Sorry for the long absence, folks. As I’ve been telling people, becoming a teetotaling vegetarian is probably good for you, but having economics force it on you isn’t. And as for becoming an involuntary fasting teetotalling vegetarian. . .
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It’s heartening to see the very best pasta in the world suddenly showing up in the supermarkets here. Voiello is Barilla’s professional line, available in a number of traditional shapes, and formerly it was only available in Berlin at Centro Italia, the monster Italian wholesale market. (Watch for a post on these wholesale/retail markets as soon as the Guy With The Car takes me out to the Vietnamese one we’ve discovered!)
What makes Voiello better is its absolute consistency and the extreme high quality of the wheat used to make it. I’m not sure what the bronze dies used to extrude and stamp it do to make it so good (although I did see the same dies in use when I had my memorable tour of the Agnesi factory some years back), but this is trumpeted on the bag. My criterion is simple: feel a piece of uncooked pasta. If it’s rough, it’s good. Again, I’m not sure what the science of this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the grain being able to trap the sauce. The piece of pasta might be microscopically roughened, or the starch may lie in a layer on the surface, which causes bonding.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that water in which Voiello has been cooked is cloudier than with other pastas. This indicates starch in the water, and is one reason why professional restaurant pasta cooks spoon a little water in with the sauce before they mix the pasta back in. Of course, in a restaurant, the water is kept boiling and the pasta introduced in a big sieve, which means the water becomes progressively starchier. Still, starch promotes sauce bonding, and this may be another reason why this stuff is so good.
The only shape where another brand may have the edge is spaghetti, where it’s a tossup between Voiello and De Cecco, in my book. Curiously, De Cecco needs a minute more cooking time for their spaghetti.
Which brings me to another point about Voiello: if you observe the cooking time printed on the bag exactly, you get absolutely perfectly al dente pasta every time.
Bravo to Barilla (who, incidentally, also manufacture Wasa crispbread, believe it or not) for bringing this to the retail market!
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I had the opportunity the other night to have dinner with a couple of friends at a newcomer, Alpenstück, which took over a space that was once a jumping chess bar owned by a local chess club that doubtless had roots back into the DDR days. East Berlin real estate being what it was, it couldn’t be allowed to serve the community like that for very much longer, which is a shame: the room is in the shape of an L, and one side had the chess players — it was completely packed on Thursday evenings with a multi-generational crowd playing chess — and the other the hardcore drinkers. Anyway, it got bought up and a series of seriously awful art galleries appeared there, so bad that I would cross the street so as not to have to look in the windows at the amateurish, pretentious crap on the walls.
So when someone decided to open a restaurant there, I thought that was probably a good move. What didn’t seem like a good move, though, was opening a high-end Southern German restaurant, which is what Alpenstück is. I’m not even sure what “Southern German” means in this context. Not Bavarian; there are plenty of those around. The specialties seem to be Maultaschen (which are from Swabia) and Wiener Schnitzel (which is from Vienna), and that’s sort of stretching the definition of “Southern Germany” a bit far. But one of the best restaurants in Berlin, Honigmond, is only a block away, and their astonishing interpretation of traditional dishes, as well as their inspired inventions with traditional ingredients has attracted a strong and loyal following, of which I count myself one. Could Alpenstück compete with them?
The short answer seems to be “no,” although I’m willing to admit that I might not have ordered the right stuff. What I got, naturally enough, was the Maultaschen appetizer and Wiener Schnitzel as a main course. Now, I’m a fiend for Maultaschen, and they have great vegetarian ones with a ricotta-based sauce at Honigmond. I learned to like them at the Tiergarten Quelle, an eccentric joint in an S-Bahn Bogen by the Tiergarten station, where they fry them and top them with sour cream on a bed of spinach, which is how I make them myself. Alpenstück’s, though, are quite small, strips of pasta about an inch wide and two and a half inches long into the center of which a spoonful of filling has been placed, the strip folded over on itself and sealed with a fork. I’ve never seen Maultaschen like this, although I’ve seen what the French call raviole done that way. Anyway, they’re arranged in a circle, and a salad with a really, really mustardy vinaigrette is put on top of them. The vinaigrette is good, but it obliterates the flavor of the Maultaschen. The only other diner who ordered an appetizer got a “Geeiste Gemüsesuppe” which was indistinguishable from good old gazpacho.
As for the Schnitzel, well, that’s something Honigmond doesn’t do as well as you’d hope from the high quality of the rest of their menu. Nothing wrong with it, but not transcendental, either, so here was an opening for the competition. I’ve got high standards here, too, because although I’ve never been to Vienna, I have eaten Wiener Schnitzel at Lutter & Wegner, where it was huge, thin, and not unlike a meat-flavored potato chip in its crispness. I figured if Alpenstück could make something positioned between Honigmond’s and Lutter & Wegner’s, they’d be fine.
Can you say…soggy? I couldn’t believe it! The breading held together, but it was soft. The veal was quite good, the potato salad nice and dill-y, and the marinated cucumbers very finely sliced and superb. But the star of the show was a severe disappointment. And — although I can’t prove this — I think I spied the culprit. One of the things this place does that almost nowhere else in town does (and why? Is there a law?) is they have a somewhat open kitchen, where you can see the chefs at work. In the 3 1/2 hours I was there, I mainly conversed with my friends, but at one point I glanced at the kitchen and I can swear I just missed a chef pulling a Wiener Schnitzel…out of a microwave! Hey, I’m a modern guy, and microwaves have their place in restaurant kitchens, but microwave heat is moist, and that’d explain the breading on the Schnitzel.
My friends fared better than I did here: another variation on Maultaschen for one (I didn’t write down the name, but it ends in -krapfen) and marinated pork steaks from “herb-fed swine” for the other. Each expressed pleasure with what they’d ordered, and the pork steaks vanished so quickly I never got a hit. A plate of Käsespätzele that went by looked pretty good, too.
Would I go back? Maybe, although there are a lot of places more to my esthetic serving German food in this town. Service was okay, if a bit confused, price just a tad higher than a comparable meal at Honigmond would have been. Decor was on the stark-but-nostalgic side, if that makes sense: one wall is made to look like a stack of firewood, and there’s at least one lamp made from deerhorn. Crowd was…odd, in a way I couldn’t place until the bill came with business cards both from the restaurant and from the pretentious yuppie bar over in the Lokfabrik, Reingold. That, at least, made sense.
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Hungry In Berlin is happy to announce that we’ve acquired an excellent wine writer, and sorry to announce that she’s on vacation at the moment, along with everyone else on this continent except myself. In her absence, I’d like to pull your coat to one of the best bargains in town, at least for those who eat as much Italian food as I do. Jacques Wein Depot is a chain with several locations around town, and their selection is comprised mostly of stuff they license exclusively, some of which is pretty good, although none is worth going out of your way for.
One thing they specialize in is box wine. Okay, stop scowling: the technology to put up wine in boxes has gotten really sophisticated over the years, and the anaerobic space-blanket kind of bag now used in most of them means that you can keep a damn good wine in stock for up to a month after it’s been opened. I discovered their Farnese Sangiovese one day, and at €19 for five liters, it’s a perfect spaghetti wine. The producer’s web page doesn’t even mention their latest product, which I saw at Jacques yesterday: a Primitivo for which I have great hopes. It’s the same grape as Zinfandel, after all, and someday I hope some Italian producer will start making a big, fruity Primitivo that echoes some of those New World vintages.
Meanwhile, though, I sipped some of this with my pastafazool last night, and I’m happy enough with it.