Sunday, 27 November 2011

Glühwein season uncorked

Yesterday we had the first glühweins of the season at the Nordic Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt in Prenzlauer Berg. When we met D and S at the Kulturbrauerei it was crowded and it was raining. After having waited for them for almost 30 minutes I was in rotten mood. And the longest queue of the whole market? At the Finnish glühwein stand where we wanted to get a cup of glögi. We marched over to the Swedish punsch stand and after just a few sips, the world was a better place again. And even better when I realised that we were standing next to Herr Nilsson's stall – our favourite Swedish candy shop!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The guilty shopper

After finishing my article on Berlin's new veggie restaurants and their ethics, I can't go into any shop without assessing the ethics of each product there. So, naturally, when I stepped in to the new 24colours shop on Alte Schönhauser Straße the first thing I wanted to know was where the clothes come from – knowing that the answer wasn't going to be nice, since the prices are so low. Sure enough, their cool clothes are made in China, but the sales girl assured me that no child labour is used. But what about employees rights and the chemicals used in the fabric dyes? Well, I shut my eyes tightly, pulled out seven items from the racks and bought them. Oh, the guilt. At least 24colours is a local, Berlin-based, design company. I don't know how I'll explain it to myself when I find myself there next time? Except by that I found myself a cotton sweater for €8.90 (on sale), skirts for €12.90 and €16.90, a casual cotton top for €15.90 and a sleeveless print top for €13.90...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

New: Raw food in Berlin!

As the weather is getting colder (only +5C now), it's natural to think of nothing but eating. I got the opportunity to write an article about new vegetarian restaurants in Berlin, so the past week and a half my life has revolved around food. 2011 has been a great year for vegetarians and vegans in the city: NINE veggie restaurants have opened since February. When my mom was here, I dragged her along to Lucky Leek and Kopps, and since then I've been exploring raw food with A. There are two new raw food restaurants in Berlin: Gesund & sündig in Wilmersdorf and café style LebensfRoh in Kreuzberg.

Gesund & sündig
Germany's first raw food restaurant opened in June. The location and the opening hours reveal that most of the diners at Gesund und sündig come from the sports centre that the restaurant is connected to. Luckily it's along the Ringbahn and thus within reach even for a Friedrichshainer. A more central location is under consideration for the new year, we were told. Everything on the menu here is raw and vegan. As a starter we share a plate of delicious "Sweet and sour sushi" (€7.90): a mixture of sunflower seeds and sauerkraut replace the rice, and the centre is carrot, zucchini and pineapple sticks – because of the seaweed, it still clearly tastes like sushi. In Pizza Crudo del la Casa (€7.90) the base is made with dried seeds and has a slightly bitter, nutty flavour which the tomato sauce and roasted vegetables balance with their mild and sweet taste. The "ricotta" on top is made of cashews. Pasta is replaced with sliced courgette in the "lasagna" (€8.50), and the side salad is instantly a new favourite: rucola and pear with a garlic dressing. Everything is as bright and colourful on the palate as on the plate. I tried a super healthy green smoothie (€2.80) while A played it safe with a fresh apple juice (€3) – we pretended to be health nuts and skipped beer and wine. Gesund & sündig is definitively not just for hippies, but dinner there was delicious, interesting and filling. If only it was a little closer to home: I'm certain we'd visit again and bring tons of adventurous friends with us!

This homely café opened next to Görlizer Park in August. They're not very busy on the Tuesday morning when we've decided to have breakfast there. The café is filled with sunlight and the lonely voice of Kurt Cobain singing from the Unplugged album – I had the song "Jesus don't want me for a Sunbeam" stuck in my head all day afterwards. For breakfast the choice is between raw müsli (€4) and chestnut porridge (€3), but a plate of raw food crackers with assorted spreads, olives and veggies sounds like Berlin breakfast to me (small plate, €5). The porridge is nice: slightly sweet, sticky and a little grainy. For another euro it comes with fresh fruit or warm fruit puree. The Hertzhafter Teller is simple: two crackers piled with different spreads, a salad, olives and some grapes. They're out of many items, and so I'm asked if it's ok to use a milk-based spread, too, rather than vegan. The plate is nice, but not exactly as filling as a Berliner might expect after having paid €5. If I'm around the area, I might want to pop by again to try their raw courgette pasta or one of their daily dinner specials to really make up my mind about LebensfRoh.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A city in the cloud - or - Vegetarian Dinner Club visit

All of Berlin was covered in a beautiful cloud of fog today. I wanted to take photographs of everything I saw: the TV tower disappearing into whiteness, the windows of the Park Inn Hotel slowly fading into invisibility, the Volksbühne's outlines blending with the grey veil around it, the traffic lights glowing insistently, multiplied by reflections in the fog particles. It was a beautiful day, even if you couldn't see much more than a few buildings ahead.

Work was a hurried affair. Lately, I've been up reading all night and today I had turned off my alarm and slept until noon. And then I closed my eyes again and slept another hour. At work I noticed that I had double-booked myself by promising to sit in on a meeting at 2pm, as well as have a tandem lunch with K. Back in the office at 3.30, my colleague W reminds me that I made dinner plans with him only yesterday – for 5pm.

I've wanted to check out the Kurukshetra Vegetarian Dinner Club for over two years now: ever since I saw their flyer in Mauerpark. W and I lock our bikes outside an Indian shop that looks just like any other hippie store specialising in incenses and wooden pearl bracelets. A blond girl with markings painted between her eyebrows tells us that if we're here for dinner, it's through the backdoor. She opens it for us and points us in the right direction: take a left after the yoga hall. Luckily we get some help and we find the homely dining room decorated with a half of a straw hut and pillow strewn chill out corner.

