Marina O'Loughlin explores all that the Berlin food scene has to offer, from butchers' stalls to bakeries to famous eateries.
You know that moment when the jumbo jet has just taken off from the runway? It feels a bit like that,’ says Per Meurling, Berlin’s foremost food blogger, describing the city’s current culinary scene. The sense of excitement around the city’s restaurants at the moment is palpable. The energy in the city is youthful and effervescent. But until relatively recently, that youthful energy hadn’t quite extended to the world of food.
Streetfood in Kreuzberg
It’s Markthalle Neun in the arty Kreuzberg district that has provided the launchpad for many of the new openings in Berlin. Every Thursday evening, it hosts a street-food market, everything from Thai tapioca dumplings to British pies (!), and – as everywhere – the progression from market stall to bricks-and-mortar is a tried and tested one. But I actually prefer the relative sanity of their daytime business-as-usual; there are some extraordinary businesses under its roof. Per shows us his favourites: home-smoked fish from Glut & Späne; glorious focaccia, farinata (chickpea-flour pancakes) and Italian breads from Il Pane di Sironi; and Big Stuff Smoked BBQ, where we have a ‘small’ tray groaning under the weight of pork belly, brisket, smoked potato, pickles and two tangy BBQ sauces - the idea that there’s a ‘big’ version is quite alarming.
Butcher Kumpel & Keule not only sells some of the handsomest looking cuts of meat I’ve seen in any market anywhere, but it will grill it to order for eating at one of the market’s many tables. Though tempted by vast, scarlet t-bones, we content ourselves with meaty, just-made wurst and a slab of smooth fleischkäse (‘meat cheese’ – like a cross between meatloaf and pâté), fried and rammed in a fine bun from Sironi bakery and slathered with German mustard. Perfect with beer from maverick craft brewer Heidenpeters who are creating massive waves with their defiantly non-traditional approach to brewing.
The market’s most recent alumni are to be found not far away: two young Dutch guys who made waves with a series of pop-ups. Now they have their own Lode & Stijn; owners/chefs are Lode van Zuylen and sommelier Stijn Remi).
We arrive not long after they’ve first opened and are lucky enough to score seats at huge kitchen table overlooking the small, entirely open kitchen, but they’re as at ease as though they’d been doing it for years. They’ve decided to focus heavily on vegetables – the main course is an earthy concoction of beetroot, radicchio and Jerusalem artichockes – but the most memorable dish for this carnivore is their aged beef tartare, spiked with salty anchovy cream on a slab of the kitchen’s ravishing sourdough (Lode worked at San Francisco’s famous Bar Tartine, and the bread is suitably fabulous). From the first bite of their homeland-homage bitterballen – crisply fried little balls of melting, slow-braised shortrib – to a pleasingly dense baba au rhum, it’s an exhilarating meal: little wonder this cool little joint is an instant smash.
Natural wines in Neukölln
Two notable features of the new wave of culinary stars are their youth, and the fact that many are incomers. At Industry Standard (industry-standard.de), a raucously fun outfit in Neukölln, owner Ramses Manneck is from Mexico City and his staff are Danish, Norwegian, Mancunian. At the time of writing, they hadn’t yet opened their new wine bar, Wild Things, concentrating on natural wines, but they’re kind enough to give us a sneak peak. My head the next morning is testament to the fact that these guys are a whole lot of fun.
And the food at the mothership, whether delicate – homemade tagliatelle with a light lemon sauce and trout, or brassica with hazelnuts and brown butter – or part of their ‘whole beast’ ethos (their own black pudding is ripe and rich), is far better than the rackety atmosphere would suggest. ‘We will feed you’, the website says, but these guys also positively enjoy flinging intriguing natural wines down your neck to encourage ‘fighting, feasting, lusting’. Well, ok then – if you insist. Industry Standard’s natural wine emphasis is part of a huge worldwide trend.Some adherents and Michelin-starred hotspots turns up in Berlin’s most unlikely corners.
