In Berlin, the hotel gave us a room with a view. A view of the churches book-ending the vaste esplanade of Gendarmenmarkt and Konzerthaus. All the accumulated tensions from the flight, the constant rains and the car-journey through the numerous road diversions evaporated as soon as I drew the curtains and opened the windows. We could hear classical music floating in the air, it just so happened that we came on the weekend of the summer open air concerts right next door. Every evening of our stay, we only had to wander around the square and be surrounded by classical music and beautiful architecture. Things just doesn't get better than this, is it any wonder that I have fallen in love with Berlin?
We had made no plans for dinner. Lutter & Wegner, the concierge informed me, was fully booked but he helped us with reservations for the next evening. In the meantime, he directed us to Brasserie a street corner away. We went along with his suggestion as it was close to nine in the evening and the rains showed no signs of abating. Brasserie, in spite of its boring name, is actually a very handsome and comfortable place. Think deep leather banquettes, polished chrome fixtures, large gilded mirrors and bright modern art with soft lighting.
The menu was not big, the usual grilled meats, soups, salads and pastas forming the line-up in a somewhat generic way. We started with soups, a tomato consomme for husband and a seafood fish soup for me, prettily garnished with cute foods like fried quail egg, little fish dumplings and pink just-cooked prawns; bright and interesting though the seafood broth was just a slight improvement on the ready-mix standard. We fared better with our mains. On the menu there is a selection of flammkuchen or flambeed tarts. Sounding like a variation of pizza, the classical version is topped with bacon, onion, creme fraiche and cheese. It was delicious, the topping salty and rich, the crust that desirable mix of crisp and chewy.
But Brasserie for me will always be the place where I experienced my Wiener Schnitzel epiphany. Finding nothing terribly interesting in the menu, I decided on impulse to go for this ubiquitous menu staple. It came in a hefty piece, flanked by a mound of cold potatoes dressed in a yoghurt cucumber sauce, decorated with a little garnish of lemon twist, anchovy and caper. The crumb was light and crisp and the meat was juicy and flavourful, especially for such a delicate meat such as veal. The combination was more than the sum of its parts, hanging in there too was something deeply savoury, with a hint of nuttiness. It may have been the garnish swaying my judgment but I could have sworn there was anchovy either in the marinade or the breading. I kept saying to husband how good it was, and pretty soon I worked through the whole piece, and you know what, even the last bite was still crispy and yummy. I asked the waiter what was in the dish. Meat, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, he thinks, shrugging his shoulders helplessly as if to say 'I am not the cook'. Perhaps it's just that, or there is a secret recipe, but whatever the case, this is a magnificient thing if done right.
We walked back to the hotel in the rain, now pouring harder than before, our tummies warm and hearts glad. Sleep came quickly. Wiener Schnitzels filled my dreams.
The next day was Saturday, a day for shopping. The metro stations have cool grey platforms accented with colourful post-war fixtures and retro-coloured trains. The shops in the triangle between Weinmeister Strasse, Sophienkinhe and Neue Synagoge are small, eclectic and diverse with its mix of slightly subversive street fashion and trendy boutiques, quiet niche-cafes and little side streets leading to backyard zen gardens and studio spaces. Husband was happy to find a small shop selling Manaresi coffee, which makes a most satisfying cup of espresso.
Dinner at Lutter & Wegner. We ate at the Lutter & Wegner Gendarmenmarkt location. The original restaurant was started in this neighbourhood in 1811 but closed during the cold war period though an outlet in Charlottenburg, the western part of the city, continues till today. After the collapse of the wall, the restaurant was rebuilt near the original site. At least this is what I discovered from the Internet.
What is important is that it is absolutely a lovely restaurant, venerable institution or not. The dining room is large with high ceilings, spacious booths, leather seats, yes, a stuffed crow on the bar top, and the atmosphere one of lively buzz. The clientele is mainly affluent local and foreign tourists age 40 and above. Since it was my birthday we shared a triple-decker appetiser selection which was fun and visually interesting but the only item I really enjoyed was a small serving of beef tartare.
I decided on Sauerbraten since this is their prize-winning dish. Sauerbraten, a German couple at the next table kindly educated me, is a typical German dish of roasted meat served in its vinegary cooking sauce. The description sounds tempting enough and it turned out to be a good idea. The beef had taken on the flavours from the hearty yet mildly acidic sauce making it rich yet not too heavy. The accompaniments of braised cabbages were excellent too.
