm when I develop enough appetite to order. You can choose from a number of specially made sauces - I get their barbecue cherry cola sauce, which is every bit as sweet, sour, smoky and delicious as it sounds.

By 8pm it is heaving. So many people. There are a decent number of tables, so it's all quite grown up, and the queues are rarely too long. It's nice that the demographic is much more mixed than it would be in London - lots of families, older groups, not just brash 20/30 somethings. Some of the stalls change each week, and there's a huge selection, so lots of reasons to keep going back. Most of the prices are sub 7€, comparing favourably with the likes of London's Street Feast.

Thai Park in Preusselpark
Sundays are a big deal in Berlin. All the shops are closed, and you've probably had a late boozy night, so it's all about being outside (when the weather's good) and nourishing yourself with good food and a good mosey. Flea Markets are a big part of the Sunday experience, with Mauer Park in Prenzlauer Berg being the biggest and most famous. Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain is also nice, and Ankona Platz in Prenzlauer Berg has much more high quality bric a brac than a lot of the junk at Mauer Park.

Quietly gaining in popularity is the Thai Market in Preussel Park, deep in West Berlin. Berlin is home to a big Thai population, but many of the restaurants serve a duller version of the cuisine. Not so here, where you'll find about 50 stalls run by Thai (mostly) women, who're all sat on mats on the grass, with a few implements (cool boxes, gas powered grills) to make usually a single dish. The flavours are totally unedited - pungent cuts of meat, copious quantities of fish sauce, chillies with a proper kick.

A foodie friend guides us to a longish queue for green papaya salad. This is one of my benchmark dishes, and it blew every other version I'd had out the water. Each portion is made from scratch and to order. The papaya is shredded with a mandolin, tipped into a huge pestle where it meets its mortar, along with lime, chilli, fish sauce, dried shrimps, roasted peanuts and a few tomatoes, and is then pummelled and tasted and adjusted and pummelled and tasted and adjusted, until she's happy with it. Oh boy - this was so hot, ask for her to hold the chilli if you've not got a pretty hefty tolerance for spice. But it was so good, and a steal for a huge portion at 5€.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

I also try some squid skewers, which are a steal at 2€ each, loaded with tentacles, griddled on high and lathered in a chilli sauce. I grab the last three pork and peanut skewers (1€ each, WTF), and
enjoy some ludicrously sweet ice tea - which is strong and bitter, Thai style, then topped up with lots of condensed and evaporated milk. It's sublime.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

Cocolo Ramen, Maybachufer
I love a stroll by the canal down by Maybachufer, a couple of blocks south of Kottbusser Tor. The Ankerklause pub down by the water is legendary. But there's another reason to go there now - a nice ramen restaurant, with a lovely garden for schlurping down noodles on a warm evening. I'm totally spoiled when it comes to ramen, what with Tonkotsu Mare Street a 5 minute walk away. Over in Berlin, I order their Tonkotsu as a comparison - the broth is not quite so creamy from the bones, but it is full of porky flavour, and comes with a generous amount of pork belly and other cuts. lots of fungal, seaweed and gingery bits and decent noodles with enough of a bite on them. You get a neat selections of oils and shakes to pimp your Tonkotsu - I go wild for their onion oil, which has a lovely rich umami taste.

We also enjoy their pickled king oyster mushrooms, an almost creamy sesame spinach, and edamame beans. Schlurp schlurp.

Kirk, Skalitzerstr
I don't usually focus on drinks, but I have to tell you to go to Kirk on Skalitzerstr for cocktails. Everyone I know or met in Berlin would light up if you mention the place. It's the best spot for cocktails for miles, possibly hundreds of miles. The star of the show is the mixologist, a Nick Cave lookalike, rumoured to be from Croatia but to have learned his craft in New York. He silently makes the orders, having the odd chat to the waiting staff but never with the customers; he chain smokes and puts on dark records. I was delighted to hear a vintage PJ Harvey album while I supped my (first class) negroni.

