Hotels in Germany: our recent experience

On a recent trip to Germany we decided to stay near the station in Berlin on day one as we were heading by train to Leipzig the following morning. We figured it would be easier.

The Steingenberger is a new addition to the five star chain. Unfortunately I can’t report on the more standard rooms as we were upgraded to a Junior Suite. It was more than spacious, including a lounge area, desk area, a large lobby, a separate dressing area and a bathroom in which the toilet could be closed off. The shower was walk in. The outside walls of thew suite were completely glass. Don’t get excited about that, the view we had was of train tracks and offices but it nonetheless gave a feeling of light and openness. We felt spoilt.

We did not try any of the food/beverage possibilities here. The foyer area is a design disaster. I simply don’t understand the its cold lack of comfort which was positively alienating. It put us off utilising the area. But the staff were great, no lack of welcome in that regard.

As far as I can see, you do not stay at this hotel because of the area, you stay because it is just outside the station.

This hotel had one big negative for me. The ‘king-sized bed’ was not a large bed at all. It was two smaller beds pushed together, with two sets of covers even. Seriously? Do German people hate each other that much? It is plain uncomfortable unless you really don’t want to be near each other. But in that case, why are the beds together at all? Why not at separate ends of the room?

This is a recurring problem in Germany (and I discover in other parts of Europe). It is poor form that hotels provide no warning that one bed does not mean one bed. This issue followed us to Leipzig.

There we stayed at The Westin in a ‘Grand Deluxe’ room because I’m a sucker for views. Again we found, despite the pictures on their site indicating one bed with one set of bed coverings, we were in two small beds joined together with separate doonas. Ugggh. I hate this! It is a big impersonal hotel, very full while we were there. It managed a huge breakfast area well – breakfast was, indeed, quite good by European standards. We did think we might try the bar-with-a-view, but we were told it was full that evening. The bathroom was okay, towels good. But nothing about this hotel made me think if I were ever in Leipzig again, that this is where I would stay. I’d be digging around for better. In fact, having eaten a couple of times at the Hotel Fürstenhof, I’d be tempted by it ahead of anything else I saw in Leipzig.

The Westin had 436 rooms and the Sofitel 92. You can really tell from the moment you step in. After the size and nature of The Westin, it was a pleasure to spend a couple of nights next at The Sofitel in Berlin – I mean the one at Gendarmenmarkt. Are you already guessing what made us most excited about our room? It wasn’t the stunning mod design, the seating area, the groovy lighting, the walkin shower. Not even the coffee machine….

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. We’d finally struck something better than gold. A hotel room with one bed in it. One proper bed with the one mattress, the one set of linen, the one cover. Oh, it was a loverly bed on which we had a loverly time. Sleeping. I do mean sleeping.

Hotels in Zurich – looking for the middle ground.

When you are booking a hotel and your regular is not available, it feels like things are already going badly. Last time in Zurich we’d stayed at The Hotel Continental, which used to be a Sofitel and has the trappings to reflect that. It was, however, full on the night in question and so I found myself investigating the options.

All of them are expensive. Some of them are horribly expensive. Probably the best value is to be had in West Zurich, a few kms from the centre of things, but that depends, I guess, on what sort of action you want. A friend said that this area was like Paquis. Uggh. Paquis is so scungy. West Zurich has grubby sex shops and hookers on the streets if that’s what you want. But it also has interesting innovative places like Viadukt and Frau Gerold’s Garten.

A big drawcard for me was Cafe New Zealand, which has zoomed to the top of cafes in Zurich in no time. I imagined staying nearby and partaking of breakfast there. But then I thought about having to pick my way over the dregs of Friday night sleeze on Saturday morning and kept looking. It’s not even like you get a big discount for the experience, you pay 200CHF instead of 250.

Sheraton have two hotels in Zurich. One is a typical Sheraton, large, highrise, modern. The other, Sheraton Zurich Neues Schloss Hotel couldn’t be more different. It’s in a lovely old building, think boutique hotel. The room was a delight in colour, light, facilities, large picture windows looking out at a beautiful building opposite. It was a short walk to the lake, to the main shopping area, and if it comes to that, a pleasant walk of 10-15 minutes across the bridge to the old town. Food and drinks were nicely presented in the cozy bar area. I had a good pot of tea here and getting fresh milk on the side was not an issue. Sheraton make a point of public computers being available which had encouraged me to travel light and leave my laptop at home. The hotel was kind enough to check me in some four hours early and could let us stay a bit later than check out time too. The only negative was the bathroom was very small. For us it was okay, but I’m guessing there’d be lots of people who just wouldn’t be able to hold their stomachs in enough to squeeze through to the loo.

