On my first night in Berlin I asked the receptionist at my smart hotel where I should go for dinner. I wanted to eat German. She gave me the side eye and said Really? I think she was pleased although I couldn’t be certain. Maybe people don’t want to eat German the way they want to eat, say, Italian. She pointed me towards Alpenstuek. It was in a plain, East German, utilitarian building but was a place of great charm. It looked smart, slightly austere, and had a lovely painting of an Alp on the wall. The rest of Berlin goes tinsel-mad for Christmas, but the decorations here comprised of a single felt reindeer attached to every other window. It had a beautiful, woody wall and warm, restaurant-y smells. There was the welcoming noise of people quietly enjoying themselves.
The waiter, Rafael, brought me something I hadn’t known existed before; a German red. It was Schneidling Black Print, 2013. It was dark, fruity and peppery and I quickly ordered a second glass. Perhaps a gerwurtz would have been more appropriate with what I’d ordered, but I was happy with it. Many people were drinking beer, which I suspect is more ‘traditional’, but why should culinary traditions never change? I wanted a German meal in 2015, not 1815.
Next came a plate of excellent bread and a little jar of herby, cream cheese. I had to hold back from finishing that before a dish of smoked trout with Brussels sprouts arrived. I noted that Berlin is no more immune to slate used as a plate than most of France. This madness will one day pass, hopefully in my lifetime, to be replace by white porcelain. It is one of the few things I pray for. I shook my head more in sadness than in anger and began eating. It was lovely.
Schnitzel for my main may seem like an obvious choice but, oh, I love it so. And, at least in this, I’m not alone; everyone at the table of seven next to me ordered the same thing. Then I saw the three people at the table on the other side were each also eating it. Rafael told me that every night people discuss the menu with him for 20 minutes before ordering schnitzel. We all make the right choice, I think. The meat was darker than I expect veal to be and it was covered in a batter rather than crumbed. It had been deep fried. It was good.
Sticking with the obvious, I had apple strudel and a glass of icewine, which is made from grapes that are left on the vine until after a frost. It was resiny and deeply flavourful and the best thing I’ve drunk this year. The strudel is high on my list of good things I’ve eaten this year, too.
Rafael called it fine dining. It was too hearty, the food not prettified enough, to be that, but it was certainly a fine way to dine. He gave me the address of where I could find what he called real German food: saukraut, pig knuckle, and oompah music. I over-tipped, put the address in my pocket, maybe for my next trip.
Alpenstueck was much more to my taste. I would return to Berlin just to eat there again. I liked everything I ate, but it’s the conviviality of the place that makes me smile when I think about that evening. I’ve eaten by myself many times and sometimes I’m treated, not exactly second class, but not as a valued customer, either. They insist I sit by the toilets, it’s difficult to get the waiter’s attention, and so on. At Alpenstueck, and you can see it was a busy evening, I sat at the perfect table and was treated like I ate there three times a week. And I’d walked in, off the street, without a reservation. At around €60 I didn’t think it was expensive, either.
On my last morning in Berlin I ate breakfast across the road from Alpenstueck, at its bakery. There was a certificate on the wall declaring it 2013’s best baker in Germany, which explains why the bread in the restaurant had been so good. I had an excellent breakfast of cold charcuterie, cheese and fruit with some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten. I took some home, but not nearly enough.
Alpenstueck, Gartenstraße 9, 10115 Berlin-mitte