The decor is retro without being kitsch, and it gets really busy later on, so get there before 9. Grab a seat at the bar if you can. Their whiskey sours comes highly recommended.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Brooksby's Walk, Chatsworth Road, Clapton / Homerton

Just when I thought new openings were getting a bit derivative over in Clapton, I got a very pleasant surprise. The public toilets on Brooksby's Walk, previously home to the social enterprise Nana, got taken on by a crew of bright young things who really know their onions, so to speak.

The art deco public toilets were converted two years ago to provide a bar/café in the original men's loos (urinals in tact), opening the original women's side as unisex public toilets for all the hours the premises is open. It benefits from a stunning roof terrace which catches the sun pretty much all day long. And for the summer - and hopefully beyond (subject to planning permission) - it's open as a restaurant and cocktail bar, with Giorgio Ravelli (ex of Upstairs at the Ten Bells and the Ledbury) in the kitchen, Jarrod Cooke (also ex of Upstairs at the Ten Bells) on front of house, and Jimmy McMahon, an esteemed mixologist, on the cocktails. The whole operation has a pally, family vibe - helped by the fact that the team are all chums, and they're bringing other chums in to help with the odd waiting and cheffing shift.

The food menu is seasonal Northern Italian - Ravelli himself is Swiss Italian - and changes up regularly with a few regular dishes, such as their parmesan pannacotta with broad beans and pea purée. This was an instant highlight - a light, moussey, creamy parmesan custard, which mixes gorgeously with the lush green, the delicate flavours of marjoram and slightly acidic slivers of nectarine.

Nectarine appears again, chargrilled and topped with shavings of princess alicia cheese (a mountain cheese not dissimilar to comté) and a rich balsamic dressing.

Beer battered samphire is generously portioned for its £4.50 price tag, and is almost like a marshy bhaji. We break bits off with our hands and eat it animal style. Every last fleck of sea salt and oil is consumed, fingers out towards the end. It's a theme with the meal.

A unanimous highlight of the meal is the crispy squid. This is among the best squid I've had: fresh, crisp, flavoursome, generous. It's topped with tangy sumac, but it's all about the Kentish tomato salad it sits atop. The tomatoes are lightly macerated so their juice forms a liquor that's fragranced with elderberry capers, lovage, celery, finely diced red onion and a twist of vinegar. It's like the most luxe bloody mary you've had. My friend shamelessly necks the bowl of liquor back once we've done our best.

Pan fried plaice is another highlight. We gush as we cut into the fish with its white, meaty, flesh perfectly intact under a golden crisp crumb. But gushing reaches fever pitch as we spoon up the aubergine caviar that's cut with sweet sultanas and perfectly toasted earthy pine nuts, and served with a Cos-like perfect circle of mustardy-capery agrodolce purée. Again, not a trace remains on the plate.

The thought of veal tartare scares my friends, so we don't order it. But a spare portion from the kitchen winds its way to our table. They savour every mouthful, with its flecks of dried mackerel skin, pickled girolles and parmesan for umami kick.

We literally eat everything on the savoury menu (there's sourdough bread with peppery, fruity olive oil too) and we end with swaledale lamb leg, baby beetroot and sea purslane. Maybe we're overwhelmed by all the flavours of previous courses, but we end up finding this dish a bit underwhelming. The lamb is perfectly pink, with a crisp, almost bacon-like skin (lamb bacon, there's a business idea), but it's a bit tough to cut with our normal knives. The beets are gorgeously earthy, and the sea purslane subtle. It's not a bad dish, but we prefer everything else.

An understated dessert of ricotta beignets, strawberries, marsala reduction and cream hits all the right notes and is a refreshing end to the meal. On a separate trip, I devour plates of brilliant cheese with a chum over wine and cocktails. Taleggio, gouda, a soft unpasturised cheese called Tentation and an ash rolled goats cheese served with complementary jams are utterly delicious.

Oh boy, I haven't even mentioned the drinks. Cocktails are great - very summery. We enjoy their Number One (aperolly aperativo) and Number Two (a cool, almost punch-like infused 'old fashioned' digestivo). The wine list is impressive, well-sourced and well-priced. Over two visits I have all the whites by the (large) glass - the stand outs being a zingy, aromatic Grillo from Puglia and a young, deep straw coloured Monteforche Veneto Cassiara. I need to get a hold of that wine...perfect, just perfect.

