I celebrated my 25th birthday (yes I am officially old now) with a long weekend trip to Berlin and though this was not my first time in the German capital (you can read about other Berlin food and drink spots worth checking out here and here) I managed to find some previously undiscovered gems that I cannot wait to share with you. I have always been a little critical of Berlin and it's super hip reputation of recent years but as much as it pains my inner cynic have to admit that this city is growing on me more and more with every visit.
Why? Well where London's club culture is being increasingly undermined by the government and every tightening laws, local councils indeed shutting down iconic venues left, right and centre, Berlin's club scene continues to thrive with almost too much choice when it comes to picking just one Friday night spot to commit to. This same sense of vitality is true applies to its restaurant scene, on each of my visits discovering another brand new, delicious and cheap eating out spot that does something exciting and different. Berlin you are doing very well in winning over my heart and I shall most certainly be back this summer to discover what you are like in more balmy and less arctic temperatures.
Hidden in a typical Kreuzberg courtyard, Zola has been serving up some of Berlin's tastiest pizzas, prepared in a rather impressive wood fire oven, since 2015 and came recommended to me by a London friend who has recently moved to Berlin. Her high praise for the place was thankfully more than justified with the simple yet flawless Margharita I ordered, topped with proper Fior De Latte cheese not some rubbery mozzarella imitation, and ripe cherry tomatoes no doubt in my top 3 pizzas ever eaten, including those I sampled in Rome. There is not a huge choice in terms of pizzas on the menu with not a gimmicky topping a la pineapple or halloumi in sight but that is exactly how it should be in an authentic pizza joint.
Indeed what you get here are top quality ingredients combined with expertly made dough to create near perfect pizzas that speak for themselves. Even better is that they offered at ridiculously good prices and can be enjoyed in a cool and laid back environment. If you are super organised you can even book a table here ahead of your trip but we only had to wait 15 minutes on a Friday night and did so whilst sipping on glass of delicious white wine in their super cool basement space, taking seat on one of shabby chic sofas. Pizza may be an eating out staple but when it is done as brilliantly as here it is worth seeking out even when it is just a short trip to Berlin.
THE BEST CLUB NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT (YET) @ ST. GEORG
I just cannot make myself like techno and god knows I've really, really tried in the past. Yes, I guess in Berlin it is the cool thing to listen to and I have been to Berghain twice, somehow bearing it for the evening, but honestly I just find it incredibly difficult to dance to and would always much rather go to a proper hip hop night like the ones I tend to do attend in London. Now, these kind of nights aren't as easy but thank god not impossible to find in Berlin and once again via a great recommendation by a local friend we struck absolute gold with St. Georg.
Down a stairwell and hidden in yet another courtyard, St. Georg is a true gem of an underground club that is thankfully as yet largely unknown tp the hordes of hip twenty something's that are flooding to Berlin for a party weekend. It may be a little trashy and rough around the edges but much like one of my favourite clubs in London, Visions, it is exactly that what makes this place so, so great. You don't have to wear heels here to be let in, heck a tracksuit and trainers is more along the lines of the usual attire, drinks are cheap, the crowd is of the "I just want to have a good time and not give a fuck kind" and the music is as on point as it gets. If there is one thing I regret about my previous trips to Berlin is that I didn't discover this place sooner. My next Berlin night out will no doubt end up with me dancing until the early hours here and I can only recommend forgoing the hyped clubs in favour of St. Georg for an evening you won't forget in a hurry.
Since I have started coming to Berlin there has been somewhat of an Antipodean induced flat white revolution in the coffee scene and it has only done wonders to the standard of coffee available. Sankt Oberholz is of course a hipster's wet dream with its long wooden table, mostly of course occupied with freelancers doing some sort of creative and soul searching on their MacBooks, ironic quotes adorning the walls and sleek interior design BUT it also serves some seriously good coffee and has that sort of cool "let's pretend we are in Central Perk" vibe that makes you want to linger here for hours chatting about everything and nothing with your friends. It also happens to be just around the corner from some excellent restaurants as well as hip and happening bars, in fact previously reviewed and excellent Asian fusion burger joint Shiso Burger just around the corner from it, so offers the perfect location for a pre-dinner pit stop or place to up your caffeine levels before you switch to alcoholic beverages.
