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Feature Article: A brilliant Berlin culinary odyssey

Brilliant Berlin beer.

Things have been a bit quiet on Scrumptious Scran of late, for which I must apologise. Don’t worry; I haven’t suddenly lost my enthusiasm for food and drink – quite the reverse. It’s just that recently I have had to prioritise starting a new job and celebrating my other half’s 40th birthday, over writing culinary copy. Fortunately though, part of JML’s birthday celebrations involved a trip to Berlin. This has provided an opportunity to compose the first Scrumptious Scran Odyssey article, giving an insight into some of our favourite dining and quaffing experiences in this wonderful city.

Not having visited Berlin before I must admit that we weren’t entirely certain what to expect, in culinary terms. Like any large city, Berlin has a diverse range of restaurant cultures – with Italian appearing to be a particular favourite – but for this visit I was keen to hone in on food that was typical of Berlin or Germany.

Our base was central Berlin’s “Mitte” district, a stone’s throw away from the former Checkpoint Charlie, one of few official crossing points between the former communist East and capitalist West sectors of the city. Our hotel – Gat Point Charlie – was great and very boutique-esque, even though the surrounding area was slightly underwhelming; it’s Berlin’s commercial and government hub being mostly populated by modern multi-stories. However, wander a little and it is possible to find a Germanic culinary gem, such as Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt – a cavernous eatery that serves traditional Bavarian fare and excellent beer. Be warned, however, so popular is this place that at peak times it is neigh on impossible to secure a dining table, meaning that we had to be content with sitting outside (it being a balmy October evening) whilst consuming a couple of glasses of “hell”.

And I should also point out that when strolling round Berlin’s Mitte district, anyone with a sweet tooth should be sure to call into Fassbender & Rausch – reportedly the world’s largest chocolaterie. Not only does its three floors offer 200 varieties of chocolate, it also features a chocolate volcano and a architecturally accurate model of the Bundestag – made from chocolate.


Cracking currywurst.

Checking out Berlin’s “Museum Island” and surrounding environs provided an opportunity to sample two things I love: sausages and micro-brewed beer. The former came courtesy of Oranium, located in the “Scheunenviertel” or “barn quarter”; an old neighbourhood that found itself on the eastern side of the infamous wall – here’s a hint, if you see a tram you are in former East Berlin… Having perused the menu, I just had to try the Würstchen Trilogie – Berliner Currywurst, Thüringer Rostbratwurst and Nürnberger sausages skewered with leek, onions, and capsicum, served with yellow and red curry dip. Each variety of porky morsel was delicious, even if some flavours were slightly unexpected. I’d heard that Berliners are mad for currywurst – a curry-infused banger. Maybe I was expecting a casein-coated balti, but the spice mix was more akin in its flavour to the sort of curry sauce served by Chinese takeaways – flavoursome yet unusual. For tip-top beer we ventured just south of Alexanderplatz to Brauhaus Georgbraeu. Located in the shadow of the city’s imposing Television Tower, not only are their superb pilsners brewed on the pub’s premises – try the dark lager with its great malty flavour – but these can be enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the River Spree.

Kreuzberg Kaffee und Kuchen.

A definite “must visit” for any food enthusiast is the conjoined neighbourhood of Kreuzberg-Freidrichschain, to the south-east of Berlin’s centre. Kreuzberg is bohemian and, thanks to the fact that WWII air-raids left it relatively unscathed, lined with handsome late 19th and early 20th century buildings. East of its neighbour, Freidrichschain has more DDR/modernist architectural lilt. But whilst different in appearance what they have in common is a great range of bars, cafes and restaurants. Both areas really lend themselves to wandering and stopping off at wherever looks appealing, whether this be for “kaffee und kuchen”, falafel, or a hearty German dish.

 Two places we visited were of particular note. Kuchen Keiser is a pretty café-bar perched on a corner of a tree-lined square. It’s a great place for watching the world go by whilst nursing a glass of cold lager. The food is also highly regarded – with Sunday lunch being a particular favourite amongst locals. I will definitely dine there on my next visit to Berlin, but on this occasion it was just the fine beer that we sampled, as we had already booked a table at the Kreuzberg institution that is Max und Moritz.

