Berlin is one of my favorite bars in San Miguel. Well actually one of my favorite bars anywhere. Especially when I want a warm and cozy place to fondle a glass of red or three on a chilly Winter’s night.
But I don’t go there very often. And, when I do, I rarely ever eat there. And recently I’ve been scolded for it. Because recently I published a list of 89 things to eat in San Miguel before you die and none of the dishes at Berlin are to be found anywhere on the list.
The emails I received suggested I needed to do some more comprehensive research. But first, a couple of excuses.
I mentioned that Berlin is a favorite. But now a qualification. I love the bar area, the L-shaped bar with the rounded corner when you first walk in. I love sitting on one of the ten or so stools at the bar or even at one of the two hightop tables in the room. But I don’t like sitting anywhere else in Berlin. So, if I walk in and every stool has a you know what on it, I put mine into reverse and shuffle off to bar number two.
My second excuse for why none of the dishes at Berlin made my list is I seldom eat in bars. Bars are where I go to before or after I eat. I can’t quite explain why, other than that, during the years when I was first discovering the pleasures of the hop and the grape, save for peanuts, pretzels and potato chips or perhaps something as substantial as a pepperette, pickled egg or pork hock, food was absent in bars.
It was a chilly night last Wednesday. A good night for a flight to Berlin. I like chilly nights. Because chilly nights are when Don Day’s Wife wears a hat. I think almost all women look good in a hat. And Don Day’s wife looks especially good in a hat.
A lot of people wear hats to Berlin. A lot of those people are regulars, even what you might call very regulars. And a lot of those very regulars are what you also might call characters. And characters like to wear hats. And seldom take them off indoors.
Though it seems so dated, the word Bohemian comes to mind when I think of the regulars at Berlin. Every time I walk in, I expect to see Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli or Berthold Brecht and Lotte Lenya occupying those treasured stools at the bar. As always, I was there on the night they weren’t. But within two minutes after we secured two of those stools at the bar, the guys next to us had introduced themselves. Within ten minutes, a woman had come from around the bend of the bar to find out who the irregulars were.
Don Day’s Wife was thinking what I was thinking. “A great cast of characters, tonight”, she said. “I think they’re casting the sequel to Cabaret.”
Wednesday night is mussels night at Berlin. And I was definitely mussel bound. Because there’s no mussel dish on my 89 things to eat in San Miguel list. And it would make a great addition. So the drink order was for a crisp white, a Sauvignon Blanc from Antares. It’s not a favorite but at happy hour you can have four glasses of the Antares for 25 pesos each or a bottle of a better white for 500 pesos. You’re right, no calculator is required.
As always, those glasses contained some of the healthiest pours in all of San Miguel. Don Day’s Wife said seven ounce; I said maybe eight ounce pours. Which is very generous when you consider that Berlin is one of the classiest bars in town with one of the lowest by the glass prices in town.
Three years majoring in hospitality management will teach you that service, selection, location, and price are the most important factors determining what bars people drink at. One night drinking with Don Day will tell you that comfortable stools (with backs), good music (at the appropriate volume), decent glassware (though I’m definitely not a Reidel snob…I break too many) and low light levels (with absolutely no fluorescents) are also important factors and all get a positive checkmark beside them at Berlin.
Before the mussels we decided to split an old favorite appetizer, the asparagus wrapped in ham. It’s a dish that I think’s been on the menu since the first day, I’m guessing 12 years ago, that I walked down the little hallway amazed to see that through the mostly glass doors there actually was a bar. In those days Berlin was owned by a German named Detlef and the asparagus was seasonal. These days Berlin is owned by a Venezuelan/Mexican/Columbian/American named Carlos and you can get asparagus year ’round in San Miguel de Allende and so, of course, in Berlin.
The asparagus came lightly coated in a batter resembling tempura then deep fried. “Perfectly cooked”, said Don Day’s Wife, “right at the midpoint between soggy and crisp, and nice and big and fat.” The asparagus had a balsamic dip. “A different sauce might be better”, Don Day’s Wife continued, “maybe something sour cream or mayo based”.
I decided, as good as Berlin’s asparagus dish is, it wouldn’t quite dethrone the asparagus dish at La Posadita from my 89 things list.
You’ll find behind every successful bar is an almost ever present and ever congenial host. Bob at Hank’s. Polo at Santo’s. Kenny at 007. And, perhaps the best of them all, Carlos Ordonez at Berlin. And what does congenial mean when it comes to a bar owner. It means being able to put up with gargantuan piles of bullshit and never losing your cool. That mierda comes in the form of the guy who sends back the steak that’s delivered exactly as ordered but he decides is over or underdone. It comes in the form of breaking up the fight before the fight starts. It comes in the form of deciding whether the woman who forgot her credit card really is coming back tomorrow. It comes in the form of deciding how do you compensate the woman who’s just had a full glass of red knocked over her beige skirt by an imperfect stranger. And it comes in the form of the appropriate handling of the guy two stools over from Don Day’s Wife who, on Wednesday night, crossed the line from entertaining to annoying.
Carlos did it beautifully. Not suggesting that he not have another Scotch but suggesting he have a coffee. Not sending him out to find a cab but phoning for one and then personally escorting him to it.
“This is a place where people look after you when they know you”, said Margo, a woman at the other end of the bar who also looks very good in a hat. “You’ve got to admire the way that Carlos always takes care of his customers.”
My mussels arrived. And so did Don Day’s Wife’s hamburger.
I’d been looking for a new place that flexes their mussels ever since Bon Appetit shut their doors and La Brasserie changed owners. Would Berlin be it?
