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Gut Check: A Gastro Tour Of Berlin

05/22/2013 04:02 EDT | Updated 05/22/2013 04:02 EDT
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Franzosischer Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, Germany

As Germany’s capital, Berlin has a reputation to uphold. It’s a pivotal city fueling the country’s financial and political landscape. Yet it has a sassy, gone-rogue side that, through history, has drawn people who prefer to zig while the rest of the world zags.

That’s very true of its cuisine scene, too. It boasts traditional fare like hearty beer hall grub, but on the flipside, there is a bounty of stellar ethnic eateries (Japanese? Check. Peruvian? Check.) and world-class haute cuisine. Here’s a reality check for anyone who believes German food is steeped in cheap beer and sausages: Germany ranks third in the world (behind Japan and France) for having the most Michelin-starred restaurants.

In this environment, where food is revered, Berlin does more than hold its own as a culinary destination. It sets trends and reaps the benefits of its central geographical location -- fantastic seafood pulled in from the North Sea, earthy wild mushrooms from southwest and Black Forest, and creamy cheeses from the Bavaria region in the south. Combine stellar regionally sourced ingredients with a slate of maverick chefs, and you’ve got a destination serving up a gastro feast to satiate body and soul.

Gut Taste: A Gastro Tour Of Berlin

Meat and Greet

Carnivores are spoiled with choices in the city most likely to mock salad as a main dish. The elegant Grill Royal makes no apologies for being meat-centric. This steakhouse attracts Berlin’s power crowd with a menu that celebrates beef in all its machinations. The starters include a filet mignon served on a bed of marinated leaf lettuce -- merely window dressing for a tender medallion of beef glistening with fat that surrenders easily to the light touch of a fork and knife. Its menu is a homage to prime cuts sourced from Australia, Nebraska, Canada and Argentina. Giant fridges display their meaty contents for all diners to see; vegetarians be damned. Meanwhile, amidst the chic dining room decorated with architectural salvage, Little Otik shows its game face with venison salami and wild boar shoulder, served alongside fresh, local veg like baby kale (the new global superstar of vegetables), radishes, and white asparagus.

International Diplomacy

When great world cuisines collide, tasty things happen. At Dos Palillos, Spanish-style tapas meet traditional Japanese dishes and bliss ensues with well-orchestrated 12- or 16-course tasting menus. The ingredients may not be ones you know, so allow the courses to flow and put your trust in the kitchen. Pay no mind to exotic dishes like marinated algae and sea snail with onsen tamago (eggs simmered in the waters of Japanese hot springs). Let your taste buds be the judge and jury. The same can be said for Hartmann’s. Chef Stefan Hartmann demonstrates why he earned a Michelin star, merging France and Germany to create a nouvelle German cuisine. He’s not afraid to accessorize mains with something as low brow as cabbage or spaetzle (a type of German noodle). In his hands, those traditional staples are elevated to gourmet status.

Market watch

To really see what makes Berlin’s culinary scene tick, head to its markets. There, a telescopic view of its inner workings emerges. Every Saturday, the city’s oldest market, Wittenbergplatz, features stalls selling every from sour cherry juice to plump loaves of dark rye. At the Turkish market, nibbling is the key to discovery. Munch on a gozleme (a Turkish crepe) as you browse and pick up picnic fare like a tub of kalamata olives or humus, kebabs and cheeses for later. At the Kollwitzplatz Market, go ahead and get lost among the crowd spread over the four streets covered by the market. The things you buy here -- artisan chocolates by Martin Franz, fat bratwursts, and organic fruit are unlikely to make it home, so enjoy them there and savour the memories.

Just Desserts

The tradition of coffee and cake is engrained in German culture. And with Berlin’s plethora of cafés, there is no shortage of options for cake (Kuchen) or pastries for that matter. A must-try is Café Buchenwald. It has perfected the art of cake making over the last 160 years. Its chocolate hazelnut cake or three-layer Herrentorte are well worth the calories. For non-chocolate fans, if there is such a thing, there are "tree cakes" or Baumkuchen, cakes made up of thin layers of batter baked over an open flame. Apple strudel, a Bavarian invention, has a regular spot on menus. Competition as to who makes the best version is intense, but Café Einstein Stammhaus squeaks ahead of the pack. The décor might look familiar to some. The café was used as a setting in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Inglorious Basterds.

Coffee Reigns

When it comes to coffee, you may feel like you’ve bean there done that, but give Berlin a chance. Its coffee culture rewinds back many decades when coffee houses were social hubs for exchanging ideas and gossip. Fast forward to today when baristas set the mood and tone, depending on their flair and skill to make a perfect cup. Bonanza Coffee Heroes is a small, but busy Mecca for java lovers, not far from Mauer Park. Here, they don’t so much pour coffee, but craft it. The coffee artwork is OTT (over the top), with baristas even creating customer caricatures in milk froth. Craving something exotic? Try Tres Cabezas, famous for their specialty Latin American coffees.