Photo by Craig Hull
For ages, crepes in Germany have been papery, over-sweet imitations sold at street markets, circuses and fun fairs. And forget about galettes, the savoury buckwheat pancakes that are a Breton specialty. The only place that served decent ones was La Madeleine in Potsdam of all places.
Perhaps it’s only the recent deluge of French bohos into Berlin that made places like Manouche (which sounds a million times more romantic and PC than Zigeuner or Gypsy) possible.
Unsurprisingly, this cellar café-bar indulges in bohemian excess, at least when it comes to the ambience, vaguely harking back to an imaginary past: Aznavour on repeat, lots of random posters and objects no doubt acquired at flea markets, a hodgepodge of second-hand furniture – some comfortable, some utterly unusable, such as the table in the back room that was just too low to actually get our legs under.
We moved to the front room where we had access to a pile of parlour games and a view of the tiny behind-the-bar crepe kitchen. Why don’t people understand that it’s nicer to eat dinner without having to twist your lower body to one side? Despite these discomforts, the young German waitress exuded a sedate, beatific (hash-fuelled?) kindness rare this side of the Rhine.
The menu booklet opens with this perplexing quote: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Who said that? French footballer and would-be revolutionary Eric Cantona in 1995, referring to journalists hungry for dirt after a Man United match against Crystal Palace in which he beat up a Crystal Palace fan. A cryptic start to a no-nonsense French meal.
Here, everything edible is named after some pop-cultural artefact, from the “Elisa” galette (Emmenthal cheese, ham), named after a 1962 Gainsbourg hit, to the “Mario Bros.” Nutella crepe.
After ordering our two galettes – a “Simpsons” (Emmenthal, ham, fried egg, €4.40) and a simple one with only butter (not on the menu, but like Brittany grannies like them, a real test) and a “Cletoun” salad with Bratkartoffeln, Bleu de Bresse cheese, walnuts and egg (large €7.30; €0.50, the extra egg), we settled into a game of Mikado with oversized sticks in an infatuating atmosphere of suspended time.
The smell of frying butter and melted cheese filled our noses and clothing. A sullen-looking portrait artist sat frozen, alone besides the bar. Smokers lounged on sofas in the back room. The sticks flew all over the place, but the waitress maintained her Zen composure. We dropped the game to better sip some great dry cidre served from a jug (0.5 litre, €7).
When dinner came, its ample portions lit a spark in our famished eyes: the ham and cheese galette, folded into a square, hit the spot nicely. Our only gripe concerned the butter galette, which ended up disappointingly dry, with an almost crunchy, papery texture.
The (good) surprise, surely, was the salad: a large bowl of fresh lettuce and raw veg with delicious hearty fried potatoes, cheese and fried egg on top, all nicely dressed in well prepared French vinaigrette.
Nothing to complain about, Manouche is what it is: a cosy, kooky, affordable, munchies-friendly cave with simple, nice eats.