Hearty Berliner Küche.

Named after the Wilhelm Busch cartoon characters, stepping into Max and Mortiz is like time travelling back to 1920s Berlin. A stunning bar, adorned in Art Nouveau cobalt blue tiles, greets you upon entry. This then gives way to a vast, labyrinthine dining area furnished with tables and chairs that would not look out of place in Cabaret. The vermillion walls, period electroliers, and wrought-iron fittings complete the Isherwood-esque ambience. The restaurant specialises in “Berliner Küche” – literally “Berlin Kitchen”; a hearty, rustic cuisine, with a German base but influenced by the cooking traditions of those who immigrated to the city from Central and Eastern Europe. Both JML’s and my dishes certainly were hearty. I chose Berliner Eisbein; an enormous salted and pickled pork knuckle accompanied by pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, a split-pea purée and mustard. The meat was incredibly tender with a great salty/sour flavour, and was really complemented by the uncomplicated, yet delicious, accompaniments. JML’s Bollenfleisch – a traditional lamb stew – was equally satisfying, with flavoursome meat and vegetables bathed in a rich stout and herb sauce.

Russian dumplings.

Berlin isn’t ALL about food and drink of course. It’s a city that just oozes history and still resonates the time it was split in two during the Cold War. Two museums in particular recount how this period impacted the lives of Berliners – the hands-on DDR museum, which charts what life was like for those on the eastern side of the Berlin wall, and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which recounts the history and impact of this divisive structure itself. It was after visiting the latter that we strayed upon a Café Gorki Park – a smashing wee Russian-themed eatery. Located in Scheunenviertel, given that during the cold-war period this district was very much in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find a restaurant that gives a culinary nod to Berlin’s recent history. Whilst JML’s choice of “the Russian Burger” might not be construed as being typically Soviet, it was none-the-less very good. My choice of warkeniki was much more Russian in keeping, consisting of handmade dumplings variously stuffed with potato, spinach, Brysna cheese, and minced beef, all accompanied by a tomato salsa and sour cream. Imagine a sort of delicious East European dim sum.

We certainly had a great time in Berlin. As I hope this odyssey indicates, it’s an engaging, intriguing city with some super bars, cafés and restaurants. During a short visit it’s possible to see many of the city’s main attractions, but you will still leave lots to explore. Undoubtedly then, we shall return. There is so much more left to see, eat and drink.

bar/ Edinburgh/ food/ pub/ restaurant/ review

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Prayers answered at The Safari Lounge

Safari Lounge entrance.
A wildly great pub lies inside.

If I were religious, I would swear my prayers had recently been answered. For years I have been chanting the mantra “please might someone open a decent pub, with really good food, somewhere between Jock’s Lodge and Leith Walk”. But Edinburgh’s equivalents of the goddesses Edesia and Bibesia must have been sat atop Arthur’s Seat with their fingers in their ears – until now!

For the last few weeks, as I trudged back and forth between Scrumptious Scran Towers and my place of work in central Edinburgh, I noted that the old Station Bar on Abbeyhill’s Cadzow Place – a very traditional Scottish boozer – had been shut for a bit of a repaint. Then the posters appeared in its picture windows, announcing the arrival of The Safari Lounge. Might this be, at last, a decent new boozer in Edinburgh’s East End? Praise the lord! Or lady, or whatever be your deity of choice.

So this Friday, JML and I dropped by to see what pleasures this revamped Victorian bar might hold. Oh my! Walking into the place it doesn’t immediately look like a lot has changed. There is still much of the dark brown tongue and groove and ornate plaster work in evidence, except the walls are painted a subtle tangerine and white – taken together all vaguely reminiscent of a liquorice allsort. The original wooden bar has gone (despatched to another venue, to allow the nine rotten joists that lay beneath it to be replaced, apparently). And at the end of its subtly trendy replacement is a small kitchen – but what a kitchen…

A busy bar and kitchen at the Safari Lounge.
A busy bar and kitchen.

