The coronavirus pandemic was supposed to have spelled the end of two things: fussy, multi-course tasting menus, and takedown reviews. The former fell by the wayside as eaters retreated to home cooking, takeout and, eventually, casual outdoor dining. As for the latter, with the entire gastro industry brought low by Covid-19, why rub fleur-de-sel into what’s already a gaping wound? Guardian critic Jay Rayner, best (if perhaps unfairly) known for mercilessly skewering Michelin hopefuls, announced he was putting the habit on hold when UK restaurants began reopening last year, and many a publication followed suit. It only made sense.
But. At the moment, Berlin restaurants are not only on the rebound, they’re attracting fresh blood. People who got really into food while quarantining, and are only now catching up on the local scene. People who have friends or family visiting for the first time in over a year, and want to take them somewhere exciting. People who were laid low by corona themselves, but have nonetheless scraped together enough cash for a celebratory dinner. If you’re one of them, you deserve to know where to go – and where not to.
Which brings me to AV. An intimate Prenzlauer Berg storefront run by Italian chef Antonio Vinciguerra and Noma-obsessed fermentation nerd Guy Ripley, it’s one of the first ambitious restaurant projects to open in Berlin post-lockdown. It’s been gathering momentum on Instagram. And it specialises in those same multi-course tasting menus that purportedly went extinct along with hugging strangers and sharing coke straws.
I wish I liked it more. This is an indie venture from an itty-bitty team, the lifting of indoor dining restrictions caught them by surprise and they opened for dinner earlier than intended. In the middle of the year’s first nasty heatwave, no less, meaning that elaborate meals intended for consumption within AV’s chic concrete-and-reclaimed-wood interior had to be served outdoors, next to drunk football fans inhaling chicken kebabs. Service was awkward but endearingly enthusiastic, like a high school theatre production. Then again, subjecting yourself to a bunch of horny outcasts overacting their way through “Into the Woods” won’t set you back €55-75. Before drinks.
With its heavy emphasis on fermentation, regionality, natural wine and zero-waste cooking – the shelves are full of glass jars containing mysterious probiotics, and they’re breaking down an entire German Iberico pig in the basement – this place could, should, and probably eventually will be a small-plates deal akin to Otto, Mrs. Robinson, Michelberger, Hinterland, und und und. But at present, dinner visitors are obliged to order the nightly set menu. It’s available for omnivores or plant eaters, in “long” or “short” variations, although when I was there the €20 difference between the two amounted to some ravioli and a single lemon macaron.
Looking at the individual dishes, there’s some potential. That ravioli, worthy of this classic description with its vibrantly vernal green pea filling, buried in a cascade of whole peas and doused in an umami-rich vinaigrette. The sourdough bread, baked in-house, served with garlic butter and fermented honey, comforting enough to burrow into. The loin from the aforementioned basement pig (at least, the bit of it that wasn’t oversalted), crisp-skinned atop plump borlotti beans and tangy slivers of pickled rhubarb.
But the misses… oof. Smoked carrot, confited and presented to resemble lox, is nice if unoriginal, and the elderflower berry capers on top are a stroke of tiny, briny genius. But why then cover the whole thing in lightly sweetened granola, making it taste like a hotel breakfast buffet with a bowl shortage? What’s the point of procuring French mussels from Fish Klub if you’re going to barbecue the flavour out of them and drown them in a too-vinegary ajo blanco sauce (made, if I correctly parsed the confusing explanation of the dish, with the liquid from pickled grilled rose petals) and domineeringly vegetal slivered snap peas? Vinciguerra and co. obviously have an admirable passion for experimentation, but also, it isn’t 2011 and you don’t get points just for pickling that. And if you’re going to experiment, go all the way – with memories of Kink’s Spargel sorbet in my head, AV’s dessert combo of strawberries, creme fraiche and some kind of brown sugar crumble failed to excite.
In contrast to the evening program, lunch is affordable (around €12) and, from the looks of it, quite fun, with dishes like smoked chicken, duck terrine and chicken fat biscuits with fermented hot sauce. Ripley worked at a high-end café before this (Outgrow, in Charlottenburg), and maybe that ought to be AV’s final destination. One of the most delightful things I tried, after all, was pour-over coffee served with homemade marshmallows on skewers and a little pot of charcoal for DIY roasting.
So yes, go for lunch, have a coffee, try a homemade kombucha or the exceedingly curated wine list if you’ve got some money to spare and want to support these newcomers through their rocky opening phase. But for that special-occasion meal, the kind you’ve been waiting to have since last summer… look elsewhere. At least for now.
AV Restaurant Schönhauser Allee 44, Prenzlauer Berg, Wed-Sun 12-15, 17-23
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