The dinner club serves a vegetarian all-you-can-eat meal for €4.50 every work day between 5-8pm. Each day of the week has it's own menu that you find out there, or by signing up to the newsletter. As we take a seat, an older woman with long, gray hair comes to ask us if we want some of her own blend of magical herbal tea. We politely accept and I ask her if how long the Club has been around? She tells us that she's native American, a wold citizen who's travelled everywhere, teaching and uniting people in peace and love. I compliment her tea and ask her if there's licorice in it – there are six herbs in it, that's why it's magical, she replies. The conversation is interesting, but not very informative. We are brought a plate of pasta and tomato sauce each and dig in. The sauce has a great taste, but the pasta is watery and over cooked, so I leave most of it. We converse about Norwegian black metal bands and mass-murderers, as well as about work and ecstasy parties. Another plate appears in front of both, this time with a veggie burger and a stuffed bell pepper. The veggie burger is fantastic: it has great texture, great flavour and is completed by a slice of cheese, tomato and cucumber. I'm so stuffed that I can barely look at the bell pepper, but out of curiosity I have a bite anyway. Luckily I concentrated my efforts on the burger, because the pepper is really bland. We get a refill of the magical tea and dessert bowls with a generous cut of chocolate cake. Somehow, neither one of us has a problem with finishing the whole piece. Even if not every single component was to my liking, everything was all right – and when the dishes were good, they were fantastic. If we were only served the burgers, cake and tea I would have been happy to pay €4.50 for that alone! Surely this is one of the best dinner deals in Berlin.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Vegan restaurants with mom

After a week-long visit I walked my mom to the TXL bus stop on Alexanderplatz. Depending on how you see it, my mom is a really easy or a really difficult guest: she doesn't want to do much and has no demands. She's been to Berlin four times and prefers to stay local and take it easy. For me it's really trying, because it means that we sit around our flat a lot and all the little things that annoy a daughter about her mother stew. But all in all I was a well behaved adult for the whole week – I found that a glass of wine worked wonders on the nerves!

We did do something; a visit to TK Maxx in Charlottenburg (the Neukölln shop is nicer and less crowded), coffees with my friends who are learning Finnish, watched Christiane F. – Kinder vom Banhof Zoo, spent a Sunday afternoon at Mauerpark... And I managed to lure my mom and A with me to try two new vegan restaurants in Berlin: Lucky Leek in Prenzlauer Berg and Kopps in Mitte.

Lucky Leek
Lucky Leek offers sophisticated vegan food in a cosy, candle-lit, basement. We arrived early and the only other diners were a tourist couple, seated in a candle-lit corner. I realised that they, too, are Finnish and they try to stay quiet as not to get caught. That's how I know, because that's how Finnish people react to meeting other Finns abroad. The menu is short and sweet: four starters (€4.90-7.90) and four mains (€11.90-12.50), two dessert options (€6.50 each) and the daily specials. Tofu, seitan and soy are given the spotlight in only one or two dishes. In order to sample as many dishes as we could, we went for starters, mains and desserts. My Balinese spiced tofu, topped with a chive pancake and apricot chutney, was refined and hit all the right notes in terms of balance and texture. A's essence of shitake mushroom turned out to be a bitter broth with root vegetables and pearls of barley – the only disappointment of the evening. The mains were all wonderful: linguine with zucchini mini-schnitzels, pumpkin maultaschen with fried mushrooms and a creamy (vegan!) hollandaise and a roasted aubergine and bell pepper picatta served with thick chestnut noodles and a flavourful ragout of tomato and orange. Our plates were practically licked clean when our waiter came to clear up. Asking if the amazing nougat-chocolate tiramisu really was made in-house was clearly an insult: all the desserts are home-made. My mom said the tiramisu was the best dessert she ever had. I would not recommend anyone to skip dessert at Lucky Leek!

Yesterday we tried Kopps, a vegan restaurant and bar that opened in September. It's great that vegan restaurants don't settle for a homely or a hippie look: Kopps looks like a designer hotel bar with soothing dark wood tables, sleek blue walls and upholstery in sophisticated greens. The menu sounds generic, mid-range: tuna salad, schnitzel, goulasch, roulade, mashed potatoes, serviettenknödel and blaukraut. The difference is of course, that Kopps serves only vegan food – not even your milchkaffee will be made with cow's milk here – which means that the menu has a lot of soy in different forms. The service is prompt and comes with a smile from the healthy looking, tall, german guys, all clad in black. As our drinks arrive, we have already gotten a basket of bread and a bowl of an interesting, butter-like spread that tastes of eggs and fresh onion – but apparently made of chick peas and pasta. I went for the three-course evening menu of pumpkin soup, cordon bleu and a selection of desserts (€19.50). This time it was A who had the highlight of the meal: battered fresh field mushrooms with a dill-remoulade and lemon (€5.90) – the best battered mushrooms I ever had! I'll go back just for those, I think... And they set the tone for a rustic, hearty meal. The braised vegetables with polenta (€8.90) represented the vegetarian dish that you would find on the menu in many ordinary restaurants: not very exciting (except that the roasted polenta comes in slices cut to look like toast halves – fun!). To my joy the cordon bleu did not taste much like processed soy and the crispy breading together with the beefy mash made the dish into real comfort food. The goulash (€11.50) that had me so excited before our visit, had great flavour, but the soy pieces had an unpleasant texture and that distinct taste of cupboard that soy has. The trio of deserts was plenty for the three of us: a little bowl of cremé brulee, marinated pears and a chocolate-orange brownie. The cremé brulee was amazing, the other two were unnecessary: just get me another bowl of the brulee, please!

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