Feel the Burn // Real-deal Sichuan noodles in Mitte

I am not exaggerating when I say this brand-new restaurant in Mitte is a literal dream come true. Yes, there are some decent Chinese restaurants in town, if you know your way around a Chinese menu and order carefully. But there has never been a place that I fully and unconditionally love with every single one of my taste buds, that I could recommend without tacking on a qualification at the end: “Well, it’s pretty good… for Berlin.”

Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: The best damn Sichuan noodles in town. Just as good, possibly even better, than the noodles I had in Sichuan earlier this year. A moment of silence, please, because the opening of Liu 成都味道 marks a watershed for the city’s Chinese food scene.

Sichuan beef noodles

A watershed moment because Liu 成都味道 (“Chengdu Flavour”) is pretty much the first Chinese restaurant in Berlin whose menu caters unreservedly to Chinese eaters. Because Berlin has by now reached that tipping point where there are enough Chinese people around – students, immigrants, and tourists –to sustain a restaurant that is geared first and foremost to their tastes. As the lovely Chongqing-born server told me on my first visit: “We serve food as it would we served in China. We don’t adjust anything for the German palate.” “Finally!” was my response. Then I had my first bite of their Sichuan beef noodles (pictured above), doused in enough vermilion chili oil and chopped cilantro to send the average German running fast in the opposite direction, and I swear the skies opened, tears of rapture ran down my cheeks, and the angels sang hallelujah.

Look, I know the A-word – authenticity – has become taboo in gastronomy circles. Expecting “ethnic” restaurants (another problematic term) to remain “authentic” confines chefs and restaurateurs from that culture to a rigid set of expectations – a definition whose parameters are generally set by the white, mainstream diner. Who cares whether food is “authentic,” people say, as long as it tastes good? To which I say, sure – but tastes good to whom? The average Chinese food in Berlin does not taste good to me, a Taiwanese/Chinese person who loves to eat. It was not made for me – it was made for the local, German palate. I am so ready for a place that knows its food is not geared to that local palate, and is prepared not to compromise.

Needless to say, there is no fried rice or sweet pineapple chicken or Ente Kross on the menu at Liu 成都味道. The restaurant is a noodle house by day, with 12 noodle dishes on the lunch menu, from non-spicy homey dishes like stewed chicken & shiitake noodle soup to a range of traditional Sichuan noodles that are not served anywhere else in town. I repeat: Berlin exclusives! Come and get ’em!

The Sichuan dishes are generously doused in the highly aromatic and vibrantly red chili oil that is the lifeblood of Sichuan cuisine –it’s made in-house, I might add. These noodles are obviously not suited to the totally scharf-averse, though spice levels of most dishes can be adjusted to taste. There are also luscious, silky little chao shou, Sichuan’s version of the wonton, served in deep bowls of tangy-hot or numbing-spicy broth, brimming with raw garlic, spices, and yes, maybe even some cilantro. Prices hover around €10 a portion, as they should for food this good, which requires this much care. For those that think this is too much, might I suggest your nearest China Box Imbiss?

Soon, the restaurant will open nights as well, serving the Chengdu hotpot specialty called chuan chuan xiang, “fragrant skewers,” where skewered tidbits of meat, fish, and vegetables are dipped into your own pot of roiling broth. But until further notice, the hotpot tables imported from China are blowing the fuses, and, well, there are no Berlin electricians that want to work over the holidays. On a related note, may I draw your attention to the perfection of the Chinese character for skewer, 串?

When I said earlier that the noodles here are as good, and even better than the ones I ate in Sichuan, I meant it. The quality of the ingredients, including the meat, is evident with every bite. The seasonings are ample and generous, the chili oil bursting with the aroma of a dozen spices or more. I’m sorry to say that many Chinese restaurateurs in this city half-ass their cooking because they know they can get away with it: lackluster seasonings, lazy ingredient substitutions, and the like. But not at Liu 成都味道. Not a single corner has been cut.

All I can say is: Finally. And also – hallelujah!

Kronenstr. 72 |Lunchtime noodles: open daily, 11.30-15.00. | Dinnertime hotpot (coming soon): Weds-Sun, 15.00-22.00.

(To find it on Google, the full name of the place is Liu 成都味道 Chuan Chuan Xiang and Nudelhaus.)

Riding the Old-Time Rails // Charming retro trams in Köpenicker Forest

Some things are so self-evident, they don’t require justification. For example, sunny weather is good. Autumn is nicer than winter. And old-fashioned trams with wood-trimmed windows and brass bells that ding are simply more fun to ride than modern ones.

For example, the very cute, very cool old-school tram line still running at the edge of Berlin, which has been rattling and rumbling through the Köpenicker Forest for more than a century.

The Woltersdorfer Straßenbahn connects the little Brandenburg town of Woltersdorf to Berlin’s S-Bahn, traversing lush forest as it goes. At just under 6 km each way, it’s the tiniest tram network in the country and has been running almost continually since 1913, save for a brief pause at the end of WWII.

Today’s fleet is comprised of East German Gothawagen trams from 1959-1961, chunky, charming things painted in cheerful shades of ivory and blue with plenty of wood trim inside. (The original 1910 and 1913 trams can also be rented for special occasions.)

First you have to get yourself to S-Bahn Rahnsdorf station, then cross the street to find the tram platform at the edge of the forest. (A C-zone ticket from Berlin’s BVG/VVB network covers your ride, or buy a Woltersdorf tram ticket from the driver for €1.30.) Ding-ding goes the bell and the tram begins to rattle on its way.

