Me and my best friend are born two days apart. Even though we’ve been living in different countries for the last 7 years, it has now become a tradition that we always go somewhere and celebrate our birthdays together. There was Barcelona, there was New York, there were champagne-fueled shopping sprees in London (resulting into walking (stumbling) into Hawksmoor on vertiginous needle heels that would make any drag queen green with envy, dressed in an overpriced metallic tutu and little more, a eurotrash version of Carrie Bradshaw – the woman who destroyed 200 years of feminist conquests in just 6 seasons of crap TV show – but with boobs). And when I was travelling, Eva flew out to meet me in New Zealand. This year, we decided to celebrate our cumulative 70th in Berlin.
Honestly, mea culpa for having lived for 25 years less than 4 hours train ride away from such a fantastic place and never visited it. Berlin has a certain atmosphere. The weather and the springtime probably helped, but it comes across as an extremely enjoyable place to live. Vivid cultural life for every taste, unrivaled public transport (at least in Europe), cycling-friendly. Tourists can buy a Berlin Welcome Card, that includes unlimited public transport (with options to throw in airport transport) and entrance to all museums. Prague could learn a lesson right there and introduce something similar, instead of fining tourists for traveling with wrong tickets (given beating the ticket vending machine and obtaining the correct ticket requires both above-average intelligence and outstanding perseverance).
Berlin transpires all of its dramatic recent past and embraces it as a living reminder of all the terrible things people do to each other. Completely leveled to the ground at the end of WWII, it became the playground for modern architecture. On the site of former SS, SD and Gestapo Headquarters stands today the “Topography of Terrors” – an educational centre that documents the horrors of Nazi oppression and propaganda. Where the Reich Chancellery and the Bunker used to be, are today residential buildings, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – an angst-inducing forest of uneven concrete stelae – can be found just one block away. Berlin turned the wall that once scarred its face into world’s largest open air art gallery. And then there are the museums. We only picked three, as we were too busy celebrating, so one more reason to come back soon.
Berlin Wall Memorial (Bernauer Strasse):
Berlin Wall open air gallery:
Most of Berlin’s classic art museums are concentrated on Museuminsel (The Museum Island). We only had time to pick one, and the choice fell on Neues Museum. The story of the building is almost as fascinating as the collection it hosts. Before the WWII, Neues Museum housed egyptian and middle-eastern art, as well as most of the artefacts Schliemann excavated in Troy, collectively known as Priam’s Treasure. The museum was closed at the beginning of the war and the collections were moved to possibly the safest place in the city, into the Flak tower (Berlin’s anti-aircraft defence) by Tiergarden, where they remained until the stronghold was looted by the Soviet army in 1945, its treasures subsequently taken to Moscow as spoils of war. Thankfully the most precious artefact, the bust of Nefertiti, had been moved to a secret location (a salt mine) before the Flak tower fell, therefore it can still be admired. Not that looting is a problem as such, after all, the very idea of an ancient art museum is based on theft, but at least the fruits of German, Italian, French or English thieving are on public display. Priam’s Treasure was rotting in Russian archives for 50 years, before Moscow owned up to it. The building of Neues Museum sustained heavy damage during allied air raids, and was left to decay pretty much until the fall of the Berlin Wall (the entire Museum Island was under East German administration). The reconstruction of the building began in 1997 after a project of British architect David Chipperfield and was completed in 2009, when the museum reopened to the public. You can compare photographs of before and after and learn more about the rebirth of Neues Museum here.
Jewish Museum. Although the permanent exhibition mapping Jewish-German history has been under reconstruction since almost two years now, the absolutely stunning building by Daniel Libeskind remains accessible to general public. The basement of the museum is built around three intersecting axes that represent continuity (of Jewish community in German history), emigration (leading to the Garden of Exile) and Holocaust. There are several “Voids”, empty spaces that reach through the entire building, that symbolize perished lives. One of the Voids hosts the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) dedicated to all victims of war and violence. Little flat stones with features of human faces are heaped on the floor and visitors are invited to step on them and listen to the rattling sound they make. Other section of the museum hosts a very interesting interactive introduction to Jewish culture, customs and modern life.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (please could all the Instagram divas kindly restrain from climbing the stelae and posing for photographs and/or taking selfies?)
Museum fur Fotografie / Helmut Newton Foundation. This museum is dedicated to German-born naturalized Australian photographer Helmut Newton, who (being Jewish) left Germany in 1938 with just two cameras to become one of the most iconic fashion photographers of the 20th century, whose beautiful black and white erotically charged nudes remain most passionate celebration of female body. The museum displays many of the famous photographs, a collection of Newton’s personal possessions and private correspondence, as well as many other exhibitions of general photography.
With culture out of the way (just for the conscience sake), most importantly, we were in Berlin to celebrate our birthdays. Ladies and Gentlemen, to you, the fine dining guide to Berlin:
Day 1: Cookies Cream * – they present themselves as a vegetarian restaurant for non vegetarians. The biggest challenge is finding the entrance to the restaurant, as you need to enter a slightly dodgy alleyway behind the Westin Grand Hotel (sort of a service entrance for the lorries that deliver fresh laundry and other supplies to the hotel), make your way around the trash bins and ring a bell of an anonymous-looking door marked only by a small plaque. Enjoy the treasure hunt. Regardless the Michelin star, the place is very casual (we were definitely overdressed) and reasonably priced (tasting menus between 59 and 79 Euro). Everything comes from their own farm located just out of Berlin, the dishes are inventive and entertaining, the service is friendly and knowledgeable. Wine list is a bit of a hipster fare, as you’d expect in Berlin after all, lot of natural, biodynamic wines, but that is the trend these days, and it fits the concept of the establishment.
