Three trending Berlin restaurants give dining in the German capital a contemporary spin
Glass, Ora and Mrs Robinson’s are three restaurants that epitomise Berlin’s dining scene – passionate, fun and vibrant. They serve exciting, well-presented dishes in relaxed settings with an emphasis on techniques and flavours
The rain is torrential on a cold and miserable March evening in Berlin, but inside the compact space of Mrs Robinson’s, one of the city’s most talked about restaurants, the welcome is warm and the champagne chilled. The laconic Australian manager Hamish Sullivan says, “Some bubbles on a Monday night – it’s what we do in Berlin.”
The one-time kebab shop is buzzing and full, thanks to the spectacular food from Israeli chef Ben Zviel, Sullivan’s hospitality and the energy and style imparted by the British owner Samina Raza.
The young international trio embody all that’s good about the Berlin dining scene. Vibrant, international, passionate – but most of all, fun. Fun in an irreverent sense, mixing and matching ingredients and cuisines with unexpected but successful abandon, but also in marking a move away from the city’s somewhat staid former culinary image.
Zviel came to Berlin after working in places such as WD~50 from Wylie Dufresne in New York. In Hong Kong, the food at Ho Lee Fook maybe comes closest to his approach.
In common with many exciting global chefs, Zviel was drawn by the much cheaper rents and costs in the German capital. It’s a city he loves, with certain pros and cons, he says.
“The Berlin food scene requires a chef to be produce-focused in a more extreme way because it takes an extra effort to get high quality produce here. On the other hand, colleagues are really open and friendly; the industry culture is one of sharing ideas and inspiration, and I feel very at home here.”
The dishes at Mrs Robinson’s – named not after the Simon & Garfunkel classic but a fun former client of Raza’s from her corporate days – include stand-outs such as devilled egg with tempura oyster. On paper an odd combination, in practice a memorable dish with a sensational chilli cream sauce that demanded more of their excellent bread. As for chunks of wood-grilled octopus, paired with aged beef fat, served with a yuzu labneh? Words almost failto describe how much I loved it – my notes just state, ‘A simple plate of total joy’.
Books in the open kitchen include A Vegetarian Flavour Bible and Animals and Plants, reflecting something common in Berlin restaurants, namely an enthusiasm and ability to do great things with vegetables.
I tuck into crispy Brussels sprouts, miso dressing, aromatic wild herbs and almonds for a bargain US$8. Indeed, the substantial five-course tasting menu, featuring some of their top dishes, costs just US$68; the final bill, including three drinks and multiple plates, was around US$89.
You have to order any dish with “infamous” in the title, and the “infamous fried chicken bao with caviar” more than lived up to the billing. The “caviar” was actually tobiko (flying fish) and trout roe – in keeping with the Japanese and English accents punctuating the menu – and paired with a Tabasco and honey cream, it made for an absurdly delicious plate.
Zviel says the menu is changed often.
“Inspiration comes from working, and ideas flow when you are already creating. We change the menu quite often, sometimes twice a month, but not according to a strict routine. The seasons – and what we have created and stored in our pantry – take the lead, but the elements all come together through the inspiration of our team.”
The working-class neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, in the heart of the city near the former border with East Berlin, has retained its grittiness. It’s not the prettiest part of Berlin, but what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in soul by the truckload.
It has also long been a draw for creative people, a factor in its plethora of breweries, roasteries, restaurants, cafes and bars.
A trilingual Swede, Per Meurling is better known by his alter ego Berlin Food Stories, making him one of the most respected – and wholly independent – food critics in the city. He introduced me to Ora, where we headed for lunch.
As interiors go, it takes some beating. It was, from 1861 until 2015, an apothecary, a truly beautiful setting and one of the most Instagram-friendly dining rooms in the city. The extensive wood and glass cabinets, floor-to-ceiling stacks of drawers with names of drugs on them and mismatched furniture make for a charming vibe.
Many restaurants like to call their design “unique”, but Ora truly defines it. They take their name from the former apothecary, the Oranien-Apotheke.
Two courses delivered first-class comfort food taken up a notch by technique. The German favourite of kartoffelsuppe, or potato soup (US$9.90) came with shards of Parmesan crisps in a bowl. The luscious, smooth and creamy soup was then poured over it from a jug that disconcertingly looked like it had been used to dispense other liquids in the apothecary over the years.
It went perfectly with some exceptional loaf and home-made butter – Ora is also a bakery with seriously tempting loaves, cakes and more.
The main course of ruby-red beef (US$17) was served with a brilliant, deep jus that just needed to be more generous in volume. A sort of bubble and squeak of potato and pointed white cabbage called spitzkohl and roasted carrots and parsnips were served with it.
With traditional flavours, quality ingredients and slick execution in a memorable dining room, Ora’s popularity is well deserved.
Finally, to Glass, near the Berlin zoo. The elegant, contemporary dining room under the lead of another Israeli chef, Gal Ben-Moshe, and his partner, the sommelier Jacqueline Lorenz, may be familiar to some Hong Kong diners – they were one of the early teams to cook at pop-up specialists Test Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun.
Ben-Moshe worked under two great contemporary chefs: Claude Bosi, formerly at London’s Hibiscus and now at the much-admired Bibendum, and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s three-Michelin-star temple to modernist cuisine, Alinea.
The dining room features generously spaced tables under grey tablecloths, with hanging copper lights and tubular piping in the windows. An international crowd almost filled the space on a rainy Tuesday night and made for a relaxed and convivial feel.
The menu’s welcome quote, from George Bernard Shaw, spoke volumes: “The most sincere form of love is love for food”. That passion showed throughout another excellent meal, a seven-course menu that cost €99.
Ben-Moshe often incorporates and plays with flavours and ingredients from the Middle East, not necessarily as the main focus of a dish, but often adding unique touches. Two amuse-bouches set the tone: a delicious small cone containing a tartare of mutton, a vastly underrated meat, with smoked onion, then an unusual textural interplay of smoked camel pastrami and a twig of crunchy yuba (bean curd skin).
Next was charred octopus with shaved cucumber, mint and samphire, the trendy crispy coastal vegetable. This was the ocean on a plate, a cracking little dish.
Perfectly cooked red mullet – Ben-Moshe shows a particularly expert hand with proteins – was served along with fennel, while perhaps the most Middle Eastern-influenced plate was the excellent lamb with aubergine, rose and pomegranate.
In tune with the restaurant’s name, the plating at Glass is always exceptional – transparent and leaving nothing to chance.
To end, the stand-out among the two desserts was a wonderful, decadent cylinder of crémeux of Jivara chocolate, bookended with shards of cumin caramel, the plate dotted with banana and black sesame.
The sommelier Lorenz curates exceptional wine pairings to match her partner’s plates. Their combined efforts have made Glass a fixture on Berlin’s burgeoning list of must-try restaurants for visitors and locals alike.
Mrs Robinson’s Pappelallee 29, Berlin 10437, tel: +49 (0) 152 0518 8946, mrsrobinsons.de
Ora Oranienplatz 14, Berlin 10999, ora-berlin.de
Glass Uhlandstraße 195, Berlin 10623, +49 (0) 30 5471 0861, glassberlin.de