Husband enjoyed his fish, grilled and served whole. I bet he was the only diner there that ate both the flesh and skin. So many times have I observed Europeans peeling back the skin of fish and not eating it, how I wish they realise what they are missing out on.
During dinner I noticed that Wiener Schnitzel made an appearance at every table. Even though my Sauerbraten was good I wished I had ordered the schnitzel instead.
The next day, we went sighseeing. The sun decided to come out and play too. These pictures were taken from our sightseeing bus.
The tourists sites are very spread out, we didn't have much time so we concentrated on the stunning collections of the Pergammon museum.
For lunch we went to Lowenbrau beergarden behind our hotel. Because this is the concierge's top recommendation for Wiener Schnitzel. And I already decided I was only going to eat scnitzels for the rest of my stay. Not a bad idea to go to Lowenbrau actually, considering that we wanted our lunch at nearly 3 pm after we were done with the museum.
I ordered the Knodel (dumpling) soup because I was not happy with what I tried in Munich and wanted to give it another chance. Lowenbrau's version was much better, the dumpling although it appeared huge, was quite lightly packed and tasted meaty and liverish instead of bready. Unfortunately the soup, as usual, never managed to break through its salty ready mix mantle.
Husband's sausage and sauerkraut was supposed to come with 6 sausages but maybe the cook felt generous that day. The sauerkraut was, to my naive tastebuds, To Die For, orgasmic. I think they put bacon inside.
My Wiener Shnitzel came. In two pieces, small to under-medium sized. Looking a little overfried. Thick. And thickly breaded. Not terribly good but serviceable for everyday I suppose. I much much preferred their potato sides, warm tender potatoes mixed with parsley and bacon bits, this I finished but not the veal.
Then it was off to do more sightseeing.
That night we ate at Lutter & Wegner again, because I had to try the schnitzel else it would always haunt me. The veal came in a gratifyingly large piece, perfectly fried, thinly pounded and crumbed to a delicious meat: breading ratio. But not as full-on in flavour as the Brasserie version, but still very pleasing in its own understated way. The potato sidekick would have been more interesting if served warm but with all that meat they didn't really have much of a chance. Still, I found the last few bites a tad monotonous, so the score at that point was Brasserie-1, Lutter & Wegner - a very close second and Lowenbrau a distant third.
Is that all? Of course not. I had already read in the Hachete "Un Grand Week-end A Berlin" that the place to eat in Berlin is Borchardt. Another grande dame restaurant, this turn-of-the century institution is a super-trendy place that is not easy to get into. We know because we tried calling them from Paris and the phone number listed in the phone was not correct, and also our hotel concierge flat-out told us that it is impossible to get in with our short notice. But we made one final effort, asking the night concierge- actually the very sweet lady receptionist standing in for the concierges - she made a phone call and voila, I had a Monday lunch appointment.
Borchardt (47 Franzosische Strasse) occupies a beautiful space with very high ceilings, grey-red marble columns and a magnificient mosaic floor. It is where the beautiful people go to see and be seen, too bad I couldn't recognise any German personalities. I am sure my fellow diners were models, celebrities, talkshow hosts and politicians, they all had such polished appearances and keep hopping the tables to air-kiss and press hands. The service was efficient and cold. They took the coat of the tall white gentleman in front but did not extend the same courtesy to me. They put me in a table away from all the celebrity action, and when I asked if I can take pictures they say no but softened the disappointment with a forced fake smile.
But the food was worth the little irritations. I started with a gorgeous cold cucumber soup, redolent with dill and enlivened with cold shrimps. It was refreshing and oddly spicy in a nice tingly way, absolutely delicious. The Wiener Schnitzel, when it came, was very impressive in size, for I had not shirked and decided on the regular not half-sized portion. Breading was crisp, nutty and light, encasing perfectly seasoned meat. It was a little more flavourful than Lutter & Wegner's, but not nearly as savoury as Brasserie's, a nice balance between the two if we have to split hairs.
After that lunch, Brasserie was moved down a notch and Borchardt, for now, is my champion for Wiener Schnitzel. But Lowenbrau gets top marks for its potato side dish. Only thing is, all these within a what, 500 m radius of our hotel. There must be so much more shnitzel action happening elsewhere in the city....