This is a bit of a cursed spot – situated in what estate agents like to call a “premium location”, directly on Prenzlauer Berg’s Kollwitzplatz, the space at Knaackstraße 45 has passed through a seemingly never-ending succession of hands and cuisines, from Greek to nouveau German to faux French to – the most recent flop – Pakistani. This time it’s Montenegrin and fish, mostly.
A pleasantly un-trendy, low-key restaurant, Lesendro looks like an old-school Yugo taverna – a bit like stepping back in time to a 1960s Adriatic beach holiday. The fishing nets, marine art and Kneipe-style benches feel quaintly old-fashioned (not ‘retro’) and refreshingly minimal (as opposed to ‘minimalist’), as if decorated by your Opa, who’d have brought his knick-knacks all the way from back home on the Montenegrin coast – the small town of Herceg Novi in this case. Chef/owner Vladimir Kosic prides himself in perpetuating a long family tradition (there’s a portrait of his grandparents in traditional wedding garb hanging on the wall) – that’s where his love for fish, from catching to cooking to eating it, comes from, he says.
Kosic is from Montenegro and most of his staff from Croatia, a distinction that doesn’t really matter when it comes to the food: whole fresh fish (Kosic despises frozen fillets), wild catch only, cooked in what he calls the “original traditional style”, i.e. grilled with sea salt, olive oil, parsley garlic and lemon and served with a sprinkle of rosemary – that’s it. There’s also calamari and octopus (grilled or served as carpaccio); a bouillabaisse-style soup known as Brodet in the region; Mediterranean veggies sautéed in olive oil; Balkanstyle salads tossed with balsamic-lemon dressing.
They used to exhibit their fish in a refrigerated display on the street, to the great joy of the Platz’s many toddlers, but on winter days, Kosic’s stores of Dorade, sea bass, monkfish, John Dory and co. are kept inside. You may just want to skip the menu and ask for the ‘catch of the day’. We did and were soon presented with a plate lined with three beautiful sea creatures: a large silver-scaled sea bass and two coral-coloured fish with huge protruding eyes and abnormally wide beaks, graced with appendages resembling legs and wings, which was introduced to us as ‘flying físh’. Germans call it Knurrhahn (literally “growling cock”, because of the noise when you take it out of water). They’re also known as sea robins and are used in France for bouillabaisse. We chose a “growling cock” for two and within 20 minutes were brought warm plates and a large hot platter (warmed by tea lights) containing our catch and garnish – potatoes, courgettes and yellow capsicum roasted in olive oil and a side of lamb’s lettuce (€40 for about 800g; priced by the kilo). The waiter skilfully de-boned the fish for us and split the firm white flesh; it was just perfect for two. Overall, as close to the real thing as you might possibly expect from a Berlin restaurant outside the Michelin league.
For a more modest price, we recommend the grilled baby calamari (€11.50) or octopus (€13.50 – Vladimir won’t reveal his ‘family’ secret for its perfectly soft and delicious texture) – or Buzara, a mix of shellfish and shrimp cooked in white wine, the taste of a Mediterranean vacation served in an iron pan with house sides.
Prolong the holiday with a massive pancake filled with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, a wonderful alternative to the ubiquitous creme brulée, that feels like a childhood summer dream on your plate. At night, a woman might sit down at the piano and start playing a Schubert sonata, turning the experience into something even more enigmatically nostalgic. Have a grappa, it’s on the house – it will complete the warming of your soul.
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.