Dear brothers, sisters and nonbinary siblings in hunger: what a year this was. For all of us, but mostly for me, personally.
Back in February I went from monthly restaurant reviewer to weekly food columnist, sometime Instagrammer and full-fledged cog in the Exberliner-Tip content machine. I wrote lots of listicles. I waited in lots of chicken sandwich queues. I got self-righteous about Spargel and steakhouses. I got put on blast by the owners of Mrs. Robinson’s for writing a ‘review’ of their new café that mostly consisted of Arrested Development references (fair enough).
And I ate. Oh, did I eat. 2021 may have been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time for restaurants, but some ridiculously great food emerged from the chaos. Assuming we all make it into 2022, I can’t wait to find out what the next year has in store for Berlin tastebuds. But for now, here are the top 10 things I put in my mouth over the past 12 months:
Barra’s chicken sandwich
The Neukölln wine bar’s pandemic special amassed a big ol’ mountain of hype during the eight or so months it was on offer, and I was wary of sounding like an echo chamber. But just because it’s Christmas (and at Christmas you tell the truth): to me, the Barra sandwich was perfect. That toothsome hunk of moist, buttermilk-brined bird. That craggy crust. That irresistible sweet-spicy-tangy glaze. My post-lockdown regret is only that I didn’t eat that sandwich more often.
El Puesto’s birria tacos
With apologies to El Oso, no Mexican dish made me lose my sense of decorum as completely and utterly as the consomme-dipped braised beef bundles dished out by this sadly short-lived pop-up. If you walked down Paul-Linke-Ufer the afternoon of March 19, you would’ve spotted me crouched in the alley next to the former La Lucha, meat juice flowing down my face, rejoicing that this trendy Tijuana specialty not only had arrived in Berlin, but was actually good.
In a city suddenly overflowing with real-deal Neapolitan pizza, it feels wrong to say my favourite pie of the year was made by – shudder – a German. But I can’t fight my feelings for Hannes Broecker’s lightly charred sourdough crust, or the spicy, meaty combination of fennel salami, padron peppers, buffalo mozzarella and hot tomato sauce atop my order. He’s hauling out the Roccbox only sporadically these days; next time you see it on Instagram, run, don’t walk.
Quasi Quasi’s monkfish pasta
On its own, this dish – fat pasta strands dressed in a bright, lemony zucchini sauce, mixed with cleanly oceanic chunks of Fish Klub’s finest and topped with a salty sprinkle of crisp fried prosciutto – would’ve been very tasty. With copious amounts of wine, on a rare dog-free date night on the first balmy evening after the great May restaurant reopening? Fuckin’ orgasmic.
Frank’s hazelnut choux
I have a confession to make: I’m not a dessert person. Give me a choice between sweet and salty, and I’ll pick the latter every time – unless the former happens to be a fist-sized pastry orb with an exterior crunch that’s the ideal counterpoint to the caramelised, nutty praline cream contained within. A miniature work of art from pâtissière Fabienne Dauplay, and my first indication that the new custodians of the Pfefferberg had substance to match their style.
Da Jia Le’s five-colour salad
Hello, I’ve been living under a rock for the past seven years or so and only made it to everyone’s favourite northern Chinese powerhouse this summer. Just in time, too. That cool mix of slippery, QQ-tastic glass noodles, cucumbers, scallions, egg strips, wood-ear mushrooms and spicy sauce was the dog-day August salvation I didn’t know I needed – and washing it down with a Heidenpeters pale ale sure didn’t hurt.
Larb Koi’s fried fish
Cruuuunch. It’s not often that an auditory memory of a dish sticks with you longer than a gustatory one, but months after eating the deep-fried dried sea bass at Monay Keawmali’s stellar new restaurant, I can still hear its crisp, puffed-up skin shattering beneath my teeth. An unexpected textural interlude amid an onslaught of spice, and proof of what this chef could do after leaving Khwan behind.
UUU’s homemade tofu
The signature dish at Yuhang Wu and Jonas Borcher’s labour of love doubles as a chemistry demonstration: peer into a steaming pot of soymilk and watch it coagulate in real time. But the real magic happens when you combine the creamy, cloudlike curds with rice and a chilli-scallion oil that puts Lao Gan Ma’s to shame. Who knew science could be this comforting?
Food Technique Berlin’s vegetarian ramen
The Instagram documentation of corona-minted ramen maniacs Food Technique and Kuma Ramen made me appreciate all the hard work that goes into this deceptively simple noodle soup: from noodle hydration levels to broth simmering time, chashu fat content to soy sauce salinity, there’s no parameter that can’t be tinkered with in the pursuit of the perfect bowl. Both men produced astonishing results, but the edge goes to the latter for incorporating local ingredients like kohlrabi, morel mushrooms and rocket into a meat-free version that’s truly one-of-a-kind.
Shishi’s raw pink bream
Not long ago, I was invited to preview the New Year’s menu at the Kreuzberg Yafo offshoot, an odd but not unpleasant evening mostly spent engaging in awkward small talk with the influencers’ boyfriends seated on either side of me. What made it all worthwhile: this bright, ceviche-like wonder that combined Atlantic-fresh bream (Fish Klub again) with pickled pumpkin, creme fraiche, caviar and just the right amount of spice. If you miss their NYE dinner (€130/person, reserve at [email protected], I won’t blame you if you don’t in the age of Omicron), I’d still urge you to head over soon and find out for yourself how much this place has upped its game lately.