Best of all, it had one proper bed with one set of linen, one doona. I wish there was some sort of site where you could check out this aspect of staying in hotels in Europe. Last weekend I booked a hotel in Fribourg and stressed in an online message that we wanted one bed. But despite this, and despite getting one bed, we got two small doonas. Arrgggh! They just don’t get it!

That was the NH Hotel in Fribourg. The rooms are extremely basic and run down. However, the location is convenient and the staff were helpful. Personally, if I am staying overnight in Fribourg again, I will be looking to try somewhere else.

Porridge again

I had never made my own porridge until I left Melbourne. Why make one’s own when near to hand is the wonderful porridge with caramelised bananas at Cafe Panette, or the classic with cream and brown sugar at Batch. Or a slightly jazzed up version at Richmond Hill Larder. At the moment it is:

Porridge popped: quinoa and oats with pear & raisin compote, honey oats crumble, labna, drizzle of honey 13.0

I have been to posh places in London where porridge is treated like dirt – do I mean they turn it into mud? Well, they might as well, since they serve up a luke warm sludge that tastes no better than it looks. Why put it on the menu if you aren’t going to respect it? In Melbourne porridge has to taste good and look good.

I make this variant quite often: soak oats in a liberal quantity of apple juice – I can get bio at my local market.

Do that overnight and then at breakfast time heat with milk added to taste and chopped ripe banana. This absolutely needs no sugar added as the apple juice is so very sweet.

Milk for the table and that’s it.

Ah, but there is nothing like sitting in a beautiful cafe having other people fussing over your breakfast. For porridge, I like this post which showcases how you get it in Melbourne’s cafes.

It’s porridge time in my neighbourhood

Need I start by mentioning that in Switzerland you can’t get porridge out. The one time I’ve seen it on the menu I attempted to order it at 9.30am but it ‘wasn’t ready yet’. I don’t understand what that means. Maybe it’s a brunch item hereabouts. Me, I want it when it is dark and cold at 7am…which is what I’ve just been doing.

I use whole bio oats. Melt a little butter in a small saucepan, add oats and water to just cover. Bring to boil, then take off the heat and sit, covered, to quick soak. If you are more thoughtful than I, you can simply soak in water the night before.

Have a shower and get dressed. Well, that’s what I did. Answer your mail. Take the dog out so he can ablute on somebody else’s garden. When you get back:

Generously cover with milk – this really depends on how you like your porridge as an eating process. Do you want it quite thick, adding cold milk as you go? Do you want to eat it exactly as it comes out of the pot? If you are circumspect in the first place you can always add more milk to the pot as you go.

Strew with brown sugar – that is, sugar to taste – bring to boil and turn to low. Stir now and then.

Slice a banana or two.

In a small non-stick fryingpan melt butter and add bananas. Also strew with brown sugar. Stir as the contents heat and bubble. When you please – for me this was a couple of minutes – add the contents to the porridge, stir, simmer a while longer. In all about ten minutes.

Equally the caramelised banana can be served on top of the porridge.

You can entirely forget the whole banana idea and simply serve with pouring cream and more brown sugar. Makes winter worth it.

If you make a vegan version of this, please don’t tell me. I’m not sleeping well as it is.

Americans. Maybe they just can’t win….

Sitting in a cafe in Nyon a couple of days ago, there was a group of four twentyish Americans nearby. They took over in that confident way young people – and Americans – will. Plugged themselves into their various electronic contraptions, presented an arse to us for a while as one of them tried to plug the other end of hers into a powerpoint.

At some point a waitress came to see if they wanted anything else, one of them asked for something in not the correct French way and the waitress gave them all the rounds of the kitchen for not knowing French well enough. You come to this country, you should speaka the language properly. You can imagine the content of the tirade.

I sat there thinking, yeah. Damned Americans. Just come over here and think they can get away with anything. Like THEY don’t have to learn, something special about being American.

