Readers, I'm sorry for the long silence. Finishing the manuscript for my book consumed my August, our honeymoon blessedly took us far away in September and now in October, I've been waiting impatiently to hear back from my editor while battling a nasty flu and trying to meet a clutch of deadlines for freelance assignments, while all the cellphone photos documenting the few meals I had out in Berlin over the past few months languish on my cell.
In any case, I thought I'd make it up to you by coming back with one of my favorite restaurants in Berlin. I might even go so far as to call it my favorite restaurant in Berlin, though, I'm always wary of hyperbole like that. Suffice it to say that this place is pretty darn special. I'm talking about Le Piaf, a small French restaurant tucked into a tiny Vorgarten on Charlottenburg's Schloßstraße.
Run by two French men, one in the kitchen and one in the front of the house, it has a sharply edited everyday menu (terrine and cornichons or snails to start, a few salads, three mains) and a regional menu that rotates every month or so, written up on a few big chalkboards that are propped up around the restaurant. One month, the focus might be on Brittany; the next, for example, is on Provence. There are wine pairings to go with the regional menu and a prix fixe option. The restaurant is made up of a few small rooms, with only a few tables squeezed into each one. This gives the warm, cozy feeling of being in someone's home.
Last winter, Max and I went there one weekend and decided to have a proper French dinner. The regional focus that month was on Burgundy, so I had oeufs en meurette (Max had a plate of tiny, crisp, greaseless fried fish). My poached egg with its molten yolk came in a little casserole pot, balanced on a slice of savory, sauce-soaked toasted bread and doused in more of that delicious, winey meurette sauce. It was hard not to gobble the whole thing up in a matter of seconds. I tried to restrain myself. There was a slab calves' liver in a mustardy cream sauce as a main course, alongside a fabulous slice of potato gratin, all the better for wiping up the delicious sauce. And for dessert, we had vacherin, a confection made up of layers of meringue, whipped cream, raspberry purée and pistachios, all bathed in a pool of not-too-sweet crème anglaise. I thought I was too full for more than a forkful and ended up battling Max for the last shards of dessert.
Everything was so correct, as the French would say. It all tasted just as it should. It was clean, simple, pure food, and done just right. In fact, we ate better at Le Piaf than we did in the entire week we spent in Paris over New Year's (with one exception), much to our surprise.
I could scarcely believe my good fortune. This was the best French food I'd eaten in so long. And it was right around the corner from our place! Plus the waiters were charming, there was a cheese tray (with cheeses from Maître Philippe) and really good Crémant d'Alsace for the apéritif (I am a sucker for sparkling wine). It swiftly become our place for celebrations (if it were open for lunch, we would have celebrated our wedding there, too). Everyone needs that kind of place, don't you think? Le Piaf is it for me.
On the last night of August, the evening I finished my manuscript, I decided I needed to do a little something special for myself. I hadn't showered in days and I'd barely slept. I'd deteriorated to feeding myself potato chips and cereal. The glamorous life of a writer, well, it ain't so glamorous on deadline. But that night in August, I was finally done. I needed to celebrate, but I also needed to be alone. I wasn't ready to even face another person yet. So I headed to Le Piaf. The hostess did a little bit of a double take when I asked for a table for one, but she recovered soon enough and before too long I was sitting alongside a mirrored wall, with a glass of Crémant in front of me.
For dinner, I ordered two appetizers, since I didn't have much of an appetite. First came one huge artichoke with a little pot of creamy vinaigrette (the second pot was spiked with herbs, I didn't like it as much). I peeled off leaf after leaf from the artichoke, dipping it into the vinaigrette and sucking off the sweet vegetal flash with my bottom teeth. The heart was tender and silky. With each leaf, I felt my old self come back.
I followed with a carpaccio of sea bass and white peaches. The peach slices were firm as could be, but incredibly fragrant and their sweet flavor went beautifully with the fish. There was lemon juice and salt and pepper sprinkled on top to tie everything together. It was the perfect single girl meal: light and restorative, a little indulgent, and most of all, fun.
Though the hostess had been a little awkward when I asked to sit alone, the French waiter couldn't have been more gracious and polite. I felt really special that night, just as I'd hoped, just as I do every time I go there. I felt well-fed and taken care of, which is a rarity in restaurants these days, not just in Berlin. It's such a little gem, Le Piaf - I hope it never changes. (It's been there for 15 years; let's hope it has just as many years ahead of it.)