I’ve decided to move my blog but please give my latest post a read here.
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.
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.
As you walk down the busy Rotterdam street in the sweet summer heat, Quartier Du Port is not immediately obvious. The quiet look of the façade, the menu sign out front as the traffic bustles past – it invites an escape to the busyness of Europe’s largest port. Peering through the hotel lobby to the restaurant down the corridor, an inviting smell of the grill and the lights of a well-decorated dining hall. Low lights provide intimacy at the table without dominating and the dividers of low bench tops, greenery and the soft lights made the big space feel cosy and warm.
We had been recommended the restaurant by a local food critic chanced upon at the café we frequented in The Hague, Lola’s. It appeared my new friend Maarten had fine taste and had pointed us in the direction of something exciting and new. I was, and remain, envious of the guests at the hotel and all the residents of the surrounding area that can visit more regularly than my one visit on a day trip south from The Hague.
In my mind, the staff and the décor of the restaurant were near perfection. The maitre’d did a superb job, not only of handling my awkward attempt to book a table for three, but of also immediately making us feel welcome and at ease. We were the only people seated inside, with the remaining twenty or so diners out on the lovely outdoor courtyard surrounded by lush green trees and a lovely garden, giving it a real sense of quiet and separateness.
The dinner consisted of a four course set menu with a couple of choices for each. I decided upon raw tuna (again) simply for the purpose of having some comparison for the wonders served up at Oker. Although the textures of the Oker tuna and caramel were superior ultimately, Quartier Du Port had a better dish with its delectable marinade and mango chutney. It was far less innovative, but the kitchen took the simplicity to another level. The other entrée on offer was some asparagus spears with parmesan and morille sauce – a fine pair of starters to begin the evening.
Following some bread (it had rosemary through it and was served hot with butter, olive tapenade and salt) and drinks, the kitchen really hit its stride with the cocktail of beef stew, spinach and poached egg. We were glad we had ordered it: it wasn’t even a part of the main courses but was rather just an appetizer between entrée and mains. We were blown away. I hope that similar things trickle down to restaurants at home because the adventurous approach to put a dish that good as a side note on the menu spoke volumes about the confidence of the kitchen and the skills of the chef. The beef was tender and melted on the tongue and the delicately poached egg leaving the yolk oozing out between the spinach.
The crispy grilled sea bream with fennel and red butter sauce that followed as my main was done well and executed with obvious talent and finesse. The skin crunchy and easy to munch and the bream fell apart effortlessly. My companions enjoyed their duck breast with witlof, pommes dauphine and root foam but both were overshadowed by the beef stew and egg – but it was excellent nonetheless.
We had since been moved outside onto the courtyard and were able to enjoy the final hour or so of our meal in the fading sunlight. Crème brûlée, cheese and Degaldo Zuleta capped it off nicely.
Maarten had told us that Quartier Du Port was particularly amazing because the fare was provided at a cost far below that which could be charged for a similar quality. I am in complete agreement: it was remarkable, and I would have happily paid much more for the experience.
Quartier Du Port know what they are, know how to guide you through an evening so that by the end, there’s no where you would rather have eaten. The staff are warm and friendly without encroaching on your night. It is a fine example of a really great restaurant. It’s just that simple.
A little over a fortnight ago I enjoyed what was one of the most wonderful meals out I’ve had for some time.
My Grandmother had ventured to Den Haag earlier in the year to visit my older brother and recommended Oker. Shirley was so impressed with her experience, which I gathered was largely due to an attentive and entertaining waiter, that she decided to sponsor our night there (never underestimate the effect of good service on the pleasure of a meal). With some of the financial burden removed you inevitably relax a little more and are more able to take it in and spoil yourself.
The night started with a couple of drinks at the long, hardwood bar – the first being a reasonably stiff gin and tonic. The gin, Bombay Sapphire, in my mind is a little too fruity. It lacks the smooth rolling flavour that you get from a Tanqueray, Millers or Hendriks. It probably would have better with more ice and a cucumber, but that’s probably being a little too picky given the bar is focused on beers and wine, with impressive results.
We moved to the table after ordering a beer from the relaxed and knowledgeable barman – ‘Just a second gents, it tastes better from a glass.’ It is reassuring to be served by a waiter who takes his job seriously enough to give you that little piece of advice. To me, it signified the beginning of what should be a special night out.
Oker specialises in that popular concept of ‘tapas’ or at least, small plates aimed at giving you a tasting of more of what the kitchen can produce. Tapas has struck me as being more about the idea of sharing a bite to eat over an afternoon drink, however, it has clearly grown to mean a fair bit more. The food was served to the three of us quickly and with appropriate basic explanations of what the dishes entailed in embarrassing excellent English (the Dutch are so multilingual!).
We had a tuna sashimi served with a ginger caramel crisp, garlic mussels and an ‘inside out omelette’ sushi. The sushi was fluffy and textured with a generous portioning. The mussels: nuanced and delicious. Garlic can so quickly become an overbearing flavour, and when mixed with parsley and butter, the delicate flavours of the mussels can often be found wanting, however, this was not the case. The tuna sashimi was the clear standout. It was simply delicious. The crispiness of the ginger caramel snap played off so nicely against the smoothness of the fish. I was excited, thrilled in fact. One side note though, the kitchen looked crazily quiet. The two chefs seemed desperately bored. I was always under the impression that no matter what there are things that can be done, and it adds so much to the atmosphere of the room if the kitchen looks lively, with a buzz of activity. I know it was a Tuesday, and I know it was not very busy, but still.