So, an epic meal - we are there for 3.5 hours. It's one of the best meals I've had in a long time, and up there with Verden and Shane's as the best restaurants in Greater Clapton. As the bill came I was pleasantly surprised at the cost of our indulgence (£24 inc tip for my non boozing friend, £38 inc tip for those of us who had wine and cocktails), and sad - sad that this brilliant restaurant and bar might only be here for a few more months. A planning application will shortly be going in for this brilliant, less weather-dependent design. I will certainly be registering my support for it - this venture is too good to lose.

Reservations recommended, and it's best to call their mobile: 07555 229870.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Patty & Bun, Mentmore Terrace, London Fields

If Peak Burger was three years ago, are we at Peak Fancy Burger Chain Expansion now? There's a Byron Burger on every third street in Zone 1, and Honest Burger has transposed from Brixton to every gentrified high street in London, MeatLiquor Inc no longer attracts such massive the queues because it has seven branches - one in SINGAPORE - and one more to open soon in edgy Islington. Patty & Bun, opening at a similar time just off Oxford Street, has expanded more slowly: first to Liverpool Street and now to London Fields.

I'm willing to travel for a good meal, but happier when it travels to me. The new Patty & Bun under the arches on Mentmore Terrace, London Fields, is next to the esteemed E5 Bakehouse, and so my weekly trip for a large loaf of Hackney Wild will now involve some serious burger temptation. Patty & Bun is a cut above the other excellent burgers I listed above, and I'm going to say it's up there with Hackney's other best burger joint, Lucky Chip, about to open their first permanent restaurant on Ridley Road in Dalston.

Patty &Bun is open all from 11.30am to 10pm Tuesday to Friday and from 9.30am on both Saturday and Sundays. That's right. It's now possible to have a burger for breakfast every weekend.

The core menu has a concise selection of their classic burgers, which have all the classic components of a good burger, but prepared with a brush of creativity. The Ari Gold (think Big Mac equiv) comes with all the usual trimmings but delicate, fragrant mexican style pink pickled onions and their own smoky mayonnaise. The Smokey Robinson burger smoky barbecue sauce and sweet caramelised onions are so heavily packed in that it's basically like lava. And so very good.

Chips come as they are in rosemary salt (very good), or with a chicken salt and roast chicken mayonnaise. It's like a mini roast dinner. Inspired.

Alongside sides of coleslaw, wings and salad, there are also regular specials. We enjoyed moist duck nuggets with a sweet, smoky Mexican chilli sauce. A smoked tomato salad features robust, sweet and lightly smoked San Marzano tomatoes, thins of raw courgette and crunch baby gem. My salad dodging other half savoured every bite.

But wait...there's more. Patty & Bun's London Fields outpost does brunch burgers. They swap the demi-brioche for a sourdough bun, and fill it with eggs and other goodness. I order a smoked ox cheek bun, which comes with cheesy scrambled eggs and sweet pickled chilli. The ox cheek is rich in flavour and spice from slow and low cooking. It's a bit intense for 9.30, but by 11.30 it hit the spot.

Other options include harissa fried egg with avocado, lime relish and bacon mayo, and cheesy scrambled egg with smoked guacamole, slow roast tomatoes and wild garlic creme fraiche. You get the picture.

They're still waiting for an alcohol license, so it's just soft drinks for now (including unlimited refill Allpress filter coffee for £1.50). Expect a short selection of wines, beers and mixed drinks when they get it. The service is quick, and it's communal tables - so it's walk-ins and relatively fast turnover, but you won't feel hurried by the professional, friendly staff. Prices are very reasonable too - you can go wild with the sides and still come in around £20. Burgers are all £7.50 - £8.50.

It's easy enough to get a perch now, it's early days and they deliberately launched under the radar. But once the word gets out, Patty & Bun London Fields will be just as rammed as the others.