The Barn

The Barn – just near last week’s delightful Antipodes, on Auguststraße – means well, but makes you cringe at its earnestness. Part of a successful cafe or restaurant is a sense of effortlessness, an ease of manners and style, and this is one element that the Barn does not quite achieve.

The Barn aspires to be something great. A coffee-lovers haven where there’s no sugar, and only three choices for coffee served with milk – macchiato, flat white and latté. An impressive and decisively tasty array of small morsels adorn the wide bar from where the staff rarely seem to depart. It is in this pursuit of perfection that The Barn’s founder, Ralf Ruller, begins to diverge from what I consider to be a recipe for success, at least on a larger scale.

Firstly, having a printed, and poorly formatted and written, mission statement at the point where you part with your money might seem like a good idea, and perhaps if the tone was warm, inviting, and full of upbeat passion it would be, but here, it is just a bit too much. I didn’t know what to think at first – is this guy for real? Can this concept really succeed? I’m still not sure, a recent article in The Guardian makes me think other customers are also slightly confused. The Guardian reported that Ruller was ‘unapologetic’ and ‘disappointed’ that his brews were not receiving the reception he thought they deserved given they were prepared with the care of a ‘Japanese tea ceremony’. Now, don’t get me wrong, the space was inviting, the lighting designed with attention to detail and the smells would excite any lover of caffeine – and it was not intimidation at the seriousness of it all that put me on edge either. I am definitely in favour of local sourcing of produce, and the manifesto is rightly proud to declare where The Barn gets its milk. But there was a needless tension between the love of coffee and the love of cafés in this roasting house-deli-espresso bar.

There are instructions on where ‘multimedia’ can be used, at the designated media table, and why – it distracts from those reading and concentrating on their tasting. Right. That’s all ok I guess – laptops can be annoying, but why not achieve the same end but more subtly by making power points only available at the prescribed space.  Further, no prams allowed. It’s a roasting house so if something went wrong they didn’t want to risk the baby’s life or something like that. I call bullshit. I think it’s more in line with wanting to attract Berlin’s upper culinary crust – those that have forgotten that the café was in fact, originally anyway, a place of chatter, of life and of heated debate in the great European cities (and probably also the not so great ones). One of the chief pleasures of being in a cafe is soaking in the warmth of the communal hum of conversation, the warmth of being surrounded by others. They are places where you can buy into, if only for a moment, a life outside your own. To make a café or ‘espresso bar’ that actively seeks to limit that bubble of chit-chat is a shame and, ultimately a mistake.

A shame in the sense that the staff are polite and professional, welcoming even when they heard my Australian drawl, and yet they’re confined to their bar where coffee is treated like a science, meticulously observed in all its detail, but not loved. Not done with touch, smell, sight and feeling – rather lacking in art. The coffee was explained with such precision and authority that a great swathe of people, at least back home, would be frightened away. They’re clearly trying something new for Berlin at The Barn – hence all the explanatory material provided, the year long search for a space and the architecturally designed interior. This has yielded some rewards the marinated ham and sundried tomato or brie and pear sandwiches on moist, fruity, nutty bread were delicious. The carrot cake just like the Country Womens’ Association might churn out at a baking competition and the croissants were as good as I’ve hard, bar Jackman & McRoss.

However, there can be no denying the quality of the coffee .  Consistent in both flavour, temperature and texture – the team working the machine clearly know their stuff. But, I just can’t get passed the attempted tone of the place.  Public cuppings as well as lectures on when and how to drink your chosen brew; if the approach were relaxed a little, some tunes and tables introduced, I’m sure The Barn’s trade would roar, the crowds would come, with lines out the door and all that effort would make more sense.

Antipodes


My father chanced upon this little delight just off Torstraße in the Berlin borough of Mitte while out on a stroll around the neighbourhood near where we were staying. There are a number of things that I’m sure attracted him: the quirky blackboard out of the front – ‘No, we don’t care about hobbits!’, to the name – Antipodes – which clearly strikes a nostalgic chord in any Australian or New Zealander venturing through the über chic rabbit warren of the centre of the German capital.

As an aside, quickly, I have decided, at least for the time being, in line with LA’s Jonathan Gold among others, that I will endeavour to visit places more than once before I write about my experiences.  On any given day a café or restaurant can be markedly different from the mood of the cook, to the awkwardness of the barista.  One thing slightly off key and the entire thing falls apart, like that note not quite reached in the finale of the school musical, a shadow cast across an entire show with the pimply pre-pubescent lead left to retreat, ashen faced to the dressing rooms forever.  With that in mind, I have made my way to Antipodes over half a dozen times with various company: just family, family and another, friends, people I have only just really met and alone.

