In a half-timbered fairytale house a few hundred metres from the Hauptbahnhof, restauranteur Wolfram Ritschl has created his own little gourmet world.
Twenty-seven years ago, at 23, Ritschl took over a railwayman’s pub and set up a Russian restaurant inside. The plan flopped, and so he switched to making continental food.
Over the years, it’s become ever-more highbrow, and since Robert Kettner took over as head chef a few years ago, Paris-Moskau has been full-on nouvelle cuisine, complete with slate plates, emulsions and prices to match.
Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, likes to dine in Wolfram’s cottage – recently with his Swedish and French counterparts. If you were a spy interested in the conversations of German powerbrokers, this would be an excellent place to bug.
This would fit with the atmosphere of Cold War intrigue Ritschl wants to convey: Paris- Moskau used to be just a few hundred metres from where the Wall once stood.
Ritschl likes to say that the Tiergarten plot on which the restaurant rests is the last slice of the Soviet Union – because the USSR owned the German railways after the war, and once it collapsed, the land’s ownership was never clarified.
And so Paris-Moskau serves Russki-themed cocktails: the ‘Glasnost’ (Kir Royal dosed with Wodka Gorbatschow, a Berlin-made vodka with no connection to the former Soviet leader) and, more recently, the ‘Gazprom’ (Gorbatschow with Blue Curaçao), an homage to President Putin’s grip over Germany’s energy supply – as well as to the restaurant’s new Russian clientele.
The graphic style of the Paris-Moskau logo, echoed by a few tasteful frescos on the walls, evokes Soviet constructivism (and nods to the 1979 Paris-Moscow exhibition).
Ritschl likes to call his cuisine “deconstructed” – meaning the components of classical dishes are reinterpreted and smudged, splattered and heaped in unconventional ways across your slate (from which the plates are actually forged).
Proud of its 50-something open wines, both menu and waiter actively encourage wine pairing, making the experience easier for gourmet laggards.
You might as well go whole-hog if you’re going to splurge on a night at Paris-Moskau – so just forget about money and parachute into a five- (€65) to eight-course (€85) menu complete with an accompanying wine with each dish.
Meals appropriately begin with an amuse gueule: ours was a nibble of plaice with a smudge of crème fraiche and sour cherry jam – conjuring memories of a Swedish midsummer’s party.
Despite its refinement, Paris-Moskau isn’t striving for a Michelin star: its kitchen is too small. Its intimate cosiness is inadequately luxurious.
Instead, it fashions itself as a purveyor of “advanced bistro food”, in the words of the owner, a concept which aptly described our next plate, a sophisticated take on a humble German staple: veal sausage (sometimes they make “lobsterwurst”) served with a velvety kohlrabi soup. This came with an excellent Alsatian pinot blanc.
Sophisticated simplicity continued with a composition of cod and artichoke. A swoosh of Jerusalem artichoke mash, a couple of tiny, gently-braised artichokes, an artichoke herbmarrow dumpling.
This artistic declension of the beloved vegetable was arranged with zen precision and a painterly sense of colour around the tender fish, lightly grilled in its skin. It came with a glass of superior chardonnay with a Puligny-Montrachet mouthfeel.
Following that triptych of food art, we felt a little let down when our next course showed up. Okay, the Hereford beef was excellent, the Linda spuds perfect.
But even when the waiter poured a lukewarm broth from a carafe over the tender, pink beef slices, we were underwhelmed by the commonality of the dish and its barely perceptible horseradish bite. A rather bland experience after the daring tongue experiments of the past hour.
By dessert, that was all water under the bridge: a slice of tangy, muscovado sugar soufflé, which came on a pistachio base, topped by a layer of crispy pastry, decorated with a sweet, eggy “cloud”.
Flambéed rhubarb and strawberries with a scoop of white chocolate ice cream completed the flavour fireworks. This was so absolutely delicious that we were tempted to engage in full-view platelingus to lap up the remaining crumbs – the well-heeled company helped us refrain.
By the end, it was clear that Paris-Moskau – born as a Russian restaurant in Cold War West Berlin – had taken a long trip in the other direction, towards France.
It is one of those ‘special’ addresses that people in the know like to frequent. Beyond the sterile designer hotel restaurants jousting for stars, this former coachmen’s pub turned culinary oasis is as original as classy dining gets in Berlin.