Berlin Food Rally: Beyond the Plate

A view of Berlin — its cycles of destruction and renewal and the evolution of its food scene — through the lens of a one-night gastro tour.

If you wish to learn about a place, eat your way to the answer. This maxim resonates no less so than in Berlin, a city whose history tells of a rise from the ashes and from oppression and whose present-day witnesses a continual carving out of its own identity.

For as much as we’ve learned and eaten during our time in Berlin, there was apparently still more to eat, still more to learn.

Berlin Food Tour Mosaic
Berlin food tour Mosaic

So we accepted an opportunity to take a gastro rally, a one-night deep-dive into the Berlin food scene, its mainstream and its edge, all wrapped in a Berlin history and culture lesson.

And this was its flavor.

Berlin: The History

Henrik Tidefjaerd, founder of the Berlin Gastro Rallye, scanned the intersection taking it all in en plein air with a look of contentment on his face. He explains, “I like to start my tours here. Rosenthaler Platz is important historically, it represents the continually changing nature of Berlin.”

Henrik would be our host and guide – cultural, historical, gastronomical – for the evening.

Although we’ve crossed this intersection countless times — on foot, on our bicycles and on public transport – Henrik focuses our attention. We believed we’d already understood the place, but as he tells the story, we begin to envision the towers that once defined the edges of the old medieval walled city until the mid 1800s.

Before World War II, Rosenthaler Platz was one of the busiest intersections in Berlin. When Henrik moved to Berlin almost ten years ago, however, it was relatively quiet — a few restaurants and shops, almost sketchy in the dust of the fall of the Berlin wall. Nothing like today, where the intersection bustles, fashion moves apace, cafes and restaurants open anew, and creative and digital businesses spring up – earning it the affectionate moniker: Berlin’s Silicon Alley.

Destruction and renewal. Themes of the city; themes of the night.

Berlin: The Attitude

As we make our way to the first taste, Henrik sets the stage for the restaurants we are about to visit, the historical background and the waves and shift of the Berlin food scene.

Berlin lost everything; it’s still emerging. There’s still a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Berlin, a creativity, a drive to experiment. You can see this now in the gastro scene.

But he warns: “Don’t expect glam. If you want that, it’s better to stay in another city. Berlin is a ‘come as you are’ place; it welcomes you for who you really are.

And with this, we arrive at our first stop.

Berlin Food: The Cuisine Scene

W Imbiss: Fusion Naan Pizza!

This snack cafe catches my eye from across the street because the “W” in its name is cleverly portrayed as an upside down McDonald’s “M” — cheeky and appropriate. It’s casual and you have to order at the counter, but it’s not at all about high volume.

Henrik explains that Gordon W, its Canadian owner, had traveled extensively; this was his experiment in combining influence from different cuisines — Indian, Italian and Californian — with fresh local ingredients. Fusion pizza sounded as if it could go very wrong, but we reserved our opinions for the meal.

A few minutes later, two plates with “naan pizzas” arrive. One is slathered in spicy guacamole and topped with sundried tomatoes and mounds of rucola and bean sprouts. The other is topped with cooked spinach, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and sprouts.

Avocado Naan Pizza - Mitte, Berlin
Avocado Naan Pizza at W Imbiss, Mitte

A surprisingly authentic naan with a crunchy bottom – straight from a tandoor oven – has an aroma that hints at the South Asian subcontinent. Together with the cool, fresh ingredients piled on top, the entire creation is about layers of texture and flavor.

That this hasn’t become a world food trend is puzzling. It ought to be.

W Imbiss: Naan pizzas run from €6-€8 and are satisfying and large, almost enough for two people to share. We’ve returned several times and can recommend the artichoke naan pizza and bean quesadilla (€5, also huge), and specials like the curry chanterelle naan pizza. The inside is small, maybe five or six tables, but tables outside are perfect for three seasons. Address: Kastanienallee 49, Mitte

Vino e Libri: Sardianian Cuisine, Refined and Down-to-Earth

As we approach Vino e Libri, Henrik explains that this Italian (Sardinian, actually) restaurant had been around for ten years, a virtual eternity in modern Berlin terms.

The entrance almost looks like a cigar and book club – overflowing bookshelves to one side, a wine bar to the other. Library and aroma, wine and books, warm and cozy.

Our meal is refreshingly light and flavorful – grilled giant prawn over tomato basil ragu, sesame-encrusted whitefish atop greens and mandarin wedges, and roasted zucchini and potatoes, all served amidst artful dots of balsamic reduction. The citrus highlights of a Cantina Terian Winkl Sauvignon from the Italian Tirol makes for an exceptional pairing.