Every single time, I was impressed.

Not a hint of disappointment in any of my companions, even when I’d spent the previous hour and a half waiting for the Saturday opening spruiking the much adored Eggs Benedict on offer.  (For those at home, in the geographical antipodes, hollandaise may seem pedestrian, boring even, but I guarantee when a forced departure from that buttery, eggy goodness is broken, nothing but pleasure and excitement can ensue.) Bear in mind that the success of this particular breakfast was heightened in importance in that we were sharing our time in Berlin with someone aiming for a top three tick in one day – KFC, the Swans winning a Premiership and Radiohead that night. Nothing could set the balance off otherwise catastrophe may follow and that friend robbed off his perfect day.

But this day, and all the others, Antipodes knows what it is and how to go about it.  Jane and Paul are talkative and interesting without being intrusive: if you want to chat about writing, food or literature, they’ll partake if time permits; if you’re scribbling overly emotive letters home they’ll leave you be.  It’s an art to know when and how to interrupt, when to talk, when to leave alone and when to bring over a magazine you might want to read.  I actually found myself becoming bitter at the prospect one of my companions was going to get in the way of a visit – take your needy negativity elsewhere please, I thought.  I am here for some respite, a little southern hemisphere hospitality, where, as their sign says, coffee tastes like coffee. I’m assuming the sign is meant as a contrast to the generally repulsive excuse for a cup of Joe served up.  It’s as if the coffee is some sort of penance with an energy kick.

Not so at Antipodes. The delicious Kings & Queens blend can satisfy any range of brews from a macchiato, to a cappuccino, to a double latté, the beans provide a strong and aromatic coffee that will only ever please. To me, as it is also made with real milk as opposed to the long life nonsense most other places serve over here, it tastes of cold Hobart mornings walking to Uni in full winter garb and cherishing that warmth as it hits the pit of my gut and the caffeine as it instantly soothes my addiction.

According to another review, a desire for a fresh start prompted the move North to Berlin for Jane and Paul, and for that I am ever so grateful.  Great food – simple breakfasts of soft boiled eggs, muesli served with fruit and honey or the moist and glossy scrambled eggs.  Or interesting and well made sandwiches that fill without making you groan from overeating.  But don’t just go for the food. The décor screams arty Wellington designer know-how with the bar made of old NZ apple crates recognisable enough for a Kiwi I had breakfast with to cease speaking as she was consumed with memories of home and friends missed.

Sometimes I find that’s all I want in a café: a place to sit, to chat, to reminisce, to meet, to read and to write.  A place where you don’t feel lonely, or awkwardly alone when you’re by yourself.   When they first opened Jane wrote letters to random New Zealanders in the old phone book as a way to pass the time of running a new, quiet café.  I wonder if those people know who was behind their surprises?

What a shame for them, I’m so glad I do.

Moritz

Olomouc is a small city in the Czech region of Moravia famous for its cobbled streets, UNESCO listed column, bizarre communist era astrological clock and most importantly, its micro breweries and pungent local cheese.

Having spent the day traipsing around the medieval city there was only one thing to do: we went in search of beer. Having failed to secure a table at the more central (and touristy) beer hall, our backup, Moritz, quickly made room for us, three starry eyed travellers. I think it is important to note that one of my companions was a journalism student from Taiwan who had never before consumed more than a single pint in a sitting. I was acutely aware that our surrounds must be all the more foreign to him. 

Down a spiral staircase off a quiet suburban street was one of the more inviting Czech drinking venues I’ve come across in terms of setting.  Moritz, the second of Olomouc’s more well-known micro-breweries, houses two dominating brass brewing kettles in the corner of the low ceilinged, warmly lit dining hall and bar.  The furnishings are all old posters of ads from a bygone era and various Moravian paraphernalia adorning the walls.  With the hum of forty of so Czechs escaping the drizzly Autumn afternoon, I felt as if we were encroaching on a local gem not used to accommodating the hassling students from nearby Brno. I was immediately nostalgic, even though it was my first visit.

The kettles

A quick ‘Ahoj’ and ‘pivo prosím’ and three of most delicious beers were on the way. Apparently no matter what other forms the rivalry between Czechs and their neighbours takes, all agree that the best beer emanates from this failed communist utopia.  As we drank, probably a little too quickly, my companions set about deciphering the menu while I intrusively took some photos of our delightful surrounds.

