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Chez Michel: A bistro like home

Ask Françoise what she misses about home: an unfussy French place like Chez Michel, a small restaurant where the food is well executed behind a simple Imbiss counter.

Image for Chez Michel: A bistro like home
Photo by Anna Achon

Ask this French girl what she misses about home and the answer is unequivocal: an unfussy French place like Chez Michel, a small restaurant on Adalbertstraße where the food is executed in plain view of the hungry customers behind a simple Imbiss counter that once hawked Turkish fast food.

A grill and a stove – not even a microwave to reheat yesterday’s leftovers. There’s also a pizza oven left over from the former owner, who tried his luck with Italian fare before calling it quits.

“It’s a French place – I can’t possibly do pizza – so I thought, ‘Let’s do Flammkuchen instead’,” says owner Michel, whose accommodating, practical spirit reigns over the place.

When we stopped by, everything felt right: the unpretentious, efficient atmosphere, the hearty fare – mostly popular French classics at unbeatable prices – right down to the uncomplicated friendly half-service (you order at the counter, they bring the food).

We also appreciated the generous Leitungswasser policy and the bread, a baguette from Paul – Parisians will know, the rest will have to guess or try.

What’s more, it is Q-U-I-C-K – yes, even when crowded, an unusual feature for a proper restaurant in Berlin.

Chez Michel is a place that deserves to be called a bistro – a translation from the Russian for ‘quick’, adopted by the French following the 1814 occupation of Napoleonic France when the czar’s voracious troops  would unceremoniously demand fast service, or so the urban legend goes.

Friendly simplicity also applies to the crowd here, mostly scruffy Kreuzberg types, local Frenchies (including Stereo Total’s better half, Françoise Cactus), normal, friendly people up for a good steak frites (or replace the beef with salmon).

In short, people we were happy to share a bench with, among the friendly retro-spießig décor of the small dining room behind the kitchen. At the two long rows of tables dressed in white-and-red checkered plastic tablecloths, joie de vivre is infectious.

We even forgot about the bad ventilation… until we left smelling like a grill party. But who wouldn’t sacrifice one’s shirt for a good steak?

The prices match the sincerity of the place, with steak at half the price of Argentinean beef anywhere else in town (€10, grilled to taste, an instant bestseller). Both the moules frites and the salmon go for €8.80, merguez for a mere €6.50 – all served with crunchy fries (or rice and beans) and a generous mixed salad.

The merguez originate from an Algerian butcher in Wedding who obviously knows his stuff. The lamb and beef sausages spiced with chili and stuffed with aromatic herbs are served hot off the grill with harissa on the side to make them hotter. Treat yourself to a merguez baguette at lunch for only €3.50!

We also warmly recommend Michel’s proud confit de canard (€11.80) – the famous leg of duck cooked for long hours at very low heat.

The challenge is to get it perfectly moist (it’s easy to dry out) without letting the meat fall off the bone (another likely pitfall for the untrained cook). The trick, says Michel, is to cook it for hours but never let it boil. The result is spot on.

Although it’s clearly an omnivore’s paradise, fish as well as veggie quiche and Flammkuchen are always part of the menu. There’s even Knödel with mushroom ragout for finicky animal-free eaters.

Everyone will savour the wine: rosé, red and white served by the small, bistro-style glass (€2), or by the carafe (€4, for a quarter-litre) or bottle (€11.50). Beer is cheap – €2 for a bottle of bio Pinkus.

And who would expect tasty desserts at such a place? Our special mention goes to the apple tarte (€2.50) – as simple as the classic should be: apple slices on crust, nothing else. Forget about cream, custard, marzipan or almonds! Just perfectly crunchy light dough, not too thick, not too thin, not too dry, not too buttery, not too sweet… We literally fought over the last crumb.

And then of course there’s Michel, a man with a foreign legionnaire physique and true congeniality, with that je ne sais quoi of Berliner Schnauze – one’s not a two-decade-long Kreuzberger for nothing.

This mercenary of French cuisine rented out his savoir-faire to restaurants from Africa to Ukraine and Russia, before starting his own, last August. His head on his shoulders, his hands always busy, his heart where it should be, Michel is a no-nonsense type, a man who does not believe in publicity.

Praise should always be critical, he says, which is why he’s never invited a journalist to dine. At the risk of hurting your feelings, cher Michel, we won’t flinch: you’ve given this food critic a new culinary Heimat.