As we ordered drinks at the bar and scouted round for a table, it became apparent that the place is much bigger than I had realised, with a comfy, offset area to the rear of the bar, and a separate “Tiger Room” beyond that. Our drinks arrived – chosen from a great range of lagers and craft beers – together with a couple of menus. And that is when I realised why this place is confident enough to site an open kitchen at the end of the bar. At first glance it may appear a typical pub menu of salads, mezze, ‘lite bites’ hotdogs and burgers. Yet read on, and it isn’t just your standard bar food at all. It’s a menu put together with real care and thought.

So, we ordered a main each of a “Safari Dog” and a “Momo Fuku” Pork Bun, accompanied by a side of skinny fries and the intriguing “popcorn mussels” and watched mesmerically as the two chefs in the open kitchen grabbed ingredients and cooked and assembled the dishes before our eyes. Within ten minutes of ordering, the food arrived. JML had chosen what transpired to be very posh hotdog – a meaty, flavoursome sausage nestling in a brioche roll, drizzled in a mustard dressing and surrounded by a tangy onion and cider chutney. It was simply smashing. My shredded pork belly buns – there were two – consisted of beautifully succulent meat with vinaigrette coleslaw, all encased in ghostly white rice baps. Intriguing in how they looked, delicious in how they tasted. Both mains were served with a generous accompaniment of freshly prepared, perfectly dressed salad.


As to the sides? Well JML’s fries were skinny and crispy as described, and came as an ample portion. My popcorn mussels were a revelation, however. Imagine a take on whitebait, but involving shellfish in tempura batter accompanied by home-made tartar sauce. Crisp on the outside and with a soft interior, packed with intense, slightly salty, seafood flavour. I need say no more.

Popcorn mussels & fizz.
Popcorn mussels & fizz.

As we were devouring our delicious fare, it became apparent that The Safari Lounge – which takes its name from the neon sign displayed in the window of its former incarnation, the Station Bar – has been the subject of a very clever makeover indeed. The banquets running along the walls are now covered in subtle, but stylish embossed khaki leather. The traditional tables and chairs are painted with dark black shellac, and the bar stools covered with cow hide. Having asked the, very friendly, bar staff for permission to take some photos for the review, I got chatting with Andy Caird, proprietor of The Safari Lounge. Caird has previously managed such esteemed Edinburgh stalwarts as Negotiant’s and Medina, and obviously knows what makes a winning venue.

“I set out to refresh the bar, but no more than necessary – I didn’t want to destroy the place’s character”, he told me. “It’s a similar approach with the food. I wanted a menu that wasn’t just typical pub fare, and that features dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. But at the same time, the pub and what it serves should offer something for everyone in the area.”

As I spoke to Andy, I noticed a couple of old boys – certainly regulars of the pub in its former incarnation – stood drinking at the bar, joking with the staff. At the same time, food was flying out of the kitchen and landing on the tables populated by cool-looking 20 and 30 somethings. The Safari Lounge certainly is a venue with loads to offer. If there is any justice, the gods will be smiling on it for a long time to come!

www.thesafarilounge.co.uk

Food – 8/10
Atmosphere -8/10
Service -8/10
Value – 8/10
Ambience – Expect a laid-back – yet busy, modern pub experience.

(N.B. the croquetas recipe mentioned in my last post, will be appearing on the blog in the very near future).

The Safari Lounge on Urbanspoon

bar/ bistro/ café/ Portobello/ review

Review: The Skylark – All aboard the Skylark

The Skylark by night
The Skylark by night.

Living on the east side of Edinburgh, it’s always a pleasure to visit the city’s “Riviera” that is Portobello. Though it may have lost some of its Victorian sea-side grandeur, “Porty” – as it is affectionately known – still boasts a great beach and promenade and some fine architecture. What’s more, its villagey feel seems to be continually enhanced by the ever-increasing number of establishments providing decent food and drink.

