Two restaurants promote integration and gourmet Levantine cuisine at the same time, with mixed results.
Ever since there have been Syrian refugees in Berlin, open-hearted Berliners have been clamoring to eat their food. It makes sense: not everyone can speak Arabic, and not everyone has the time to volunteer at Tempelhof, but anyone can appreciate a good plate of tabbouleh. There have been street food stands, supper clubs and cooking classes, but few proper restaurants beyond the hectic schawarma shops of Sonnenallee. That changed a year ago with the opening of LAWRENCE, a café and gallery that serves Syrian dishes in Mitte trappings.
And what pretty trappings they are. Founders Frank Alva Buecheler (a German theatre director) and Bachar Hassoun (a Syrian former salesman) gave an old Oranienburger Straße pharmacy the usual white paint and exposed brick treatment, but punctuated it with colourful touches like brightly patterned cushions from Damascus and a striking blue bench made from an 80-year-old Lebanese door.
Hassoun and Buecheler’s initial idea was an arts and culture space for “newcomers” (their preferred term), and that’s still in play. Walk to the toilet and you’ll pass abstract works by Portuguese-Angolan painter Luvuro Kakatula, this month’s featured “newcomer” artist; upstairs, more art and a suite of meeting rooms, one of which is used for weekly Arabic lessons. An adjoining shop showcases artisanal products from a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon that has partnered with Lawrence’s umbrella organisation FreeArtus.
But food has become Lawrence’s main draw, and for good reason. Developed by an all-Syrian kitchen team, the menu features dishes you won’t find at your average Syrian Imbiss – like fete al-magdous, miniaubergines stuffed with spicy ground lamb on a bed of sauced pita chips (€15.90). You may have had maqluba elsewhere, but it probably wasn’t as good as the version here, where caramelised aubergine slices are carefully draped over a mound of rice that’s spiced with an addictive cardamom-infused blend. Even old standbys like hummus and baba ghanoush are fresh and balanced enough that you’ll be scraping your plate at the end.
Across town on Yorckstraße, KREUZBERGER HIMMEL utilizes a similar feel-good formula to more mixed results. It’s been about nine months since Andreas Tölke’s refugee nonprofit Be an Angel repurposed the cavernous restaurant space owned by the Catholic Church. The organisation is non-religious, but it’s hard not to see something of a saviour complex in Tölke, a Bavarian ex-journalist who’s housed countless refugees in his own flat and even adopted a Pakistani teen.
Still, his aims are admirable. Staffed by refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Kreuzberger Himmel offers both bureaucratic aid and officially recognised gastronomy industry training to its employees. At the same time, it helps fund Be An Angel itself, which has helped some 1200 new arrivals through Germany’s asylum process, and decodes Syrian specialties for a mostly German clientele. The menu language can therefore be grating – the bulguryoghurt dip kishke is described as “Tzatziki mal anders” and kibbeh is “the Syrian Boulette” – but it’s well meant.
Dishes are developed and cooked in a hierarchy-free team; that and the rotating staff means there’s less direction here than at Lawrence. We visited in the middle of a menu switchover that replaced the aforementioned Syrian Boulette with Artischoki. The lamb-stuffed roasted artichokes (€12.90) were overly salty and hard to chew. Another new offering, sajadije – filleted whitefish over rice (€12.90) – could have come from a catering steam tray. The stewed vegetables, like the spinach-pomegranate combo sabaneh and the bean dish fasoila bzet, fared much better.
With more consistency, Kreuzberger Himmel could have a menu to match its lofty mission. Until then, you can still fill up on veggies and dips (like the creamy kishke, which paired nicely with fried pita chips) while supporting a great cause – or head across town for one of Lawrence’s mains. Or try your luck over on Sonnenallee, where a former Gemüse Kebab spot is soon to be taken over by a yet-to-be-named Syrian restaurant advertising itself as “powered by refugees”. Either way, integration never tasted so good.
Lawrence Oranienburger Str. 69, Mitte, Mon-Fri 11-24, Sat-Sun 10-24
Kreuzberger Himmel Yorckstr. 89, Kreuzberg, Tue-Fri 17-24, Sat-Sun 10-24