When it comes to Japanese food, Berlin ain’t Düsseldorf. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad here, just different. While the sushi bars, ramen shops and izakayas of “Little Tokyo on the Rhine” are clustered on the streets near Hauptbahnhof and strictly geared towards the city’s 8000-strong Japanese community, the scene in the capital is both more scattered and more diverse, with restaurateurs from all backgrounds serving a mix of traditional and fusion dishes from Wedding to Steglitz.
Now, though, Berliners have a (very) Little Tokyo to call their own, in the form of a roughly 500-metre stretch of Auguststraße. Since the beginning of 2022, two of the city’s most purely Japanese restaurants have moved here – one temporarily, one for good – joining nearby veterans Cocolo Ramen and Kuchi Mitte, plus Japanese-ish burger joints Shiso and Crackbuns. Not to mention the Samurai Museum, a growing collection of Japanese warrior paraphernalia owned by German retirement home magnate Peter Janssen. Having outgrown its Zehlendorf digs, it has since reopened in the gallery space next to KW.
But where to go for the afterparty? If you’re as wealthy as Janssen, the answer is obvious: Zenkichi. With its intimate booths, lantern-lit ambience and exquisite sake and fish selection, Motoko Watanabe’s Williamsburg import was the talk of the town when it opened beneath fusion brunchery House of Small Wonder in 2014. The last time you could eat there was in October 2020 – before the never-ending winter lockdown, and before construction work by building owner Google made operating either restaurant impossible.
After a year-and-a-half of delivery, Zenkichi resumed dine-in service as a “pop-up” in the same former Jewish girls’ school that used to house Pauly Saal, and where House of Small Wonder relocated last July. An awkward situation, considering that Watanabe and Small Wonder owner Shaul Margulies are currently in the midst of divorcing both personally and professionally. But eating well is the best revenge, and Zenkichi’s food is better than ever.
Nominally co-founded by the ex-couple, the izakaya was always Watanabe’s baby; even now that she’s moved back to her native Tokyo, she continues to mastermind the menu from afar. The current spring omakase offering is composed almost entirely of dishes she herself would want to eat (give or take a prawn – she’s allergic), served on gorgeous tableware she smuggles over on her trips here, accompanied by sakes she’s personally hunted down.
Skip lunch the day of your reservation or you’ll be begging for mercy long before the last plate
And what can we say? Her world is a pretty fantastic place to spend an evening, enough so to overlook the classroom-y vibe of the ad hoc venue and the €149 price tag, a precipitous leap from Zenkichi’s previous incarnation. At least you get a lot of bang for your buck: the seven-course meal, closer to 12 if you count the bento-like sets of “sake accompaniments” that kick things off, pulls no punches in terms of richness or portion size. Skip lunch the day of your reservation or you’ll be begging for mercy long before the last plate, a 12-piece killing blow of achingly fresh nigiri and maki.
What the menu might lack in innovation (hello miso black cod, my old friend) it makes up for in ingredient quality. We’re still dreaming of the tuna, line-caught by a perfectionist Japanese fisherman off the coast of Spain. Its toothsome crimson flesh and butter-soft belly show up over and over: as sushi, as a sashimi starter, as caviar-topped tartare. The A5 wagyu hails from Miyazaki and is served as simply as it should be, just-seared with a few daubs of traditional sauces and seasoned salts for dipping. Then there’s the crisp-skinned Label Rouge salmon, the jidori chicken and French free-range duck, the wild-caught Argentinian shrimp peeking out of a bowl of Hatcho miso soup… the list goes on. And on.
Forego the sake pairing and you’re only getting half the picture. The meal doubles as a showcase for Watanabe’s rare finds, each served with a card describing its origins and flavour profile, each challenging your preconceptions of the Japanese rice wine (who knew sake could be brewed like champagne, or taste like caramel?). By the time you get to dessert – Belgian chocolate pudding, alongside a lychee cheesecake macaron and various other goodies – you’ll be tipsy, stuffed to the gills and counting down the days till you can revisit the izakaya in its new home, wherever that turns out to be.
So that’s your special-occasion Japanese meal sorted. For a more everyday excursion, there’s Tsukushiya. Since opening in Kreuzberg in 2017, it’s been a go-to spot for udon, soba, curry, chicken karaage, Osakan okonomiyaki – everything but sushi and ramen, basically. Its new Auguststraße location has levelled up both in terms of space and food. Two dining rooms, plus a semi-private tatami booth in the middle, are tastefully decorated with wood, glass and kimono fabric to recall the Taishō era, Japan’s “Roaring Twenties”. You’d never find wagyu on Kotti, but Mittites can order a big ‘ol slab of it here, from an upscale “seasonal” menu supplement that also includes grilled yellowtail and an (admittedly delicious) matcha fondue set with fresh fruit and artisanal Baumkuchen.
The combination of Kewpie mayo, sweet sauce and bonito tuna flakes is a guaranteed lizard-brain pleaser
You’re still best off sticking to chef Kazuko Yokoya’s homier fare – especially the okonomiyaki, a rarity in Berlin and a treat here. The combination of Kewpie mayo, sweet sauce and bonito tuna flakes is already a guaranteed lizard-brain pleaser, all the more so atop a pillowy cabbage pancake laced with cheese, shrimp, squid or bacon. New in Mitte (and similarly hard to find this side of Düsseldorf) is the street staple yakisoba, stir-fried noodles with pork belly or tofu, pickled ginger and a thick, Worcestershire-like sauce.
Both are meal-sized in themselves, but you may as well throw in a few ‘tapas’ – the double-fried karaage is as crunchy and moist as ever, or a new salad with fried tofu and lotus root. Most small plates hover around €6, the mains between €10-15, meaning two people can, and should, have a gut-busting feast for the price of that one wagyu steak. If you’re going to splurge, do it on sake: the selection may have nothing on Zenkichi’s, but the €15, three-glass sampler (including a dangerously drinkable yuzu variety) makes for a fun accompaniment nonetheless.
End with a “cream soda”, the unnaturally green melon-flavoured ice cream float, that between Tsukushiya and Dashi Diner, has been having quite the moment in Berlin. Will it quell your Fernweh for Japan? Maybe not, but at least you’ve got one less reason to go to Düsseldorf.
- Zenkichi Auguststr. 11-13, Mitte, Wed-Sat 17-22, reservations only
- Tsukushiya Auguststr. 36, Mitte, Mon-Thu 18-23, Fri-Sat 18-23:30