When we heard there was a brand-new restaurant and literary salon in City West specialising in “Syrian-Brandenburg” cuisine, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. But we quickly realised that despite the fusion hook, Wolff & Eber couldn’t be more different from the current rash of flashy, splashy, English-speaking openings across town in Neukölln and Kreuzberg. It’s bourgeois. It’s as un-trendy as a saucer of Milchkaffee. And baba ghanoush aside, it’s pretty damn German.
Nestled in an almost ominously serene part of town just north of the Bavarian Quarter, with tastefully minimal décor and candlelit wooden tables, Wolff & Eber looks exactly like the kind of place where you’d expect plate-sized schnitzel and a competently but half-heartedly executed Spargelmenü. The crowd, too, is pure Wilmersdorf – a sea of cardigans, collared shirts, blazers and grey hair, plus the occasional well-behaved dog.
One of the youngest people here also happens to own the restaurant. We’re greeted at the door by 28-year-old literary wunderkind Robert Eberhardt, founder of the publishing house Wolff Verlag; the “Junger Salon” reading and discussion series; an eponymous contemporary art gallery; and even a “society for cultural heritage” in his native Thuringia. After losing his office on Unter den Linden last year, Eberhardt decided his new ‘salon’ space might as well serve food, moved west and advertised for a chef. That’s how he met 26-year-old Hadi Nsreeny, a former web designer from Aleppo who came to Berlin as an asylum seeker last year, started teaching cooking classes via the refugee integration non-profit Über den Tellerrand, and eventually landed an internship at Charlottenburg Israeli restaurant Neni.
They make an odd couple: the baby-faced, suited-up embodiment of old-school Europe and the laid-back, pierced, sweats-clad Neuberliner. Equally unusual is the menu, which combines regional ingredients with Middle Eastern flavours and German dishes with Syrian ones. There are Maultaschen alongside chickpea- and bulgur-stuffed aubergine; hummus next to wild boar Bouletten; and some French cheese and rabbit paté just for good measure.
We’ve got to wait for tonight’s reading to finish before we can actually try anything. Normally, the salon evenings, which include everything from discussions on the history of the Bavarian Quarter to refugee poetry, happen on Thursdays, but last week’s reading of texts by 19th-century flaneur August Lucius was apparently so popular that journalist and historian Robert von Lucius (no relation) is doing a special encore. One interminably lengthy Q&A session later, we eagerly dig into the Syrische Vorspeisen, a set of three Middle Eastern spreads served with both crispy pita and German rye. The hummus and pomegranate-studded baba ghanoush are both decent, but we’re most impressed with the labneh, a kind of tangy cream cheese Nsreeny makes by straining and fermenting yoghurt.
We try the aforementioned aubergine dish (mhshi, €10.50), the sole vegetarian main. It’s bursting with flavour thanks to copious fresh parsley and basil, but the texture is a bit too watery. We were most curious about the “Oriental venison ragout” (€18.50), chunks of deer in a warmly spiced fig sauce arranged around a mound of kapseh, rice cooked in broth with cashews and raisins. Here, too, the flavours are spot-on, hitting a pleasant sweet-savoury balance, but the meat is bone-dry, likely blasted with too much heat for too short a time. Together with the soup, a perfectly fine but unremarkable carrot-ginger-coconut number, this is all really good home cooking, the sort of dishes you’d be thrilled to get at a friend’s house or even a street food truck, but which don’t quite fly when presented alongside starched napkins and a €5 glass of Grüner Veltliner.
This is both understandable and forgiveable, coming from someone who switched careers less than a year ago. Nsreeny needs time to find his feet as a chef, and Eberhardt as a restaurateur. Fortunately, the good citizens of Wilmersdorf, who’ve wholeheartedly embraced this intellectual, Willkommenskultur-friendly addition to their eating landscape, seem set to give it to them. If you live in the area or fancy a Syrian-accented excursion into the West Berlin academic elite universe you thought had disappeared with the Romanisches Café, you might want to consider joining them.