I’m sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of spanking riesling, feeling lucky to have secured a last-minute spot at Lokal restaurant. It’s a Tuesday and just 7pm, but by the time I leave there’s elbow jostling at the bar and the simple, white room is rammed full of people keen to worship at this temple of locavorism, whose chef butchers most of the meat and follows a nose-to-tail philosophy. And boy is it good.
I try a starter of suckling pig chop and pulled pork knuckle, with potato served three ways — including potato vinaigrette — and it’s the perfect balance of tender, bouncy, juicy chop; freshly picked baby leaves and carrots; and, well, a lot of gorgeous potatoes. And this is just the starter. Chef Gary Hoopengardner says, “We only use products from around here. We buy whole animals; today, there’s duck belly and we use a lot of wild game when it’s available. Our vegetables are from nearby Brandenburg farms and we cook them very lightly. We try to do two or three variations of the one vegetable.”
Berlin — home of the currywurst and the city that invented the doner kebab (honestly, the idea of serving the meat in a flatbread was born here) — is having a vegetable renaissance. Chef Pierre Gagnaire tells me the same thing when I meet him in the kitchen of Les Solistes by Pierre Gagnaire, his Michelin-starred restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Berlin in an up-and-coming area of the city now known as City West.
“Vegetables are big news — everybody has discovered vegetables. Moi, I found out a long time ago that the vegetable could be the key to the new taste, a new texture. It’s less expensive and we have so many combinations with the vegetable. I like the spice. But the most important is the vegetable.”
Pierre laughs when I ask what Berlin’s main vegetables are, because, it turns out, they’re the turnip and the potato. He tells me Les Solistes is a French restaurant with a Berlin spin, and so soup — which Berliners love — is very important.
“Berlin is a melting pot, it’s not really Germany it’s a new world,” Pierre tells me. “My mission is to create something strong but with a link to the city and the people and the story, where you can feel the past and also the future. In Berlin it’s a mix between big energy and tradition. The first time I came to Berlin, four years ago, I ate pastrami in a Jewish restaurant. I’d like to do something with that here in Les Solistes. This dish is incredible and it can be a touch of this city.”
So I seek out pastrami in Mitte, Berlin’s old Jewish neighbourhood — in 1925, it was home to 31,000 Jews. On the lookout for my lunch spot, I stumble across Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. It’s a museum now but during the Holocaust it was where blind and deaf Jews produced brooms, under the protection of their patron, who tried to stop them from being sent to the death camps.
Mogg & Melzer is housed in a former Jewish girls’ school — it closed on 30 June 1942 with most of its pupils and teachers later sent away to the death camps. Paul Mogg, the English half of the titular duo, explains that Mitte had been an empty neighbourhood for years and — when he and his Jewish partner took occupancy in the school — they wanted to honour its history. And the food is top-class deli stuff. I try the Reuben sandwich, with tender, home-cured and smoked pastrami piled in generous layers and stuffed between slices of rye bread, served with Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. It’s so good I wonder if this is the pastrami Pierre so reveres.
I wander the streets of Prenzlauer Berg and note how quiet Berlin is for such a dynamic place. This may be because it was once two cities, East and West, with two hearts that have been brought together as one but with no real centre and thus no traffic jams and throngs of people. Prenzlauer Berg is famous for breakfast, and I head for Sowohl Als Auch (‘As Well As’), which offers breakfast from dawn to dusk. There, local girl Claudia Sult tells me, “The culinary scene in Berlin is so diverse. This city is not like the rest of Germany, there are so many influences and so many people here. A few years ago it used to be ‘Oh, Berlin, it’s cheap food, cool’ but the quality was not as good. It might not be so cheap now but the quality and creativity has increased.”
And so too has the variety. Traditional street food vendors offering currywurst, kebabs, falafel and the like are now competing with stalls crafting burgers, ceviche, pies, gua bao buns and more, many of them gathering at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg for funky Street Food Thursday. Once a month — on the third Sunday — there’s even a breakfast market. As Claudia says, “Berliners love going for breakfast.”
