East meets west in Berlin's new freewheeling dining scene, writes Ute Junker.
The gastronomic adventure that is Cookies Cream begins with a challenge: trying to find the restaurant. As with many of Berlin's hippest venues, to find Cookies Cream you need directions rather than an address.
After heading down the loading dock next to the Westin Grand hotel, we pass through two unmarked doors then walk down a corridor to what appears to be a fire escape. We climb all the way to the top, only to find our way barred by a graffitied door that looks as if it hasn't been opened in years. Push on the door, however, and it opens onto an airy, white-painted room filled with tables and an open kitchen, from which rich aromas emanate. You have arrived.
Cookies Cream is the younger sibling of the Cookies nightclub downstairs. A restaurant born of a club sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Cookies Cream serves some of the best food in town. The fact the menu is entirely vegetarian is irrelevant. As for the fact that three courses cost just €36 ($50) - well, that's testament to the serious value for your dining dollar on offer in Berlin.
It wasn't always like this. For many years Berlin's restaurant scene lagged behind those of other world cities, with choices limited to cheap and cheerful neighbourhood restaurants or stuffy fine-dining destinations.
Recently, however, the generation that created Europe's best club scene is now applying its do-it-yourself ethos to the art of eating out.
Using the empty spaces that abound in this sprawling city - Berlin covers 900 square kilometres and has a population of just 3 million - they are setting up small restaurants, often in obscure locations, driven by an individual vision and a commitment to fine food without attitude.
Stephan Hentschel, Cookies Cream's chef, is typical. He's not interested in easy options: his menu is free of the pasta dishes that are a vegetarian staple. Instead, he offers a creative selection of dishes that include celery cannelloni stuffed with potato, cardoncelli mushrooms, hop and apple nutmeg sauce; and parmesan dumplings with artichokes, barbecue tomato and alloyed sauce.
There is nothing on his menu that isn't interesting, but perhaps the standout dish is the salad of red cabbage with raw chocolate, macadamia, orange fillet and anise cress. The textures and flavours play off each other in every mouthful. I ask the waiter about the raw chocolate, which has a mild yet distinctive flavour I've never come across before. She talks me through the cooking process, and casually mentions that the chef worked with a local supplier to create a chocolate that matched his needs. Hentschel, clearly, is a details man.
This is not my first visit to Cookies Cream. On my first visit all I ate was dessert (sampling three delicious options, including an orange sorbet with kumquats and a sublime coffee-buckwheat crumb). It was the last stop on a Gastro-Rallye organised by local agency Berlinagenten. This three- or four-course dining experience lets visitors sample some of the city's best restaurants in the company of a local. It's a great option for those travelling by themselves, as well as those who prefer to skip the pre-dinner navigational exercises.
According to Berlinagenten's Henrik Tidefjaerd, Berlin's unpretentious dining scene gives young chefs the opportunity to follow their passion.
"Berliners are individualists and like surprises, so if a young unknown chef cooks really great, he will get his location fully booked," Tidefjaerd says, no matter what the venue looks like or where it's located. "Berliners want personality, value for money and passion in cooking."
Tidefjaerd selects the venues for his Gastro-Rallyes on the basis of unique food - "quality, new twists or flavours" - interiors, and service with personality.
Another restaurant making the cut is Katz Orange. Occupying two floors of a converted brewery fronting a tranquil courtyard, the restaurant has Santa Fe-meets-hipster interiors and a menu focused on regional seasonal produce. As in most of Berlin's best restaurants the clientele is mixed, with older couples and family groups as well as the "in" crowd.
Typical dishes include beef tartare with asparagus and a quinoa salad heaped high with grilled vegetables, olive tapenade, white tomato essence, rucola and cashew nuts. The house-made sodas are delicious, with combinations such as lavender and orange, or basil and lime.
As Berlin's chefs get more adventurous, they're embracing foreign influences. Tausend Cantina - like Cookies Cream, the offshoot of a successful bar - is one of the outstanding examples. As with many Berlin restaurants, you'll need a reservation. You'll also need directions, although in this case they're relatively straightforward: just exit the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn, look for the unmarked metal doorway under the railway bridge and ring the bell.
