“Bring your own bottle,” said a sign in the window. Surely only a lunatic would forego what everyone commonly believes to be the most profitable part of running a restaurant: booze.
We sauntered past all five tables and a display case full of manga comics to the counter in the back. A grinning young man with a bandana around his head burst into conversation with unheard-of zeal. “Been here before? For €10 each I can make two combination bento boxes, like Japanese tapas, finger food – raw salmon tartare spiced with green onions and chilli, with or without avocado, ginger chicken from the grill with chilli cream, beef, tofu… anything you don’t like?”
Meet Markus, the mastermind behind Prenzlauer Berg’s oddest and maybe most interesting ‘Asian’ restaurant, loosely based around onigiri (€3-3.50), “though here we spell it ‘oni giri’, which means something like ‘slashing demons’!”
“If you guys wanna grab some beer or wine at the Späti, that’s cool.” Markus goes on to explain he has no space for a drinks fridge – but he does offer free green tea from a samovar on the counter.
The house philosophy is penned on the wall in large letters: “Tu was du willst aber nicht weil du musst.” (Do what you want, but not because you have to.) Obviously, it doesn’t take much prodding for Markus to do what he likes. This Berlin-bred trained sushi chef is a natural-born foodie: not only does he love eating and cooking, he loves sharing his new discoveries. “I was on the Tempelhof airfield and suddenly I had the idea of very thinly tranched and flambéed beef – I’d add some chilli cream, coriander, maybe some sweet tofu… So I tried, topped it with some dried jerky and added a drop of lemon. It was so delicious I had to put it on the evening’s menu!”
When we came, there was no menu to speak of – just Markus enthusiastically describing the options to bewildered newcomers while they enviously eyed diners’ Japanese-style trays: deep five-compartment platters replete with beautiful concoctions.
Thirty minutes and two visits to the Spätkauf later, our own trays arrived: an onigiri filled with delicious home-smoked salmon; a baked one with chilli sauce, matcha powder and coriander; a bed of rice with a giant grilled prawn strapped to the top sushi-style (with his signature spicy chilli cream and a dollop of teriyaki sauce); potato-curry filled pockets (also on rice!); crusty Knödel-like buns, steamed then baked, presented as mini burgers filled with the paper-thin flambéed ribeye steak Markus had dreamed up at Tempelhof.
Boxes come with a little homemade coleslaw (or some edamame, or fruit, or a salad, according to mood and market) and some pickled ginger to clean the palate. We gobbled ours down in no time, and it was deliciously addictive. Alas, by the time we decided to ask for more there was no rice left. The place is so popular that the daily supply of fresh ingredients doesn’t always last until closing time. “Shall I fix you up a dessert? What about some nice Japanese pancakes with ice cream, matcha powder, maybe some sunflower seeds or hazelnuts…” The man is never short of ideas.