Last but definitely not least comes my foodie highlight of the trip which as it happens is not some super hip new place and comes with not even the slightest exposed brick in sight. No, Pasternak is a proper Berlin restaurant institution that still manages to attract massive crowds every weekend for it's infamous Russian Jewish brunch and very rightly so! I love everything about this place and that is not only because I have a soft spot for Russian history after studying it for three years nor based on the fact that I have a bit of Jewish heritage in me. For only 15 euros you are in fact able to dine like Tsar Peter the Great would have in the Russian Empire's grand monarchial days with Pasternak's rather extraordinary all-you-can-eat buffet that is one of a kind and all kinds of amazing.
There is a ridiculous amount of food on offer with a table each dedicated to fish, vegetables of various sorts, meats and desserts. There are absolutely no indicators or labels when it comes to what exactly you are about to eat, a fact that did make the none meat eater in me a little nervous at first, but ultimately makes the whole brunch experience even more fun, never quite sure what exactly you are eating until the first bite of your chosen Russian delicacy. Of course you have to be a little adventurous, this is not your run of the mill toast with jam (though there was also a plethora of jams available if you desired) but every single thing I tried was insanely delicious and introduced my palette to previously unknown flavours and textures. Their smoked salmon, presented on a huge and constantly replenished platter was the best I have ever had, a beetroot dip with some sort of fish added was so good I had to get up another three times to dollop more onto my plate, the boiled eggs with fish roe was the most decadent thing I have ever had for breakfast and incredibly moorish at the same time while all the other seemingly never ending foods from hummus, to various egg dishes to freshly prepared salads were not only delicious but like no brunch I have ever had before.
You can eat yourself absolutely silly here, particularly impressive considering the 15 Euro price tag, but take my advice and leave enough space for the impressive dessert table. Though there also was an array of fresh fruit I of course went straight in for the proper sweet stuff and ate a shameful amount of some sort of cream filled honey cake ( I think? You can never be 100% percent sure exactly what you were eating, all I know is that it was pretty damn good!) and some sort of vanilla cream with caramelised nuts that I had to physically stop myself from getting more of, knowing that my dining companions would unfortunately not be willing to roll me out of Pasternak afterwards.
Service is fabulously rude, the waiters in fact seemingly offended by the mere thought of taking your coffee order and the dining room is suitably old school with dark wooden panels, old family portraits starring at you from the walls and yellowing wallpaper that is slowly peeling off around the edges. The whole place indeed appears to me like being in an almost magical time warp, transporting you back to what I would imagine St Petersburg in it's grandest heydays would have been like. There will always be a queue on a weekend here, Pasternak amongst Berliners of all ages and backgrounds a well kept secret no one wants too many tourists to know about, but any wait is worth it here. If you go to one place in Berlin don't make it some silly place Time Out or Monocle recommends you, go here. It's not simply a Russian restaurant serving a (no doubt) brilliant all you can eat brunch, it is a true culinary experience that I will never forget and can't wait to relive on a future trip.
I have been a huge fan of Honey & Co for years now, it without a doubt being one of my all time favourite restaurants. Run by the rather fantastic husband and wife duo of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, it serves stellar Middle Eastern / Israeli food with an almost magical touch that made me go there over and over again ( and not just me but just about any foodie and restaurant critic in this town). I was more than excited then when I heard they were about to open a second outpost, and to make things even more intriguing not simply another Honey & Co but something a little different.