Day 2: Horvath** – located by the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg, once the dodgiest neighbourhood in town, now described as “vibrant” (meaning you’d normally head there for a proper turkish meal) and urban (meaning overpopulated by coffee shops offering something called third-wave coffee, which I believe is a code name for a beverage either too sour or too toasted, coming to you from a possibly copper-plated laboratory filter apparatus rather than an espresso machine). Welcome to Kreuzberg, the hipster capital, where an elegant establishment decorated with two Michelin stars is somehow unexpected.
My personal opinion is that Horvath was by far the best place we ate at during this holiday. The environment is elegant, intimate and discreet, service attentive but discreet and unpretentious. They claim to be an Austrian restaurant, as such is the nationality of the head chef Sebastian Frank (“Best Chef of Europe 2018”), but the food is a creative blend of the entire area of former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The wine list is a careful selection from the same region (plus Germany), therefore the pairing offered aims for territorial affinity and tradition rather than complying with some elaborate theory about combination of tastes. At Horvath they know what they are doing and they do it perfectly.
Day 3: Tim Raue** – currently ranking at no. 40 in the world’s top 50 restaurants list (no. 37 when we dined there). We all know the story. Enfant terrible of the culinary world, underprivileged boy from a degraded neighbourhood and former gang member, head chef by the time he’s 23, earning his first Michelin star only ten years later. Tim Raue is an Asian fusion restaurant, the food is exquisite and the wine pairing is excellent. Obviously, it is a difficult task to compile a wine list suitable for spicy cuisine, and in that respect, the head sommelier has accomplished an outstanding job, as the wines offered were as exciting as the tasting menu. However, I would have liked to know the price of wine pairing before the final bill reached the table. I would still order it, on the basis that I am as interested in the sommelier’s work as I am in chef’s, I just think that stating the price somewhere on the wine list would have been fair.
What I really didn’t like was the service, especially compared to the experience we had the previous evening. While at Horvath we felt cherished, at Tim Raue we were just another table, part of the machinery. No one has been rude, simply what we witnessed was an assembly line, a very finely oiled and impeccably working German machine. There was nothing wrong with the service as such, but the entire experience felt impersonal. First came the looks. When unaccompanied young women walk into an expensive restaurant, all Creation stands still. Who are they? Why are they here? Who pays for their dinner? Because, clearly, someone has to. In certain establishments, women paying for themselves with their own hard-earned money are still unheard of, unless the hard work happens to be in horizontal position. You learn to brush off the stares, you’d just expect a bit more subtlety in one of the world’s top 50 restaurants. Next came the patronizing sommelier, but sommeliers often are, and this one stressed several times that some wines came from his personal vineyard, so I suppose a bit of attitude was forgivable. Tim Raue was present that evening, but instead of talking to all the guests, as is the custom, he was hopping around a table of extremely loud and expensively yet tastelessly dressed individuals. Possibly some former gang mate with the missus. Animal print sadly seems to be a thing this year, I dearly wish this trend soon meets its deserved end: oblivion. Also, dressing like a leopard remains a terrible idea even when propped up with a pair of Louboutins. Roar! Another thing: a T-shirt under a jacket is tacky, even if said T-shirt has “Armani” written across the chest in large print. Wear a shirt (possibly avoid mad patterns that make you look like a failed rapper). Right, enough taking the piss out of other people’s poor taste.
Day 4: Mrs Robinson’s – located in Prenzlauerberg / Pankow, possibly your best chance to see what old Berlin used to be like before WWII, as the neighbourhood has been largely spared not only both the allied bombing and the delirium of post-war socialist urbanists, but the local synagogue on Rykestrasse also survived the antisemitic raging of the Kristallnacht in 1938 and is today the largest synagogue in Germany. In East Berlin times, Prenzlauerberg used to be home to artists, bohemians and queer community, nowadays it became an chic area for affluent Berliners, full of little cafes, restaurants and independent shops, not dissimilar in character to some elegant residential neighbourhoods in Prague.
Google maps highlights Mrs. Robinson’s as a “women-led” business. Hey, women can own businesses in the 21st century! It’s also tagged as transgender safespace and LGBT-friendly. Because, when it comes to same-sex couples spending money for fine dining, possibly without screaming offsprings running all over the place and ruining the evening for all other guests, are there any LGBT-unfriendly places? On the other hand, it looks like the US will soon be heading towards the return of racial segregation, and refugee-unfriendly places may be popping up all over Europe in no time, if certain politicians have their way. Anyway, Mrs Robinson’s has enjoyed some raving press reviews, but also some nasty comments on TripAdvisor, mostly complaining about the price, or the fact that some dishes simply don’t work. That was not our case. Frankly, after the spending extravaganza on the previous evenings, the price was not an issue. As for the dishes, everything we had was excellent. Some combinations are audacious, some tastes are a bit strong, on the other hand, you cannot order pork belly and then complain on TripAdviser that it was fatty. The establishment is ran by London native Samina Raza (that evening sporting a delightful T-shirt with two kittens and the undeniable statement that “pussy runs everything”, I am in love already) and her partner, Israeli chef Ben Zviel, who defines his creations as “uncompromising”, which I believe is the most suitable description. The wine list is short, but carefully selected and very interesting, the service is very casual and friendly, everything we had was delicious (do not skip the desserts!), and the entire evening was great fun.
On the final note, Tiergarden Park in full blossom. Berlin is fantastic, and we left out so many things because we were busy celebrating. I’ll be back!