The food scene is Berlin is heating up. Once a culinary desert where poor service and frozen produce reigned supreme, Berlin is finally reaping the fruits of a culinary revolution that has been years in the making. Local and seasonal ingredients, daring and adventurous concepts and a hungry and curious international crowd of residents have all mean that food can now be a highlight of any visit here.
In the heart of Mitte is Dóttir, currently one of the hottest tables in town, and a combination of old-school Berlin scruff and innovative Nordic cuisine. Housed in a residential building that’s going to be converted into a hotel next year, Dóttir is a pop-up that is unlikely to last beyond 2015. The mish-mash of flea market furniture inside is juxtaposed with the expensive art on the walls to wonderful effect, though the real draw here is Icelandic chef Victoria Eliasdóttir’s take on everything Scandinavian.
Spotted by the Berlin team behind Berlin’s famous Grill Royal steak restaurant, Reykjavik native Eliasdóttir (from whom the restaurant takes its name) is busy cooking the food of her childhood, which was spent between Iceland and Denmark. This manifests itself as a weekly changing four-course set menu cooked by Eliasdóttir in the open kitchen that adjoins the charming dining room.
Fish from the Baltic, and plenty of Nordic vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichoke, chicory and white cabbage, are all cooked to subtle perfection, while deserts are an explosive combination of flavours and a real highlight of each set meal. Perhaps best of all is the incredible homemade brown bread and burned butter, something you might well find yourself wanting to bathe in, it’s so good.
Enjoying a gorgeous position on Kreuzberg’s Landwehr Canal is Spindler, the new project of veteran restaurateur Frank Spindler. The restaurant is helmed by French chef Nicolas Gemin, who has created a short and simple menu with wonderfully interesting dishes presented in the compartmentalised manner of a Miró painting. The picks of the bunch here include a chorizo and octopus salad with sweet potato and beetroot, and some of the most tender lamb chops I have ever tasted. The rough homemade pâté and brioche, served with watermelon, green asparagus and avocado cream was also outstanding.
The creative lighting, the warm space and the charming staff are excellent reasons to come here, though another recently discovered strength is its fantastic weekend brunch, which is simply the best I’ve discovered in six years of hunting. Berlin, it’s fair to say, is a city that has still not quite got the concept of small, well-cooked dishes for breakfast, as opposed to a huge and uninspiring buffet of cold meats and cheeses. Spindler nails it on that front.
Zenkichi, also in Mitte, is a new arrival bringing Tokyo style cuisine to Berlin. “Our goal is to transport our guests to Tokyo for the price of a meal,” says co-owner Motoko Watanabe. “From the design to the service, the music, food and drink, nothing is adulterated or adjusted to local taste. We strive to provide an experience that could be had in Tokyo.”
Indeed, descending the stairs from a drab office building off Mitte’s Friedrichstrasse into Zenkichi, the diner is quickly transported into another world of moody darkness, bamboo walls and stepping stones through what was until recently just another Berlin basement, but which now serves up Berlin’s most talked about Japanese cuisine in cosy semi-private booths to the strains of jazz, another typical Tokyo combination that will not be found in other places in Berlin.
But despite its extraordinary atmosphere, Zenkichi remains solidly focused on its food. The style is the shared small plates typical of Tokyo restaurants, which can be paired with a premium sake selection, another rarity in Berlin. The eight course tasting menu is omakase in style, meaning that the chef selects the best things available that day, starting with the subtlest, lightest sashimi and ending up with such stellar offerings as grilled black cod in miso marinade, and filet mignon served in a garlic and ginger soy sauce.
The desserts are also unlike anything you’ll find at other Japanese restaurants: they’re not simply good, but a reason to come here themselves. Most impressive on my last visit was a superb grapefruit agar gelée, an incredible tasting, sweet yet tart creation that ended the meal perfectly. Cutting edge Japanese cuisine in Berlin would have seemed like a joke just a few years ago, but now it’s a reality and there’s inevitably much more culinary innovation still to come.