Walk through the bar (a cool 1920s vibe with a neo-soul soundtrack) and you'll reach the small dining room.
The food is a mash-up of Latin American and Japanese, with a menu that includes everything from sashimi salad and eggplant with ponzu to ceviche and garlic prawns. Their sushi master is superb - if you nab a seat at the bar, you can watch him at close range - but it's the fusion dishes that really stand out. The tuna tataki served with seared foie gras and a rich herb risotto is irresistible.
The best Asian chef in town, however, is a boy from Berlin's working-class Kreuzberg district. Tim Raue spent a large part of his career working in Asia and describes his exquisite fusion cuisine as taking the best from his favourite countries - Japanese precision, Thai flavours and Chinese techniques. Still in his 30s, Raue has already won two Michelin stars, despite an unconventional approach that includes neon-coloured furniture and sneaker-wearing waiters.
While many star chefs are known for their refusal to bend to diners' whims, Raue takes a different stance, wanting to make his food accessible to as many people as possible. He takes great pains to avoid allergens, with foods containing lactose, gluten and even white sugar banned from his kitchen.
Order the degustation menu in his eponymous restaurant and you will enjoy a succession of flavour-rich, exquisitely presented plates from green asparagus with violets and mango to zander (a perch-like fish) with 10-year-aged kamebishi soy sauce, chive oil, pak choy and yuzu marmalade. Each dish is so well constructed that, unless you're paying close attention, it will take you a while to realise what's missing: any form of rice or noodle. "If you're having a high-class meal in China, you'll never be served rice - it's associated with poverty," Raue says.
Raue remembers the West Berlin of his youth as a very conservative place. Today's free-wheeling dining scene, he says, reflects the city Berlin has become. "It's a vibrant, open city. You can live the way you like - there are no rules here," he says. "If we wanted, you and I could walk down the street naked wearing nothing but cucumbers on our heads."
For a moment I think he's about to run to the kitchen and grab some cucumbers for a demonstration but, today at least, he's keeping the adventure confined to the plate.
The writer was assisted by visitBerlin, the German National Tourist Office Australia and Sofitel.
Follow Ute Junker on Twitter: @utejunker
FIVE MORE BERLIN DINING EXPERIENCES
Best for: locavore dining. Comfy leather couches encourage you to linger over a menu that offers everything from Asian-influenced dishes to classic comfort food, with ingredients sourced from within 100 kilometres. Friedrichstraße 120, see pantry-berlin.com.
Best for: terrific tapas. In this no-frills setting with an open kitchen, you'll find superior Spanish omelet, salt-cod fritters and succulent Bellota hams. Corner of Lubbener Strasse and Gorlitzer Strasse, see barraval.de.
Best for: The perfect drop to drink. The best wine cellar in Berlin meets Michelin-starred cuisine (think roe deer with stinging nettles). Chausseestrasse 8, see weinbar-rutz.de.
Best for: Pizza. Come on a fine day and you can enjoy the excellent crispy-base pizza at this Kreuzberg pizzeria on the outdoor terrace overlooking the canal. Grimmstrasse 30.
Best for: Turkish. Turkish food is Berlin's favourite cheap eat, and this 24-hour joint serves the best kofteci in town. Kottbusser Damm 80.
Lufthansa has a fare to Berlin for about $2047 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr with Singapore Airlines), then to Frankfurt (13hr 5min) and finally to Berlin (70min); phone 1300 655 727, see lufthansa.com.
Sofitel Gendarmenmarkt is central and has luxurious interiors. Double rooms start from €155.
Cookies Cream, Behrenstrasse 55, see cookiescream.com.
Katz Orange, Bergstrasse 22, see katzorange.com.
Tausend Cantina, Schiffbauerdamm 11, see tausendberlin.com.
Restaurant Tim Raue, Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse 26, see tim-raue.com.