After our dinner at Aqua we were spending the weekend in Berlin before going home. It was my going to be my first time in the city, so I did some research online to decide where to eat. The highest ranking German restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants happened to be in Berlin, ranking at #17. Now I don’t consider this list a ranking of the actual quality of the restaurants, as it is compiled by voting and in my experience originality plays a very large role.
N&S only serves ingredients from the Brandenburg region around Berlin. The names of the producers are listed on the menu. According to their website: We at Nobelhart & Schmutzig are carving out a new profile for German cuisine, one that is finally entirely its own. From the day we opened our eatery doors, our mission has been to tear down the antiquated concepts of fine dining by establishing Germany’s own genuine signature rather than an eternal plagiarism of French haute cuisine. “Vocally local” means more than just defining our culinary philosophy.
I read some online reviews and people seemed to either love or hate the place. This made me hesitate, but I decided to give it a try.
And so that is why we were ringing the doorbell at Nobelhart & Schmutzig, just a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The window display does indeed look schmutzig (filthy). There are curtains so you can’t look inside the restaurant from the street. The signs by the door indicate there is no photography or cell phones allowed inside, so this is going to be my first blog without photos of the food. Usually I write my reviews from memory, aided by the written menu and my photos, but this time I came prepared with a pen to take notes. According to the restaurant, not taking photographs helps one to focus on the food. The signs by the door also include AfD, which is a right-wing political party in Germany (this is a bit like putting up a sign you’re not welcome if you voted for Trump).
When we rang the doorbell nothing happened for 5 minutes. So we rung it again and then someone came to upen the door and show us our seats. Parties of 1 or 2 are seated at the large square bar that surrounds the kitchen. There is a large communal table at the back for larger parties (seated side by side at the same table). The inside of the restaurant is quite dark as no daylight gets in. Eclectic music plays on a vinyl record player.
There is a set menu of 10 courses for 175 euros, or 200 euros on Fridays and Saturdays. Beverage pairing is a hefty 20 euros per glass, and includes beer and cider next to wine. We asked for a wine only pairing, which was grudgingly granted by the sommelier, stating he would get us a pairing that worked for us rather than with the dishes.
We started with a glass of vintage Premier Cru Champagne by Jules Bonnet, Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut 2013, with the base of Pinot Noir wine aged for 9 months in barrique before the second fermentation in the bottle.
Ayran is a Turkish drink made from yogurt, water, and salt. It was very acidic and served in primitive looking clay cups, with a spoon to eat the thick part from the bottom of the cup.
Dark rye sourdough bread, served with:
- Homemade butter, aged for 3 months
- Homemade sour ricotta with dill
- Pointy cabbage with caraway seed
- Young fennel
- Snow peas with coriander oil
The bread was good (but not spectacular). What stood out was the full flavor of the fennel. This course is eaten with your hands, as cutlery is served only afterwards. You get one rustic looking knife for the whole evening and a supply of forks and spoons. Just like the bread, the cutlery is served in a pan for baking pound cake.
3. Carrot / Elderflower
The first wine in the pairing was a natural wine, Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2019, fermented in cement and crushing the grapes by foot. It was quite austere, but did improve slightly with the dish. The dish was two baby carrots with a cream reduction and carrot juice that had been reduced until it was slightly caramelized and thus quite sweet. This was sprinkled with elderflower blossoms. The carrots were quite crunchy, almost raw, and not very flavorful by themselves. With the sweet carrot syrup it was quite nice.
4. Lettuce / Chives blossoms
The second wine was a Face b 2017 C?tes du Jura Savignin by Menigoz. Another natural wine, this one very mineral with high acidity. It was a good pairing for the lettuce that had been flash fried in butter. The lettuce was flavorful and with the butter as dressing it was quite nice.
5. Radish / Lovage
Next was the best wine and best dish of the evening. The wine was a Rinaldi Barbera d’Alba 2018, with nice notes of sour cherries. The dish was radishes (barely cooked and very crunchy) with a reduction of cream and a reduction of veal stock, with lovage chiffonade. The combination of the radishes (with a very nice flavor), veal stock, lovage, and the wine was wonderful.
6. Venison / Beetroots
The next pairing was not a wine officially, as it was a mixture of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% red currants. A sparkling wine made using the ancestral method called Von Wiesen Seckinger Rosé Pure x Johannisbeere Ancestral. First the base wine with Pinot Noir is made, then it is put in the bottle together with 10% currant juice. The sugar from the juice starts a second fermentation in the bottle. Other than with champagne, the yeast is not removed but remains in the bottle. The resulting sparkling wine was very acidic.
It did not really work as a pairing for the venison, that was served with a reduction of beetroot juice that was very sweet. The venison was cooked medium (I would have preferred more rare) and topped with breadcrumbs soaked in rose petals. It was a rather small portion of venison, considering this was the only protein in the whole menu.
7. Potato / Ramps
The following wine was a Riesling Sp?tlese Trocken from the Rheingau, Wallufer Wakenberg 2013 by J.B. Becker. Nicely balanced as a typical Rheingau Riesling between creaminess and acidity, with some petrol aroma.
It was a good pairing for the mashed potatoes, mixed with local cheese (Schnittk?se) and topped with pickled shallots and ramps (wild garlic). Second helpings were available for this course, and necessary as all portions had been small.
8. Rhubarb / Yoghurt
The next wine was another Riesling, but from a cooler area: Saar (part of the Mosel area). Niedermenniger Herrenberg Kabinett Feinherb 2020 by Hofgut Falkenstein. This Riesling was very elegant with the characteristic balance between sweetness and acidity of Feinherb.
It was a good pairing for the granité of rhubarb with some rhubarb pieces and elderflower sugar. This dessert was quite acidic.
9. Strawberries / Chamomile
The sweet dessert was served with a glass of Extra Brut Champagne by Emanuel Brochet, Le Mont Benoit of 40% Pinot Noir, 35% Pinot Meunier, and 25% Chardonnay, with the base wines aged for 11 months in oak barrels with the lees. This Champagne was very acidic and not a good pairing at all with the sweet dessert.
The dessert itself was very nice: Pavlova with excellent strawberries. I did not really taste the chamomile.
10. Quince / Hay
The 10th ‘course’ was served outside the door when leaving, a sweet quince candy with the aroma of smoked hay.
So am I in the love or hate category? Well, the short answer is that I will not return to Nobelhart & Schmutzig. But it certainly wasn’t all bad. The quality of the ingredients was excellent and in some cases outstanding (strawberries, fennel). The cooking is fine, but very simple. Most ingredients are just briefly cooked and seasoned. There is no plating to speak of, the food is put on a rustic looking plate and that’s it. The sommelier is a character with his own taste for high acidity that he somewhat forces upon his guests. The wines are poured little by little. In the end it is not skimpy because he keeps topping up even three or four times, but each pour is small and makes it feel like a generosity even though it is not as you are paying 20 euros per glass. The staff seems to have an attitude that says “what we are doing is the bomb, and if you don’t agree, you’re just not getting it”. So I can see why that makes some people hate it. Since there is no waste and the portions are small and mostly vegetarian, 200 euros for these 10 courses (in most restaurants this would be counted as 7 courses) is very expensive. A final thing that struck me as noteworthy is that most of the guests were speaking English rather than German (I actually did not hear any German speaking guests). So the goal of changing German cuisine does not appear to be catching on.