This review of a Berlin restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Berlin, like most major cities, has more than its fair share of tourist trap restaurants in and around its historical, heavily touristed centre. It also has some surprises up its sleeve, such as Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Located a literal stone’s throw away from Checkpoint Charlie, this restaurant looks more like a funeral home from its plain, almost mysterious frontage. It’s only open for dinner and only serves a multi-course tasting menu.
Inside is a very cosy, moodily light atmosphere bolstered by a Bob Dylan heavy soundtrack on the night of my visit. There are a few tables for large groups, but most of the seating is around a large U-shaped bar looking directly into the kitchen. The sommelier may have more facial hair than a longboat full of Vikings, but he and the rest of the staff were friendly, generally efficient and naturally spoke English to such a high standard that my stutteral German was even more embarrassing than usual.
The ever-changing menu is based around whatever’s in season and apparently only uses ingredients traditional to the Berlin and Brandenburg areas. There’s no doubt about the kitchen’s modernist sensibilities though. My meal kicked off nicely with a smoky and tender bite-sized morsel of eel topped by peppery radish that oddly looked like bean sprouts.
The tender turnip-like salsify root was apparently cooked in lamb fat, but it had more of lemony herb taste in my mouth as well as a slight boozy tang.
After that pair of scintillating amuse bouche, things started getting a little weird. Room-temperature carrot juice was allegedly spiked with camomile oil for bitterness, but instead left a slight oily residue and dulled sweetness in my mouth. Much more interesting, and sadly not fully visible in the photo below, was the cream reduction hiding beneath the surface in the middle of the carrot puddle. It dissolved on the tongue, producing a curd-like effect that was far more enjoyable than carrot squirts it came bathed in.
Firm and taut black kale leaves came anointed in a bitter green sauce apparently made from a melange of things, but tasted most noticeably of garlic. The bitterness of the sauce was emphasised by the sour and bitter rowan berries, so the clean after-taste of the light and wispy goat’s cheese came as a welcome relief. I’m generally a fan of bitter flavours, but this dish was just a little too much – even for me.
A far more balanced bitter dish saw raw fennel, with its bitterness and anise-esque taste, neatly counterbalanced by the intense sweetness and earthiness of partially liquified beetroot purée. Mildly nutty and oddly bitter pumpkin seed milk melded in seamlessly with the fennel and beetroot.
There was a disappointingly long lag between the smaller appetiser-esque dishes and the pair of meatier mains, but the staff’s small but choice selection of food-related books made up for it. Just as I starting to get antsy and wistful from reading the St John cookbook, a plate of chicken turned up and it was worth the wait. Dense and smooth meat with a crispy skin was made even better by the fine, peppery bitterness of the chive sauce. This classy combination was even better when taken with the leeks. Looking almost like herring maki rolls, the taut, firm, dense and slippery leaves had a smoky bitterness that melded together with the chicken and the chive sauce to astonishing effect.
Freshwater and brackish fish appear to be popular German staples, so it was no surprise to find sturgeon on the menu at Nobelhart & Schmutzig. The fish was earthy, but not overpoweringly so, and was tender and delicate too having been cooked just so. The lip-smacking consomme-esque chicken stock added a smoky, meaty undertone while taut and slippery mushrooms emphasised the earthiness of the fish.
The kitchen clearly loves bitterness with the taste permeating the sorrel sorbet to an unpleasant degree. Bracingly cold, bitter and sour, it almost clouded the palate rather than cleansing it. The puddle of dill blossom soup had a medicinal boozy tang that was heavingly unpleasant, while the light meringue was far too prone to sogginess when taken with everything else as recommended. Ghastly, just ghastly.
A somewhat better, but still problematic dessert was the sour cherry granita. Unpleasantly crunchy and icy, even for a granita, it did have a cumulative sour cherry flavour which was brought to an abrupt, but not unpleasant end by the almond cream-like taste of the honey yeast cream. Chewing the sorrel leaves on top, as recommended by the dessert chef, had all the charm of accidentally eating citrus pith. And with that, my meal at Nobelhart & Schmutzig came to an abrupt end.
If everything at Nobelhart & Schmutzig had been as expertly balanced and superlatively scrumptious as the fennel and beetroot, the chicken and the sturgeon then the tasting menu here would’ve been one of the best meals of my life. Unfortunately, this holy trinity was bookended by some inconsistent but promising starter dishes and a pair of very unsatisfying desserts. There is a lot of incredibly promising potential at Nobelhart & Schmutzig – with refinement, it could be one of the best places to eat in Berlin. But it’s not there yet.
Name: Nobelhart & Schmutzig
Address: Friedrichstraße 218, 10969 Berlin – Kreuzberg
Phone: +49 30 259 4061 – 0
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 18.30-22.30.
Reservations: highly recommended
Average cost for one person: €80 (£60 approx.)