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THE TASTE OF TRAVEL : Despite Berlin Reputation, It Is Possible to Feast in the East

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Everybody talks about East Berlin these days, but nobody has dinner there--not if they can help it, at least.

Gastronomy is not an art which, in general, has flourished under communism. A visitor to West Berlin might very well pass through what’s left of the Wall to visit the east’s extraordinary museums, to stroll through the historic quarter of the old city, even to buy bargain-priced German-language books or Dresden china. But pop through Checkpoint Charlie for a nosh? Not bloody likely.

Be that as it may, it is quite possible to eat decently in East Berlin, especially in the sector’s several recently opened luxury hotels. By far the most spectacular of these is the 350-room Grand Hotel, built by a Japanese consortium in 1987 at a reported cost of $130 million.

When it was launched, the director of West Berlin’s Hotel and Restaurant Guild was quoted as saying, “We have no establishment that matches it in West Berlin, and you will be hard put to find one on a similar level anywhere in West Germany.” Indeed, prices at the Grand are as high as those in any West Berlin hotel, and only West German marks and other hard currencies are accepted.

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The Grand was, for its first few years of life, a favorite gathering place and listening post for the Stasi, the East German secret police. A West Berlin-based travel agent I met recently in the city told me that one day in January he had been walking by the hotel and was surprised to find it temporarily closed. Seeing a workman near an open window, he asked what was going on. “We’re getting rid of the bugs,” replied the workman, meaning the kind of bugs that give ears to walls.

Today, it’s hard to imagine anything so sinister as electronic eavesdropping at the Grand. Built around an understated but elegant six-story atrium that recalls (of all things) Denver’s venerable Brown Palace Hotel, the Grand offers guests such amenities as a beauty parlor, an array of chic shops (one with a display of Vanderbilt perfume in the window), special accommodations for nonsmokers and for the disabled, mini-bars, color TVs (with MTV available), limousine service, a complete health center (including pool, saunas, massage parlor and squash courts) and, not counting several breakfast rooms and bars, six restaurants.

Among the restaurants are Forellen Quintett (“Trout Quintet”), which serves trout and other specialties of the Spree River basin; Zur Goldenen Gans (“The Golden Goose”), which features dishes of the Thuringian Forest region, and Stammhaus Kindl, a casual tavern with a good choice of both East and West Berlin-area beers.

The hotel’s top-floor, top-of-the-line restaurant, Le Grand Restaurant Silhouette, was closed for a private party the evening I was there, but I did sneak a look at the dining room (heavy-handed mock- art nouveau, with impressive views of both East and West Berlin) and at the menu.

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The last was a surprise, offering such contemporary-sounding delicacies as terrine of pike perch, trout and smoked eel with chive mousse; cream of beet root soup with shredded duck breast; snail ravioli with tarragon sauce; stewed venison with juniper cream, baby chanterelles and green noodles and cinnamon ice cream with praline sauce.

I ended up dining in yet another of the Grand’s restaurants: the Restaurant Coelln. Named for an ancient village at the heart of Old Berlin, the Coelln is a long, warmly-lit second-story dining room with an ornate white ceiling, beautifully set tables and expensive-looking if ultimately rather ugly chairs with gray false-bamboo frames and pink-and-gray seashell-pattern upholstery.

From the extensive menu there’s even a section of international specialties, including oxtail soup (representing England), trout sashimi with wasabi (Japan) and lobster Newburg (North America, with the dish itself rather dauntingly described on the English-language menu as “lobster simmered in Tabasco sauce”).

I selected excellent house-smoked salmon to begin, simply served with wheat toast and butter. Then I had a Berliner specialty called Gelbe Loffelerbsen: a large cup of absolutely delicious yellow split pea soup flavored with onion and caraway seed and served with a freshly baked cracked wheat roll spread with sweet pork fat full of little shreds of pork as a perfect accompaniment to the soup.

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My main course, identified on the menu as a “Grand Hotel Spezialitat,” was medallions of venison marinated in cognac and cooked rare, but which unfortunately remained extremely tough and dry.

I liked the accompaniments, though: caramelized grapefruit segments and a crisp potato cake faintly perfumed with ginger. The dessert selection was disappointing (commercial made ice cream and a few sad-looking fruit tarts and pastries), so I abstained.

