German food may be known for traditional Schnitzels and Bratwursts, but restaurant Cookies Cream brings meat-free fine-dining to the streets of Berlin (gasp!). Carnivores are urged not to turn away at the prospect of spending that bit extra even when lacking their staple ingredient, especially when we heard the reviews from our contributing writer and Berlin-resident, James Darton. Chef Stephan Hentschel makes the vegetable the star ingredient, leaving diners feeling nourished and inspired by the cliché-free menu.
Words by Jade McSorley
It’s testament to both a general trend in fine-dining experiences and the re-appropriated (almost celebratory) brutalism of Berlin’s architecture that you barely bat an eyelid while searching out the entrance to Cookies Cream. You find the place – one third of chef Stephan Hentschel’s celebrated trio of restaurants in the city – first by sidling down a non-descript chasm between the imposing structures of the Komische Opera House and Westin Grand Hotel, just off the grand bustle of Friedrichstrasse. You enter the starkly utilitarian delivery area behind the hotel and you hone in on a non-descript doorway with a tiny sign announcing the disarmingly cutesy name of the restaurant. You’re guided across this final stretch by a combination of hulking rubbish containers, wooden shipping crates and – of course – a dazzlingly ornate chandelier that looms from the concrete overhang two stories up.
Get past the buzzer on the door and you’re transported somewhere wholly different again. A bar with a handful of chairs and tables sits on the other side of heavy curtains, flanked by ornate gold light fixtures in the shape of peacocks and palm trees; soundtracked by tasteful, vaguely-balearic house music. The vibe is a little after-hours-at-a-desert-oasis , but just about pulls it off without descending into colonial weirdness.
Besides, the bar serves only as a stop-gap before the obvious main event: the inspired eating and drinking that awaits you in the restaurant-proper. Ascending a steel staircase, it’s genuinely invigorating when you switch worlds once more: the dining area is bright, bustling and more in line with a traditional fine-dining layout (huge contemporary artworks emblazoned with the German profanity notwithstanding, obviously). Even early on a rainy Wednesday evening, the place is busy with a refreshing array of diners: older couples studiously embracing the dishes in front of them; families with young kids whose refined palates no doubt outstrip most adults. Twenty-somethings in (ironically?) garish high-fashion clothing and scuffed trainers knocking back natural wines with relaxed glee. That this dizzying combination hangs together so well is testament in large part to the waiting staff – young and clad in the (non-)uniform of grey marl t-shirts and slim jeans, they seem to understand that the best way to cultivate an atmosphere that is both impressive and friendly is to simply know their stuff, and to love it to boot. The look of sheer joy when we ask for a natural wine recommendation is utterly infectious, and it does not matter that half of the eager recommendations cascade far too quickly from the sommelier’s mouth to fully take in (something about red berries and black tea spices, limestone and grey clay bottles) – all that matters is that the wine, when it arrives, is intoxicating in all the right ways: brightly aromatic and mineral-y in taste; richly, autumnally orange in colour. From interviews I’ve seen with Chef Hentschel, it feels pretty safe to say that this attitude to food and drink – both intensely informed and breezily enthusiastic - is passed down from the top.
Most importantly of course, this also comes across in the dishes that begin to reveal themselves on our table at a measured pace. The reason you’re reading about Cookies Cream in this particular issue of Twenty6 is that, since opening its doors above the now-defunct Club Cookie nightclub, Hentschel has used the venue to showcase his exclusively vegetarian creations. And what creations they are – inventive punches of unexpected flavours often shot through with a playful sense of humour, without any of the scrambled tofu or sludgy pulse-based clichés that still weigh down so much vegetarian cooking. The now-familiar brunch flavours of avocado and hazelnut are complimented by ‘vegetarian caviar’ that lends a new context and vibrancy. Likewise, a starter of cucumber and sheep’s milk yoghurt that I can most functionally describe as a deconstructed serving of tzatziki is unexpectedly lifted by the delicate addition of miso and mustard tones. A perfectly-weighted brioche and perfectly-balanced quail’s egg sit atop a bed of port wine shallots, immersed in potato foam and truffle jus (my dining companion was least impressed with this particular dish though I loved it – like the fanciest alternative to a cheese and pickle sandwich that a lad from North Yorkshire could ever hope for).
The two main courses arrived with a substantial wedge of baked aubergine leading the pack. Doused in a tomato crème, painted with a strip of choppily crumbled peanuts and served with green beans and poppadum, it’s the standout dish amongst the nine standout dishes we’re treated to. Admittedly, I may be being over-generous in this particular assessment due to the unexpected delight in finding such wonderful Indian flavours – in a city where I am repeatedly told there is no really good Indian food, I was not expecting to unearth it here.
Finally then the desserts, which follow the same formula as that which came before: enticingly unusual and comfortingly indulgent; undoubtedly fancy but refreshingly playful. The chocolate, black currant and pistachio ‘cookie’ evokes the black forest gateau of the seventies in a way that hits a perfect sweet spot between nostalgia and irony, but it’s the ice cream made from Jerusalem artichokes that lingers longest on the palette and the memory – it cuts smoothly through the preserved plum, amaranth and chickweed it is served with, instantly nullifying any accusations of quirky ingredients for the sake of quirky ingredients. It’s delicious and we leave fantasizing aloud about Ben and Jerry’s sized tubs of the stuff.
Back out past the magical realism of the entranceway, my dining companion and I find ourselves in the familiar throes of post-great-meal ecstasy. This time there’s an added dimension. We each cut meat out of our diet about a year ago, for environmental reasons, which means we still often find ourselves despairing in ‘fancy’ restaurants at the mouthwatering meat-based dishes on offer. Here though, immersed in the plant-based delights of Chef Hentschel and co, neither of us faced a single moment of carnivorous longing. A great-tasting meal is one thing; to come away also buoyed about a greener future for fine-dining takes the experience to an entirely new level.
Review by James Darton