Thursday, 26 July 2012

Berlin Adventures

A couple of years ago I did a interrail tour of Europe and skipped merrily and carefree across the continent for 5 weeks soaking up every part of the local culture I could find. and lots of booze. Of all the cities I visited there were two that made the greatest impact on me, sure Venice was stunning, Split was blisteringly hot and Krakow was astonishingly cheap but no where compared to Budapest or Berlin.

Right at the very start of our trip, Berlin grabbed us by the (proverbial) balls and threw us in at the deep end and we embraced it's grimy bars and streets which seeped history at every corner.

Of late I have been trying to convince the other half to jet away with me for a few days (you wouldn't think that would be such a difficult task) and I knew that of all the places we could afford to go to Berlin was at the top of his list. A quick shifty on the internet and we had flights + accommodation booked for £180. All the more money to spend on German beer.

Here's a selection of snaps (not just of food!)

We stayed at Hotel 38 and rather bizarrely they'd decorated our room with newspaper. I think it's meant to be 'edgy and designer'.

The large Turkish population (largest outside of Turkey, fact fans) meant there was killer falafel everywhere. On the Tuesday morning we'd ventured to Kreuzberg and by chance there was a huge Turkish food market on. A man shouted at me for photographing his chicken. 

Further adventures in Kreuzberg involve the best burger you'll ever find in an old public toilet (or perhaps anywhere from Burgermeister. This place was mentioned in all the guides and recommendations I read and it really didn't disappoint. Incredible burger that cost around 3.50 euros, and super crispy fries. 

Another great find was the Santa Maria mexican, we stopped for a drink, ended up staying about 3 hours and it was taco tuesdays meaning all tacos were 1 euro i.e a total fucking winner. Plus all you people still drinking cocktails out of tea cups and jam jars, that's so old, the new hip thing is terracotta plant pots, didn't you know?

I also had to sit outside Static Shock records for around an hour whilst the other half shopped for records - I ate a feast on the pavement outside. 

Perhaps surprising for me, this break wasn't really about eating at the best places in town, or even really eating that much at all, just picking up bits and pieces of street food and snacks as and when so as not to detract from more important matters - drinking plenty of german beer. It feels like all I drank in 3 days was Berliner Pilsner in a variety of different bars and cafes. The cultue of the city seemed much more in tune with relaxed drinking rather than fancy dining. 

As well as plenty of river side cafes and fake beaches (Strandbar Mitte if you want a recommendation - also does good pizza and has an outside theatre + dance floor that gets busy later on), we found a beautiful little deli with hundreds of homemade salamis and sausages hanging behind the couter and battered wooden tables which typified this brilliant attitude. I'd have taken a picture but the owner was a stern looking woman who didn't seem to want people messing with her meat. 

We were staying in central Mitte on the Oranienburger Tor and saw all the typical sites in that area but the number one recommendation (and possibly the only gallery I managed not to visit when there the first time) was the modern art gallery. Housed in the old Hamburger Hof it was a fantastic gallery with some really interesting exhibitions on - this thing with mist and darkness and white circles which is very difficult to explain but very interesting. Plus like all good galleries, an incredible bookshop. 

Like all of the city, there are plenty of ramshackled buildings, and one of the best is the Clarches Ballhaus which was like something out of a dream. The front is all rosebushes, fairy lights and tables dotted about where you can get drinks and incredible pizzas, and then at 10 the magic starts. The inside is still a traditional old ballroom with different dancing every night - Monday's are salsa and the room was filled with all sorts of couples going at it. The other half refused to join in much to my dismay but it was amazing fun just to watch before we hopped out to another bar down the road. 

The ballroom was on Augustrasse which is home to lots of non-touristy lovely little bars, cafes and shops. Just across the street from the ballroom you'll find which superb coffee and these huge open sandwiches, after a morning of art I devoured by grilled chicken smothered in anchovy butter on soft, freshly baked focaccia.

Also on Augustrasse was Do You Read Me? a boutique magazine shop which was about the best place ever for someone like me who loves beautifully put together publications. I picked up a couple of different food magazines naturally.