Unfortunately no, because ouch!, the mussels arrived cold. And I don’t mean lukewarm. I mean very cold. I did, however, like the mussels that returned. Pleasantly plump and, despite a couple of minutes in the microwave, still not overcooked. The broth though wasn’t the best. A little too salty with garlic that would have been better sauteed to get rid of its sharpness. And, I know this is very much a personal preference, but a splash of an anise-based liqueur would have done wonders to the juice.
I ordered frites with my mussels and they came in the form of some chunky wedges that were obviously mass processed and had spent time shivering in a freezer. Nevertheless, they were very tasty and crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth inside. The fries were well spiced with salt and pepper and something else that I couldn’t quite nail. “We doctor them up a little ourselves”, Carlos told me. “And if you want traditional frites made from fresh potatoes, just ask.”
Don Day’s Wife’s hamburger suggested a switch to red for our third glasses of wine…yes, we drink a lot and we weren’t finished yet. We chose Gato Negro, Berlin’s house Cabernet Sauvignon.
Over the years, Berlin has had its share of cuties working behind the bar. And, a couple of times, even a couple of bartenders I would elevate to the hottie level. And even though Don Day’s Wife will argue that this has no relevance whatsoever to attendance at the bar, Don Day will use four words he learned watching Masterpiece Theater and say “I beg to differ”.
I will agree that a good looking woman behind the bar isn’t essential (some of my past favorites in other bars have actually been people who I’ve stood next to at urinals), but an efficient bartender is absolutely essential. And though I have no need for behind the back juggling or the two foot pour from bottle to glass, I do have a need for efficiency and a need to be asked if I would like a refill reasonably close to that moment just before I take my last gulp.
Amy, the current bartender at Berlin has been there longer than most. And even though I can never separate her nose ring from something else that might extend from a person’s nostril, when my glass of Gato Negro had reached that point of no return to my lips, Amy was right there asking if I was ready for another.
Meanwhile Don Day’s Wife was sharing what was left of her burger and a very good burger it was. Fat, juicy and medium as requested. Accompanied by cheese and bacon (as every burger should be) without even asking. And well seasoned and spiced. San Miguel is not short of good burgers. You’ll find them at The Restaurant and Hank’s and, until recently, Hansen’s, which is the current recommended burger on Don Day’s 89 things to eat list. Arvin Kagan emailed recently to tell me “Hansen’s is gone forever” (please join me in a very mournful aaaaaaaaahhhhhh). Is Berlin’s burger ready to replace Hansen’s and wear the crown? Maybe. But I’m going to have to taste test Hank’s and The Restaurant’s offerings again first (it’s a tough job but…).
Returning my attention to Amy, I told her, “Maybe not the Gato Negro but definitely one more glass of something red and perhaps a postre from the menu,” I replied.
We settled on the Malbec and, upon Carlos recommendation, the chocolate souffle, a dessert that “might take as long as half an hour” Amy told me, but it was now raining outside and we had healthy pours of that Malbec in front of us.
I had been checking out Carlos carefully for the last hour, watching him dance through Berlin from room to room. Opening a troublesome bottle of wine for Amy. Pouring some big measures of Drambuie into snifters. Rearranging a couple of stools. Greeting some new arrivals at the door. Sneaking a little Amaretto into his espresso. Adjusting the heater as the chill tried to move inside the room. Bussing some dirty dishes from an empty table without ever thinking it was below his dignity.
As the place was quietening down a little, I asked him to join us and asked him to remind me how long he’d owned Berlin.
“It’s been three years but it seems like thirty”, Carlos told me, “I’ve already been awarded my gold Rolex.”
Carlos is a very personable guy with the kind of dry sense of humor that has you trying to match wits with him. When Don Day’s Wife asked him where the bathroom was, he told her that, “Sorry, it was closed for the evening.” When I asked him about coq au vin…well, you can see what he produced from behind the bar.
“And why would a guy who’d supposedly completed a career want to get back into business and open something as stressful as a bar?”, I asked him.
“I spent most of my life working in advertising”, Carlos replied, “I figured it can’t get any crazier than that.
“I had retired and was just hanging out. I used to come into this bar all the time. I was bored and when Detlef said ‘Would you be interested in buying it’, I thought why not. The place had equity. Good recognition. Good awareness.”
German dishes were at the heart of the original menu at Berlin and most of them are still there. They’re part of what Carlos Ordenez calls “the fundamentals, the workhorses, the heros”. Bratwurst with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Wienerschnitzel with potato salad. Jägerschnitzel in a mushroom sauce. A personal favorite of mine, the goulash. And roast pork shank with spinach.
“There wasn’t much reason to change the menu”, said Carlos. “We’ve tweaked it, improved the ingredients, made them fresher, changed some suppliers.
“It was really just a matter of taking things off the menu that didn’t sell…adding some specials. I kept everybody in the kitchen. They’ve been here for ten years.”
Souffles are a rare sight in San Miguel. And to see that kitchen turn out a nice fluffy one was a very welcome sight. At 1900 meters above sea level, cakes fall, cookies crumble, meringues flop, and souffles…well they don’t do anything, for hardly anyone even attempts one.
Except Berlin. And it really was exceptional. Crispy on the outside. Creamy on the inside. Very chocolatey. Not too sweet. And accompanied by vanilla ice cream and a jamaica sauce made from the petals of hibiscus flowers.
“That was one yummy dessert. Why isn’t it on 89 things list?”, said Don Day’s Wife.
“It will be,” I answered. “I’m sure it will be.”
It was now after 10:00 pm and the second shift was arriving at Berlin. The kitchen was still open. And the vapors wafting from the bowl of mussels that was passing by suggested the shellfish was piping hot. Outside the rain had stopped but the temperature had continued to drop. Don Day’s Wife put her hat back on. And I wished I looked good in one.
Berlin is located at Umaran #19 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am, seven days a week. For reservations, telephone (415) 154-9432 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.