Traveling by Stomach
At 8 a.m., the candlelight glinted on the server’s silver tray. Proffering a plate that bore a warm, fragrant roll of sugar-dusted pastry, she said, “Please try the apple strudel. It’s the house specialty.”
Buttery, delicate and delicious, the strudel came as a surprise, even though successive morning meals at hotels in Berlin, Potsdam, Leipzig and elsewhere made clear that in Germany, breakfast can amaze, delight and set a stylish tone for the day.
Faced with hyperventilating restaurateurs and chefs in San Diego—one of the best-known of whom assures me that fully 100 quality local restaurants will close before Christmas—a couple of weeks spent traveling around the former East Germany was not merely a break from doom-mongers but a satisfying rediscovery of the pleasures of perfectly crafted traditional cuisine served by confident professionals. The trip had various focuses, notably touring the line of the Berlin Wall that fell 20 years ago and spots behind the East Germany barrier. Experiencing restaurants operated the right way was a daily pleasure, especially given the generally affordable prices. And traditional establishments with regional cooking were the chief attraction (travelers who treasure Michelin stars will find them sprinkled throughout Germany and thick in Berlin).
For better and worse, the widely available international fare can be as bizarre as the spaghetti Bolognese-topped pizza served in Stralsund, a handsome Gothic city on the Baltic, and as authentic as the hotly spiced lamb vindaloo at Mumbai Haus in Berlin’s funky-cosmopolitan Kreuzberg neighborhood, where, as hoped, the curry weakened a vicious cold.
(San Diego’s own “German Wall” commenced falling several decades ago, when all but one of our major German eateries began closing. The survivor, Kaiserhof in Ocean Beach, continues to prosper, and a recent meal turned up liver dumplings in broth as good as in Berlin, along with excellent goulash and red cabbage.)
The strudel was the specialty of the Austria-born chef at Maurice, the rooftop restaurant in the deluxe Suitess Hotel in the partially rebuilt Baroque heart of Dresden. With just 28 seats, Maurice served a breakfast buffet less expansive than at big Berlin hotels, where spreads of 150 items (smoked and pickled fish, 20 kinds of bread, a dozen pitchers of fresh fruit juices) are typical. However, the elegant cold-cut selection included rabbit tenderloin roulades and prosciutto-wrapped melon, and the cheese tray would have delighted a French maître fromagère. Lit tapers and fresh flowers decorated the tables.
There is more than a little culture in Dresden, such as the Green Vault treasure rooms a minute’s walk from the extravagant new hotels, shops and restaurants in Altstadt, the Old Town flattened by a massive bombing raid on May 13, 1945. The restaurant row includes a purportedly Canadian steakhouse, but fine Saxon cuisine predominates, including roasted suckling pig at the kitschy Pulverturm (Powder Tower) restaurant, and Dresden’s delicately sweet sauerbraten, which features raisins in the sauce. Regulars at the Del Mar track might well appreciate the hearty Saxon cuisine in the comfortable restaurant of the Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe but likely would avoid the pferd rouladen, or stuffed and slowly braised horse roulades.
Beef rouladen and other succulent hausfrau-art (housewife-style) dishes make this corner of Germany irresistible, especially at Auerbachs Keller, the mammoth, centuries-old cellar restaurant at the Leipzig Rathaus, or city hall. The huge roll of gherkin-and-carrot-stuffed beef with apple-sweetened red cabbage and chewy Saxon potato dumplings comfortably fueled a fascinating afternoon of visits to the neighboring Center of Contemporary History, which memorializes daily life under nearly 40 years of Soviet rule, and the chilling exhibition “STASI: Power and Banality,” housed in the former local headquarters of East Germany’s secret police.
Usually mischaracterized as heavy, the cuisine often is quite refined. For a perfect Sunday lunch, the Cecilienhof hotel in Potsdam—the former royal palace at which Truman, Churchill and Stalin met in 1945 to partition Germany—served a demure plate of chicken, rice and an asparagus-like wild vegetable in light cream sauce.
Back in Berlin, where the subway trains fly overhead in the astonishing new €1 billion ($1.33 billion) main train station, you can carefully research where to spend your food budget (in the elegant district around the Gendarmenmarkt, Vau offers Michelin-quality lunches at relatively gentle prices), or just walk into any place whose menu, always posted out front, looks appealing. Off Alexanderplatz in the bullseye-heart of Berlin, the very traditional Mutter Hoppe serves irresistible specialties that include crystal-clear bouillon with liver dumplings, along with marinated wild boar with red-wine sauce and glazed Brussels sprouts. Pass an evening at the world’s reputedly costliest hotel by strolling to the Adlon on Pariser Platz for a glass of wine and a snack of Italian-style veal in tuna sauce. The pianist plays Porter and Gershwin until old Berlin dances back to life.