Two new Israeli restaurants, one homegrown, one imported, serve mouthwatering food with a side of chaos.
If you have even a passing familiarity with the Hebrew language, you know the word balagan, which, roughly translated, means “joyful chaos”. A useful description for any night out worth having, it’s also a key component of some of Berlin’s best Israeli restaurants. You don’t just go to these places for the hummus but for the clatter of dishes and chatter of guests, and for the drinks that turn into dinner that turns into more drinks: the sense that anything can and will happen.
A mishmash of Middle Eastern, German and Ashkenazi Jewish influences that indeed recalls the cooking of an eccentric, culinarily gifted granny
The ur-example of this used to be Yafo in Mitte, known equally for its loud, late evenings as for its perfect roast cauliflower. Fuelled by the live-wire energy of Tel Aviv-born owner Shani Ahiel, it brought a welcome spot of balagan to a buttoned-up corner of the city from its opening in 2016 until the landlords gave it the boot in 2020. After a long couple of years (including a brief stint as a pop-up in the Amano Hotel), Ahiel made what she calls the “heartbreaking” choice to transform Shishi, the upscale Mediterranean spot she owned in Kreuzberg, into Yafo 2.0.
You can tell the difference as soon as you walk in. While Shishi was full of smartly dressed urban professionals sipping orange wine and nibbling on gnocchi, Yafo draws a rowdier crowd – with the emphasis on “crowd”. Since reopening in November, the dimly-lit Hinterhaus space (with a courtyard in the summer) has been jam-packed on a nightly basis. Diners at tables placed just a Bella Hadid waistline apart compete to have the liveliest conversation, regularly interrupted by the bell that clangs whenever yet another group (or the staff itself) orders a round of drinks.
But just because the vibe is messier doesn’t mean the food is. Did you ever wish Shishi had falafel, or that the old Yafo had a charcoal grill? Then you’ll be thrilled by a menu that incorporates the best of both bygone spots. At last, you can order Shishi’s fantastic charred eggplant starter without pressure to follow it up with a pricey main – the €14 “Yafo Über Alles” hummus, as silky and rich as you’d expect with tender cauliflower and a trio of side sauces, will do. Or that delectably moist falafel, worlds away from the Imbiss down the street.
If you do want to go fancy, there are options. Like the €22 octopus skewer, in which smoky grilled hunks of the cephalopod alternate with tart fermented tomatoes over lima beans and fresh herbs. The only Shishi item we truly miss is the challah, but Yafo’s warm, fluffy pita makes a fine consolation prize, whether dunked into labneh or spread with chopped chicken liver (both of which appear alongside homemade pickles and other goodies on the must-order mezze platter).
You won’t find pita at Berta, nor hummus. The closest you’ll get to the chickpea dip at this flashy new import is a glass jar of creamy truffled polenta with mushrooms, Parmesan and slivers of green asparagus, seasonality be damned. The dish is a trademark of Assaf Granit, a celebrity chef and TV personality with outposts in his native Jerusalem as well as London, Paris and now Berlin.
Just because the vibe is messier doesn’t mean the food is
Berta isn’t the first big-money Israeli operation to open in the German capital – it’s not even the first inside a luxury hotel within walking distance of Potsdamer Platz. But while nearby Layla, from famed Tel Aviv restaurateur Meir Adoni radiates slick cosmopolitanism, Granit embraces chaos. There’s a reason one of his other restaurants is actually named Balagan.
Berta is named after his grandmother, who grew up in Berlin before fleeing to Israel. Like Ahiel’s grandma at Yafo, she presides over dinner in portrait form, here as part of a makeshift gallery beneath exposed ventilation ducts. She also inspired the food, a mishmash of Middle Eastern, German and Ashkenazi Jewish influences that indeed recalls the cooking of an eccentric, culinarily gifted granny.
The moment we sit down, for example, we’re handed a cup of soup – not a delicate, palate-stimulating broth, but a thick, irresistibly cheesy aubergine-harissa number. Traditional Jewish dishes begin appearing in bizarre guises. A €19 tuna starter that’s somehow also a take on tsimmes, the syrupy fruit and vegetable stew we choked down every Passover? Sounds vile, but the combo of seared fish, smoked apple, carrot jus and almonds is to die for, as is the sweet-savoury kugel (a layered casserole, here made with cabbage) topped with cashew ice cream and a Jägermeister reduction.
Would Berta have approved of pairing mussels and bacon with kreplach, the doughy Ashkenazi dumplings? We don’t get to guess, as we’ve moved on to Levantine territory. Here there’s overlap with Layla in the form of sesame-studded Jerusalem bagels and brioche-like Yemeni kubaneh, though if you only get one carb it should be the frenavon, a chewy-crisp Moroccan-style flatbread. The octopus tentacle, coiled atop a ladleful of the warmly spiced chickpea-lentil-tomato stew harira, is nice if scrawnier than Yafo’s; there’s no such complaint with the plump, butter-soft calamari rings and shrimp in the black bulgur dish.
Dessert, coriander-perfumed fruit compote on a floral china etagere, transports us back to Grandma’s house. Which feels weird, because by now, a visiting Granit and his staff are downing shots behind the counter of the open kitchen, the music has sneakily gotten even louder, and a few guests have started shaking their hips in between tables. They’re soon joined by most of the servers and the restaurant’s PR rep, who assures us the dance party is completely spontaneous.
We’re inclined to prefer the homegrown balagan of Yafo – how chaotic can you really be when you’re part of a multi-million-euro hospitality group? But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t having fun.