Since Cordobar opened in 2013, we’d been hearing rumblings about it from those in the know. Not that it was ever one of Berlin’s buzziest restaurants – instead, we gathered that this was where the staff from said buzzy restaurants went to grab a glass of wine and something to eat after their shifts. Anyone with a few connections and a corkscrew can open a wine bar, but it takes a special kind of place to become an after-hours foodie hangout. With the departure of the original, much-celebrated chef Lukas Mraz shaking things up this year, we figured now was as good a time as any to give Cordobar a go.
When we came on a Thursday night, the dimly lit, narrow space on Große Hamburger Straße was filled with a busy crowd of Mitte techies, tourists and creative bourgeoisie who had reserved ahead. We were still able to squeeze in at the bar next to a Brooklynite start-up founder and a vacationing Dutch couple. Our spot gave us a prime view of a library’s worth of open bottles and a sketch of a bespectacled man who could have either been Cordobar manager Willi Schlögl or Kurt Wagner, lead singer of the Nashville indie band Lambchop. Surprisingly, it was the latter: Christof Ellinghaus, the founder of Lambchop’s label City Slang, is part-owner of the place, as is former German it-director Jan-Ole Gerster (Oh Boy!).
The other two owners are Austrian, and they’re the ones responsible for the wine. (They also gave the bar its name, a reference to the Argentinian city where Austria’s football team defeated Germany 39 years ago.) Don’t get intimidated by the 111-page book of available bottles, which start at €29 and range well into the hundreds of euros. The list of wines by the glass is much more manageable, and Schlögl, who hails from the Styria region, is always happy to help narrow it down further. Hand-picked mostly from small producers in Austria, Germany and Hungary, the selection is predictably strong on whites – we tried a smooth Gruner Veltliner from the village of Kammern (€6.50/10cl), and a Hungarian furmint (the “trend grape of 2017”, or so says The Guardian) that was so refreshing it was almost minty (€7.90/10cl).
What about the food? Under the Viennese Mraz, Cordobar earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand for inventive, Asian-inflected dishes like Peking duck liver parfait and his signature blood sausage-wasabi ‘pizza’. In the kitchen since April, his Dutch replacement Waal Sterneberg doesn’t seem to have rocked the boat much. The Asian influence is still there; in fact, it’s stronger than ever in small plates like charred green onions with sesame sauce (€5), a satisfying riff on the Japanese preparation goma-ae. We’d never heard of deep-fried kimchi before, but it turned out to be a forehead-smackingly obvious bar snack (€5) – we wouldn’t be surprised if any chef who tries the crunchy, spicy breaded radishes here goes on to replicate them on their own menu.
Sterneberg’s background occasionally comes to the fore, as in the donut-like sukerbole you can order for dessert (€7) and in the bowl of little shell-on Dutch prawns slathered in (too much) peanut sate sauce (€5). But mostly, this food isn’t tied to any particular place. The Brussels sprout dish (€15) floats a crispy roasted layer of the trendy brassica over a creamy, fishy emulsion containing verbena and cod roe – weird, but it works. Meanwhile, the sweet-spicy glazed fried chicken in a moat of yoghurt and hummus (€15) toes the line between refined gastropub cuisine and straight-up junk food, making us wish we could trade our €9.50 glass of Blaufränkisch for a nice beer. Unfortunately, there’s only one on the menu, a €4 pilsner from Salzburg brewery Trumer.
We’d heard rumours about condescending service, but on our visit it was all perfectly congenial, if understaffed. The omnipresent Schlögl could be counted on to pop up with a recommendation, or to explain the particulars of the varietal we were drinking without making us feel like an idiot. But Cordobar definitely has a certain cooler-than-thou vibe, and we can see why it’s turned off some visitors while regulars go starry-eyed. Personally, we’d reserve this place for special occasions, like a classy drink and some shareable bites after a production at nearby Sophiensaele. Or a Tinder date with a venture capitalist who’s footing the bill – how else are we supposed to make a dent in that wine list?