I might add, all this was from the entirely hypocritical viewpoint of being an Australian in Geneva who, after five years here, can not yet string a sentence together in the local lingo. In fact I’d already encountered this very same waitress, asked for cold milk with my tea in a way that completely mystified her no matter how I rearranged the three or four necessary words, but she wasn’t fussed by me at all. I have no way of determining if that was because of my grovellingly apologetic attitude, or if it was because I was with two accomplished French speakers, or because I’m Australian, and if she didn’t know that, perhaps she could at least figure I wasn’t American.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? Hating Americans. Not specific ones, I have lots of American friends and my life would be a diminished thing in their absence. But in general. On principle. When you see them stomping around Europe coming into your cafe because they can’t see a Starbucks nearby.

I’m thinking all that, but then after the waitress leaves, and the kids start smiling at each other in some discomfort, one of them said ‘Geez. Can you imagine saying something like that in the US?’

And indeed one can’t. If the ‘we like being nice on facebook’ brigade got hold of that story ‘American tells foreigners to piss off home if they aren’t going to learn American’ there’d be hell to pay. Their President would probably have to offer a public apology and stress that nobody in the US has to know American. But in fact, it wouldn’t get that far, would it? I expect it would be a sackable offence in the US for a waitress to say such a prejudiced thing.

So it seems to me, they are stuck behind a rock and a hard place. And I’m feeling just a little bit bad that I don’t feel bad about that.

Getting a cuppa in Europe

I mentioned in a post recently that I used my own teabag in a cafe in Berlin. Perhaps that needs a little explanation. It’s darn near impossible to get a good quality plain ornery cuppa in this part of the world, even in London, but certainly in Europe proper.

Kusmi contaminates everything. Typical teas:

Euphoria A tasty blend of maté, chocolate and orange, Euphoria is the perfect drink for a wellness-inspired teatime. Chocolate lovers can now indulge without feeling guilty.

Sweet Love A true invitation to awaken your senses, Sweet Love offers smooth, sensory delights. Its blend of spices, guarana, liquorice and pink peppercorn has a naturally sweet taste. No one can resist its enticing flavour.

I realised how bad things had got when I went to Boreal one day and this happened. Of the 28 varieties of Kusmi flavoured teas, they used to stock one that was just tea flavoured. If you wanted a cup of tea that didn’t taste like liquorice or peppercorns or guano (sic), you could order that one tea. But one day I walked in and even this had disappeared to make room for Prince Vladimir or detox or booster or something equally untea-like.

I wrote and complained. I asked wasn’t it enough to have 27 weirdshit varieties of tea, did they really REALLY need that 28th one? Couldn’t they squeeze in one plain tea? The management responded that they might consider it the following winter, that is to say, in many months’ time. I replied with a threat that they could not have cared less about: well, in that case, I will consider coming back to your establishment in winter. In contrast, see what happened when my local French cafe Cacao in Melbourne tried doing this to me here.

In fact I didn’t. I realised that I was much better off saving my tea money for trips elsewhere. I have tea at home. I carry around teabags for emergencies. I sometimes carry my own milk too. In Geneva, like much of Europe, almost no cafes have fresh milk. You get UHT milk, or that coffee creamer plastic tub that passes for good taste over here. Particularly mysterious, this, in a country in which the population is largely cows.

Fortunately, as is the case in Australia, where even if, like me, you don’t drink coffee, you can nonetheless reliably suppose that with good coffee comes good food and good tea, the same holds for Berlin. Go to one of those terribly earnest nothing-in-the-world-is-more-important-than-the-right-attitude-to-coffee cafes and you will get commensurate standards with what they consider to be the incidentals, that is to say, tea and food. I didn’t have a bad cup of tea in Berlin.

In fact, it was the first time since I’ve left Australia where I really felt like saying Aaaaah. Robur.

Facil: a two-star Michelin restaurant in Berlin

We decided, apart from testing the cafes of Berlin, to have one first rate restaurant experience. That’s a difficult choice, there are a host of classy establishments offering affordable, interesting dining.

