By now, it’s been four weeks since I finally accepted Billy Wagner’s invitation in what certainly is Berlin’s most regarded new opening of 2015: Nobelhart & Schmutzig. And I am still indulging in memories. Opened in February, the fine dining place on the Southern end of Friedrichstraße made it into the news with its radical concept of local cooking – they don’t even use pepper! But this is certainly not their most impressing feature.
First, some facts. Billy Wagner, the “pop-star” among sommeliers (as the media calls him), teamed up with the young chef Micha Schäfer, to bring a re-invention of German cooking with local ingredients to the capital. They found a location in Kreuzberg, in the still rather unremarkable area around Hallesches Tor, and built a dining place where all focus is on the kitchen. Following an impressive (social) media campaign, Nobelhart & Schmutzig opened in the beginning of the year, was well booked, reviewed and talked about from the beginning, and instantly received a one star rating in the new Michelin Berlin guide.
Their concept is simple and strict: a 10 course menu (vegetarian and vegan available) is served to eaters, there’s no a la carte ordering, the menu has a fixed price of 80 Euro, plus wine. The food is strictly local, hence: no pepper, no lemon, etc. But their dinners are definitely not a celebration of sacrifice. Rather, their self-inflicted constraints encourage a new creativity, extensive sourcing of produce and, in the end, reduced and elegant dishes that are able to blow your mind.
As stunning as is the food (more on that in a bit), as surprisingly comfortable is the interior of the place. The kitchen is the star in the dimly but efficiently lit dining space, it’s the main stage of Micha Schäfer and his team, and the center of the whole room. Enclosed by a massive wooden bar with beautiful high stools, where parties up to four will be seated, the stainless steel and pretty tiled space is busy throughout the night. However, even though we were seated quite close to our fellow eaters (and thus sometimes shared remarks about food and wine), the setup feels very intimate. Maybe because most of our attention went straight into the kitchen, where you can follow every move of the crew, and by that get an idea about how much time and precision goes into the preparation of every single dish.
We started with salsify, savory, onion sauce and fried apple; went on to Jerusalem artichoke, sunflower seed milk, chicory and Gundermann (ground ivy); leek with pickled elder berries and Heidenpeters stout; and then some clear cabbage soup, wheat grass oil, and raw potato. This list will probably not tell you enough about the greatness of the food. Most dishes deliver a wonderful homey taste on the first level, with their many earthy tones, and a touch of innovation on the second with their beautiful balance of textures and flavors, and reinvented use of long forgotten ingredients.
I was seriously impressed by the final savory dish staring something I have never eaten before – the Rosenseitling, or pink oyster mushroom. A mushroom with such tender flesh and subtle flavor, I was instantly smitten. The buttery Seitling came with cabbage and more Gundermann, the long forgotten herb that has a mild peppery flavor and grows in the Altmark.
The menu was closed by two desserts, one of them an intense milk, seabuckthorn and parsley mix, the other a combination of quince, pollen and grape seed oil. And then we received a small package to take home, a cookies with nuts and barberries, that gave me happy memories the next morning.
Just in case you’re still reading this long review, I didn’t even touch Billy Wagner’s area of expertise: the drinks. And I actually won’t, because the best suggestion is: trust him, he knows what he’s doing. And after all: Billy. He is keeping the whole restaurant together with his incomparable hosting skill. I knew that before, having seen him playing the entertaining role, but his ability to meet each guest’s need still very much impressed me, and is a guarantee for a splendid dinner. The service staff all together is incredibly professional, yet never stiff nor überkandidelt, it’s an overall very pleasant experience that gives the guest enough space to experience the food, the deliciousness, the indulgence.
My conclusion can only be this: Berlin can and should be very happy and thankful for this restaurant, pushing the city’s food culture, inspiring younger chefs and eaters, and highlighting the amazingness that’s hidden in local produce and farms. Should you get the chance, give it a try. You will want to come back.
PS, usually, they’re not very pleased about people taking photos during dinner, this was an exception. As they say, take memories, not pictures.