When it comes to vegan Asian food, the restaurants run by Tran Mai Huy Thong always stood out. While everyone else was serving up tofu curry, mock duck and straight-outta-Dong Xuan décor, his joints were experimenting with tempura-crusted bao burgers and homemade spelt noodles (Ryong), or flamboyantly colourful bahn xeo (Con Tho) amid sleek interiors that reflected the Vietnamese- German entrepreneur’s background as a fashion designer.
But having been to those places still won’t prepare you for Oukan, his new fine dining venture and Berlin’s most ambitious vegan restaurant since Kopps that opened a decade ago. After entering through an unmarked red door in a courtyard off Ackerstraße, you’re led through the dark corridors of the Weimar-era dancehall Ballhaus Mitte, now redecorated to resemble a Buddhist monastery crossed with a high-end sex club. You sit at a long granite table or in an intimate tatami room partitioned off by hanging ropes.
Your only window to the outside world is a small ceiling skylight perfectly positioned over a painstakingly transplanted bonsai ficus tree; your main light source a slim pendant lamp that flatters your tablemates and your dinner in equal measure.
Within this reverent atmosphere, you receive a three- or seven-course meal of elaborate plant-based dishes conceived by DDR-born chef Martin Müller in consultation with real-life Zen monks. You’re told that the kitchen applies the principles of shōjin ryōri, or Japanese Buddhist temple cuisine, to regional ingredients like kale, celery root, potatoes and… black truffle. You can pair it with wine or cocktails, but you’re encouraged to opt for tea.
The closest analogue might be UUU in Wedding, which also fuses Asian techniques with local produce and leafy drinks, but that highly intimate project serves fewer than 40 diners a week, not 80 a night. So props to Huy Thong and co. for presenting such an offbeat project on such a grand scale, even if the setting and the story (which also involves the entire team going on tea-fuelled meditation retreats in the Brandenburg woods) occasionally outshine the food itself.
Which is, don’t get us wrong, very good. But Müller is a German chef versed in German cuisine, whether at Tim Raue’s La Soupe Populaire or the upscale Kneipe Tisk, and the skid marks from his sudden lane change show. The best things we tried were a millefeuille-ish cube of double-fried sliced potatoes topped with mushrooms and grated truffle, and a slab of lemon and nori-marinated celeriac served with a gravy-like carrot reduction, a mound of fermented cashew cream and a sprinkling of fried kale. Both terrific, both resolutely European in a way that the cooking of UUU’s Yuhang Wu emphatically isn’t – either would be more at home on the menu of Cookies Cream than in any monastery.
As for the Japanese-leaning courses, we enjoyed the refreshing pickled radish and yuba (tofu skin) in a chilled vegan dashi broth, but the wakame salad was unpalatably acidic, with only a handful of adorable mini king oyster mushrooms providing respite. We realised too late that Oukan’s most showstopping dish, marinated Krause Glucke (cauliflower mushroom) served on a bed of moss beneath a smoke-filled bell jar, wasn’t actually on the evening’s tasting menu. Is it worth ordering as an à-la-carte main, tacking on €26 to your €51-79 total? Maybe, if you don’t want to leave hungry. We’re not sure which monk gave Müller permission not to serve rice, which is traditionally integral to a shōjin ryōri meal, but our growling stomachs resented its absence.
And yet if you can afford it, we’d still urge you to check out Oukan. Partly because there are so few places in Berlin serving vegan food on this level, and partly because of the tea pairing (an extra €21), which is to this restaurant what wine is to Nobelhart & Schmutzig: optional in name only. We ended up remembering less about our meal than we did about the palate-expanding cold brews and warm cups poured and carefully explained by tea sommelier Kwok Ying von Beuningen: the caramel-tinged smoothness of the milky oolong, the smoky depths of the roasted hojicha, the parting shot of something called “Old Eagle” that tasted like a walk in the woods on a rainy day.
It may not be a temple, but we’re betting Oukan will inspire plenty of devotion. Huy Thong’s already deep into planning the restaurant’s second phase: a swerve into the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine of Korea, to be developed with the help of a nun and fermentation specialist from Frankfurt. We’ll be there for it.
Oukan Ackerstr. 144, Mitte, Tue-Sat 18-24