A relative newcomer amongst these is a smashing wee café-bistro called The Skylark, which is located on Portobello’s High Street (241/243). Open since July 2012, it occupies two former Victorian shop frontages which have been tastefully combined to form a very inviting bar/café/kitchen space. The premises are certainly striking, with the owners having chosen to strip back the décor to reveal bare brick and original architectural features. This goes very well with the mish-mash of shabby-chic tables and chairs with which the place is furnished. Plus, the bar and kitchen area is also open to the rest of the café – always a good sign/brave move if chefs are happy to prepare food in sight of punters. Personally, I love being able to glance at chefs busy preparing my order.

Croque Monsieur.
Scrumptious Croque

The Skylark is warm, welcoming and (child) friendly, and whilst it doesn’t have a hugely expansive menu it does serve a great and tasty range of sandwiches, salads, cakes and puddings, together with inviting daily specials, all delivered by attentive staff. Their croque-madam is one of the best I have sampled north of the Seine, and if you aren’t full after partaking of that do try one of their home-baked puddings – apple tart with gingerbread ice-cream is particularly enticing.

As mentioned, the daily specials provide good bistro fare, often with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, and feature dishes such as spring onion tart with a mixed leaf salad, and “happy pork” meatballs on a bed of linguini. Cheese and charcuterie “snack” boards also make a great alternative for anyone wishing to share with their dining companions.

Interior of The Skylark.
Features, furniture, food…

As well as providing very decent food, The Skylark also serves a fine array of drinks.  This includes Stewart ales on draft, a rotation of very fine, craft-brewed guest beers, and some decent wines.  Plus their artisan coffee is just what’s required after a bracing walk on the prom.

The Skylark is the sort of place in which you can happily lose yourself for an hour or two over the Sunday papers, or spend one of those “…where did the time go?” evenings with friends. Thoroughly worth a visit if you find yourself either sunning or shivering in Portobello, and also a great venue for a relaxed evening out, whether you’re an EDI east-ender, or from further afield.

Food – 8/10
Atmosphere -8/10
Service -7/10
Value – 7/10

Ambience – Expect a laid-back, café/bistro ambience.

All photos courtesy of The Skylark website.

The Skylark on Urbanspoon

bar/ café/ drink/ Edinburgh/ farmers' market/ Feature/ food/ foodie/ recipes/ restaurant/ review/ slow food

Scrumptious Scran is born…

So, after (what is probably) years of threatening to set up a blog as a means of sharing my passion about food and drink, I’ve finally got my metaphoric finger out and Scrumptious Scran is now live. But why establish a food blog?

Well, anyone who knows me will be aware that I love food and drink. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sophisticated fare. What, for example, can compare to an egg, bacon and mushroom sandwich on sourdough bread, accompanied by a decent cup of coffee, to kick off a Sunday morning? But it has to be flavoursome and put together with care, attention and – hopefully – some passion.

Ideally, I also like the food I cook and eat to be seasonal, and sourced as locally as possible. I’m realistic, however, and know that it isn’t always possible to do a complete weekly shop at the likes of the terrific Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (more about this Edinburgh foodie institution in a later post on the blog). But my ideas about food do share much in common with those of the Slow Food Movement.

So what can be expected from Scrumptious Scran over the coming weeks, months and (hopefully) years? Well, my intention is for the blog to be a mixture of updates on how I’ve been ‘engaging’ with food and drink, including:

  • What I have been buying, and where from.
  • The recipes I have tried at home.
  • The restaurants, cafés and bars I have enjoyed (or even, not enjoyed).
  • The books, magazines and other blogs that have influenced my culinary perspective.

And, given the fact that it is nigh on impossible for one person to keep abreast of all the latest gastronomic developments, I will certainly be welcoming suggestions of any restaurants or products that might be worthy of a feature in the blog, via [email protected].

And so my literary, culinary journey begins! I look forward to hearing from those of you who follow its progress.

Chris

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