Seafood Plate at Vino e Libri - Mitte, Berlin
Seafood Plate at Vino e Libri in Mitte

After the meal, we are invited into the kitchen to meet the Sardinian chef and owner, Bruno Lai. As we chat, he tosses pasta and cooks up another dish with prawns and garlic.

Another reminder that the best meals are usually rather simple in nature, but cooked with the right ingredients and care.

Vino e Libri: Bring a book, get a book – and enjoy reading with a glass of wine. Lunch menu starts at €5.50 (recommend the spaghetti with mussels) while the standard menu begins at €10 for pastas (e.g., homemade pumpkin ravioli) and finishes at €20 for main seafood and meat dishes. Address: Torstrasse 89, Mitte

Chen Che: Honest-to-Goodness Vietnamese

Having had our share of mediocre Vietnamese and Thai food in Berlin (we understand our travels have spoiled us), we hold our expectations in check when we hear the next stop is a Vietnamese restaurant.

Vietnamese is a big food influencer in Berlin. Henrik explains that during the Communist era, Vietnamese migrant workers were sent to East Berlin to help Vietnam repay its foreign debt to East Germany. Many of them stayed. This is why you’ll still see large Vietnamese communities in what was formerly East Berlin.

Our food arrives on beautiful trays covered in steamers and bowls, decorative porcelain tops, bamboo, warm airs and mystery. Soup, mixed vegetables, rice, stewed pork, fried codfish and pickled vegetables. This daily taster menu – usually served at lunch for around €8.50 – is our evening “snack.”

Chen Che Vietnamese Taster Menu - Mitte, Berlin
Chen Che Vietnamese Taster Menu – Mitte, Berlin

Although we were already full, we couldn’t resist the stewed pork, fall-off-the-bone tender. The stew and aroma hints at real Vietnamese flavors: star anise, maybe even some allspice, topped with fresh coriander and shredded green onions. The codfish was also spot on – fried lightly so the outside featured a thin crust to protect the tender fish inside.

Chen Che: If you are looking for real Vietnamese food in Berlin, this ought to be one of your first stops. The décor is also fun and beautifully thought out. Try going for lunch to take advantage of the daily taster menu option. Address: Rosenthaler Str. 13, Mitte

Weinbar Rutz: A Food Temple

Earlier in the evening, Henrik had explained that we would conclude our tour at a “food temple.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but when we arrived at Weinbar Rutz I knew we were there.

High-end, low-key. You might also say “very Berlin.” Henrik did. I look at him sitting across the table from us in his Miami Vice t-shirt and smiled. Everyone is welcome as they are. We like that.

Dessert and Drinks at Rutz Restaurant - Mitte, Berlin
Closing out the night at Weingar Rutz in Mitte

Billy Wagner, the resident sommelier and our host took us on a ride, an experience, something that felt like a dining experiment — through our desserts and wines and they how they were conceived and crafted.

The core flavor inspiration for the evening came from the black locust flower. As Billy describes it, these trees grow wild on the outskirts of Berlin. Some of the staff had gone earlier in the summer to pick the flowers. We had images in our head of wait staff and hosts, in their outfits, jumping over fences, climbing trees and stealthily collecting petals in wicker baskets before some unsuspecting owner of the black locusts returned home.

Kidding aside, our first dessert featured a wine glass layered in plum wine sauce, kiwi and plum compote, all topped with locust flower foam. While the whole experience was something that almost bordered on the edges of molecular gastronomy, it was the black locust that blew the mind.

Dessert Ending at Rutz Restaurant in Berlin
Dessert Ending at Weinbar Rutz, Berlin

It tasted like nothing we’ve ever had, in a way that we could never aptly describe. Like thinking of citrus, maybe a grapefruit, while chewing a violet and thinking of a wide open field of poppies. Rarely is a dessert so ethereal.

Finally, the whole architecture is finished off with a thin, crunchy cookie studded with meringue drops. With the first spoonful of this light, crisp — but not certainly not too sweet — foam, Henrik’s earlier words resonate: “Once we get to the last restaurant, you’ll forget all that you’ve eaten in the night.”

Billy’s wine pair: Wolfer Goldgrube Riesling Kabinett 2008. “Take a bite of the dessert, then a sip of the wine. Just trust me.

We did.

Dan’s response: “It’s like eating a party dress.”