Hyper-local food, Checkpoint Charlie
For some of the finest, we look in unlikely corners: just a few yards from the tourist tat of Checkpoint Charlie, we find the remarkable Nobelhart & Schmutzig, its rather funereal window displaying little other than a t-shirt emblazoned with a very rude, anti-traditional-gastronomy slogan. Boss Billy Wagner is a sommelier rather than chef, and dishes arrive with his cheerful instructions as to how to get the most out of the wine pairings, ‘take a bite and then a drink,’ he instructs, smiling as we experience the wine and food affecting each other in an almost magical way.
No photographs are allowed, so both the striking interior and the edgy, hyper-local food – they even avoid lemons, black pepper and chocolate – come with a frisson of surprise. There are blades of chicory, grown in the dark so it tastes almost like pear, laden with salty, delicate coral-coloured roe; ‘old dairy cow’ from Schorfheide served raw, with wafers of raw, pickled potato; an incredible potato soup poured into a bowl lined with black pudding, shot through with some sinus-clearing mustard. But I won’t give too much more away, other than that this adventure comes with a whole load of dark Germanic humour.
Fusion at Cordobar
Cordobar, near seedy Oranienstrasse, is equally dedicated to off-piste wines, but is more up for a party. The food is no less creative – often teetering towards bonkersness – but chef Lukas Mraz and his ‘team of international misfits’ are determined to show us the full rollercoaster. Fat udon noodles ‘tantan’ – or dandan, featuring minced, spiced raw beef and coleslaw – shouldn’t work, but emphatically does. Pizza comes with black pudding, feta and wasabi. It may sound ludicrous, but it’s done with such a sure hand that it’s never less than delicious. Stickiest pork ribs rustling with flakes of katsuobushi (dried tuna); raw langoustine served with rhubarb & almond milk, all with wines I’ve never previously encountered. Cordobar is so much my kind of place.
But Berlin is not all old cows, pig’s blood and manic fusion: again, probably due to its history of counter-culturalism, it has a real reputation for vegan and vegetarian food. Even I am thoroughly seduced by Kanaan, a pleasingly shonky-looking ‘imbiss’ or snackbar in Prenzlauer Berg, where Jalil Dabit and Oz Ben David create hymns to hummus and shakshuka. In its sunny garden, we eat the silkiest, Jerusalem-style hummus slicked with good olive oil to be piled onto puffy pillows of homemade pitta and the fluffiest, bright green falafel.
As for their malawach, served ‘sabich’ style with grilled aubergine and egg – anyone who accuses vegetarians of being hair-shirted need only take one giant bite of this buttery, flaky bread, the stuffing spilling deliciously messily: sheerest luxury. They’ve made a point of employing refugees, too – you come out of Kanaan feeling good about the world. A different kind of vegetable-based luxury is in store at the Berlin outpost of swanky members’ club Soho House in a landmark Bauhaus building – with a shady history – on the corner of Torstraße. There’s a branch of chi-chi Cecconi’s here, but I’m more interested in the more unassuming Store Kitchen. Here, two young English guys, Tommy Tannock and Johnnie Collins, are stirring up something of a buzz. Not only do they offer a regularly changing, and intriguing menu of mostly vegetarian food, lots of emphasis on smoking and pickling and fermenting – I love crisp little samosas stuffed with lentils, an alluring ‘cake’ made with leaves of crisped parsnip dotted with clouds of Beenleigh Blue cheese, and fat grains of rice stained purple with beet, topped with lemongrass-cashew pesto and poached egg – but they host guest chef evenings too.
The city’s art world has an impact too, both on restaurant design and dishes. Everything from the louche, painting- and installation-strewn Paris Bar in Charlottenburg, once a haunt of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, to soigné Dóttir, where chef Victoria Eliasdóttir is sister of renowned artist Olafur Eliasson. And Michelin-starred Pauly Saal, where we have cocktails in the artwork-lined bar.
