Here’s where I do a restaurant review. I’m no restaurant reviewer, but apparently everybody can become one for five minutes nowadays (on “YelpAdvisor” or whatever it’s called). Or ten minutes in my case.
So the three of us are outside a little French restaurant on Adalbertstraße, in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, a short stroll from the Kottbusser Tor station.
(We’ve been doing the culture thing – for design and social history I’d highly recommend the Museum der Dinge or “museum of things”, and for cinema check out the Moviemento Kino, which hosts the superb Shebeen Flick Irish film festival around Paddy’s Day each year.)
From the street the resto looks unassuming, with its tiles in orange and blue, blackboard menus, one long table with benches that would take eight or ten people (Berliners are big into dining benches), and a couple of four-seater tables. The burgundy-coloured sign above the burgundy awning is functional, its typeface looks suspiciously like Comic Sans.
The building, like many in the area, is protected. Look up and you will see why: fine structures from the Victorian age (I know Queen Vic was half German, but what would Germans call it? Bismarckian architecture?). At street level, though, the shops and restaurants along these streets have gone through many cycles of modernisation, neglect, decay and regeneration over the decades.
The Berlin Wall would have been just ten yards down the street from us. If that was then we would have still been in West Berlin – only just.
I’ve come across Adalbertstraße quite a bit in Cold War fiction. The very apartment next door at 84 Adalbertstraße features prominently in Ian McEwan’s 1990 novel The Innocent (sorry, not one of his better ones, and don’t get me started about the movie version).
The restaurant at number 83, though, is very real. It’s called Chez Michel. We take a four-seater outside. A waitress comes over. We order wine and beer.
The pavement slopes down to the kerb. So does our table. So do our drinks. Sliding away.
It’s charming, hilarious. The waitress must know we’re struggling; without a word, a minute later she comes over with a wine bucket. It’s the most normal thing in the world: a bucket to stop our bottle of wine from sliding into the abyss.
The table’s top is possibly recycled from something else, and quite probably unlike any other table in the world. It is worn, scratched, an ancient beauty.
You know how foodie bloggers take obsessive photos of what they’re about to eat? I try to avoid the temptation. But I’ve fallen in love with that table.
Tonight’s clientele (apart from us) all seem to know each other. Locals, Germans, a French-speaking couple, a Yank reading a book, passers-by stopping by for a quick chat, while their little dogs exchange yaps.
The waitress brings the food menu and explains today’s specials. She can take our orders for drink, but not for food. Nein. To do that, she says in German, you have to go inside and talk directly to the chef because at Chez Michel it’s a “semi-self-service-kind-of-place”.
The menu is comforting: fish soup, moules frites, merguez (spicy Algerian sausage) in baguettes, grilled steak, salads, Hähnchenbrust in Zitrone-Soja Sauce (chicken breast in lemon and soy to you and me)…
The chef is cooking away behind a simple Imbiss (snack) counter. The Imbiss was in the place before he moved in, and was once used for Turkish fast food. To the left of it is a tall glass case of pastries.
We are later to learn that he is called Michel Le Voguer. The chef-proprietor of Chez Michel has shortly cropped hair and thin-rimmed glasses, and the physique of a pro cyclist in training.
It’s a tight space but that doesn’t seem to bother Michel. He’s a one-man show, with his grill and stove and a pizza oven left by a previous Italian owner. There must have been many previous owners, with their pizza ovens and Imbiss counters, before Michel took the place four years ago.
But Michel doesn’t do pizzas – the pizza oven is for his Flammkuchen, a sort of Alsatian and South German cousin of the pizza. Another variant you might come across in France is the pizza blanc.
One of us – the one with proper German – places our orders with the chef:
- A Flammkuchen mit Lachs, Meerrettich und Rucola (a thin pizza-type base and a creamy sauce topped with salmon, horseradish and fresh rocket leaves)
- A Confit de Canard
- And a dish of the day, Dorade (it turns out to be a huge fish as big as a dish)
Before our food arrives we do a quick inspection of the main dining room indoors, up some steps behind the cooking area. It has two long rows of tables – enough to seat at least two dozen – with red-and-white check tablecloths. They are cheap plastic. It doesn’t matter, because they add to the homeliness of the place.
The room would be cosy, comforting, perfect to while away a cold winter’s day. But not on this hot summer evening, with no air conditioning and the grills and ovens at full blast. The room is roasting so we stay outside, at our cool table on the sloping pavement.
The waitress brings the food out. Everything is perfect.
Afterwards, we ask for the bill, using that international sign-language where you scribble something in mid air. Air scribbles.
The waitress comes over and explains that it’s like the ordering: you have to go back inside to deal directly with the chef. Muggins here is deputised.
I look at his cooking station again, reluctant to interrupt him. How is Monsieur Michel able to cook up such delicious grub in such a tiny area, with no help – to rustle up our three dishes simultaneously to perfection, using such different techniques, while watching over whatever else he’s cooking for other customers?
I half-expect a computerised receipt. As if.
Monsieur Michel asks me to remind him what we had. All in my limited German.
So I list it all off, like a contestant in a memory game on TV. The three main courses – that’s easy, Dorade, und Flammkuchen, und Confit de Canard – und der Apfel Tarte (with superbly light and tasty pastry), “und ein andere Tart, what was it called again?…”
“Der Zitronentarte?” he suggests, consulting a row of order sheets on nails. A tarte au citron?
“Ja, und, um, eine Flasche Wein und zwei bio Pinkus beers”. Phew. Made it. Just.
The wine was a very pleasant white (€11.50 a bottle), the beers were €2 a bottle. Each dessert was just €3. The whole lot comes to about €47. For three.
I dig in my pocket for some euros (most restaurants in Berlin are strictly cash, no credit cards). I also want to leave a tip. A bit more than the €3 change from a €50 note. Three euros would be an insult.
But I’ve only two €50 notes. Obviously I don’t want to leave a tip of €53. I need change. I want to leave a tip of…. Oh sugar. What’s the German for “tip” again? My Restaurant German is scheiße.
I guess I look puzzled. Michel looks puzzled too.
I could always switch to English – most Berliners can handle it – but that would be impolite, right? Damn damn damn.
Français! of course, switch to Restaurant French, which is a hundred times better than my Restaurant Deutsch, and we are after all in a little slice of France in the heart of Berlin.
“Je voudrais donner un pourboire, s’il vous plaît, parce que… alles war wunderbar.”
Michel beams, shakes my hand like we’ve just scored a hat-trick against Perfidious Albion, gives me change after deducting an €8 tip. That’s exactly what I meant.
If you want bells and whistles and starched tablecloths and snooty waiters, look elsewhere. Chez Michel isn’t fine dining, but it’s my kind of bistro.
Its food is superb, and exceptionally good value compared with Dublin prices. Ambience fantastic, staff friendly, the experience priceless.