Located a five minute walk from Checkpoint Charlie in a particularly nondescript part of Berlin, my first impressions of Nobelhart and Schmutzig were not so positive. The windows obscured by net curtains a little reminiscent of the Sanderson Hotel in London and displaying odd sculptures of human body parts, you wonder what it is. Is this an exclusive boutique clothes store? Or some kind of seedy video shop? You have to ring a bell to be let in, which adds to the mystique, but you are soon greeted by your host for the evening, Billy Wagner – a sommelier by trade (one of Germany’s finest) who co-owns this progressive restaurant with Swiss chef Micha Schäfer. Even stranger, red-headed Billy said he was “expecting” me and knew exactly who I was. I welcome friendly service but not when it starts to border on fawning over-familiarity before you’ve even met. It’s just a tad creepy. I was soon disabused of any notions of creepiness though as I found all the serving staff and indeed fellow diners very convivial. It was also pleasing to see Billy handling all aspects of service from welcoming you across the threshold to polishing glasses at the end of the evening – you wouldn’t see G-Ram or Jason Atherton rolling up their sleeves like that.
The central kitchen and dining counter is now an ubiquitous feature in modern restaurant design, from Geist in Copenhagen to newly-opened Cornerstone in Hackney, and usually I dread these things but I had nothing to fear here: the ring-side seats are comfortable with both foot and lumbar support. Although my faculties were already dulled somewhat from the Kaiser Cup at the Adlon, I could make out the dimly-lit kitchen clearly and dived in with Billy’s suggested gin as an aperitif: the Eversbusch, served from its own unattractive terracotta bottle and flavoured with very intense juniper. At 46% ABV it doesn’t take any prisoners.
Some courses wouldn’t satisfy a wasp’s metabolism… But each morsel is fabulous and well thought-through
Nobelhart has been described as the “Noma of Berlin” for some time. Their raison d’être is the sourcing of local ingredients and using traditional techniques from pickling to curing. Sometimes there are just raw ingredients unsullied by silly sauces or pretension. And nothing too weird either.
First up on the 10 course extravaganza came a rhubarb drink (with paper straw) and herbs to eat by hand. Yes, by hand. Düpow asparagus with elderflower, sensitively cooked with just a suggestion of seasoning, allowed the natural flavours to shine – and truly local too as this asparagus is from north-west Berlin. Then, a single slither of baked celeriac with “black currant wood” confused me somewhat, but it tasted delicious.
At some point, maybe the fifth course, I was presented with venison which came paired with Riesling. I was turning in my own grave: hearty red meat with a slightly sweet white wine? I looked Billy in the eye and asked him if he was mad. He just said “trust me.” With the accompanying kohlrabi and heat of the horseradish, it all made sense.
The portions are minimalist, and that’s putting it kindly. Some courses wouldn’t satisfy a wasp’s metabolism (and nota bene the base price is 95 Euros before anything else is added). But each morsel is fabulous and well thought-through.
I wasn’t consistently wowed by the restaurant’s wizardry – a couple of dishes just seemed liked fillers, but it’s rare for even your favourite band to deliver a full album of 12 corkers isn’t it?
As with Gastrologik, the wine pairing ends up being expensive, and some of the pairings aren’t even wine (in fact, only 50% of the pairings were, the rest were beers or other oddities). Billy Wagner is clearly having fun even if it’s at the expense of you mixing grape with grain. There is a tome of a wine list too, if you want to go off piste, but generally the pairings are very well-matched.
Sadly, their coffee policy irritated me. Espresso isn’t possible, only filter coffee. OK, so espresso is more of a Franco-Italian thing, and it’s better than not having coffee at all (unlike Primeur), but spare me the highfalutin lecture about why filter coffee is somehow superior. Sometimes you just want a shot to round off the meal, not a bucket of watered down coffee (no matter how good the beans are). The coffee was prepared by a sous chef with a little electronic weighing machine – a complete affectation because the coffee portions were already pre-weighed in little pots (nothing gets past my eagle eyes).
Nobelhart is still relatively young on the Berlin dining scene but it clearly has international ambitions which I am sure it will achieve. My meal there would’ve been perfect were it not for the supercilious attitude over the coffee and nearly being bankrupted. Nevertheless, I was impressed – even more so by their old school record player working through David Bowie’s back catalogue.
by J A Smith