Week 57 : Le Relais de Savanne (Togo)

When I found this Togolese restaurant via the magic of Google it was quite a coup for the blog as you really wouldn’t imagine that one existed in Berlin, nor in most places outside of Togo! For those not in the know, Togo is a small country in West Africa sandwiched between Benin and Ghana with a beautiful coastline and a questionable human rights record. I was interested in my brief research to find out that there is a German connection as it was their protectorate from 1884 until 1914 when it was taken over by the French until independence in 1960.

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Relais de Savanne is a restaurant in Wedding attached to the Togolese cultural center and seems to be the hub for all sorts of activities, events and meetings for Berlin’s Togolese community. We visited on an early Saturday evening and were the only ones there at first in a large pleasant restaurant that looked fresh and newly refurbished.

As we sat down the solo waitress toned down the lighting, lit our candle and turned on some pleasing afro-pop music. We immediately chose Guinness to drink – this time from Ghana, while deciding what to eat. Had we ordered in advance we could have shared a whole Guinea fowl or roasted lamb but instead we went for stick meat starters (a popular starter in West Africa according to my own blog research as we also ate it during our Nigerian and Ghanaian blog visits) and chose grilled fish, and beef in peanut sauce for the main courses.

As we waited for our food we were pleased to see the restaurant starting to fill up. A German family with two children arrived and sat next to us receiving a warm and familiar welcome from the waitress/ assumed proprietor indicating that they must dine there often. Our starter soon arrived and it was as tasty as we have become accustomed to stick meat being, served with a tangy spicy sauce on the side. All in all, I must say that Ghana wins the battle of the stick meat as theirs had a real depth, but Togo certainly produced a satisfying stick.

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The mains were also very tasty, this time Togo beat Ghana in the battle of the Fufu as it was much more flavourful and better seasoned and came with a warm, comforting peanut sauce with pieces of beef and vegetables. The fish was perfectly barbecued accompanied by a nice salad, although I scolded Richard on not choosing to have the grilled plantain to go with the fish as this would have been even better. We left the restaurant full and pleased with what we had eaten at what seemed like a reasonable price. One day we will return and pre-order the guinea fowl as this sounded delicious, although it might not be for a while as our trips to Wedding are few and far between.

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Week 56 – Da Jia Le (North East China)

I had originally planned to only visit one restaurant for China; Asia Deli which came along in the first weeks of the blog. Richard argued at the time that to reduce such a vast nation to just one cuisine was unfair, however I did not know of any distinctions in Chinese cuisine until I discovered Da Jia Le through another blog. Revisiting our original blog trip to Asia Deli we saw that this was in fact Hunan style which represents a province in Southern China. And so a new opportunity to research different Chinese cuisines arose resulting in a trip just before Christmas to Da Jia Li near Yorkstrasse S-Bahn in Schonberg.

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We booked a table knowing that this place was meant to be popular. It turned out not to be so necessary on a week night but the place was busy enough to indicate that a reservation at a weekend is a must. The outside of the building is fairly non-descript in a boring concrete block but inside there was a large two story dining hall with a grand chandelier in the middle feeling like a mixture of a white and gold 1980s flashy interior meeting 1920s fading Oriental opulence. (And I’m sorry Edward Said, but that word is useful in presenting an easily recognisable image in this context when writing.)

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A welcome surprise came when we looked at our menus with the presence of several reasonably priced, bottled German craft beers. This was was quite unexpected considering we were in a Chinese restaurant in a city which was only just embracing the craft beer revolution. We ignored the classics section of the food menu in favour of the traditional North-Eastern Chinese dishes section and settled upon Beef with Cumin, Pork with Chilies, and Pig’s Feet in Peanut Sauce. The latter selection was much debated and feared but we decided that it was in the spirit of the blog to try something new and we didn’t really fancy the alternative new dish of pig intestines. The waiter gave us a cautious look on ordering and clarified that it was indeed feet that we were ordering. We confirmed that we knew what we were getting into and were given a brief nod of approval.

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pork with chilies

We supped some delicious craft beer while waiting for our food and perused the dishes of our fellow diners, impressed with what we saw. There were quite a few East Asian diners present which we took as a good sign as well as two large round tables of people enjoying a pre-Christmas banquet. When the food arrived we were pleased at the huge portions presented with a bowl of sticky rice big enough for at least three people.