After half an hour of struggling with a menu that included boar stew and the ever present pork knuckle, the multilingual waiter presented us with English menus, pointing out that the menu we had was in fact for a celebration in a fortnight or so. A sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to guess our way through another dinner was quickly halted by the realisation that we had yet another overseas dining faux pas to add to the list.

From the short ‘pub-food plus’ menu, we selected a couple of local staples – the Moravian cheese I mentioned earlier, and a regional take on steak tartare. I ordered a prime 250g slab of fillet steak whilst the other two settled on various preparations of pork and venison.

The cheese tasted like a ripe washed rind to me – thick and pungent that when mixed with the white onion rings and slightly aniseed bread formed a flavour that seemed to linger like the smell of your feet after a hard days bushwalking. Not necessarily unpleasant but certainly unmistakeable.  It was moreish without either of us necessarily being able to explain why we kept on putting it in our mouths.  There was definitely a moment of two where I felt like we looked like a trio of sows at the trough that have been starved for days. As a study into eating habits, I’m sure it would have been rather compelling if not a little concerning.

Tartare

The tartare was a definite highlight.  I would say probably the best of our travels so far.  Spicy, cold and full of garlic and pepper served with fried bread. The beef was obviously of a quality sufficient to pull of a dish that requires a real love of red meat and the flavours you can enjoy.  As I was contemplating our meal at Moritz and thinking on how much the local Czech cuisine concentrates on meat with such intensity that at times, I think besides some bread, cheese and potato, the people here are barely omnivores. As a friend of mine likes to say, to the horror of the vegetarians within earshot, salad is what food eats.  That certainly feels very much in tune with the Czech approach that can feel a little relentless at times.

Nevertheless, my steak was delicious.  Cooked to the rare side of medium rare, as requested, and seasoned well with a generous serve of buttery (yet typically waxy) potatoes and the sauce, which screamed cholesterol, but hey, who am I to turn down such a fine example of a green peppercorn sauce? The beer, the meat, the potatoes – it was ideal. As the meal wrapped up and the hum in the restaurant grew to a rosy gaggle, I was pleased with our choice.  Moritz isn’t refined, flashy or particularly interesting.  But on a cold night, with a couple of drinks under your belt, it is most welcome feast of gluttonous pleasure.

I will definitely be going back.

Yellow Bernard goes global

Last week I received a much appreciated and very generous package from the men from Yellow Bernard in Hobart. It is hard to know how to properly say thanks –aside from sending them a package of the Czech delicacy of pizza with a hot dog crust (truly disgusting, but in a deeply compelling way) – but this will have to suffice.

A welcome sight!

To provide a little context, a few weeks ago I returned back to my lodgings after a lengthy sit down in a Czech Republic micro-brewery to make the rookie error of logging into Facebook while intoxicated.  (At around $AU 1.50 a pint, the night can quickly get away from you. A bit like whipping cream: if you dare to stop concentrating and allow your mind to wander, you’ve been at it too long and it’s a lost cause.) So, in that beer induced golden hue, I posted, in some sort of colloquial jabber, on YBs Facebook page that the local ‘kavarnas’ had yet to live up to the heady heights of the Hobart scene, and that I though the price of posting some beans over here to Brno was worth it.  To further add to the disorderly conduct, when I revisited my post it appeared my light headed self had decided to throw in a couple of hashtags for good measure to really add some spice to my social networking.

Combine the time difference, a couple of comments and a like or two and the post was stuck.  No morning after cleaning up for me.

Needless to say, David, ever the professional, replied warmly and then emailed a couple of days later to organise the postage. I was chuffed that he was willing to go to the effort and excited at the prospect of having my culture shock soothed by the comfort and flavour of the Yellow Bernard house blend.

A week later, the package arrived with 500g of Gridlock’s finest; 250g of ground house blend and 250 g of the 7000 blend. Now, having procured, as advised, a little plunger for my shared room, I have now sat down to boost my caffeine levels, think of home and write a little post of gratitude and thanks. (I feel perhaps, by now, it goes without saying that the YB blends have travelled very well to my home for the next few months and will be enjoyed immensely by those who may be lucky enough to reach that particular level of friendship.)

Yellow Bernard continues to really impress me with their approach and commitment. Going above and beyond seems to be the standard of care that’s become everyday at that hole in the wall on Hobart’s Collins Street. The locals –  as I’m sure many do –  need to realise their luck at having such an establishment in our Southern home .

It really is something else.

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