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More than any other ethnic food style to become popular on these shores, German cuisine exists in a vacuum. German recipes are hardly adaptable, and as a result are virtual nonentities in today’s fusion-happy culinary culture; the potatoes, gravy-rich meats, and hearty sausages favored in German kitchens are designed not for versatility but complementarity. I like sauerbraten, but I’ve never seen any reason for the dish to be revised. I mean, how many nouveau German restaurants have you been to?
Its resistance to change is largely what lends German cuisine its charm. Eating it is a predictable yet singular experience, and ideally it requires a similarly singular environment.
Cafe Berlin provides two environments. One of them, the patio, isn’t exactly singular, but while you dine inside its border of manicured shrubs, it’s hard to imagine wanting anything more. One reader echoes the sentiments of a few others when she writes that she’d much prefer spending a spring afternoon on Berlin’s patio than at “some boring monument.” Much of the setting’s appeal is derived from the neighborhood, a strip of Massachusetts Avenue where the row houses have been appropriated by restaurateurs who’ve generally left the structures’ original exteriors alone, excepts for signs and awnings. At peak dining hours, the sidewalks hum with the quiet activity of people looking for decent meals, not cocktails, making the area seem a little like some quaint Southern town.
Midday at Cafe Berlin is far superior to evening because that’s when the sun is hottestand when lunch is offered. As is typical of someone from the Midwest, where bratwurst is king and half-smokes are unfinished cigarettes, I’ve never met a bratwurst I couldn’t finish. Berlin’s German-sausage sandwich isn’t perfect (it comes on a hard roll that dwarfs the meat), but the brat itself is lovely, lightly smoked and spiced and served with sharp German mustard. Be sure to ask for sauerkraut, which comes automatically only on the reuben. Berlin’s other great sandwich contains Westphalian ham, a cousin of prosciutto, that’s sliced paper thin and served open-face on either rye or a dark, deeply flavored pumpernickel. A tart, warm German potato salad comes with all sandwich orders, as do some less impressive soups (isn’t cream of chicken supposed to be creamy?). But with prices ranging from five to seven bucks, Berlin’s still a great spot for lunch.
Heavy, meatcentric German dishes aren’t what most people want for dinner once winter ends, so Berlin’s spring menu includes a variety of asparagus dishes. This doesn’t mean there’s much for vegetarians on the menu, although the one meatless dish offered, asparagus-, tomato-, and herb-stuffed poppy-seed crepes, is excellent, baked with Parmesan cheese and smothered in hollandaise sauce. Other spring dishes are hit or miss. Turkey schnitzel and asparagus, for instance, don’t belong in the same recipe, much less one that calls for a layer of melted brie. The smoked salmon-wrapped asparagus, on the other hand, is sublime; covered in a tart dill sauce, the dish is delicate in a way German cuisine seldom is.
German food is great for bringing to life otherwise bland items through quirky invention and force of will. In this regard, Berlin does offer some successes. There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant’s spaetzle; it’s hard not to enjoy eating clumsy strips of dumplings that struggle to behave like noodles. The herring is served as a salad, over a bed of lettuce, and the sour cream marinade doubles well as a dressing. The sauerbraten is tender, slightly tart with vinegar, and served with a superb potato dumpling the size of my fist. For a larger helping of the bratwurst, try it with weisswurst (a milder veal sausage) and kraut on the wurstplatte.
The gap in both quality and value between lunch and dinner at Berlin is huge. Most of what we order in the evening is pallid, prepared without any of the muscle the food requires. You’d think that, covered in a sauce of “spicy” bacon and wild mushrooms, the jägerschnitzel (“Cafe Berlin Art” on the menu) would be sumptuous, but the pork steak is tough, and I can’t taste the bacon at all. When my companions, who insist that you’re not really eating German unless you order sausage, criticize me for getting rockfish, I argue that I’ve had great seafood at German restaurants before. When the fish arrives, however, my friends can only laugh; there’s nothing to it, as if the fish went from water to grill to plate untouched. Don’t worry about trying to pronounce zwiebelrostbraten; it’s a chewy steak topped with fried onions, and you don’t want it. Our waitress literally refuses to bring us the seafood ragout: “You won’t like it. Everyone sends it back.” If only someone had been so kind to warn me about the fleischwurst salad.
Worst of all, the cold night air means the patio is closed for dinner. And Berlin’s indoor environment is ridiculously sterile. German food begs to be eaten in a rustic, Old World setting ripe with musty smells and beer-stained floors. The row house Cafe Berlin inhabits would be perfect if the walls inside it weren’t painted a dainty salmon color and covered with postcard-pretty photos of small-town Germany. It’s as if we’re eating inside a travel agency. Even during the day, the lace curtains are kept shut, blocking out all that’s best about the place. Cafe Berlin’s a restaurant that desperately needs a face lift. Unfortunately, it’s already had one.
Cafe Berlin, 322 Massachusetts Ave. NE. (202) 543-7656.
The English muffins at Franklyn’s Coffeehouse Cafe take after the scones and rolls. Dense, thick, and just a touch sweet, the bagel’s archrivals receive new life here (and come with a choice of preserves). While I prefer my coffee shops, like my German restaurants, on the scrappy side, this polished new hangout is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that desperately needs another venue for loitering. And, yes, there’s a smoking section.
Franklyn’s Coffeehouse and Cafe, 2000 18th St. NW. (202) 319-1800.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.