Inside, host and co-owner Julien Ponthieu glides back and forth with plates of steaming grub, stopping to welcome newcomers – multilingual greetings, much cheek kissing, everyone seems to know him here. His dog, Herr Schröder, remains sanguine under a barstool despite all the commotion. Behind the counter, Ponthieu’s business partner Olivier Lapeyre and chef Matthias Gondol are preparing orders with breathtaking focus and efficiency.
“We’re going for a real bistro… unless it is extra-busy, we can bring the food within five minutes, no problem,” says Ponthieu. And it is quick. In no time a basket filled with baguette lands on our table, soon followed by our starters: the Tartelette (€6.40) and the Paté Lorrain, both served with a generous handful of green salad, dappled with a beautiful mustard vinaigrette.
The former is a take on the ‘pear tatin’ – a mini tart filled with a caramelised, slightly spicy pear chutney – under a mound of gratinéd fresh goat cheese – the whole deliciously crumbling edifice topped with walnuts. It is a bestseller – particularly popular among girly epicureans, one can easily see why.
The Lorrain (€6.70) is a more robust affair, a dome-shaped pie containing a perfectly executed paté (pork-veal, marinated in white wine, shallots and herbs) flavoured with fresh tarragon (too rare in Berlin restaurants) baked in a golden crust and served in two hemispheres with a light beer sauce – it is to die for! Perfect as a small meal before a night out – with a glass of wine.
The main courses don’t disappoint either: the Pavé (Argentinean rump steak, €12.80) is expertly cooked – first seared on the grill before being roasted in the oven to keep the inside moist – and served sliced with a pleasantly tangy dark beer sauce, next to a happy heap of delicious golden fries.
The fish today is Bonito Tuna (€11.80), lightly pan-seared and served with Les Valseuses’ signature bouillabaisse sauce and a jumble of crisp veggies – young carrots, green asparagus, squash and turnips (another deplorable rarity in Berlin!).
The wine hits the spot, of course, starting with the more-than-decent crémant and a proud sauvignon from the Loire Valley – whose perfectly balanced body and mineral mouthfeel will relieve white wine fans tired of always having to choose between acidic and sweet.
Don’t walk out the door without dessert: the sweet treats (a daily tarte and a selection of petits fours) are baked at French transplant Magali Rivière’s Ma Patissière, whose magical oven is conveniently housed in the same building. Here diners are doubly spoiled: clever bistro food and top notch patisseries, all reasonably priced. Forget the baby prams and Swabian dentists – Prenzlauer Berg is making its comeback, mainly thanks to a new generation of enterprising expats, injecting some bon-vivant bohemia to a neighbourhood that’s all too often written off as sanitised and boring.
PS: Les Valseuses is a double entendre meaning ‘the waltzers’ and an obsolete colloquialism for ‘balls’ – a definition kept alive by the film classic starring Gérard Depardieu.