Although I said this wasn't much of a 'food holiday' we always had the intension of treating ourselves to one proper meal out. And we made a fantastic choice. As you can tell we hadn't exactly been dabbling in much traditional German fare, and it doesn't exactly come with international acclaim. But it's like British food being slated when all someones tried is a dodgy portion of fish and chips. We discovered this wonderful restaurant called Zum Schwarzen Hasen which we think had just opened and was serving 'German tapas'. This wasn't tucked away in some hidden side street but on the main drag in Mitte. I really wanted to tell them they shouldn't call it that, tourists get easily put off and don't like to be adventurous. The rank, tacky looking mexican next door to this place was evidence of this. 

It was actually a selection of small plates, showing that German food could be light, intricate and carried out to a high standard. The cold cuts plate had the most incredible cured herring on it as well as this smokey finely sliced venison. The rabbit salad came with heritage black carrots and a sweet, zingy dressing and lovely edible flowers. A perfectly cooked haunch of venison with cherries and chanterelle
mushrooms in a rich reduction. Some deep fried woolf fish with a cucumber pickle and caper dip, it was so surprising and so good. And of course we couldn't go without carbs, this is Germany - a basket of local breads and some fried potato dumplings. 

I could have eaten the whole menu, there were several more options that sounded equally tempting. And something with dripping and apple that I just wouldn't be allowed to eat at home. They also had a short but expertly chosen list of German wines. 

Whoever was turning this food out was seriously talented, it was just such a shame that more people didn't want to try it and the restaurant was half empty. I say pack up and move to London, it would go down a treat in Soho. 

 A wonderful little break to sooth my ever increasing itch to jet off travelling again. From the urban cool, edgy parts of the city covered in murals and graffiti, you're only ever a corner turn away from a beautiful old building like the one below. It's what makes cities so exciting. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: Caffe Vivo, Broad Chare, Quayside, Newcastle

Caffe Vivo is somewhere you can get a 1kg perfectly cooked steak. Go.

Ok, so maybe I should flesh out the details a little, but it's always good to get to the point. You all know how much I love my meat and if Caffe Vivo have always had this on their menu I struggle to comprehend how it's taken me this long to visit.

Not that I haven't wanted to of course, Caffe Vivo is yet another restaurant owned by that man with the golden touch Terry Laybourne (see here and here for some of his other places around town), this time showcasing well cooked, classic Italian. It's pretty amazing that one restauranteur could be so successful which each venture they undertake, like Russell Norman in London with his string of hip, no reservation venues + one recently released amazing cook book. The recipes in his cook book seem to come from the same source of inspiration as many of the plates available at Caffe Vivo.

Anyway, it was my birthday last week. The big 22. Vivo had been on 'the list' for a while and what with all this beautiful weather we've been having recently I thought escaping to Italy through some beautiful food was the perfect way to celebrate.

The space is located in the front of the Live Theatre but very much feels like a restaurant in it's own right - a vibe that Pasqualino's struggled to capture - a spacious, modern room with some hams hanging in the window just to make sure you definitely knew this was an Italian restaurant.

I wouldn't want to cast wild accusations, but i'm pretty sure they must put crack in the bread because by god, it was so moreish. There were some hard, salty bread stick things and wonderful light, freshly baked ciabatta. I refuse to bore you with my no carb diet and how I dream about bread during the week, but shitting hell I could have eaten nothing but this bread and been happy.

Menu, Cafe Vivvo, Newcastle
The menu was made up of cicchetti (small, bite sized plates), antipasti, secondi and meat courses. Knowing before I even looked at the menu that I wanted the steak, I had to think through this logically, filling up on too many pre-courses could significantly impair by meat consumption.

I opted for a light starter of sugar snap, peas and pancetta (£6.50). It was a fresh, lively plate of vibrant colours and contrasting textures - crunchy toasted croutons, the sweet peas, the fatty bits of crispy pancetta - plus generous shavings of pecorino and a drizzle of quality olive oil. I've been craving these simple and delicious flavours and was so taken in by it that when I saw fresh peas in the market this week I recreated it at home. 

The other half also opted for what on paper looks like a basic dish - charred asparagus and balsamic. With ingredients this good, you don't need to piss about adding smears, foams and any of that bullshit. 