Art and beauty also suffuse delicious, bijou Tulus Lotrek. In a beautiful old townhouse apartment in Kreuzkölln, partners Ilona Scholl and Maximilian Strohe have created something quite enchanting. The cooking is ambitious, frequently out-there – pairing lobster with pear, mushroom and horseradish is a risk that quite comprehensively pays off. Dishes appear restrained, but Max’s mantra of ‘pure indulgence’ shines through every mouthful and he plays fast and loose with the storecupboard of Asia. Some glorious, bright, mostly German wines make me remember how much I love the vinous produce of the country. Dry aged pork (Old Wutz) is as luscious as Spanish Iberico pork, served with a kind of salsa of sea-snail, spinach, rosehip and hazelnut, it’s a thrilling, engaging and cerebral dish; Tulus Lotrek is that rarest of restaurants, a real find.
Turkish markets and German cheesecakes
Berlin is extraordinary, much bigger than I expect it to be, each of its districts with their own distinct personality: chichi ladies who lunch in Charlottenberg; multicultural and anarchic Neukölln; the elegant serenity of our temporary home in Prenzlauer Berg. We’re staying in the beautiful Blue Home, a super-chic, art-filled oasis in a lovely 19th-century building, each room stamped with its own individual personality. Minutes from chaotic, brutalist Alexanderplatz, it’s the perfect base for strolling around café-lined avenues, poking heads into vintage stores and weekend flea markets. Again, street-food puts in an appearance, from traditional German cheesecakes (every flavour from blackcurrant to salted caramel) to more exotic Chinese-style bau buns and Korean mandu dumplings. Fine coffee stalls too. But our favourite market is the Turkish one, held on Fridays along the canal on the gritty and fascinating Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg-Neukölln axis, for a million twinkling dried fruits, olives and spices. Cheeses and huge wheels of soft Turkish bread. Vast blousy bouquets of parsley, purslane, mint. We snack on gozleme, flatbread stuffed with spinach and potato, and fragrant barbecued mackerel and dill sandwiches. Go late, and the sight of tiny Turkish grandmas fighting for fruit and veg bargains is one to behold.
High-end dining in Mitte
Back to one last blast of swishness at Einsunternull, Ivo Ebert’s dream of calm, creamy serenity in Mitte, all glass, pale wood and hand-thrown porcelain. Once again, the mantra is locality and a parade of sublime wines. Dishes are plated like Japanese artworks, even humble ingredients such as button mushrooms turned into things of paper-thin sophistication with toasted hazelnut purée. A chunk of intense beef spare rib, just rosy, comes with a pool of sticky, black, slow-cooked celery root: genuinely like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. This is no place for a Bunterish blowout, but for those drawn to the intrinsic beauty of food, it’s unmissable.
Old school German specialities
I’ve concentrated on the new brigade, but there are enormous joys to be had from the old school too: the city’s oldest restaurant, wood-panelled Zur Letzen Insanz and its ham knuckles the size of babies; or Rogacki, a vast, eccentric food hall in a dusty corner of Charlottenburg, a palace of deli food forever frozen in time – who knew there were so many varieties of rollmop and smoked fish in the world? Or the Prater Garden, the sprawling, tree-lined beer garden of everyone’s fantasies. We don’t get a chance to wallow in Berlin’s beloved brunch culture, nor do we have a currywurst, not once.
Culturally, socially and artistically, Berlin has long been an innovator and incubator of talent. It still brims with an almost punky energy, endlessly fascinating. And right now it seems that the city’s culinary arena has caught up: strap yourselves in, we’re ready for takeoff.
How to do it
Norwegian flies twice-daily, except Saturdays, between London Gatwick and Berlin Schönefeld Airport. Fares start from £29.90 one way at norwegian.com. Rooms at Blue Home are from €110. For more information on Berlin’s sights, tours and events, visit visitberlin.de.
Do you have any favourite Berlin food hot spots? Let us know in the comments below...
All recommendations have been reviewed and approved as of the 01 August 2016. If you think there is any incorrect or out of date information in this guide please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.