When the latest Michelin guide to Germany came out in November, more than a few eyebrows were raised at the star awarded to Kreuzberg newbie Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Billy Wagner’s year-old restaurant might be the hardest-to-get reservation in town, sure, but does its much-touted, self-proclaimed “brutally local” concept – everything from a 200-250km radius of Berlin, no olive oil, no pepper, no citrus fruit… – transcend past trendy gimmickry?
To be honest, we’re not sure. In fact, we’re still trying to figure out what to make of our evening there. Suffice it to say that this is not the place to go for “dinner” in the conventional sense. Our reservation email suggested we treat it like a night at the opera, and that’s probably the most apt comparison. Like Die Walküre, a meal at Nobelhart & Schmutzig lasts about four hours, and every second of it is masterminded by a man named Wagner.
You can almost hear “Ride of the Valkyries” as he strides to meet you, eyes blazing, beard immaculately groomed. In the dining room, a chicly cosy space dominated by a gigantic open kitchen, he seems to be everywhere at once: greeting guests, putting a record on the turntable (it was The XX during our visit) and pouring glass after glass of wine. Did we mention he’s a sommelier? For all that’s been written about the food, drinks are a huge part of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig experience – and a notable exemption to the “brutally local” rule. The list of available libations is 71 pages long and doubles as a manifesto in which Wagner rails against bartenders as “henchmen of the industry” and claims that he does not serve “craft beer”, rather beer with an “artisanal philosophy”. Pay € 63 on top of the € 80 for dinner, and he’ll deliver a course-by-course pairing in which each beverage is so completely and lovingly described that your meal feels more like a wine tasting with some particularly inventive snacks.
Back to the food. Chef Micha Schäfer offers one 10-course menu per night (with two amuse-bouches, two desserts and bread counting as “courses”) that you’re only allowed to tweak if you’re vegetarian, vegan or allergic to something. Dishes are listed by their primary components as well as their origin, usually a small farm in Brandenburg. It’s hyper-seasonal as well as hyper-local, meaning our December meal was heavy on roots, brassicas and pickled things. With such an ambitious formal constraint, you’re bound to have some hits and misses.
A delicious first course of beechwood-smoked eel from Lake Müritz in Mecklenburg- Vorpommern was cancelled out by a dish described only as “butternut squash”, a cup of dirty-tasting ‘soup’ that turned out to be, basically, cold-pressed juice. Uncooked trout with bright-green kale sauce and potato puree lacked acidity… unless consumed simultaneously with the feisty young French chenin blanc Wagner recommended. All part of his plan, he assured us. Two vegetable-centric courses were knockouts: tender Brussels sprouts with butter-browned breadcrumbs and sweet-sour pickled dandelion buds in an umami-rich lamb-oat stock; and crisp roasted Jerusalem artichoke over slightly pickled endive with a sunflower-seed sauce and sprigs of ground ivy, a minty European garden weed. The latter was nearly overshadowed by its accompanying wine, an intriguingly smoky 10-year-old barrel-aged Rioja from Viña Gravonia in Spain.
A bowl of lamb-fat-enriched cabbage broth with paper-thin potato slices was fine but forgettable, and then it was time for the meat course, a chunk of fallow deer leg from the Brandenburg farm Gut Hirschaue. This came with a celeriac demi-glace and spruce needles sprinkled over thinly sliced Zuckerhut, a local endive relative. Though the meat’s texture was good in that tendon-y Chinese acquired taste sort of way, it surprisingly lacked flavour; meanwhile, the accoutrements were just a little too bitter and the Slovenian wine, our fourth white of the night, was giving us palate fatigue, however much Wagner explained that he couldn’t possibly have served this dish with a red.
By this point, we were beginning to think Wagner and Schäfer might have fallen a little too in love with the whole “brutal” thing, a suspicion reinforced by the rather punishingly sour quince-grapeseed and cherry-beetroot desserts. There’s a difference between challenging palates and abusing them in the name of being uncompromising.
And yet… over a week after our meal, we still find ourselves thinking about it, which is more than we can say for most other Berlin restaurants. It may not always be tasty, and it might not even sate your hunger, but if you’re looking for ‘memorable’, you’ll find it at Nobelhart & Schmutzig. And given a choice between dinner here and similarly priced box seats for this month’s showing of Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper, why not pick the Wagner who’ll get you drunk?