I can't even express how much I loved the main course - 1kg bone in rib eye for 2 (£48). There was nothing fancy about it, a 1kg rib eye served on the bone, cooked to medium rare perfection, with a thick charred coating of black pepper and parmesan. Being cooked on the bone meant the steak kept so much flavour. We had it with parmesan fries and spinach. 

And see this picture doesn't even do it justice because our waiter had already served us 2 huge slices before I could get in and take a snap. 

Granted, the few bits of wilted rocket on the top did seem a little unnecessary, the chips were light and crisp as they always are at a Cafe 21 place and the spinach was a well chosen accompaniment to the  steak. 

I was never in doubt that I would finish the steak, however that was sadly at the sacrifice of pudding or cheese or going out for cocktails afterwards. All we could do was finish our bottle of wine (a very well priced bottle of the house red if you're interested) and pat our plump bellies. 

The bill came to £84.10 including drinks and service, which was great value but sadly for me although I plan to go back to Vivo at the next possible occasion, the steak might have to be resisted. The people on the next table to us got these incredible looking sharing platters which i've got in my sights. 

I love the Broad Chare (which is next door and also a 21 property) and represents this same style of no-fuss proper cooking with real ingredients, but I think I loved Caffe Vivo that little bit more. I bow to the brilliance of the Laybourne empire. 

Caffe Vivo is at 29 Broad Chare, NE1 3DQ and is open 10am - 10.30pm with drinks and snacks served all day, dinner service starts at 5.30pm on week days at 12pm on a Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Book on 0191 232 1331.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Review: Zapatista Burrito Bar, Ridley Place, Newcastle

I was in Manchester recently and had the most overwhelming cravings for a burrito. All day I banged on about wanting a burrito and then as if by magic I got off a bus and the first thing I saw was a take away burrito place. I could have wept, I was overjoyed and crammed my chipotle pork filled, phallic shaped, bulging meat parcel into my mouth as fast I could. That burrito place was Barburrito, a small chain around the North west and was absolutely spot on. I'd also been recommended it by at least 4 different people that day so they are obviously doing something very right, or I really was talking about burritos way too much.

Of course anywhere else in the country a burrito place might not seem such an exciting prospect, but Newcastle has been sadly lacking in the Mexican department for a long time. I have said we need a burrito place more times than is really necessary so when I heard about the opening of Zapatista I was pretty fucking excited.

So what I got was even more of a disappointment.

Located up by both the universities on Ridley Place it is in prime location for milking the student market and is kitted out in a suitably Latin American vibe. The inside is actually very well done, stall seating down stairs and tables and chairs upstairs making it feel roomy and a bit nicer than just another sandwich shop. Lots of lovely exposed brick work, mosaics and sanded wooden floors. They'd made the most of the original features in this old Victorian three storey terrace so kudos for resorting an old building rather than setting up shop in some modern soulless shell.

Zapatista Burrito Bar, Newcastle

So it was my birthday, I was having a birthday burrito - I really know how to celebrate. The ordering system was pretty standard - queue up, pick your fillings, add your beans and salas and salad. Everything's £4.20, so a reasonable lunch (although you could get 2 slices for that price).

It was at this point I already started getting the feeling this wasn't going to quite live up to my Mexican dreams. There was a choice of chicken, pork, shredded beef and chilli con carne (made out of mince not shredded slow cooked beef!!) I opted for the pork and it was a weird dry grey texture, the salsas looked incredibly watery, the cheese was an unnatural shade of orange and the rice looked very stodgy.

It just didn't taste of very much.

No spicy flavours, smokiness or waves of heat, then fresh and vibrant salsa - it was just a big bland roll of carbs. Their menu says they serve 'lime and coriander rice' but I couldn't detect either of those flavours. Even worse, my friend's hadn't even been rolled properly so at one end all he had was rice and then it proceeded to fall apart in his hands and mine leaked watery sauce. The ultimate sign of a bad burrito.

Oh, I had such high hopes and I left so very disappointed. It's such a shame, the food and quality of it felt like an secondary thought after the design and look of the building. Just because you are the only people doing something in a city where there's obviously a demand for it doesn't mean you should turn out something average, being best by default is no victory.

Now the question is, what's worse - a bad burrito or no burrito at all?

Zapatista Burrito Bar is at 28 Ridley Place, and is open Monday - Saturday 10-7