Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Today’s guest post brings a little culture to our lives courtesy of Saisha Grayson, the Assistant Curator at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and the very lucky daughter of a natural foods chef and consultant. A perennial academic, Saisha discovered while writing this piece that she is functionally incapable of writing without footnotes. Hey, even David Foster Wallace got away with using them in Gourmet.
Before setting out for dOCUMENTA (13)—the contemporary art extravaganza that takes over the otherwise undistinguished small German city of Kassel every five years—I canvassed my art-world elders for answers to two obvious, burning questions:
- With 200+ artists installed in more than 20 buildings and throughout the massive 370 acre Karlsaue Park (not to mention satellite installations in Cairo, Kabul, and Banff—yes, Banff), what works were not to be missed in my 72-hour whirlwind trip?
- And then, asked with only slightly less urgency, where should I eat?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those I surveyed responded earnestly to my first question, but all seemed baffled by the second, as if such a preoccupation had never occurred to them. As someone who believes eating well goes hand in hand with travel, and yet has now returned older and wiser from my first dOCUMENTA, I can report that this general sentiment regarding food in Kassel was both totally right and absolutely wrong.
Let me explain. I imagined this article as a detailed review and list of qualitative comparisons between the various eateries I encountered in Kassel. But as I sat down to write, I realized the best advice I could give on where to eat between 10:00 am and 8:00 pm was… anywhere close to the next thing you want to see! Because really, people, no one travels to freakin’ Kassel for the food. You are there for one thing, and one thing only, and chances are you are there for not nearly long enough!
And as a pescatarian who is not a fan of German food, I can happily report that randomly stopping at whatever place was closest seemed to work just fine. Mediocre Italian is the cuisine of choice for Kassel cafés and the price of an Aperol spritz seemed to be equally inflationary on a terrace overlooking the main plaza or a few streets away. No point wasting time parsing passable pizzas and paninis, my friend! Any umbrella-covered table will do—and if you want currywurst or wiener schnitzel (or nachos, even), chances are they’ll have those too.
So there you have it. Advice that is equal parts easy to follow and unsatisfying.
The grand event, however, is not open 24 hours a day, and therefore moments occur when one’s priorities shift from appreciating artistic meditations on civilization and its discontents to enjoying another arena of human creativity: the meal. Assuming breakfast will be short, sweet, and a function of where you stay, let’s leap ahead to dinner, when you find yourself free to contemplate something other than art, and chances are you are a little peckish. Perfect!
Because the real reason my art-world colleagues were absolutely wrong in discounting the importance of restaurant selection is that there is in fact a truly standout option worthy of being named the place to eat at dOCUMENTA. After numerous encounters with bland pasta and serviceable salads, the delicately constructed and boldly flavored cooking at Osteria was a revelation.
In fact, the entire experience felt like falling through a wormhole to a small Italian village trattoria where everyone knows your name, compounded by the owner greeting us with kisses of recognition when we entered, since we had eaten at his slightly further afield Greek restaurant Ilyssia the night before—where we had enjoyed a few complimentary glasses of ouzo with the owner (and our new friend) Elis, his wife (and Osteria’s chef) Gisela, and the other staff who joined us on the patio as we closed out the place.
This was a privilege we repeated at Osteria, where we arrived just before 10:00 pm and left sometime after midnight, glowing from ear to ear. And that is because, as it turns out, the star of this story is Elis (Elvis without the “v”, he tells me). Elis is the kind of charming Italian restaurateur who makes the act of eating dinner feel like being swept off your feet. In addition to the warm fuzzy feeling that speaking Italian (and a prominent display dedicated to grappa) produced in my heart, though, Osteria was a delight because it reaffirmed the potential for creativity and surprise so often ignored in Italian cuisine.
After hearing Elis’ loving recitation, we decided to simply split each of the specials and allow Elis to pair wines as we went. We started with a rosé prosecco, followed by pumpkin soup with an Asian twist of ginger and coconut milk, drizzled with pumpkin oil and balsamic vinegar. As with the entire meal, there was a surprising spicy kick to the soup that played nicely against the pumpkin’s sweet smoothness and the balsamic’s acidity.
Elis’ pièce de résistance, however—the dish that I’ve been dreaming about ever since—was the homemade cheese-stuffed tortellini, sculpted out of a pasta so thin and velveteen that I want to make sheets out of it and sleep on them. Bathed in butter and truffle oil, the richness was once again cut by the sharpness of radicchio and a sweet and nutty crunch from pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. The Sicilian red that accompanied the dish expertly mimicked the pasta’s punchy, full, and slightly fruity flavoring.
We tempted fate and finished with tiramisu, a dessert that I consider transcendent when done right, and yet one of the saddest, most common tragedies of the pastry world when done wrong. This was an authentic Italian triumph: cakey but not dry, alcohol-rich but not soggy. Thank you, Gisela! Dessert was paired with the rest of the bottle of red and drunken banter with the staff until closing. I’m pretty sure we invited them to visit us any time in New York, but if by some chance that didn’t materialize, we happily assured everyone we’d see them again in five years. And that is a promise I plan to keep.
 One addendum to this point, though, is that thanks to participatory, relational and eco-focused art practices, food and art came together in many touching moments at dOCUMENTA (13). I failed to make it to Robin Kahn’s camp during the hours when Sahrawi refugees cooked lunch for visitors (though I plan to try recipes from her blog at home) but we did scramble across Christian Philipp Müller’s Swiss Chard Ferry (The Russians aren’t going to make it across the Fulda anymore) (2012) and my last moments of aesthetic absorption were in the garden planted by Claire Pentecost, Can YA Love Foundation, and the University of Kassel, where I got misty-eyed reading the sign declaring, “Organic Agriculture can feed the world.” Organic agriculture and relational art installations, that is.
 My breakfast suggestion, I must admit, is really a hotel plug by way of a food review. I stayed at The Golden Tulip, a hotel with a James Bond-worthy name and décor, a killer location, and a completely worthwhile 10 breakfast spread with eggs, cheeses, baked goods, cereals, and a lox and veggie plate that made my New York Jew heart proud. Cappuccinos and carafes of coffee were included, and it proved to be the no-fuss way to get up, caffeinated, and out the door by 9:45 each morning.
 Actually, heading to Osteria is really my second recommendation. My first recommendation would be to take up a seat at one of the cafes overlooking Friedrichsplatz or Karlsaue Park, order an Aperol spritz, and take a moment. Let the day wash over you. As twilight descends, watch installations light up, discuss the things that moved you and made you laugh, and give the dinner crowds a head start. No one wants to eat in Europe before 9:00 pm anyway.
 At the time, I thought Ilyssia would be the star of this story. Its charming outdoor setting and fresh, seafood-centric Mediterranean menu won me over instantly. Yet, while the mezze plate was a winner, with flaky spanakopita, eggplant fritters, tzatziki, babaganoush, and taramosalata, I couldn’t ignore the fact that both my Arctic char in white wine and capers and sautéed spinach were on the salty side.
Warning: “martini with a twist” apparently doesn’t translate well, so this was a much appreciated alternative to the up-glass of Martini-brand liqueur that the bartender had poured us for a pre-dinner cocktail.