But the wine list was astonishing. There was a large selection of good German wines, from the West, of course. Although there is a limited amount of wine made from state-owned vineyards in East Germany, they are reportedly never very good, and 1989 was such a bad year that even the best producers made no wine.

But there were also numerous good bottles from Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France, the last including multiple vintages of Chateau Lafite, Chateau Petrus and Burgundies from both the Hospices de Beaune and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, all at prices competitive with those in West Berlin.

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If the Coelln and Le Grand Restaurant Silhouette represent contemporary upscale dining in East Berlin, I wondered, what were the more old-fashioned “fancy” places like? On the recommendation of both the West German food and wine magazine Feinschmecker (“Epicure”) and the concierge at the Grand, I had lunch at Ermeler Haus to find out.

In the early years of this century, what is now Ermeler Haus was the private residence of Berlin’s most famous tobacconist, Ferdinand Wilhelm Ermeler. (A popular song of the period went, “Wo kommt der best tabak her?/Merk auf, mein freund, von Ermeler!”: “Whence comes the best tobacco here?/Take note, my friend, from Ermeler!”).

A solid sort of high-bourgeois mansion with lovely rococo-style interior molding and painted ceilings, it was moved a few hundred yards from its original site after World War II and turned into an upscale eating place.

Long patronized mostly by East German government and Communist Party officials, visiting dignitaries and hard-currency businessmen, Ermeler Haus retains at least some of the trappings of old-school, non-socialist formality. The tableware is admittedly cheap stainless steel and the glasses are merely utilitarian, but the waiters wear black tie and tails, and there are fresh flowers and rich white linen napery on the undersize tables.

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The dining rooms are ornamented with sparkly crystal chandeliers and with Oriental rugs on the creaky but well-polished hardwood floors. And one small salon, with both walls and ceiling painted in a superbly-rendered trompe - l’oeil rose-arbor motif, is as beautiful as any room in any old-style luxury restaurant in France.

The food is hardly up to French standards, though. I started with a milky, oily onion soup with one small, cheese-covered crouton floating in it. (And that was the only bread I saw throughout the meal.) Next, at my waiter’s recommendation, I chose pork loin with sauce bearnaise.

A kitchen poor in resources tends to overuse what it does have. Thus, what turned out to be a pretty good piece of pork was topped not just with a credible bearnaise but with a spoonful of salmon caviar (!) and was accompanied by potato croquettes in an almond crust, a heap of sauteed mushrooms, half a poached pear with red currant sauce and a scattering of pickled vegetables, a case of what I’m tempted to call the too-much-of-nothing school of garnish.

Dessert was similarly overloaded. Icy homemade vanilla ice cream studded with almond slivers and served with canned, flambe bitter cherries, a dose of cherry liqueur, a heap of whipped cream and a scattering of chocolate sprinkles.

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Uninspiring though it might have been, I must admit that the cooking at Ermeler Haus, in terms of pure technical correctness if not of imagination, was just fine. I’ve had worse meals in “continental” restaurants in the United States, and with the East German mark then at roughly 5 to the dollar (even from the cashier at the Grand), my meal, with mineral water, coffee and a bottle of passable German wine, cost only about $16.

But why eat in an East Berlin restaurant when the infinitely more practiced and opulently provendered eating places of the West are now just a 10- or 15-minute taxi ride and a no-hassle border crossing away?

Good question. Maybe because you’re spending the day in East Berlin and don’t feel like hopscotching all over the large, two-part municipality just to have a bite of lunch. Or maybe just for the delicious irony of eating an elaborate meal with Western European wines and friendly service in the capital of what has until recently been one of the most notorious satrapies of the “Evil Empire.”

Ermeler Haus, Markisches Ufer 10-12; tel. (0037-2) 2.75.51.03. Dinner for two (food only): $15-$22 (prices will inevitably rise considerably after consolidation of the German monetary systems).

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Restaurant Coelln, Grand Hotel, Friedrichstrasse 158-162; tel. (0037-2) 2.09.20. Dinner for two (food only): $80-$125.

Rooms at the Grand Hotel can be booked through Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800. Rates range $162-$176 for a single; doubles are $206-$212 and include buffet breakfast. No taxes or service.


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