Berlin: a tale of two culinary cities

We’re tucking into dishes piled as high as a small mountain with food that could never be described as subtle… nor branded flavourless.

As we sip a deliciously light German red, the well-rounded matron of the Berlin restaurant Marjellchen appears at our table and asks how we’re enjoying the meal.

The answer is truthful: very much.
Hearing that we’re English, she begins humming the theme from the 1970s TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and launches into an explanation of her love for the programme.
It’s a scenario that’s repeated several times during the course of the meal, broken only by her breaking into a rendition of the pre-WWI German national anthem.

Old versus the new

And it’s utterly charming because Marjellchen – with its patterned carpet, its walls plastered with old photographs and its crackly old music – is happily at one with itself.
Fast forward 24 hours and we’re eating in the achingly trendy wine bar and restaurant Cordobar.
Yes, we ate some astonishing dishes, but also some duff ones.
And the place, though likeable, was no where near as welcoming because service slowed to an impersonal crawl as the venue wilted under the weight of the venue’s own crowd-attracting fashionability.
Which makes me ponder why we’re so fast to celebrate the new and often tardy about relishing the old.

The decor

Marjellchen served me a simple main course of moist, tasty slices of pork with a gravy rich with onions, a garnish of stewed prunes and a yeast dumpling of such roundness and size that it might serve as a silicon implant for an ambitious Hollywood starlet.

Opposite was what seemed to be a whole duck, golden-skinned, slow-roasted and served with a potato dumpling.
Alongside a slice of skilfully-fried calves liver with onions and silky mash.

Afterwards came a dessert of brilliantly boozy black cherries served with a semolina blancmange and whipped cream.
This was food to satisfy hunger and the senses.

Asparagus and rhubarb

At Cordobar – with its slightly awkward decorative references to Austria’s famous football victory over West Germany – cheffy cleverness often intervened.
White asparagus served with rhubarb, hazelnut and vervain was a star dish – a heady mix of earthy, sweet and sour favours.

Battered spring onions with smoked creme fraiche was a hit, too – in the words of my son, ‘posh onion rings’.
But a sort of mush of marinated sea bass with pink pepper, mint and citrus was confused,
BBQ lamb neck with beetroot, cucumber and camomile was clumsy and fried chicken with pimento, humus and yoghurt was dull.

Desserts fared better – a reinvented lemon tart with a sort of fudge-like topping was inspired and a coconut and beetroot cereal with chervil ice cream was a brave and slightly savoury grown-up pudding.
And, it has to be said, Cordobar’s wine list, packed with natural and biodynamic wines, was a joy.
But this was a meal of mixed quality emerging from a kitchen that I suspect is trying too hard to be cutting edge and which frequently changes its menu.
Marjellchen prefers relying on a tradition that has cemented its success over many decades.
It’s food that packs a punch. It’s filling. It’s reliable.
Sometimes, it seems to me, restaurants should concentrate more on what pleases the punters than polishes the self-esteem of the chefs.

Mommenstrasse 9, 10629 Berlin.

Grosse Hamburger Strasse 32, 10115 Berlin.

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