Like high end dining the world over, in Berlin it is dominated by male chefs. Sonja Frühsammer is the only female to have a Michelin star. Causing a lot of excitement lately has been Dottir, headed by Victoria Eliasdóttir, a young Icelandic chef. You get an idea of her style, which really fits into the cafe decor of Berlin, as it would Melbourne, on the restaurant’s facebook page. Initially we made a booking here, but unfortunately she’s such a star right now that she has two seatings and it didn’t seem to us we could fit in either for an evening meal.

Instead we chose Facil for lunch. One of the things that attracted me to this place is that unlike that sense one has of cafes and restaurants in Melbourne these days – businesses where the chefs scarcely cook a thing anymore, instead providing a name, doing publicity, more likely to be on a book tour than in the kitchen – Facil is a close-knit group that’s been together for ever. The chef, Michael Kempf, has been there since 2003, the sous chef since 2006, the patissier since 2006, the sommelier since 2001 and the manager since 2001. That says a happy team that is dedicated to its restaurant.

We decided to have lunch there, where an excellent value menu is provided:





Coming from Geneva, where one is relieved to have received one edible main course for 45CHF, this offer is a bargain. The food is pretty much as advertised on the restaurant’s site:

…elegantly light fare accented by purist luxury and modern avant-garde ….the perfect place for unconventional gourmets seeking a culinary experience….style of cooking is modern and creative….fresh and mostly local products…dishes are subtle and straightforward. The flavours are fine and distinctive.

I had recently read an explanation of how Michelin-ratings work. The reviewers are anonymous, anybody might be a reviewer. It is a democratic concept, what is relevant is that you love food, not how you dress. One way or another I tested that out during our meal.

Firstly by making a complete mess of the previously crisp white tablecloth with a errant spoonful of soup. Surprising just how much mess it made. I discussed it with a waitress who said not to worry, there was another tablecloth under the top layer. Well, I already knew that, having surreptitiously established that it had gone through to the next layer and even the layer below that, which was the table protector. My, this was a bottomless spoon of soup. She went off and returned with a small cloth which neatly fitted over the green stain of yes, you’ve guessed it, the green gaspacho, which I might add was a really lovely combination of ingredients. It was the first gaspacho I’ve wholeheartedly liked.

Secondly, by bringing out my knitting. Eating at Facil was both a refined and relaxed experience. I felt no less comfortable click-clacking away than I would have at a cafe knitting meet. I hadn’t realised how cozy a fine Michelin restaurant could be.

It made me wonder, though, how this meal stacked up to something similar in Australia. We have hats, not stars and my favourite restaurant in Australia is Ezard, despite the fact that Ezard is precisely one of those chefs I was earlier criticising for being a businessman ahead of a cook. It has two hats. Earlier this year we tried the express lunch:


cured swordfish, pickled cucumber, wasabi, soy and sesame,
native finger lime steamed spanner crab dumplings, yarra valley salmon roe, chervil, coconut tom kha
twice cooked pork belly, mustard glaze, black pudding, apple, celeriac and fennel pollen

I would say, despite the glass of wine, that this lunch was more expensive than Facil’s because the dishes are teensy. Nonetheless, I was in love with Ezard’s, but admiring of Facil’s. Being born and bred in Adelaide, I had the privilege growing up in the seventies of experiencing Cheong Liew’s food at Neddy’s. There he was the first in the world to do the East meets West cooking which became a world-wide phenomenon. Indeed when Food and Wine called him one of the hottest chefs alive, it stated:

Liew has earned a reputation as the father of East meets West

So for me this style of food is personal, I grew up with it. Facil’s food is discreet, Ezard’s is exciting. I dream Ezard food. He is Cheong’s heir and I wonder if any chef in the world has taken that mantle as successfully. I’m glad to see that two hats is at least as high a standard as two stars.

Yeah, well. Back to Facil. The staff were all one would expect of such a place, attentive without being intrusive. The setting was serene, the size of the dining room no doubt contributed to that, maybe 14 tables or so inside. The bread selection was excellent and when offering more bread with our main course, the waitress suggested the right one – clever and thoughtful. Other small things adding to the meal were an amuse-bouche and a small selection of sweet endings with our tea/coffee.

I don’t know if I will return to Facil, but that is a reflection on the array of eating available in Berlin; for anybody in town and looking for the European style of fine dining as maintained by Michelin restaurants, may I thoroughly recommend it.