Berlin's Best Dinner Party
For someone who is not an artist, Stephan Landwehr’s life is very much shaped by art. As Berlin’s premier framer, he is a major player in the city’s art scene. A shrewd collector and occasional curator, Landwehr co-owns the five-year-old Grill Royal, which he funded in part by selling a museum-worthy painting by Scottish artist Peter Doig for $2 million. The ambitious steak house has become a culinary hangout for key figures in the German art world, and a food critics’ favorite as well.
Landwehr is also known around Berlin for entertaining on a more personal scale. The dinner parties he hosts with his business partner Boris Radczun—a dapper former nightlife impresario and passionate home cook—are legendary for the amazing assembly of people (there have been as many as 400 guests) in his quirky, art-filled home. But lately, the success of the Grill Royal has kept Landwehr and Radczun too busy to organize many gatherings.
Today, though, they’re having a dinner party to celebrate something new. The two of them, along with a third partner, Jessica Paul, have just launched Pauly Saal & Bar. Pauly Saal encompasses a modern German restaurant and a private dining room; a deli called Mogg & Melzer is located next door. The sprawling space takes up the entire ground floor and courtyard of the former Jewish Girls School, a 1928 brick structure that’s in the heart of Berlin’s fashionable Mitte district. The building has stood virtually empty for more than 15 years.
For this enormous enterprise, the restaurateurs enlisted Michelin-starred, Austrian-born chef Siegfried Danler to help revive the tradition of an archetypal Berlin grand café from the 1920s. Danler has created a menu focusing on lighter, more organic versions of classic German dishes, some of which are being served at the party. For an update on chicken with dandelion greens, for instance, the chef uses roast guinea hens with tender braised endives. He serves the succulent birds with a few satisfying accompaniments: boiled, buttered fingerling potatoes and thick, meaty slices of king oyster mushroom slow-cooked in chicken stock.
Landwehr and Radczun are both passionate about Germany’s culinary history; they can discuss it for hours and hours. For generations, they say, the shame of the Second World War separated the nation from its food traditions. “Back when the wall between East and West Germany fell in 1989, there were a lot of us in West Berlin who wished it would have stayed up,” Landwehr says. “That’s because, for many years, we were able to think of ourselves as Berliners rather than as Germans.”
Still, about a decade after the wall came down, West Berliners started to explore the beaches and massive stretches of forest of the former East Germany. They slowly began embracing the ingredients found there, many of which appear on the menu at Pauly Saal. “We’ve got it all—fish from the lakes and from the Baltic Sea, meat and vegetables from Brandenburg,” Radczun says. “We might have to go a little further south for the red wine, but the Spätburgunder coming from Fritz Keller in the Black Forest is as good as any Bordeaux.”
The party to celebrate their hard work on Pauly Saal is the first one the hosts have thrown in a while. This time, Radczun, who usually prepares the food for dinner parties, isn’t cooking himself; instead Danler is previewing a test menu from the restaurant for an eclectic mix of friends, including up-and-coming artists, favorite farmers and other influential Berliners.
An invitation to Landwehr’s home is a coveted event for several reasons. The house, in a building that was a laundry for almost a century, is full of amazing art. Even the L-shaped kitchen could double as an art installation: Landwehr framed panes of colored glass to use as cupboard fronts and lined the walls with drawings and photographs by notable artists such as Marc Brandenburg and Angus Fairhurst. The focal point of the living area is a stuffed, bandaged fox on a pedestal, wearing a jaunty green hat and carrying a walking stick. It’s one of the few sculptures created by German artist Daniel Richter. “I think he made about six of these foxes,” Landwehr says. “He’s giving me the last one he has, so I’ll have two to use to decorate Pauly Saal.”
In the living area, where an abstract portrait of Landwehr by the German painter and sculptor Thomas Scheibitz hangs with three other enormous canvases over the couch, guests drink glasses of deep red Spätburgunder and snack on appetizers of mini open-face pastrami sandwiches on toasted rye, spread with mustard. Instead of tart dill pickles, the traditional accompaniment to pastrami, Danler offers colorful toppings that are each a little bit tangy, including shredded green cabbage with sour-cream dressing, quickly pickled red cabbage and yellow lentils stewed with white wine vinegar and laced with minced scallions.
Gradually, the guests begin to arrange themselves around a wooden dining table underneath a monumental painting by Sean Landers of a clown walking through an arctic landscape. The first course is a mix of vegetables: sautéed local morels with fresh green asparagus and a bright butter-lettuce salad. Nils Odefay, a farmer who raises what he calls “happy chickens,” sits near Michael Zehden, a Berlin hotelier and the owner of a high-end kosher catering company that has fed everyone from the Pope to German chancellor Angela Merkel.
After the guinea hen main course, Danler serves sweet poppy seed–stuffed quark (fresh cheese) dumplings with cooked rhubarb. Zehden’s catering chef, Roman Albrecht, makes a second dessert: semolina dumplings served with tart apricot preserves. Although he’s not Jewish, Albrecht is well known for his kosher cooking at Liebermanns Restaurant in the Jewish Museum Berlin. In Pauly Saal’s private dining room, he’ll serve kosher meals on Friday evenings, as well as for Sunday brunch.
For Pauly Saal’s owners, it’s entirely fitting to offer traditional German and kosher meals under one roof in the former Jewish Girls School. “We’re calling it The Kosher Classroom,” Zehden says. “We hope to attract everyone, from local Berliners curious to learn more about kosher food to groups of Orthodox Jewish travelers.”
“Mazel tov!” says someone at the table. “Guten appetit!” Landwehr adds, as the guests pick up their forks.
Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for Food & Wine. She lives with her family in Berlin.
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