The nicest parts of the journey are the first bit, when the tram zips through the heart of peaceful, unadulterated forest – look closely and at this time of year, you might spot locals stooped in the woods, gathering wild mushrooms in wicker baskets – and towards the end of the route, where you can still get a sense of what Woltersdorf looked like during its early-20th-century heyday. The tram line ends at the town’s historic lock, which separates the Flakensee and Kalksee lakes, complete with a perky little drawbridge that goes up and down regularly to let through local fishing boats.

Today’s Woltersdorf, population around 8000, give or take, is a sleepy little town, the kind of place where the average age of inhabitants is 50+, every shop is closed by noon on Saturdays, and the most exotic thing you’ll find is a Greek restaurant with souvlaki on the menu. It feels distinctly East in the way most Brandenburg towns do. But it’s also pleasantly pastoral, with ducks by the lock to toss bread to, walking trails along the lakeshore, and a handful of Ausflugslokale, kitschy café-restaurants where daytrippers get Spaghetti-Eis in the summer and Kirsch-Streusel-Kuchen (only €3.50 with a pot of coffee) the rest of the year.

If, like me, you have an appreciation for Waldeinsamkeit, the not unpleasant melancholy from being alone in a forest, consider walking the last 30-minute stretch of the return journey to S-Rahnsdorf station. After all, there’s such a short time window at this time of year to savour the crunching of golden leaves underfoot.

Picture This // Art for loan at Mitte’s Artothek library

Once upon a time, for our parents’ generation maybe, it seems there were clear milestones that marked entry into adulthood: first proper office job, buying a home, getting married, becoming a parent. If it ever really was that straightforward, it certainly isn’t anymore. I’m in my 30s and most of the time I don’t feel like an adult at all. And even my friends who do have proper office jobs and mortgages and children whose very survival depends on them would probably agree.

Every now and then, however, I manage some little achievement that feels exceptionally grown-up. Like the first year I saved all the receipts to make clever deductions on my income taxes. Or the first time I voluntarily spent €80 to have my teeth buffed, scraped, and fluorided, which is an expensive and aggravating thing to endure once a year but hey, it’s good for you. I believe kids these days call this “adulting” (as in, “Didn’t go out last night, in bed by 10. #adulting so hard”) but I’m pretty sure I’m too old to use their lingo.

My latest adult achievement: hanging art on my walls. Like, real art from a gallery, created by real artists and professionally framed and everything (not Ikea!). This feels to me like a very grown-up thing. And thanks to an art lending library in Mitte, it’s basically free.

The n.b.k., or Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, is an association for contemporary art in Mitte that holds a variety of exhibitions and events, though its really unique draw is its Artothek art library. The library’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century art is huge (4000 works plus) and includes pieces from the likes of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, and Robert Rauschenberg. From what I gathered in the hour I spent browsing before I could make up my mind, the collection is predominately paintings, from impressionist to modern and everything in between, but there are also prints, drawings, photos, and even sculptures for loan. Though you can browse the collection online, it’s best to just go in and flip through the racks, as many of the pieces are lent out at any given time.

Anyone aged 16+ with a registered address in Berlin can join on the spot and sign out numerous artworks for up to 6 months. The only cost is €3 for damage/theft insurance per piece, per three-month period.

I love how the library makes “owning” good art accessible to the masses, but I also find the impermanence really appealing: Picking out art to hang on my wall for good is a daunting prospect. Swapping it out whenever the whim strikes, on the other hand, is right up my alley. Getting over fear of commitment: the next step in adulting?

n.b.k. Artothek | Chausseestr. 128 | Website
Open Tues & Thurs 14—20.00, Weds & Fri 14—18.00

Hey, look! I wrote a book!

For as long as I’ve been living in Berlin (more than nine years!) I’ve been writing about Berlin. This scarred, unruly, beautifully complicated and endlessly inspiring city I call home is both my muse and one of my favourite subjects. On this blog and elsewhere, I’ve been lucky to have many opportunities to tell the story of my Berlin, in my own words.

And so it was especially thrilling to spend a good chunk of this year putting those words into book form. The HUNT Berlin is the latest addition to the growing HUNT Guide series, covering cities all over the world, from Rio de Janeiro to New Orleans, Hong Kong to Sydney. The guides skip the typical tourist stuff to focus instead on small, unique, independently and locally owned businesses — shops, bars, restaurants, galleries, music venues and more — that offer some special local flavour.

In The HUNT Berlin, I wrote about more than 120 of my favourite places all across the city, from Wilmersdorf to Wedding and everywhere in between. Like Circus Lemke, one of the best little bars in Neukölln, as far as I’m concerned, and conveniently right near my house…

There’s also Briefmarken Weine, a lovely Italian wine bar that took over the old stamp shop on Karl-Marx-Allee that I blogged about in 2014.

Beautiful design is also part of the HUNT Guide ethos, so not only did the venues I featured have to be good-looking in order to make the cut, but the book itself turned out pretty snazzy too — thanks to the publishers’ design team.

Visit the HUNT Guides website for more info, including a list of stockists worldwide. Berlin stockists to be announced soon, but in the meantime, you can always order it on good old Amazon, or in the Gatehouse Publishing online shop. (Use the promo code FESTIVE10 to get 10% off until Dec. 31, 2016.)