Photo by Erica Löfman
Since Masel Topf is conveniently located across the street from the Rykestraße synagogue, passers by and tourists are expected to get the pun. It might not amuse believers exiting the temple, though. Not that they’ll eat here anyway – the only kosher thing on the menu is the excellent Tishbi 2011 Merlot from Israel. And there’s even pork shashlik, titled “The allure of the forbidden”. Playful touches include a taxi door imprinted with a faux stamp of kosher certification hanging over the bar, created by an artist friend of the restaurateurs.
In other words, don’t expect textbook Jewishness at Masel Topf. Obviously there is no single Jewish cuisine, and the owners decided to serve dishes inspired by three places Jews live: Israel, New York and Eastern Europe. In short: falafel, burger, borscht. The latter has the strongest presence – unsurprising, as the owners have chalked up one success after another with a number of Russian restaurants across town – with many dishes “inspired by” Russian grandmas’ recipes. One of the owner’s sisters oversees the all-Russian kitchen staff, throwing her own contemporary, at times ‘fusiony’, touch in the mix. All the usual suspects of Russian cuisine make an appearance: soljanka soup (the poultry version), borscht (white bean vegetarian), blinis (veg or not), vareniki dumplings (filled with potato, cheese or mushrooms and pan fried), etc... but don’t be surprised if some lime yoghurt or mango sauce shows up with your food.
The “Tel Aviv” vegetarian starter plate (€9) feels like something you’d get in a Californian café, arranged on a white platter: falafel filled with feta, hummus, fried eggplant, slices of oven-roasted Hokkaido pumpkin, avocado, and a veggie aubergine dip. The Berlin appetiser combo (€17) will feed two hungry souls (or 4-6 if ordered as a starter) with most of the above cold ‘tapas’ and many more, including herring tartar on baked apple (Vorschmack); trout mousse with delicious Borondinsky bread (the famous Soviet style sweet dark rye with a distinctive coriander flavour), cured salmon on potato pancakes, a convincing Russian take on ratatouille, breaded goat-cheese balls... all-in-all, 14 homemade delicacies served in charming little glass jars arranged along a boat-shaped platter. There’s even a sample generous of the home-cured pastrami with (also homemade) pink berry mustard; the flavourful, very lean meat can also be ordered in typical NYC sandwich style on rye bread with mustard and coleslaw. They also make their own challah bread, damn good soft white slices.
Though we were already pleasantly stuffed ourselves, the meal continued with two examples of Jewish stuffing: the Pulke (€14) and the gefilte fish (€17). The former – with the exception of the apple-mango sauce – seems a lot like a dusted-off granny classic from Ukraine, where the restaurant’s manager hails from: take a chicken leg, carefully remove the skin, strip the meat from the bone, chop it and blend it with chicken liver, then stuff the skin with the mix, creating a funny boneless drumstick. Served with three small latke potato pancakes. Delicious, though perhaps lacking a veggie side.
As for the fish, it is ‘gefilte’ only in name. It’s more of a vertical roulade, a hefty zander filet rolled around a mix of cured salmon, spinach and walnuts. The intended result is a ‘volcano’ on your plate, although our horseradish sauce wasn’t bubbling the way it was supposed to (apparently, on some days, it does!). The plate is prettified with a dollop of apple chutney, a colourful carpaccio of red and yellow beetroot and some caramelised sweet shallots.
A well-executed wintery dish is braised lamb shank, so perfectly cooked for hours that the meat slides off the bone sumptuously – served with mashed potatoes, spicy prunes and Zimmes (slow-cooked carrots with cinnamon). All mains come in portions that will satisfy the biggest of eaters.
This is a place for long, autumnal nights, when you’re craving elaborate meals, slow-stewed meats, hearty roasts, braised vegetables and mashed potatoes. We were served by a friendly English-speaking waitress who laid the silver cutlery on the table with a cotton glove. The interior reassuringly evokes elegant Czarist times: starched serviettes, Biedermeier-style furniture and Art Deco touches as well as the retro wallpaper and baroque chiseled glass chandeliers. For those in the know: more Pasternak than Gorki.