Neni is that restaurant perched on the top of the 25hours Hotel within the much-hyped Bikini Berlin complex. It is to the hungry urbanite what the adjoining (and raved-over) Monkey Bar is to the thirsty one – a must-visit mostly for its sweeping view over Bahnhof Zoo, from the Zoological Garden’s greenery and its poor primates’ cages, to the famous Gedächtniskirche, through an unusual eye-level confrontation with the rotating Mercedes star atop the Europa Center.
If it’s off-peak time or if you’ve booked ahead to skip the mob of white collars and tourists queueing outside the elevators (guarded by unusually polite receptionists), step in and press 10th floor. Turn left out of the elevator and enter a large, entirely glassed-in room with long tables, an unhindered view over the cityscape on both sides and a strange dining area in the middle that feels like something between a bird cage and a greenhouse – a glass and metal structure with hanging plants overhead. Otherwise it’s industrial-style with an open kitchen and pipes and metal and glass everywhere. A circular balcony forms a kind of luxury smoker’s lounge.
We sit in a cosy corner. It’s pleasant and even here we can enjoy the view. A look around reveals many same-sex tables, nerdy business types who look as if they sourced their clothes from the designer mall downstairs, and foreigners, presumably staying at the hotel. Many Aperol Spritz drinkers overall. Not a gram of Berlin flair. But this restaurant is, after all, an Austrian import brought here by business-savvy Israeli-Austrian gastro-celeb Haya Molcho, who already has a Neni in Vienna and a catering business to boot.
In no time we’re served up the house “chaos food” concept – or “balagan” in the Molcho house slang, informs a flyer which lists the prerequisite food vocab the average diner is required to learn here, ranging alphabetically from “baba ganoush” to “Steve” (the Molcho boys’ former au pair). This is clearly a fussily marketed family affair.
Next comes a demo on how to unfold our postersized menu and a friendly lesson in the art of Tel Aviv street grub, a culinary style that Molcho seems to hold in high esteem. No, she didn’t go to culinary school, our friendly waiter informs us with conviction; she knows better than that.
It’s not about the food. It’s more about life – and the beauty of sharing a large communal meal composed of a “mosaic” of homemade dishes inspired by the family’s Middle Eastern and Eastern European roots – all together. “Life is Beautiful” echoes a giant neon sign behind the glass wall across the room. A quick glance at the family photo of Haya and her four grown-up sons (the word ‘Neni’ is composed from the first letter of each of their first names), which I first mistook for an über-cool street-style Bread&Butter flyer on every table, causes the neon truism to sink in further. I’m happy and hungry now.
Complimentary marinated olives arrive, followed very quickly by a feast of meze-style ‘tapas’ – a tiered plate, layered with three takes on hummus; their best-selling Sabich combo (€8/11); a chicken Jerusalem plate (€16/19); Morrocan-style fish chraime (€13/18); a Mediterranean Salad (€6/9); a dish of scallops and lentils (€18); and pita bread (€0.80) served in a pretty cloth basket – all generously sized for small portions (they all come in S and L; we ordered small); all pretty damn appetising.
Let’s be honest: we were left rather unimpressed by the greater part of that feast of pots and colours. Take that beautifully displayed trio of white, red and orange hummus (€9/16). The plain version was tasty enough, the olive oil making up for a slightly pasty texture. The beetroot-horseradish was a success with its sweet and sour touch, but the mango-curry was… a mistake.
The Jerusalem plate ended up being little more than a fancy (and expensive) deconstruction of the most banal shawarma – chicken strips and hummus topped with tons of red peppers and onion, no spice to speak of. The Moroccan fish stew we had high expectations for turned out to be an unusually bland mixture of sautéed red peppers with chunky filets of cod on top, again, distinctively lacking in spices and chemistry. The only truly flavoursome part of the scallop dish was the bed of al dente Beluga lentils. As for the salad, it lacked punch and a sour note, despite the playful touch of pomegranate seeds.
Neni’s take on sabich – the Iraqi-Israeli pita sandwich traditionally stuffed with aubergine and a boiled egg – was more convincing, its parts deconstructed and displayed in a perfect balance of textures and flavours: hummus drenched in fruity olive oil, fried aubergines, fresh coriander and tomatoes blended nicely with a perfectly poached egg. Tasty with pita, and generous enough to satisfy small to medium appetites.
But neither the lentils nor the Sabich could dispel that feeling of hit-and-miss and blandness that hovered over our whole dining experience – bitter irony for a cuisine that boasts eclectic flavours based on an alchemy of exotic spices. We kept reaching for the salt, some lemon and that side of homemade Zhug (€1.50), a hot green chilli-coriander sauce that turned out to be too small to last the whole meal. When we heard that the pita bread came from a Turkish bakery in Munich (aren’t there enough of them in Berlin?) and noticed, (the beauty of open kitchens!), that their popular sweet potato fries (€4) came directly from the freezer(!), we started to wonder what’s really behind that ‘simple family meal’ concept, beyond those postcards of jeans-clad smiley Molcho and Sons. Well-branded lifestyle, that’s what!
We came for the view and the experience; we’ll come back for the view and a few dishes – maybe for brunch. Sabich could be the perfect Israeli answer to the breakfast burrito. Or for lunch – at €15 for three courses, one might be forgiven for keeping one’s eyes off the plate to gaze out the window. In short: forgettable food, memorable meal.
NENI 25h Hotel, Budapester Str. 40, Tiergarten, Mon-Sat 8-24 (hot menu 12-23)
Originally published in issue #128, June 2014