Francoise Poilane investigated Italian dining as conceived by Russians, and found sensational open wines and the best sourdough in town.
The opening of Mine/Wine one year ago (Jan 10) was hailed in the German press as “Russia’s Jamie Oliver” coming to Berlin. They meant Aram Mnatsakanov, an Armenian wine enthusiast turned celebrity chef. After opening his first wine bar, Probka (“cork”), in St. Petersburg in 2001, he built up a full-fledged food and drink empire through clever self-branding. He’s now as famous for his love of luxury cars, his travel memoir and his appearance on Ukraine’s version of Hell’s Kitchen as he is for his six restaurants, all of which flaunt his signature “classic Italian” flair. Mine/ Wine, the latest offspring of the Probka family, is his first restaurant in Germany.
“Fine Italian dining from Russia” isn’t an easy sell in the German capital, where real-deal trattorias are now as common as currywurst. And predictably, Mnatsakanov’s classy yet cosy brasserie near KaDeWe is less popular with hipster foodies than it is with City West types: older ladies with expensive scarves and visiting girlfriends from Baden Baden in tow, businessmen staying in surrounding hotels and, of course, Russians, attracted by the owner’s domestic fame or just on a detour from their beloved Ku’Damm. Not exactly promising, but as it turned out, the quality of the food and wine and, above all, the unpretentious professionalism and cheerfulness of the staff won us over.
It started with Natalya, discreetly sipping tea alone at the table next to ours. It was 8pm, a little late for an elegant lady to tea-party on her own, and it soon became apparent she was far from a normal customer. As we marvelled over the wondrous crusty slices brought to our our table, she took the chance to chime in. “The bread’s baked in-house. Did you know the sourdough starter originated in Georgia 70 years ago?” She also informed us that the creamy, perfectly salty butter was from a small farm near the Danish border, the fleur de sel was the finest natural sea salt from Maldon and the luscious olive oil came straight from Sicily. They’d all been sourced with the utmost care. And then Natalya introduced herself: Mnatsakanov’s wife, the stepmother of Mine/Wine chef and manager Mikhail and an associate in the business, here on a short stopover between Hamburg and St. Petersburg. When they’re not there or at their other two homes in Moscow and Cap d’Antibes, the jetsetting couple is scouting out vineyards in France and Italy, where Mnatsakanov knows every noteworthy producer on a first-name basis. This explains the lavish wine menu: 150 bottles listed, mostly organic and many biodynamic. But where you could expect snobbery, you’ll be met with the kind of generosity collectors relish upon sharing their best finds. Spotting a great bottle on a Berlin wine list is no longer uncommon, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better selection of wines by the glass than Mine/Wine’s. They deserve kudos for the house prosecco (€5.50/glass) as well as for the French whites – a modest but bright Chablis (€9.50), and an unusual Sauvignon with unexpected yellow notes and the flinty mineral flavour of the Loire Valley (€8). For the red, it’s in Italy Mnatsakanov has found his gems: a bright Nero d’Avola from Sicily (€8) and a beautiful Chianti classico from Tuscany that lets the Sangiovese grape shine through (€9). And if you love a good brandy or vintage grappa, be sure to take advantage of the extensive selection of spirits on offer.
Young Mikhail Mnatsakanov, a congenial thirtysomething who trained as a chef in France, spearheaded the Berlin launch after electing Germany as the place to raise his children (the second of whom was born at time of print). His kitchen obviously knows how to make the best of its impeccable bounty. Each ingredient stands out, from the creamy Gorgonzola to the wild oregano to the Texan Angus beef and 14-hour house-dried tomatoes, all dished out on custom clayware from a potter in Petersburg. On the evening we visited, it was truffle season, and their signature truffle ravioli (€18) were in high demand. You could tell why: the burrata- filled morsels were luscious and buttery, with the love-it-or-leave it flavour of black truffle flakes. Starters run the gamut from classic to modern favourites, with a twist: the vitello tonnato has delicate slices of raw tuna in it, the red shrimp ceviche has been punched up with spicy marinated daikon radish and ginger ice cream; the house-smoked salmon is served with a mango granité. In proper Italian fashion, pasta is suggested as a second dish – here options include puttanesca with top-notch tuna (€22) and spaghetti con vongole with no less than 350g of actual clams (€26). You may want to end your meal there or move on to the impeccably pink and juicy New Zealand lamb chops (€29). Inexplicably, they paired the succulent meat with panfried sweet corn, the tart-sweetness of which threatened to make the whole dish taste like breakfast. We also enjoyed the octopus (€26), so tender it was slightly falling apart in places, possibly blanched for just a little too long. Desserts, meanwhile, were mostly notable for the experience, like the spectacular eggshell-like meringue dome that reveals an ice cream filling once broken.
All in all, Mine/Wine shines for the genuine care it puts into its food and service alike. After a serious meal and a superior boozing, Mnatsakanov junior will personally help you put on your coat, and you might even end up departing with a convivial hug from the man you’ve by now come to know as “Mischa”. We’ll be back for the outstanding bread, the wonderful wines, and the warm, congenial team.