Tell some people you're going to Berlin for the food and you get pitying looks. Knackwurst, Bratwurst und indigestion? But over the past few years, reports have been filtering in about the city's art scene and its avant-garde fashion and design. Surely the food must have followed?
In our former lives at the New York Times as a writer and an editor for the Sunday Styles section, this kind of scouting had been our beat. Now we only get to indulge our fascination with culinary and pop-culture trends when we're on vacation. Berlin seemed a promising destination, thriving but still emerging and full of discoveries: For instance, the eastern part of this once-divided city is now where all the action is, culinary, cultural andironicallyconsumer.
Our hotel was the Ku'Damm 101 (Kurfürstendamm 101; 011-49-30-520-0550; doubles from $100), a rare outpost of hipsterism deep in West Berlin whose concrete columns and apparent ban on broadloom had throngs of club kids crawling through the bar. But a walk down the Kurfürstendamm (a.k.a. "the Ku'damm"), a boulevard of brands all too familiar to an American traveler, made it clear that the real action must be in the East. We were about to write off the entire West, until we met Horst Reinwald, master oystermonger.
Reinwald presides over the oyster bar in the seventh-floor food emporium of the KaDeWe, Berlin's famed department store (Tauentzienstr. 21-24; 011-49-30-21-21-0). Picture a jaunty pirate in hoop earrings, a silver beard, a beret and a red paisley neckerchief gaily shucking oysters while boasting about his squishy doubloons. "It is not workit is a hobby for me! I am in Spain, I am in Ireland, I am snorkeling in South Africaand always I am looking for new oysters!" We ordered a dozen mixed. With brute elegance, Reinwald cracked each oyster open with his guillotina, a prized tool he ransomed from Spain. French Belons, refined and neat and sweet. Scottish Loch Fynes fully five inches long, ending in a pearl-shape ball with a golden ripple running through its meat and demanding a red wine vinegar and shallot sauce to cut the brine. A tiny German Schmetterling Reinwald called "the baby" had a chalky taste that made Ilene spit it into her napkin when he wasn't looking. Maybe he saw her, because he offered a plate of his Gratinierte Austern, a sort of oysters Rockefeller smothered in baby shrimp, spinach and a fondue-ish cheese sauce. By 4:30 a crowd of regulars was starting to gather, sipping Champagne and ordering with familiar nods. We slid off our stools, sated and sedated.
EAST SIDE STORY
As our taxi barreled down Unter den Linden, the Champs-Élysées of Berlin, leaving behind the Brandenburg Gate, the glittering boulevards of the west gave way to the cobbled Old European streets of the east's Mitte section. We arrived at Margaux (Unter den Linden 78; 011-49-30-22-65-26-11), a four-year-old French restaurant that we'd heard is one of the city's best. Considering that it earned a Michelin star just four months after its opening in 2000, it was strangely empty at 9:00 on a Thursday night. A couple basking in clouds of cigarette smoke and Placido Domingo holding court in the corner created a sense of subdued privilege, similar to what the Commiecrats must have enjoyed during the Cold War.
Germans may not be known for their sense of humor, but at Margaux we kept detecting undertones of sly wit in chef Michael Hoffmann's menu. Creamy tuna tartare accompanied by crunchy salsify and dipping oil with coffee grounds could be read as a pastiche of American tuna salad served with a cup of coffee. Then came snow-white fillets of poached brill with a clear gelée of mineral water and Himalayan salt that looked like mini glaciers, adorned by the waiter with frozen shavings of olive oil. The funny part was that a dish so coolly minimalist had so much flavor. Perfectly poached langoustines came beside a row of saucesstockfish brandade, vanilla langoustine reduction. The low, horizontal presentation seemed like a gibe at the towering vertical dishes that have become standard in New York City. Maybe we didn't quite understand the dessert: pink-pepper ice cream with oil-cured olives impersonating pieces of chocolate. But who cared? This was the best meal we'd had in years.
