As someone involved in the dual spheres of music and food, I spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of “authenticity”. Is the blues better if it's played by a one-eyed 93-year-old recluse who's never left the Mississippi Delta? Is sushi better if it's “by a Japanese”, as proclaimed by a sign I once saw in Laos? It's all too easy for us foodies to conflate “authenticity” with quality. The following is a travel story you will never hear: “...And then I wandered down this hidden alley and found a hunchbacked old man stirring a mysterious cauldron. He didn't speak English, so I just pointed to the stew and he dished out a ladleful with trembling, arthritic hands. I took a bite – and it sucked.”
But what happens when the “food story” (as restaurant PR folks are so fond of saying these days) is taken out of the equation? Back in May, I had the opportunity to find out when I participated in a certain chilli cook-off at Neu West Berlin. Eight different portions of the stuff were presented to us judges in plain paper cups, with no indication as to who made what. I only ate a spoonful or two of each, with the exception of number 3: a meaty stew with no beans and no tomatoes, just caramelised, fall-apart-tender beef in a rich, spicy sauce. It was one of the best chillis I'd ever had, second only to a mouth-melting bowl of red prepared by a self-righteous New Mexican at a barbecue back in my America days. And it turned out to've been made by a UK expat.
Yup, Aishah Bennett, the British co-owner of Neukölln cocktail bar Geist im Glas, beat out Jorge Armando of Taco Kween, a Mexican with family in Texas. (He did come in second, though.) She's been known for infusing both spirits and expat bellies for some three years, and raving to her about her beef scored me an invitation to check out Geist im Glas' new and very American-style brunch, which has been running for a bit over a month now. Because brunch, or at least brunch in Neukölln, is mostly an occasion to either obliterate or continue your drunkenness from the night before, it's rather exempt from questions of authenticity. Still, given Aishah's previously demonstrated Tex-Mex mastery, I was rather curious how her huevos rancheros would stack up.
Unlike chilli, I'm not a stickler about this simple breakfast dish – any combination of tortillas, fried eggs, beans and salsa will do – but I hadn't dared eat it in Berlin since an especially abysmal experience at the old California Breakfast Slam. (Contrary to what I just said, anyone who makes their huevos with whole black beans should die a slow horrible death.) The Geist im Glas version (€7.50), loaded with pico de gallo, pickled onions, refried beans, cheese, sour cream, fried tortilla chips and generous dollops of guacamole, proved more than satisfactory, with points added for excellently cooked sunny-side-up eggs and docked for a near-dissolved tortilla underbase. One wonders what would happen if she joined forces with Jorge, he of the self-made masa.
For sweet-toothed brunchers, I can unreservedly recommend the buttermilk pancakes (€7.50), fluffy and so thick you could use them as an Isomatte, served with berries and dulce de leche and a shot of some kind of bourbon-syrup infusion that is definitely more bourbon than syrup. Portions are gigantic, so really your best course of action would be to bring a friend, order one sweet and one savoury dish (the other option is biscuits with sausage or mushroom gravy) and switch halfway through to avoid palate fatigue. Same goes for the drinks, which include the “Bloody Malaga” (€7), a (literally) soupy, spicy mix of chilled gazpacho and garlic vodka, and the mimosa-ish “Marigold” ((€7, with gin, Cointreau and a mix of juices).
But... but... what about that chilli? Aishah's hoping she'll eventually be able to add it to Geist's menu, given the proper kitchen equipment. As for her secret, you'll find it in the recipe here, but suffice it to say that if you smoke your meat well enough, you can have whatever the fuck “food story” you want.
Geist im Glas | Lenaustr. 27, Neukölln, U-Bhf Hermannplatz, brunch Sat-Sun 11-15