Weinbar Rutz: One of the first and finest establishments in the league of high-end Berlin restaurants. The menu revolves around “inspirations” usually with a minimum of two interpretations served for each course. For most, this is not for the every day (expect a minimum of €100/person for dinner), but perhaps for very special occasions. Unforgettable for sure. Address: Chausseestraße 8

Berlin Food: The Future

As we wound up our evening (yes, this was all in one evening, if you can still believe it), Henrik gives us a walking tour glimpse of the Berlin food scene future with a stroll along Torstrasse.

Along the way, we poke into individually owned restaurants with small spaces and artistic treats: a mosaic with revolving pieces from the former DDR parliament in one, a meat locker from a converted butcher in another. Menus change weekly or even daily based on what’s fresh in the market, or what’s fresh in the head of the lead chef.

Henrik notes that perhaps just as important as the food, the environment: “When people go out to eat in Berlin, they go for community. These restaurants give you this – you know the people around, you become friends with the staff, you feel at home.”

And as Berlin evolved, rents went up in areas around Hackescher Markt and restaurants sprang up here on Torstrasse. As Torstrasse perhaps follows a similar evolution, another neighborhood is busy creating something new.

Destruction and renewal. Movement and opportunity. This is what keeps Berlin and its cuisine scene ever-evolving, hopefully ever-experimental.

——

A note on Henrik and Berlin Agenten: Henrik’s knowledge is vast and deep. If cuisine is your thing, he can talk it. History, yes. Clubs, those too. He’s also the quintessential Berlin story: a Swedish guy who came and loved the place and now calls it his own.

Henrik’s company offers several Gastro Rallye food tour options, including the Enjoy tour similar to what we outlined above. For the budget-minded, we understand these are not inexpensive – €180-€250/person. You need to think of it as an experience rather than a restaurant tour — a culinary and cultural journey through Berlin’s past, present and future.

Disclosure: Our Gastro Rallye tour was provided to us in cooperation with Visit Berlin and Berlin Agenten, but the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    @Christine: Oh, it was delicious. The whole tour – including the food- exceeded our expectations. And glad that we were able to do some justice to the dessert through the description – amazing stuff.

  2. says

    I studied History and Literature in college, with a focus on conflict, leadership and Germany — and let me tell you, they don’t tell you about the culinary wonder. I want to book a ticket immediately.

  3. says

    @Roxanne: Not surprised this didn’t make it into the books! Actually, Berlin’s food scene had changed a lot over the last decade, and especially the last five years. Henrik told us that when he first moved to Berlin, the emphasis was still on uninspired large portions for cheap prices. Today, Berlin has become a hub for artists and entrepreneurs…and fortunately this is reflected now in its food scene.

  4. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Berlin is a surprising place, isn’t it? Artsy, creative, not at all what you’d expect (I mean what I expected, don’t know about other’s expectations).

    I agree about the comment on ‘Eating a party dress’. An apt description for ‘molecular gastronomy’. Well, Audrey did say it bordered on molecular gastronomy.

  5. says

    @Sutapa: Berlin continually surprises us, in a good way. Each time we think we’ve figured out the place, we find another neighborhood, angle, group of people or event that turns things upside down. It’s ever evolving and figuring itself out.

  6. says

    I loved this post! I don’t know if you guys remember me, but I met you one night in late July when Kamiel held that Couchsurfer BBQ in Tempelhof. Since then I’ve been following your blog and love it enough just for the travel writing, but now you’ve gone further and given me culinary inspiration too! (If I didn’t mention it before, I run a vegan food blog in my spare time.) That naan pizza looks too good to be true, and I will definitely be trying that out in my own kitchen in the very near future (a vegan version, of course). Anyway, loved this post, and love your blog in general.

    Cheers,

    Willie

  7. says

    This should nicely counter the stereotype that you can only eat bratwurst and sauerkraut in Germany. I like bratwurst just fine, but some of the meals described above could easily convince me never to look at sauerkraut ever again.

  8. says

    @Willie: Yes, we do remember meeting you at the CouchSurfing event in July. Wow, has time flown by – it feels like a couple of weeks ago instead of months. Thanks for your kind words about our blog!

    Glad this post provided culinary inspiration and hope you have fun trying to perfect the naan pizza in your kitchen, vegan style. Really delicious.

    @Edina: Bratwurst and sauerkraut are great to eat as well, but not every day. That’s what makes eating in Berlin such a joy – so many options and variety in food choices.

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