When you arrive at Nobelhart & Schmutzig you don’t know what to expect. The taxi driver that took me there nearly missed the place despite having his GPS on. The door to the restaurant is closed, the restaurant window is covered in a dark curtain. Nothing is visible from the outside.
It is like Billy Wagner wants to keep the place a secret. For a while, nothing from a culinary standpoint was happening in Berlin. But things have started to change over the past few years. This part of Berlin is maybe most famous for Checkpoint Charlie and the tourists that flock to this historic and formerly rough area of Berlin. Today, it is making a name for itself for the restaurant scene. Nobelhart & Schmutzig is one such restaurant and around the corner is what could be one of Berlin’s most famous restaurants, Tim Raue.
Soon after I ring the bell, Billy Wagner, the sommelier and co-owner of the restaurant opens the door. He is expecting me courtesy of Per Meuling, of Berlin Food Stories. He takes me to my seat, on a very long counter that is wrapped around the fully open kitchen. This counter is the heart of the restaurant.
A menu is placed in front of me. It lists the cast who will guide me through this experience but most importantly it tells you that the finest compliment you can make to your dining companion is to switch your mobile to silent and leave it out of sight. I’m dining alone that evening but the restaurant will not make any exceptions.
“What happens in Nobelhart & Schmutzig stays in Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Please take memories not pictures.” I’ve read before that the restaurant had a no phone policy and I intended to respect this. This was, in any case, made clear when the person next to me took the phone out when the first dish arrived but was immediately told discreetly that he should not take photos.
The restaurant has made a name for itself for its cuisine which is not just simple but also extremely local. No compromises are made. Lemon, pepper and olive oil, as well as chocolate, are not used and when I ask what they mean by local, they tell me it is Berlin and its surrounding.
Nothing is served à la carte. Instead, there is a single 10-course menu that is served to all guests. The executive chef at the restaurant is Micha Schäfe. He and his crew guide guests through the evening, presenting and explaining each progressive course. Swiss-born Schäfer came to Berlin in 2008, where his various jobs included a stint as a cook. After a brief excursion into theological studies in the city of Gießen, he ultimately found his calling in the kitchen, beginning his training in 2010.
When one of the crew serves the fish he told me that this was the second day that they were serving fish in the restaurant this week. The reason being the lakes in Berlin had been frozen so it was not possible to catch any fish and the sea was rough in the Baltic Sea. They did not want to replace fish from somewhere else.
“On Tuesday and Wednesday, clients asked us why we did not serve a fish course and we told them that we could not get access to fish because of the weather.
Nobelhart & Schmutzig name in German is ‘Classy and Dirty’. The restaurant is not vegetarian though eight out of the 10 dishes are vegetal. Is this a future vision of cuisine and fine dining? You could say that because all the dishes are delicious and pack flavours. There is a respect for the ingredients and their provenance and the chefs serving the dishes all speak about where the products have come from.
The wine list is also extremely interesting and exhaustive and the pairing proposed matches perfectly with the food.
The welcome takes the form of an oat infusion which is aimed to sooth you from the winter cold and it does have that effect.
Then come the first two dishes, Jeruslamen artichoke cooked twice and served with caraway and a chicory and rose dish. The bread made from Florian Bombergers rye is a natural sourdough bread and is served with raw milk butter that had been churned in the restaurant.
The next fish is pike perch with dill blossom which is served with a delicious sauerkraut sauce. This is followed by a Brussels sprout flower that is served with walnuts and apple puree.
The celeriac follows. It has been baked at 180 degrees for 40 minutes i the oven and is served with black currant and a 40% fat double cream.
The venison is served with mugwort. The next course is mashed potatoes with apple and this is followed by poppy seed with plum and a hazelnut and juniper dessert. All this is served with complimentary filtered water.
The ‘no phone’ experience proves to be liberating. For two and a half hours, I can concentrate on what I am eating, on what is happening in the kitchen, on reading one of the four books placed at my disposal. At Nobelhart and Schmutzig, the revolution will NOT be photographed.