Like London, the last decade has seen the city's gravity shift. In Berlin it's all slunk south-east from Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg to Kreuzberg and Neukölln, which have that potent mix that leads to hipster-led regeneration: a history of protest and radicalism and melting-pot feel from being the home to decades of waves of migration.
I was lucky enough to stay with my amazing multi-talented friend Elizabeth Rushe, who has worked for many years in food, design, travel, start ups and music in Berlin, and is an excellent source of knowledge for what's new, old and interesting in the city. Follow her on twitter, instagram or just admire her photos.
For older tips (google them to see if they're still open), check out my blogs on Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg in 2012, and a five year old general round up.
Stella is New Yorker Suzy Fracassa's cafe and take-out on Neukölln's Wesestrasse, which is like a much more sleepy, low key version of Kingsland Road, or a suped up version of Lower Clapton Road. Suzy's been doing gorgeous catering of fusion-y salads, meals and sweet delights for many years, earning a big enough cult following to open up this permanent space. There's a daily selection of cold dishes a single hot dish, decent coffee, cakes and cold drinks.
Suzy's Italian background, time in New York and admiration of Ottolenghi's dab hand at Asian and middle Eastern fusion influence the cooking. There's a pretty price guide setting out the cost of all the combinations of portions of cold and hot dishes and different sizes.
I go for three cold salads, but have a nibble on a friend's meatballs in tomato sauce - sublime. I try the sesame noodles - a homage to a late-night New York Asian fast food staple, made with Italian spaghetti, expertly seasoned with a sesame dressing, spring onions and toasted sesame black and white sesame seeds. There's a broccoli slaw, which has a lightly creamy dressing and lots of toasted bits, a wild rice salad with sweet potato and asparagus (Germany goes WILD for Spargelsaisson!). I also try a friend's wild garlic pesto potato salad. Everything is delicious, with carefully balanced flavours that sing in your mouth for ages afterwards.
We finish sharing some rich and gooey chocolate brownies and marshmallow Rice Krispie cakes. There are tables on the pavement outside, and a lovely back room with a big table, views of an overgrown garden, and a beautiful mural of verdant plants along one wall.
(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)
Street food nights at Markthalle Neun, Kreuzberg
Markthalle Neun is a stunning old covered market building in an understated Kiez in Kreuzberg. Through the week it's a mixture of farmers selling vegetables and other produce with a good few specialist mini delicatessens selling booze, olive oils, salamis, cheese, smoked fish and much more. But every Thursday night lots of street food stalls and bars open up inside, and people flock from all over Berlin to savour the food, drink and atmosphere.
There is so much to choose from, but we try Korean hot dogs (available vegan too), loaded with kimchi, sriracha, cheese and crispy onions.
I love the bar siu steamed buns, made by a Chinese lad and his mum. The pork mince filling is nicely pungent, full of flavour. The rice dough is light and pillowy and literally steaming from the steaming.
Bao Kitchen's open steamed bun (Momofuku-style, so now) with pork is more pulled than those perfectly cooked, glazed pork belly slabs done by the pros, but it stills tastes good.
And I'm blown away by the smoked veal ribs from Big Stuff Smoked stall - one of the most popular, demonstrated by all the beef brisket and short rib gone by 7pm when I develop enough appetite to order. You can choose from a number of specially made sauces - I get their barbecue cherry cola sauce, which is every bit as sweet, sour, smoky and delicious as it sounds.
By 8pm it is heaving. So many people. There are a decent number of tables, so it's all quite grown up, and the queues are rarely too long. It's nice that the demographic is much more mixed than it would be in London - lots of families, older groups, not just brash 20/30 somethings. Some of the stalls change each week, and there's a huge selection, so lots of reasons to keep going back. Most of the prices are sub 7€, comparing favourably with the likes of London's Street Feast.
Thai Park in Preusselpark
Sundays are a big deal in Berlin. All the shops are closed, and you've probably had a late boozy night, so it's all about being outside (when the weather's good) and nourishing yourself with good food and a good mosey. Flea Markets are a big part of the Sunday experience, with Mauer Park in Prenzlauer Berg being the biggest and most famous. Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain is also nice, and Ankona Platz in Prenzlauer Berg has much more high quality bric a brac than a lot of the junk at Mauer Park.
Quietly gaining in popularity is the Thai Market in Preussel Park, deep in West Berlin. Berlin is home to a big Thai population, but many of the restaurants serve a duller version of the cuisine. Not so here, where you'll find about 50 stalls run by Thai (mostly) women, who're all sat on mats on the grass, with a few implements (cool boxes, gas powered grills) to make usually a single dish. The flavours are totally unedited - pungent cuts of meat, copious quantities of fish sauce, chillies with a proper kick.
A foodie friend guides us to a longish queue for green papaya salad. This is one of my benchmark dishes, and it blew every other version I'd had out the water. Each portion is made from scratch and to order. The papaya is shredded with a mandolin, tipped into a huge pestle where it meets its mortar, along with lime, chilli, fish sauce, dried shrimps, roasted peanuts and a few tomatoes, and is then pummelled and tasted and adjusted and pummelled and tasted and adjusted, until she's happy with it. Oh boy - this was so hot, ask for her to hold the chilli if you've not got a pretty hefty tolerance for spice. But it was so good, and a steal for a huge portion at 5€.
(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)
(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)
enjoy some ludicrously sweet ice tea - which is strong and bitter, Thai style, then topped up with lots of condensed and evaporated milk. It's sublime.
(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)
Cocolo Ramen, Maybachufer
I love a stroll by the canal down by Maybachufer, a couple of blocks south of Kottbusser Tor. The Ankerklause pub down by the water is legendary. But there's another reason to go there now - a nice ramen restaurant, with a lovely garden for schlurping down noodles on a warm evening. I'm totally spoiled when it comes to ramen, what with Tonkotsu Mare Street a 5 minute walk away. Over in Berlin, I order their Tonkotsu as a comparison - the broth is not quite so creamy from the bones, but it is full of porky flavour, and comes with a generous amount of pork belly and other cuts. lots of fungal, seaweed and gingery bits and decent noodles with enough of a bite on them. You get a neat selections of oils and shakes to pimp your Tonkotsu - I go wild for their onion oil, which has a lovely rich umami taste.
We also enjoy their pickled king oyster mushrooms, an almost creamy sesame spinach, and edamame beans. Schlurp schlurp.
I don't usually focus on drinks, but I have to tell you to go to Kirk on Skalitzerstr for cocktails. Everyone I know or met in Berlin would light up if you mention the place. It's the best spot for cocktails for miles, possibly hundreds of miles. The star of the show is the mixologist, a Nick Cave lookalike, rumoured to be from Croatia but to have learned his craft in New York. He silently makes the orders, having the odd chat to the waiting staff but never with the customers; he chain smokes and puts on dark records. I was delighted to hear a vintage PJ Harvey album while I supped my (first class) negroni.
The decor is retro without being kitsch, and it gets really busy later on, so get there before 9. Grab a seat at the bar if you can. Their whiskey sours comes highly recommended.