We get why it’s called Buddha Republic the moment we enter the restaurant in Berlin’s Knesebeckstraße. Chinese lanterns, Buddhist fixtures, and Turkish paintings come together to create what could veritably be called a brand new oriental land – the Buddha Republic.
Proprietor Armand may be Persian, but his knowledge of India and Indian cuisine is as authentic as any Indian restaurateur. “I grew up in India in a boarding school in Ooty,” he tells us once we’re seated at a cosy table for two. Ooty is a picturesque hill-station in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and we picture Armand in his boyhood, enjoying the nippy air and blue-tinged views of the Nilgiris.
Later, he stayed with a South Indian family in Bangalore, Karnataka, for a while, and a major highlight was their scrumptious home-cooked food. That would explain the distinct sambhar and kozhambu-like flavours in the palak paneer we’d have later. Armand has also lived in Bandra, Mumbai, before moving to Germany for his higher studies. “I came to study MBA but my original love was always food,” he smiles.
Roasted papads keep us company while we await our drinks and initial order of paneer pakoras. The menu is partial to aubergines, which we can attribute to Armand’s Turkish origins. Incidentally, the dishes at Buddha Republic have been crafted by Mark Brownstein, renowned food entrepreneur and discoverer. But the staff is entirely Indian. The resultant dishes are therefore, authentic in their infusion of Indian spices and flavours but very creative in their combination of ingredients, as well as artful presentation. We slowly begin to see why Buddha Republic was awarded the title of the Best Indian Restaurant in Berlin in 2012-2013.
The Geldermann Sekt Brut and Jack Daniels Cola arrive in style, and we sip on them while admiring the golden lamps and shadowy lights that bring the hues and nuances of the restaurant to life. There are little seats surrounding the bar, but most prefer to sit beneath the bird cages and chandeliers, under the watchful eyes of a colossal Buddha artwork covering one wall.
The paneer pakora (fried Indian cottage cheese) is an improvement over the traditional version – this one is crowned with crunchy chickpeas, and other ingredients we cannot discern. It’s a welcome addition to the softness of the paneer, and we enjoy it thoroughly. The portion size isn’t large though – four pakoras, that would sate two diners only if they were sure to follow up with more indulgences!
For mains, we’ve decided to go with palak paneer (Indian cottage cheese in a spinach gravy) and garlic naan (Indian bread flavoured with garlic and herbs). The naan comes to us in a bamboo basket, while the curry is ensconced in a heavy copper vessel. There’s also a steel pot of fragrant Basmati rice that we hadn’t expected.
The naan, perfectly browned, and seasoned with the requisite garlic and coriander – is quintessentially Indian. And the rice feels Kashmiri, with its rich topping of nuts and dried fruits. But the palak paneer – well, it’s nothing like the palak paneer you’d generally prepare at home or eat at restaurants in India.
This one consists of a sambhar-like gravy christened with spinach, aubergines, pomegranate seeds, cherry tomatoes, and Indian tadka. A server brings large chunks of tandoori paneer on a skewer, and slowly drops them into the curry. The dish looks decadent, and to be honest, far more interesting than traditional palak paneer.
We try it with the naan first, and then the rice, and we find that the combination actually works. The gravy is tangy, the paneer vibrant with roasted aroma, and the vegetables have their flavours and juices intact, which is not always the case in Indian curries. This is experimental cuisine at its best, and we’re glad we had the chance to visit Buddha Republic. Best of all, the portion size is also really generous.
Once you’ve had Old Monk (an Indian dark rum with notes of chocolate and vanilla), you’ll always crave it, wherever you go. We can’t resist ordering some to wash down our meal. And the way it is served takes us totally by surprise. In India, Old Monk is a rather commonplace spirit, usually downed with cola or as is, but here it has been accorded the status of a fancy liqueur.
The Old Monk sits in a glass within a bowl of steaming hot water. “We feel that warming it makes it more special,” our friendly waitress explains. We take a whiff, and the rum smells heavenly. Indeed, the heat has brought out flavours that would remain submerged in cold temperatures. We enjoy the drink thoroughly, and decide that we still have room for dessert.
Usually, Indian meals are so heavy that we skip dessert. But at Buddha Republic, the food has been refreshingly light and healthy, yet rich and flavourful as well – something that they pride themselves on. We ask for the day’s special, and it’s coconut ice-cream. Who could say no to that?
The ice-cream is served in an adorable ceramic matka (pot), proudly proclaiming ‘Indian matka ice-cream’. The matka itself is nestled within a huge coconut shell. And there’s enough ice-cream to serve three! The coconut ice-cream tastes delicious, and it’s more frozen than creamy – somewhat like a sorbet, but with mouthfuls of real coconut in every bite. We love it.
Buddha Republic, Berlin, serves up a storm of Indian-inspired delicacies in a very Zen-like, beautiful ambience. Come here to feast on tandoori dishes with South Indian flair. And if that sounds confusing, don’t worry. The folks here have definitely nailed innovation!