I want traditional German, with a modern twist, so head to a residential part of Charlottenberg by the River Spree, seeking out cute little restaurant Schnitzelei. Inside, guests are welcomed with a small beer and the manager, Christian, recommends a schnapps “to open the stomach”. I try German tapas, including Berlin rost sausages; a creamy mix of cheeses, butter and onions known as obatzda; and a salty loin of pork. But the main draw is the schnitzel. I opt for half portions, the greedy chops in me wanting to try two kinds: Wiener schnitzel and Gesottnenes schnitzel, which is boiled beef covered in a mustard crust. They’re both lovely but hearty and I have eyes-bigger-than-belly shame.
High up in my Waldorf Astoria eerie I look down to the Tiergarden park, the Berlin Zoological Garden, the bombed out shell that is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and over to the Berlin TV Tower in the east. Yes, this city has changed radically in the 25 years since the Wall was torn down. But these days, perhaps nothing is moving as fast as the city’s food scene.
Five Berlin food finds
An organic Turkish market located at the beautiful Maybachufer every Tuesday and Friday. Maybachufer, 12047 Berlin Neukölln. T: 00 49 3029 772486.
Berlin’s famous sausage is served mit oder ohne (‘with or without skin’), with chips and tomato sauce. The curry is a powder sprinkled over the sauce. Cheap, cheerful and, for many, an acquired taste. Curry 36 (Mehringdamm, Kreuzberg) or Konnopke’s Imbiss (Prenzlauer Berg).
Street Food Thursday
A weekly food event in the Markthalle Neun where more than 20 street food vendors gather so you can conveniently hop around and sample handmade burgers, käsespätzle (macaroni cheese), Taiwanese steamed pork buns, British pies and apple crumbles. Closes at 10pm, although the food runs out before then. Markthalle Neun, Eisenbahnstraße 42, 10997 Berlin.
The doner kebab was invented in Berlin by Turkish immigrant Kadir Nurman and the grilled meat, salad and flatbread sandwich is now served by more than 1,000 vendors throughout the city.
A gem of a foodstore, selling Berlin-made products, including currywurst powder and local vodka. Located in the architectural beauty that is the Hackesche Höfe courtyard complex. visitberlin.de/en
Four places for a taste of Berlin
Chef Pierre Gagnaire’s first — Michelin-starred — German restaurant combines traditional French cooking techniques with local ingredients. “It’s a French restaurant but we’re influenced by this amazing city and put our own spin on it,” he says. Chef de cuisine Roel Linterman’s menu includes hare served three ways — roasted saddle, civet a la Royale and pie with plum paste. Pierre’s ‘Grand Dessert’ is a selection of his five favourite sweets, involving liquids, jellies and jewel-like confections.
How much: Three courses without wine from £67pp. Waldorf Astoria Berlin, Hardenbergstrasse 28, 10623 Berlin. T: 00 49 3081 40000.
Expect lightshades made of bottles, a stripped-back style and friendly, funky staff. Chef Gary Hoopengardner says, “We’ve met the farmers and the producers, so we get our stuff from our personal connections.” The menu changes, depending on which animal Gary has butchered and what nearby Brandenburg gardens have to offer. Dishes can include pheasant breast with parsnip, broccoli, radish and chickweed; and fillet of adlerfisch, white cabbage, dandelion and potato.
How much: Three courses without wine from £19pp. Linienstraße 160, Berlin-Mitte. T: 00 49 3028 449500.
Mogg & Meltzer
Duo Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg cure their own meats, pastrami is brined for four to five weeks to break down the fat, then smoked with a pepper rub out the back (where their brisket is also barbecued), then cooked on a low heat for a very long time. Matseball soup warms chilly days and the heavenly pastrami-stuffed Reuben sandwich, with mayonnaise, tabasco, chipotle and sauerkraut, has led to queues at the door. Guests share tables in the bright room, kitted out like a 1930s New York deli.
How much: Reuben costs around £10.65. Auguststr. 11-13, 10117 Berlin. T: 00 49 30 3300 60770.
Tucked away down a quiet residential street near the leafy banks of the River Spree, this restaurant celebrates everything flattened, covered in breadcrumbs and fried. Starters embrace a German tapas theme, offering small bites of traditional dishes such as ‘Berlin rost sausages’ and meatballs in caper sauce, with three tapas for €6.50 (£5). Guests are greeted with a glass of beer and urged to drink schnapps and then, of course, more beer. There are seven different savoury schnitzel (ask for half portions to sample a range). There’s even schnitzel for dessert.
How much: Three courses without wine from £17.50pp. Röntgenstraße 7, 10587 Berlin. T: 00 49 3034 702777.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)