I was at a banquet for the USC Shoah Visual History Foundation a few weeks ago. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, was the MC. He killed—mostly by contrasting the sumptuous surroundings—the Four Seasons—and the lavish food, with the fact that we were all there because of…the Shoah.
“Every Jewish meal comes with a healthy side of guilt,” he said.
And that’s how I felt in Berlin.
As I wrote in my editorial this week, the banging nightlife, the rejuvenated neighborhoods and hip bars and ideal restaurants can be disorienting. Wait, I’m enjoying myself… in Berlin. I’m gorging myself… in Berlin.
That said, the visitBerlin people took a small group of journalists to some places that in any city I’d want to revisit, even with the guilt.
Two things in Berlin’s favor: it’s far less expensive than other European capitals. We stayed at the Hotel Regent, a four star, former Four Seasons pamper-palace in a 19th century building about a mile from the Brandenberg Gate. Marble floors, Meissen baubles, fluffy bathrobes and a staff that seemed to be put on earth to assent to your whims.
And between my forays into Berlin Jewish history, the visitBerlin people treated me to a series of fine meals. And I discovered: nothing helps you reconcile the dark past to the promising future like a good bottle of Riesling and real food..
With one happy exception, the food we ate reflected the trend toward local and sustainably-sourced food. Funny that going local is actually a global craze. All the restaurants touted their farm fresh local produce and meats—Berlin as Berkeley. Ditto the more casual, gastropub vibe and predilection for small plates and regional specialties. (The exception was that most places served a fresh fish or two, and last I checked Berlin is about 200 miles from the ocean).
It was fresh white asparagus season in Germany. The variety they all but pray to is called Beelitzer. Such adoration reminded me of a line from Jeffrey Lewis’ novel Berlin Cantata: “The Germans either believe in nothing, or too much.”
Every place, from two star gastro-temples to the local brew houses, paid homage to the white, densely flavored and frankly somewhat phallic . In three days I ate chilled asparagus salad, a creamed white asparagus soup, sautéed Beelitzers, or, the most common preparation, steamed white asparagus with boiled new potatoes and melted butter. I ate that last dish three times, and never got tired of it.
Of the places we visited, my recommendations are below. Keep in mind prices are generally lower what you’d pay in other European capitals, more in line with Los Angeles prices for moderate to high-end restaurants.
A two-star Michelin restaurant in the Hotel Regent. You pass one of the world’s five lobster presses in the foyer. For 280 Euros (but that’s for two people…), you can order Maine lobster in a sauce of pressed shell and coral jus slurried with cream. That wasn’t on offer (though check out the photo of the lobster press, below). Highlights were Tartar of Smoked Eel with Horseradish and Granny Smith Apple, Roasted Filet of Iceland Codfish with White Asparagus and a Morel-flecked Béarnaise Sauce, and a dessert of Stewed pineapple in Butter Caramel with vanilla ice cream and a dried pineapple chip. Okay, not local, but wonderful. Dinner here will cost $100 per person, triple if you go for the lobster.
In the top floor of the Reichstag Building. Once the symbol of German delusion, now an architectural landmark remade by Norman Foster, and featuring a Spago-like eatery with terrific views of the city.
In a converted former Jewish girl’s school—again, strange feeling that—this new, hip spot served one of my favorite dishes of the year: halibut with kohlrabi and stinging nettle risotto. The vegetables were so earthy and intense it tasted like the halibut was part forest animal. The food is sourced from local farmers, and often whole roasted animals are brought out to a central carving board to be parted out. My companions had wienerschnitzels the size of dinner plates, light and crisp over—poached asparagus—and a puff pastry shell holding wild mushrooms and more asparagus. One non-asparagus dish: a fish soup made from local crayfish stock with poached pieces of salmon and sea bass.
Mogg & Melzer
+49 (0)30 330 060 770
Berlin’s first Eastern European Jewish deli, though East Eurpean by way of Brooklyn. Home cured pastrami, made by New York Italian chef Joey Pesarreli, who also cooks a dense, tomatoey shakshuka. This is in the Jewish Girls School Building as well, and it’s authentic pastrami smell made me think of the Old Country, by which I mean Langers.
Café Einstein Stammhaus
In West Berlin, this local landmark is filled with real live Berliners, and you can see why. Housed in the converted villa of a former screen star, it delivers on atmosphere, on great coffee, and on Austrian style pastries. Take the strudel. A huge slice comes to the table from the oven, with buttery homemade strudel dough and tart apple filling. Only after I visited did I learn that the creepy scene in Inglourious Basterds, in which the Nazi hunter orders a strudel and milk for the Jewish heroine, was filmed here.
3 Minutes Sur Mer
That’s Minutes as in French minutes. A mostly French café in a quickly gentrifying artsy neighborhood, featuring bistro-style dishes and a French wine list. Crowded, fun, and a good break from German style food.
Fassbender & Rausch
Berlin’s legendary chocolate store. You’ll go here to see the four foot all chocolate bear, the Berlin landmarks like the Brandenberg Gate recreated in chocolate, and a huge offering of very decent chocolate products.
+49 (0) 983 208 431
In an old brewery, this is a brand new place with a young owner Ludwig Cramer-Klett committed to slow food—possessed by food-as-mission. This translates into very thoughtful takes on local ingredients, with the biggest crowd pleaser by far the French fries fired in organic duck fat. Oh. God.
030 610 74 033
Along the Landwehr Canal, in a converted electric generating plant— it turns out “volt” is German for “volt.” Hence the copper light fixtures and steel grating. Filled with an Abbot Kinney-esque crowd, and Gjelina-esque food.
Walk in and you enter your fantasies of German food. Hanging sausages, platters of pork haunch and beef shank, the scent of fresh-cured sauerkraut mixing with fresh-brewed beer—all in a beer hall atmosphere. And asparagus.
I can’t end this list with saluting the German bread. Everywhere you go, every table you sit at: brown bread, black bread, whole grain bread, sourdough bread, and tubs of sweet butter. I want to go back. Now.