Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I dozed off shortly after boarding the train; this was the first time in a long time that I had been away from His Holiness and in a matter of minutes I was sleeping. I woke up now and then and tried to read the new book I had recently picked up, but sleep was a persistent companion on this trip and it was three hours later before I finally awoke for good. I don't recall what it was that roused me, I was alone in my seat at the back of the car, the train wasn't particularly crowded and I was warm and comfortable. The first thing I noticed upon waking was the landscape; bleak, flat, barren and covered with a skimpy sheet of snow, a scant dusting just deep enough to send chills down your spine when you looked at it but not deep enough to register anything like a cozy winter scene. I knew from this terrain that I was drawing closer to Berlin.

Berlin: for an American baby-boomer just the sound of the word summons a mental slide-show of images, powerful images that have been reinforced a thousand times by newsreels and documentaries, by films and songs, the images of Berlin in the words and music of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, the “Cabaret” of Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, the Berlin of the Third Reich, of Hitler, the SS, this great satanic soup of sex and sin that Berlin conjures in the imagination of a middle-aged American. All of this came rushing into my conscious mind as I opened my eyes on the barren winter countryside just outside Germany's new capital city. There was also the rhythm of the train, the drumbeat of the scene that was unfolding. The sound of the train is an indispensable element of the Berlin I carry around in my mind. Every great film about this city has a scene on a train or in a train station. Trains are archetypal elements in the 20th century European narrative – they move us from place to place, scene to scene, danger to safety and then to danger again. And so with all of that in the back of my mind I entered Berlin, shortly after 4:00PM on Friday afternoon.

I came to Berlin for the Berlinale – the film festival that was inaugurated in Berlin shortly after WWII to invigorate a fallen city. During the five years that current festival director Dieter Kosslick has been at the helm, the Berlinale has become one of the most important film venues in the world. From what I witnessed in the three days I was in Berlin, this Festival and the city whose name it bears, are deep in the process of a renaissance. I will cite just one significant example from a list of many. This Sunday, at the House of World Culture, a panel discussion was held on the topic: “Eat and Shoot the Indie Way.” Although the title is not particularly inspiring, the subject matter was. On the panel were Alice Waters, creator of Chez Panisse in San Francisco and to my mind one of the most inspired chefs on the planet, Vandana Shiva, an Indian human rights activist of enormous integrity and compassion and Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow-Food movement and perhaps the most impassioned speaker I have ever heard on any subject. For two hours these inspired individuals spoke about sustainable agriculture and the evils of fast food, about the plight of the world's small farmers, about the value of eating locally grown food when and if that is possible – and all of this at a film festival. Kosslick is clearly out to change the world and if this forum is indicative of the quality of the balance of the Festival, he might do just that.

On the subject of food, which as you might have guessed is something I love to think about, I had a wonderful and unexpected experience while in Berlin. My hotel was on the Oranienburger Strasse, and those of you who know this location, please hear me out. I had never been to this neighborhood before and had no idea that it was considered one long tourist trap. Much of it I must admit was pretty awful; bar after bar after bar and then there were the ladies of the night. I don't know what the rest of Berlin is like, but sometime around midnight on the Oranienburger Strasse there appear a remarkable array of ladies, all with profound physical assets and a sales technique that would put an Istanbul rug merchant to shame. Coming home late Friday night I was embraced at a full run by a strong young woman who must have been nearly six feet tall. She had a head of shocking red hair and was equipped by nature, or a very canny surgeon, with the capacity to provide sustenance for an over-crowded nursery of hungry infants. This woman held me firmly in her long, strong arms and tried to persuade me to spend a little time and money with her that night. I was amused but refused.

None of this kept me from my usual habit of walking the neighborhood streets in search of great food and ingredients. On that same Friday night, shortly before I was accosted by the well-endowed red head, I spotted a small rathskeller entrance. The kitchen had closed for the evening when I stopped in for a beer but I found the place enchanting. The ceilings were low and the rooms were warm and inviting. The next night I went back and sat at the bar. If I'm going to eat alone I prefer sitting at the bar where I can chat with the bar tender if the spirit moves me and where the service is almost always better than anywhere else in the room. Let me say at the outset that the food was sublime. I don't intend to write a restaurant review here but I would be remiss if I didn't tell you what I ate and what it cost.
For starters I had what the restaurant called, “Ragout Fin” which was a small puff-pastry filled with a mixture of chicken, beef and parmeggiano cheese, covered with hollandaise sauce and surrounded by a delicate but spicy apricot chutney – it took my breath away. The main course was rabbit stew with Mediterranean vegetables served with a potato dumpling and a mixed salad. The rabbit and vegetables were cooked to perfection, the vegetables soft and savory, the meat infused with onion and peppers and just a hint of something stronger. The dumpling was never heavy, I could feel the texture of the vegetable in my mouth, the food was still living, not ground and pounded and processed to death like so much of what we are subjected to in restaurants today. Desert was something from the deep recesses of the imagination … fried nut and poppy noodles served with caramelized plums in a bourbon vanilla sauce. I will only say that the thrill of eating this dessert was probably equal to the thrill of whatever the redhead down the street had to offer and it only set me back five Euros! I selected a Spanish wine, Faustino Crianza Rioja, and it had just the right weight and texture to play with this food. The entire meal was under thirty Euros. The restaurant is called, Assel, and it was the first establishment opened on the Oranienburger Strasse after the Wall came down. The original owner has returned to her first love of teaching, but her brother Christopher has kept the restaurant in the family and from what I can see he is doing a terrific job. Even in the midst of this twisted Berlin Disneyland, there is an oasis of good food and service that you should not overlook if you find yourself in the neighborhood. Assel is located at 21 Oranienburger Strasse.

Berlin is a real city. I felt it in the first moments after I exited the train and took to walking it’s streets. One hears languages here, laughter, the noise of urban life, and passing the doors of exclusive shops as they open and close, perfume wafts into the street and reminds me of a dark-eyed girl I never really knew, a long time ago.