If Margaux is the kind of place we imagined might have been favored by characters from a John Le Carré novel, the nearby Borchardt really wasa power-dining institution that opened more than a century and a half ago (Französische Str. 47; 011-49-30-20-38-71-10). "The Wiener schnitzel is a favorite of the Chancellor," the waiter informed us, with a whiff of hauteur, as we scanned the lunch menu the next day. The Chancellor's schnitzel was encased in a crisp pillowy batter on a plush bed of Ur-German potato saladtender cubes snuggled in a warm, tart gravy of vinegar and bacon. A couple of Radeberger pilsners later, we felt the place start to warm up. The waiter even confided that he was an actor saving his money to move to L.A.
The new restaurant touted as the hippest destination by local foodies was VAU (Jägerstr. 54-55; 011-49-30-20-29-73-0), a long, brightly lit room which at 10:00 on a Saturday night was indeed a bustling burlesque of Berlin's elite. The blond, steely-eyed maître d' stalked up and down the aisles like a cross between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Zoolander, replacing napkins without breaking his stride. The master of ceremonies was chef Kolja Kleeberg, who with his shaggy hair, slit-narrow eyeglasses and tongue stud has nailed the persona of a celebrity chef. The magic formula: Work the room. When we asked him what VAU means, he responded, obliquely, "Ask me what it does not mean." Apparently VAU has no meaning, other than that it is the name of his restaurant.
Kleeberg's opening number was promising: a shallow dish of cold Jerusalem artichoke soup, as mild and rich as a crème anglaise, with a medallion of venison tartare. The soup was topped with a quail-egg yolk that broke into a puddle streaking yellow rays and was served alongside a decadent portion of imperial caviar formed in the shape of an egg. Paired with a 2002 Westhofner Riesling, it was a raw, erotic, completely entrancing dish. But the mood broke in the tasting lineup that followed, which included scallops coated with unpleasantly crunchy salt crystals and doused in a loud beet and raspberry coulis. Though the service drifted off, we contented ourselves with drinking our wine (VAU has an impressive selection of German wines, from a Siegrist Chardonnay Sur Lie to a Koehler-Ruprecht Philippi Pinot Noir) and wondering about the characters around usthe young woman in the rumpled blouse puffing a cigar from the restaurant's humidor, the pair of frosty-haired good-time girls making teary cell-phone calls between rounds of Champagne.
DINNER IN THE DARK
Mike Myers once told Rick, in an interview, that he based his Saturday Night Live character Dieter, host of Sprockets, on a flamboyant German waiter he knew who was obsessed with textures. The waiter would make Myers stick his hand in a box lined with velvet or ferret fur and say, "Feel it. Gorgeous." We wondered if that guy was responsible for "dining in the dark," a bizarre movement that sprang up in a few European cities, including Berlin, several years ago and recently landed in New York City. Our evening at unsicht-Bar (Gormannstr. 14; 011-49-30-24-34-25-00), also in Mitte, began in the dimly lit but not yet totally dark lobby, with a menu that presented dishes in goofy riddles, to preserve the mystery of the dining experience. "French gold encounters companions filled with wanderlust, carrying an autumn bouquet." (Which turned out to be lamb with potatoes and green beans.) Sandy, a pretty, blond member of unsicht-Bar's visually impaired waitstaff, led us, through a series of disorienting twists and turns, to our table. She assured us that she'd be within earshot and said if we needed to get up for any reason, we should call out "Sandy!"
It was dark. So dark we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces, or our neighborsonly hear their peals of German laughter. The soup came. Three ramekins to decipher. We never approached yellow pea and ham with such terrorRick of spilling, Ilene of eating a fly. The venison with its many side dishes was tasty but challenging to sort out in the dark. Ilene confessed to touching her food, to feel where everything was. Appalled, Rick refused to go Lord of the Flies, insisting that the only thing between us and savagery was a knife and fork. But sensory-deprivation madness took hold as we giggled along with the Germans. Here we were in public, but totally invisible! Giddy, Ilene slipped off the straps of her chemise, whispering that she was topless. "Gorgeous," Rick said in his best Dieter, or was it Joel Grey?
Come here for the food, and you get the full Cabaret.
Rick Marin is the author of Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor. Ilene Rosenzweig cofounded the Swell line of books and products.