The second round consisted of quite a range – from veal to fried eggs to lime coconut soup with shitake mushrooms and tiger prawns. My veal was good – the meat certainly felt and tasted young. There was a delicate richness to the flavours. I was glad not to be disappointed by my decision given that veal, having worked on a dairy farm, is an active decision to eat a baby animal. With this dish it had been put to good use. The soup was apparently ‘amazing’. I was less impressed with it, but it still wasn’t bad, I just didn’t think it was anything to rave about. That being said, my companion is a fan of Asian inspired seafood dishes and tends to go weak at the knees around any sort of prawn, so I wasn’t surprised. The fried egg I thought was an interesting attempt at something a little more risky – taking something simple and trying to make it the ‘hero’ of the dish. But the splendidly velvety potatoes that had been parboiled, smashed a little and then baked to perfection overshadowed the egg. A definite standout with the potato, but I think it made the dish a little incoherent. It was just kind of like ‘ Let’s do something whack’ and that’s how it turned out. Simon didn’t find it incoherent, but then he ordered it, so something must’ve grabbed him. Apparently he thought it was innovative and interesting – a ‘delight’ if I remember correctly. It just didn’t reach the same heights for me.
The final, heaviest dishes were tasty but all missed the mark a little. My scallops were cooked extremely well but were served with too much beetroot. I couldn’t taste the scallop when I tried the dish as a whole, which was a shame. The duck liver three ways was about the richest serving of food I have come across. It was just too much. Each portion: the parfait, the fried and the terrine, was suitably smooth and flavoursome. But in total, it was an uphill battle to get through to the end. Finally, the duck confit with pancakes was simple and delicious. The ritual of rolling them up and putting them together added to the theatre of the dish but it didn’t necessarily make them better. Particularly given the mess poor old Simon made of himself. He says he managed to eat it with delicacy and grace. For any of you that know my older brother, delicacy and grace don’t readily spring to mind.
The night was finished some Pedro Ximinez and dessert. The cheese was presented well and explained without snobbery or indecipherable technicality. The choc fudge was a little too full on for the end of a long meal but the cheesecake went down a treat given the combination of the strawberry and champagne sorbet.
The quality of the service really can swing a meal, from mediocre to outstanding and back again. I feel as if Oker had done a quality
job in providing the sort of dynamic you want in a restaurant asking you to spend a little more than normal. We were undeniably lucky given the small numbers in the restaurant, which allowed the banter to flow easily between the three of us and the two male waiters. We let the waiter choose our wine for us forgetting to check the price upon his suggestion. Thankfully after a momentary panic and check of the list, he had provided us with a bottle of Pinot down the bottom end of what was on offer.
I enjoyed my night out at Oker, it was fun and the food was great. I would definitely recommend it to anyone intent on having a special night out with great staff who are professional enough to not go for the up-sell shamelessly when you ask for some advice. The bonus of a chef pushing the envelope is that they might put together an exciting new way of presenting an old classic – such as the tuna sashimi. The memory of those delicious little morsels continues to linger.
I came home to Burnie for a few days of comfort last week and visiting one of my favourite local cafés was a must.
Hot Mother Lounge is fantastic. It’s what every regional city needs. Caroline Mulder, the café’s ‘Hot Mother’ is one of those locals that everyone knows. Her son was a ballet dancing, representative prop in Tassie’s high school rugby team. I’ve always thought it spoke volumes about the kind of person she was, to produce a bloke like that.
She’s set something up that really fits in with everything Burnie can be and should be. It allows the city’s workers somewhere to go for fabulous coffee and homely treats and it allows those that otherwise might not have tried a barley and beef soup to feel that it’s something they could have a go at. The lunch bar has built a solid reputation from filling that hole in your belly no matter how big or small. I’ve generally gone for the egg and bacon tart or the chicken foccacia. Now I know what you’re thinking – “That sounds like nothing special. In fact, I could get that anywhere. Who cares? That’s not interesting food. That’s just takeaway toasties.” But I beg to differ.
It is about homely food, like you wished your mother could make – an affordable lunch in a cosy room with two waitresses that are best friends and will happily partake in some banter, if you’re game. It’s not fine dining, and it’s not going to be for you if you’re after a lot of personal space when having your morning cup of coffee. It’s not pokey, but cosy. The art on the walls can be a bit odd. One day there’ll be some Lisa Garland photos – her evocative gelatin prints of characters with their collections and next time, it’s poorly drawn flower people but hey, it’s supporting local art and I’m all for that. I’ve participated in my fair share of questionable regional productions, and that’s the way it should be – having a crack should definitely be celebrated.
The recycled bus bench seats are, at times, a little uncomfortable. However, I think one of the things Hot Mother does best, and other places around Tassie could follow this model, is that it doesn’t pretend to be something it is not. Take a Launcestonian friend of mine who visited the coast and Hot Mother one afternoon. He couldn’t quite believe the friendliness of the staff and the quality of the fare. I try to avoid being parochial, but Hot Mother proves that Burnie is not the final frontier; and if it is, it’s still a place where you can get some damn fine food and coffee. Eliza churns out espresso guaranteed to impress with its accuracy of temperature and reliability of flavour. I’m yet to have a coffee I didn’t enjoy at this little place on Wilson St and I’ll be surprised if Hot Mother doesn’t continue to do what its been doing for the past 5 years or so.
So, if you’re feeling like visiting the Coast, Hot Mother Lounge should be a high priority. It’s up there with Cradle Mountain and Boat Harbour Beach as far as I’m concerned – do all three, you’ll have a splendid day. Caroline and her team are selling quality food and impressive coffee. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Melbourne laneway but for those us that venture north more regularly than for a weekend after a few episodes of Masterchef, Hot Mother Lounge continues to provide the proof that there’s more here than most would realise. Give it a go, after all, even though it’s uphill all the way from Hobart, it’s downhill all the way back.
It’s a quick little trip when you have gems like this at the destination.