As you begin to rouse yourself from your post-holiday stupor and lurch uneasily towards whatever pleasures or horrors await in 2022, you might be thinking about changing your eating habits. Is this the year you finally start meal prepping, or stop spending money on fast-food dinners you only half-remember? Will you learn how to bake bread, soak beans, use up that farmer’s market haul before it rots in the back of your fridge?
For me it’s all of the above, plus one resolution specific to my status as a semiprofessional Food Person: step away from the restaurant hype cycle, if only once in a while. Scroll through press releases and Instagram posts for long enough and you forget most Berliners don’t actually care about farm-to-table wine bars or fermentation labs. In fact, many happily go their entire lives without eating a comma-punctuated dish like “venison, turnip, bottarga” or knowing what ‘nduja is.
So I’d like to spend the coming year being less skeptical of the foodie realm and more appreciative of the world outside it. Starting with the most January-appropriate dish there is: a salad.
Not just any salad. A deeply lush forest of lettuce, rocket, mint and dill, speckled with the festive red of tomatoes, radishes, bell pepper and pomegranate seeds, dressed with a sweet-tart drizzle of pomegranate syrup. It’d be the stuff of Veganuary dreams, were it not the sole vegan item at a Turkish fish restaurant.
Opened several months ago on the barren canalside strip between Neukölln and Treptow, where many a gastro-entrepreneur has tried their luck and failed (remember Cabslam?), Ägäis has no website and an only sporadically maintained Instagram. I wouldn’t have heard about it if it weren’t for a visiting friend of a friend, originally from Istanbul, who was recommended it by some local Turkish contacts. Later, though, I found out that the chef and owner, Temir, had previously worked at Ergün’s Fischbude in Moabit – you know, that not-so-secret tavern below the S-Bahn tracks, papered floor to ceiling in handwritten notes from lovestruck customers.
It makes sense in retrospect. Ägäis trades Ergün’s happy chaos for a grown-up, stripped-down ambience that’s very much in line with the neighbourhood, but the salad remains the same. So does the menu of grilled and fried Mediterranean and Black Sea fish, simply seasoned and served with nothing more than a lemon wedge. But, and I say this as an Ergün’s fan, Ägäis is better.
Take the whole Dorade, its skin perfectly kissed with salt, herbs and fire, its interior moister than anything I’ve tried at Ergün’s. Or the sardine-sized red mullet (barbunya), fried in a near-weightless cornmeal crust, so compulsively edible your plate will be a graveyard of fish heads before you know it. You won’t witness any spontaneous belly dancing performances here, but you’re free to linger over a cloudy glass of raki and a plate of mezze – fresh-made dips, seafood salads, sheep cheese and olives, listed individually but almost always ordered and served as a combo – for as long as you like.
The uptick in quality could have to do with the slightly higher prices – everything’s €2-3 more expensive than in Moabit, although dinner and drinks will still run you less than €40/person. Then again, it could be the smaller number of customers, or Temir’s happiness at having a place of his own after 15 years in Berlin. All I can tell you is to go here, and fast. Lack of hype notwithstanding, I can’t imagine a place this good will stay under the radar for long.
Ägäis Fischrestaurant, Weigandufer 35, Neukölln, daily 15-24