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beef with cumin

The spicy pork came first, delivering a huge whack of chili heat backed up by with a delicious sauce containing many slices of pork as well as large pieces of pak choi. Then came the cumin beef which was again delicious with smokey and sour accents coming through. Lastly came the feet. They were chopped up in large chunks and swimming in a thick, rich sauce full of whole peanuts. Richard asked me to cut him some off the bone as he suddenly felt quite squeamish, whereas I found some inner boldness and ate them with my fingers sucking the meat off the bone as you are supposed to. After the first taste Richard joined me in this practice forgetting his squeamishness after tasting the sweet, succulent meat.

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pig feet in peanut sauce

After a while the pig’s feet became a bit too gelatinous for us to enjoy because everything was sticking to our fingers and so we gave up on what was a rather large portion. The other dishes though very tasty and much appreciated were also abandoned due to the fullness of our stomachs and a large amount of rice also remained. With two rounds of craft beers the bill came to around 50 euros which was really good value considering how full we were, how great the food had been and the quality of the beers. We are planning to go again for Richard’s birthday with a large group so we can try more dishes and we certainly won’t rule out adding a dish of feet to our order.

Week 55 : Primaria (Bulgaria)

One thing I really like about doing this blog is that people are genuinely interested and enthused when I tell them about it. This week’s visit is a result of this following a conversation back in August with a friend of a friend called Elena who happens to be from Bulgaria. As soon as she found out about the blog she offered to take us to eat Bulgarian food and we  finally got round to it early in December.

When Elena offered to take us to a Bulgarian restaurant I immediately thought we would be going to one of the places on Boddinstrasse in Neukolln which I refer to as ‘Little Bulgaria’ as there are a few bars, shops and restaurants all in a row. Elena was amused by this presumption because these places are apparently frequented by the kind of muscled, gangster Bulgarians with more money than taste who benefited from the vaccum created by the fall of communism filling it with violence, threat and corruption. Apparently there is a ‘folkclub’ here where money buys you whatever you need; women, caviar, champagne, probably cocaine, and for the right amount of euros they will float white handkerchiefs around you while you dance so you feel like you are in the clouds!

Instead of hanging with Berlin’s Bulgarian mafia we went to a cute little restaurant on Boxhagenerplatz called Primaria which is named after the original owner Maria. It was more Berlin than bling in style being simply furnished with exposed walls, wooden furniture and candles making it feel warm and inviting. We drank Czech beer while we looked at the short mainly vegetarian menu waiting for our guide to arrive to tell us what to order. No Bulgarian beer was available.

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starter plates: grilled peppers, aubergines and snejanka

When she arrived, Elena explained to us what was good on the menu and how Bulgarians usually ate a meal starting with a shot of slivova. We duly followed instructions and ordered our starters with a shot of plum and apricot slivova each. For mains we went for pork pelmeni which Elena explained were Russian in origin and not traditionally Bulgarian but they were very popular in restaurants there. We also ordered Sirene pro Schopski which is a one pot dish of cheese, sausage, tomato, pepper and a fried egg. We opted for a bottle of Mavrud Bulgarian wine with our meal, described by our guide as decent but not usually the best wine out there – she was quite correct.

We enjoyed the starters, sharing some of Elena’s choices too. Richard especially liked the salty, creamy schopska cheese that was liberally sprinkled over the salad of the same name. The grilled aubergines and peppers were well cooked and tasty, the creamy snejanka tzatsiki-like dip was good, and our shots went down well. The mains were okay; the one pot dish was pretty good and  delivered on taste but in my opinion it was a bit overpriced for what you got. The pelmeni were perhaps a little watery and not a patch on the ones we had at the Russian restaurant we visited here. The thing that was lacking for us was a better choice of meat dishes.  Elena told us they were indeed absent from the menu and there would have been more choices if we were eating in a traditional restaurant in Bulgaria. We assumed that the restaurant was tailoring its menu for a more vegetarian Berlin diner and didn’t feel as though meat dishes would sell so well here.

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Pelmeni with pork

All in all we enjoyed our meal, although it was not particularly cheap and not somewhere we would rush back to. What was  was best about this meal was having someone to guide us through what we were eating and provide some background knowledge and local information. We carried on drinking with Elena in a nearby bar after dinner and made a new friend that evening as well as plans to visit little Bulgaria one day and dine with the mafiosa if we dare. This blog is becoming much more than a project to us with many positive effects on our lives than just eating some good meals.