Photos by Sigrid Malmgren
All-organic restaurants are as rare as four-leaf clovers, even in Berlin, where bio is everywhere. Certification – every step of the supply chain and preparation of food must be immaculately documented – is a real pain in the arse. Ingredients are expensive and hard to come by.
A mere 13 eateries in Berlin boast the official hexagonal bio symbol (including fast food joints like Frittiersalon in Friedrichshain and Yellow Sunshine in Kreuzberg). Lei e Lui is one of them, already a respected institution among bio-Berliners and veggie-Fundis although only in its sixth year of business. Here, virtually everything is organic, with only a very few exceptions, like the fish (wild, i.e. from the sea) and liqueurs used in some sauces.
Lei e Lui, ‘his and her’, is the labour of love of German-Italian couple Karin (in the kitchen) and Sebastiano (up front). Karin, who ran a neighbourhood organic shop for 20 years, is devoted to staying in Moabit, although it’s not the most obvious area for such an enterprise. The outgoing Sebastiano presides over the cosy cavern, a magical realm unto itself, utterly distinct from the realities of this Moabit street. A good vibe Shangri-La. In his charming, heavily accented German, Sebastiano will describe every ingredient on the menu, which has been lovingly hand-copied by Karin.
The focus is Mediterranean, so an antipasti plate was in order. The original arrangement of veggie goodies (three sizes, €9.50-18) had little in common with the usual oil-drenched Italian starters. Arranged in a flower shape around a portion of hummus inside a hard-boiled egg white are various veg stews and mashes, beets, Jerusalem artichoke, cabbage, crackers and slices of fresh fruit. A nice nibble to accompany our bio wine, a more-than-decent Demeter-labelled Cotes de Provence rosé (€20), proof that these days some organic wines can hold their own against their chemically enhanced brethren.
The menu evolves constantly, in accordance with the seasons and Karin’s whim – recipes here don’t come from a cookbook but from her fertile imagination.
In May, we paid our due to Spargelzeit by trying out their take on the ubiquitous white veg: German asparagus (€13.50) cooked to perfection and wrapped in an unconventional buttermilk-spelt-herbal pancake and dappled with a mild Hollandaise with a tinge of woodruff. It was truly delicious. For €3.50 extra, a side serving of air-dried bio ham complemented the dish nicely and quenched our animal protein craving most pleasantly.
Another inspired dish was the conchiglioni (€13.50), giant shell-shaped noodles in an exquisite fennel-mascarpone sauce (really a soup!), in which leek, smoked trout, white wine, red pepper and Anis liqueur are fused into a velvety alchemical wonder topped with parmesan, which deserves an award for its flavour-filled summery lightness.
Sebastiano was so proud of their house couscous, Karin’s Middle-Eastern-inspired version that was apparently dubbed ‘best couscous’ by some Israeli regulars, that we decided to try two variations on the theme: one as accompaniment to the wolffish (Steinbeißer) steamed in coconut milk and served with a sweet potato chick pea puree, bursting with dried tomatoes, dried apricot, dates, garlic and lemon flavours (€18 for a gargantuan portion).
We also took a vegetarian aubergine stew, a variation on ratatouille or caponata, cooked with celery, onions, tomatoes, capers and pine nuts (€6.50-8.50), a beautifully spiced concoction. The couscous served as a well-sized mound on the side of our mains was an explosion of spices and flavours (from cumin to chilli to fruits) with a definite and most titillating sweet note from all the dried fruity gems it contained. Perfect in itself or as a side for the aubergines (€11.50 altogether), its sheer sweetness felt slightly redundant to the already fruity concoction of the coconut-milk fish and sweet potato plate.
After such a flavour-intense meal, your sweet tooth hardly needs further seduction. Yet desserts there are – like a variety of fruity tiramisus (raspberry, mango-orange or blueberry-amaretto, some of which are vegan) and panna cottas (with espresso, Vecchia Romagna, caramel und espresso liqueur or figs in Vin Santo) – all served in glasses, for €2.50. The still-hungry should order a slice of homemade cake, such as the rich vegan rhubarb-coconut variety.
‘His and her’ dedication and skill is a rarity in Berlin. Karin’s daily homemade organic creations and Sebastiano’s good cheer won us over. We’ll come back!