Last Updated on February 19, 2018 by Audrey Scott
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.
So we accepted an opportunity to take a Berlin Gastro Rallye with Berlin Agenten, 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 Agenten and 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.
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 (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.
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) (Update: lunch is no longer served, only dinner). The standard menu begins at €12 for pastas (e.g., homemade pumpkin ravioli) and finishes at €25-€30 for main seafood and meat dishes. Address: Torstrasse 89, Choriner Strasse 72, 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.”
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. In the summer months there is a nice outdoor seating area in the back garden. 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.
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.
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.”
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 East or Snacky tours similar to what we outlined above. For the budget-minded, we understand these are not inexpensive – €140-€250/person. You need to think of it as an experience rather than a restaurant or standard food tour — a culinary and cultural journey through Berlin’s past, present and future.