Let’s face it, setting is a huge part of a dining experience, no matter how much of a gourmet you are. But sometimes, the décor outshines the food. That’s the case with star chef Tim Raue’s latest gastro playground, La Soupe Populaire.
Here, the man who’s been reaping awards for turning Peking duck into a two-Michelin-star dish in his Kreuzberg restaurant revels in ‘simple’ German comfort food reportedly drawn from childhood memories in the maximalist setting of a post-industrial baroque wonderland – light years away from Raue’s signature Asian minimalism.
The fun starts with the secrecy of the place. Tucked away in the barren-looking yard of disused Bötzow-Brauerei, off Prenzlauer Allee, it’s not some place a passerby – or, god forbid, a tourist – might simply stumble upon.
Walk through the yard to the main brick building and pull open the massive rust-coloured door. Allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness of what looks like an abandoned factory and find your way through another doorway. Here, a clue: the original ‘décor’ of broken tiled surfaces, damaged walls and leftover machinery has been planted with a shell-shaped, chiseled-glass sink and matching chandelier.
After another turn or two you reach a room as high as a cathedral (formerly the main brewery workshop). With paintings on the walls, it resembles an exhibition hall – wrong place? Tipped off by noises, you look up to understand where you are – right at the foot of the action. Above you is a two-level mezzanine built like a temporary scaffold with flimsy stairs and a tin floor which resonates with a springing noise as the waitresses walk back and forth.
We couldn’t help but gasp with amazement at this dining stage – a premeditated jumble of perfectly mismatched styles arranged by Luis Mock, also responsible for the interior of the new Bread & Butter retail outpost in Haus Cumberland.
The brewery’s untouched original fixtures combine with a mix of raw furniture including aged and distressed wood, all shades and shapes of iron and classroom-style chairs – the whole thing warmed up by a mess of antiques, from a Chesterfield to a mixed-up set of dainty Bavarian and English porcelain and a collection of engraved family silverware. You might enjoy this exercise in recycling – if you don’t mind dining with dead people’s knives and forks.
We’re seated at the railing, a spot with a view – some four metres above ground floor; another four under the skylight roof. A lovely touch: laurel in an antique glass display on top of our small table, which is set with delicate linen tea napkins as mats.
We eagerly order a bottle of Badoit (the “champagne of waters”, due to the distinctive lightness of its natural bubbles), which we’re told is Mr. Raue’s personal favourite to accompany food. A good impression, reinforced by a complimentary farmhouse treat – a wooden tray with a jar of homemade vinegar-and-sugar-preserved “cornichons”, onion and apple Schmalz and well-spiced Rixdorf-sourced Würstchen.
Vegetarians fear not – there’s the superior bread (a delicious crusty sourdough from our favourite Brot & Butter bakers) and cream-like butter whipped with a dash of lime and horseradish, which we eagerly spread on the bread and gobble down till the last crumb. After all, we may as well make the most of our €2 cover charge, and Raue’s reputed for doll-sized portions – better be on the safe side.
But this is a place that goes against all the typical Raue expectations. The black pudding (€14) comes as a surprise, size-wise – two good chunks of (skinless) blood sausage from Berlin’s Blutwurst Manufaktur served with a spoonful of mash and another two of chunky applesauce – nicely spiced up by a couple of pickled onions. Deliciously hearty, and sufficient to satiate light lunchers.
The lamb’s lettuce (€12) fills a large soup plate, a jumble of greens, caramelised walnuts, bacon slices on top, and a few whimsical notes such as a Jerusalem artichoke cream and tiny shrivelled berries that turn out to be marinated grapes… all smothered in a discreet cherry-wine vinaigrette.
By the time we get our mains, we’re not that hungry but still eager for the Königsberger Klopse (€18), which supposedly attract a full contingent of meatball-hungry families to the early service (6-8pm). Raue’s nod to the timeless Oma classic is tasty, although on the salty side, and the rich Riesling-based sauce, while sophisticated, feels a damn long way from the original.
The best part is truly the paper-thin sliced beetroot salad, adding a sweet-sour touch to the salty yellow display. Similarly the fish owes more to French gastronomy than to German home cooking (again, except for quantity): a mighty chunk of steamed cod (€18) dressed in a delicate white butter sauce on a bed of creamy yellow lentils, beetroot, fennel and orange segments, lending the dish definite fruity accents of citrus – all on the sweet side this time.
The desserts (€8 each) are a bit baffling. The Bienenstich (bee-sting cake), a mount of whipped vanilla cream with a crispy almond topping is served alongside a playful almond bee miniature – sweet to the eye but overly sweet to the palate.
As for the Kalter Hund, another German classic, it arrives as three cute flower-shaped shortbread piles, layered with cocoa cream. It may look as if devised for a children’s birthday party, but the tasty honey-like quince sorbet is a more adult affair. The desserts seem to speak for the whole place – concept and design come first. But then again, the experience of reasonably good starters and mains but miserly dessert is not uncommon in Berlin.
All in all, an inconclusive experience. The idea might be to be “populaire” (soupe populaire literally means “soup kitchen” in French) – a good way to score a meal from the hyped Berlin chef for under the usual €160 price tag. But it isn’t cheap here either, and the food alone doesn’t account for the €50-100 you’ll end up spending on a three-course meal.
They seem to assume that what you don’t get in terms of food will be made up for by the “wow” factor… and, somehow, it works. If you want to impress posh visitors, business or private, with classy dining and unique Berlin flair, this beats nearby Soho House hands down.
Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.