Indeed Honey & Smoke focuses on, you may have guessed, the art of grilling and does so rather wonderfully. But first let me start with the new space. Though a little outside my usual East London remit and technically in the middle of central London, it is luckily just far enough from the craziness of Oxford Circus, being a good 10-15 minute wonder away from tourist hell. I for one love Honey & Smoke's big new space, filled with vividly coloured, modern chairs that stand juxtaposed to the more traditionally Mediterranean floor tiles and old tomato tins in which the cutlery is kept on each table. It may seem a little canteen-y for some but for me this space wonderfully sums up what theses guys are all about, modern yet traditionally Middle Eastern with a London twist - it's unique, it's them and it made me feel at once at home, helped also by the fact that I was welcomed with a big hug from Itamar who instantly recognised me from my many visits to Honey & Co. Sarit and Itamar have quickly become some of London most renown chefs with their very own weekly column in the Financial Times as well as a range of best selling cookbooks, yet despite all of this new found fame can still be found in their restaurant kitchens most days, creating wonderful food and greeting their diners just like they would if they had invited you to their home back in Israel. If this isn't passion then I don't know what is and for that alone I would already recommend a visit to one of their restaurants.
Of course the food matters too and my very high expectations from my previous experiences at Honey & Co were only exceeded. In fact I may even slightly prefer Honey & Smoke. Why? I will get to that in a bit. Firstly I love that you have to commit to a whole three course extravaganza here which at £34.5 and considering that you will get served a ridiculous amount of delicious food, is an absolute steal. To start things your table is presented with probably the most stunning array of mezze I have every been lucky enough to try, not only a feast for the eyes with it's colourful array of pickles, salads and dips but providing you with a true flavour explosion with every bite. It's impossible to settle on favourites here, everything simply so great with dishes changing weekly depending on what ingredients are in season, but on this particular occasion the mezze spread included the best baba ganoush of my life, msabaha (an irresistible combination if chickpeas, Turkish pepper and garlic sauce), burnt celeriac with urfa chilli butter, sour cream and chives, their moorish falafel with tahini and charred blush pear with almond tahini and raw honey, all served with freshly baked and incredibly fluffy bread. We were indeed pretty much left in awe (and stuffed considering the sheer volume of food) even before any of our mains had arrived.
That is not to say that the mains were any less outstanding. With plenty of meat, fish and vegetarian mains, two veggie options on the menu in fact which is far from a given in any restaurant, I seriously struggled to pick which one to go for on this occasion but in the end, and on the recommendation of the lovely Itamar, went for the appropriately wintery combination of charred pumpkin in orange and spice with chestnut sauce, charred apples and pickled corianders, served with a stunning side of sweet potato in embers, almonds, date honey and spring onions (this set menu indeed also letting you pick between some seriously great sides with the crispy burnt potato with sumac dressing also getting rave reviews from my fellow dinners). Everything just worked here, unusual flavour combinations that were only further elevated by the charring process, coming together to create something that was a sheer delight to eat. My fellow diners went for the meat with equally great reviews that followed and I for one already cannot wait to go back to try more of the mains . This is imaginative, skillful and comforting cooking at it's best and worth every penny you pay for it.
Desserts, much like at Honey & Co, are also no mere afterthought, after all Honey & Co's feta and honey cheesecake on a kadif pastry base one of my top 5 desserts of all time and indicative that these guys know their sweet stuff too. Thankfully this utterly out-of-this-world cheesecake also makes an appearance at Honey & Smoke and was, I am going to be honest, always going to be my choice of dessert here. However the sneaky spoonfuls of the other desserts I managed to get my hands on around our table were also pretty damn good, with the warm chestnut cake with salt caramel and sour cream being particularly scrumptious. If you've never had the cheesecake please order it and thank me later but if like me you have had it before and are a creature of habit, take the plunge and explore the other desserts here because heck they arent going to let you down, like everything on the menu here absolute delicious and memorable in their own right.
At the end of our meal we were utterly stuffed to the point of more or less waddling out, well watered (wine here by the way is affordable and well curated) and had a big, fat grin on our faces. Honey & Smoke serves the definition of soul food, full of flavour and showcasing real passion and skill. There aren't many places like this in London or in fact anywhere in the world, Honey & Smoke a gem of a restaurant that we are very lucky to have in this town. I for one cannot wait what to see what this duo will get up to next, you'll find me first in line ready to eat wherever that may be.