The former food critic of the New York Times, Frank Bruni, visited Berlin a while back. He ate at Noto, Tim Raue, Horvàth and Hartmanns and then wrote an article: “Sorry to Disappoint, but I Ate Well in Berlin.” (I suppose that ‘You’re right, it’s not great’ wouldn’t have been interesting enough to write-up.) In the almost two years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen small improvements. Still when I recently came back from a 3 day trip to London a couple of weeks ago and my husband texted me:
“I’m going to treat you for an early Valentine’s. (13 of Feb) Where do you want to go to dinner? Anywhere you want! My treat.” 3 hours later I still hadn’t replied.
“Hello?! Did you get my message?!” Came another text.
He walked in early at 7 asking “Hey – don’t you want to go out?”
“No! There is no where I want to eat in Berlin!” I wailed dramatically after which we settled for Hartweizen where, except for the enormous drawing of an Egon Schiele style entwined couple but with much more meat on their bones, there wasn’t much to report.Bruni is right, Berlin restaurants are taking great strides but my (trying for humble) opinion is that the improvements that are occurring are within the relatively safe niche of hearty Austrian / German cooking. Which is precisely my problem with eating out here. I don’t have memories of jolly knödel rolling off plates and pork knuckle so large you can’t see over the top of it. I buy kohlrabi good-naturedly, only to find it weeks later, when I’ve used up all the other vegetables in the drawer, once erect fronds sagging sadly. Then I google recipes, usually find a salad where it’s cut into matchsticks, make it, eat it and then return to google to find out nutritional value because surely there must be a more compelling reason than taste to eat this funny looking Brassica. Stodge is not my friend, portions with no regard for where the plate ends and the rim begins have me reaching for a paper bag to hyperventilate in.
The kind of food I like to eat – small portioned, light, high quality seasonal fare, in a non fussy interior, preferably employing the no-reservation and better prices policy that has become popular the world over (see Nicholas Lander’s latest column in the FT for more on the subject) and therefore allowing me the freedom to indulge food urges at short notice – has yet to arrive in Berlin.I hadn’t come to that conclusion yet. I was still rather thrilled by the former NYT food critic eating in Berlin and liking it!
I picked Horváth (having already eaten at Noto and Tim Raue and having deemed Hartmann’s a bit pricey ). You can order a la carte at Horváth but seem to be discouraged from doing so as main courses carry a surcharge of €5. Alternatively, you can choose from a 3 course traditional menu for €40, a 4 course vegetarian menu for €46 lastly the ‘innovation’ menu 5 courses for €62 or 7 courses €76. I find the menu’s architecture convoluted, I don’t necessarily like the combinations on the cheaper menu, it’s already 9pm and I can’t fathom making my way through the 5 course menu and paying a surcharge of €5 on what seem to already be healthy main course prices brings out my inner Ebenezer (although two of my companions who are not similarly disabled order the Pike-Perch / Zander and are charged €28.50 instead of €23.50) that only leaves the vegetarian.
“Vegetarian.” I say confidently to my server. Only to find myself berating my 3 dinner companions for not dissuading me from my decision shortly after. Because it turns out that although Austrian Frank Sebastian excels with meat, with gravy, with knödel and all manner of dumplings. Things start to unravel with fish and dessert. To give way to truly flumoxing combinations in the vegetarian options.There is the odd salad of Romaine lettuce covered in a sandy crumbs littered with poppy seeds and strands of lemon zest, the result is difficult to swallow and dipping it into the green pools and puddles does not improve matters. Nor does taking a sliver of mushroom jelly, which I get my friend Magnus to try, interrupting his blissful degustation of pan-fried foie gras, with cassis, mustard and pear (smug bastard) improve the dish.
The pickled pear that comes as a welcome accompaniment to the fatty foie gras on his plate is also in my starter, except my plate is made up of bitter radicchio and citrussy coulis – against the light vegetable and citrus flavours, the pear is singing to loudly and out of tune. You know how I am always always complaining that the only thing you can get for dessert in this town is panna cotta and crème brûlée? None of that at Horváth. No Moelleux au Chocolat either. Instead cauliflower apple Topfenknödel (quark dumplings) for them and parsley root with coffee, cardamom and tea for me. Both of them fine, the knödel the better choice, certainly an imaginative way to get around the lack of seasonal fruits in February. All rather unexpected you’ll agree. Which brings me to my last point about Horváth; it may look like a traditional restaurant with its dark panelling, hideous bust of Bacchus surveying the scene, the waiters that gesture towards the elements on your plate with up-turned cupped hands and even the menu (bar what happens by dessert) but there are plenty of unforeseen plate occurrences. The mushroom jelly is one, the microwave cake that comes with the foie gras dish another, the presence of some form of citrus in 2 of the 4 vegetarian dishes, all the desserts and so on. To me, this feels like deciding to wear strappy sandals in the summer, when it hasn’t rained for weeks and then stepping into an ankle-deep puddle – in other words, “Where did that come from?”
Were I to go again, I would go earlier, order the 5 course menu which is better value over all and seems to be where the strengths of Sebastian Frank lie (more information on the chef here). I would also ask to sit in the front dining room because that Bacchus bust is to ugly to share a room with.
Paul Lincke Ufer 44a
T 030 6128 9992
Price per head €75 for our evening