Nobelhart & Schmutzig is the acclaimed new Berlin restaurant by sommelier Billy Wagner and the attempt to create one of the most unconventional and exciting fine dining experiences Berlin has to offer. In a simplistic menu limited to local ingredients, Nobelhart & Schmutzig takes the guest on a journey that pushes the idea of conventional dining in Berlin.
There is something happening in Berlin. Something beyond the horizon of the restaurant experiences we are used to. Restaurateurs are starting to think outside the box of conventional, German gastronomy and looking at ways to push boundaries. One of these restaurateurs is Billy Wagner and with his new project Nobelhart und Schmutzig, he has managed to open the single most hyped restaurant of the decade in Berlin, and maybe also Germany.
One does not simply review the most hyped restaurant opening of the decade. This requires some proper reflecting on the subject at hand. When Billy Wagner revealed his plans to open up his own restaurant about two years ago, he most probably didn’t realize what kind of proportions this project would reach in terms of hype. We have officially arrived in a new, gastronomic era in Berlin. In an era where the talk of town is not about fashion, cinema or culture projects. It is about food and more specifically about one single restaurant opening. Billy Wagner has done a pretty brilliant job at promoting himself and Nobelhart & Schmutzig, resulting in plenty of media coverage before the opening and thousands of social media followers. To the point where he himself finally realized, just how very hard it would be for him to eventually live up to the hype. And so everybody in the food scene has been pondering that one question. Is the hype real?
A brutally local approach to sourcing produce
The story of Nobelhart und Schmutzig goes as follows. Billy earned his wings in the Berlin culinary scene as the sommelier of Weinbar Rutz, a Berlin restaurant institution with one Michelin star. In his years at Weinbar Rutz. he built up a solid reputation and fan base and when he eventually started planning his own gastronomic empire, he quickly found the right partners that would join him on this journey. Most important among these partners was the young chef Micha Schäfer, a culinary talent who learned his trade at Villa Merton (**) in Frankfurt. Micha had developed a strong affection for the modern, Nordic cuisine practiced at restaurants like Noma and Fäviken, where the ingredients used in the cooking process are strictly limited to those sourced from the nearby region. A brutally local approach to sourcing produce and a philosophy which fit perfectly into Billy’s vision of an exciting fine dining concept.
In the process of finding each other, Billy and Micha also found some investors and finally the right venue. After a lot of searching they settled on an undeveloped space in a (slightly) ugly, grey building from the 60’s at the forgotten end of the Friedrichstraße, South of Checkpoint Charlie, in what quite possibly could be the most unappealing part of Kreuzberg (apart from a Saturday night visit at Kotti). The dark curtains block any view from the outside and people passing by will wonder just what kind of establishment this is. Billy always had a very clear vision of the perfect restaurant venue and in this space he has had the chance to build it from scratch. The result is a dining area where all guests (max 26) are seated at a long counter that is wrapped around the open kitchen. The whole service team operates out of this open kitchen space which results in an unique dining experience where the guest is fully submerged into service. For larger groups there is also one communal table in the back where up to 14 guests can be seated. Another, remarkable feature of the venue are the acoustics. The custom-made (very low) ceiling and floor absorb up a lot of the noise and create a very pleasant vibe and the fact that all the music played is from Billy’s own vinyl collection certainly helps to reinforce the laid back attitude.
The result is a unique menu that tells the guest a very clear story
There are no compromises at Nobelhart und Schmutzig when it comes to food. There is no a la carte, but only one menu which consists out of 10 courses. All the produce is sourced locally, and by that I really mean all. To illustrate what this really means, there is no lemon for acidity and no pepper for seasoning. There is also no chocolate for desserts or olive oil for cooking. All of these things are banned in Chef Micha’s kitchen and he has taken his brutally local concept all the way. This is by no means a groundbreaking thing in 2015 if you look at global restaurant trends, you could even argue that it’s beginning to fade, but for Berlin this is still very much pushing the boundaries. You have to understand that Berlin from a gastronomic perspective is still in its infancy when it comes to access to local produce of high quality and can in no way be compared to Copenhagen, London, Paris or the Napa Valley where the local food concept was conceived. Quite frankly it’s pretty fucking hard to restrict yourself to regional produce in Berlin. And it’s borderline insane to do it in January where the only green light in your dark tunnel of winter might be a cabbage leaf. This is why Chef Micha and his crew spent the summer and autumn pickling and preserving things to make sure they could spice up their winter menu.
My sweet Jesus, these things are bloody flavour bombs and while chewing you start questioning whether you ever should eat a caper again
The result is a unique menu that tells the guest a very clear story. The first two dishes of the menu are amuse bouche sized snacks and while these for me are the least appealing on the whole menu, they are still great. Juicy king oyster mushrooms served with spinach and juniper have to be eaten with your hands, which doesn’t really work as they are hot and slippery as hell. But from here it’s only uphill. The bread is served with some of the best damn butter I’ve had. You know when butter is good you use it like cheese? Amazing. Every dish on the menu is very simplistic and features a maximum of four ingredients and where the whole experience gets truly interesting is with the main courses. A perfectly cooked piece of Baltic cod, and I mean fucking perfect, is served in a carrot soup with dried camomile and although I initally miss salt and acidity it leaves me deeply satisfied. From there it only gets better, in the next course Postelein greens are served on hazelnut milk, pickled red currant and an currant bush oil. A brilliant and beautiful dish, deeply indulging where the fresh richness of the hazelnut milk is perfectly balanced by the oil, the acidity of the berries and the crispy winter greens. This is about the moment where the kitchen truly captures my attention and when the next dishes arrive one successful bite chases the other. Cabbage is served with a parsley sauce and sprinkled with blood sausage, an onion broth comes with pickled ramson flowers and lambs fat, both killer dishes that leave me licking my plate (in my mind, although I don’t think Billy would mind). The last main dish, a lamb’s neck with brussel sprouts, is garnished with the single most delicious item of the whole night: Pickled dandelion flower buds browned in butter. My sweet Jesus, these things are bloody flavour bombs and while chewing you start questioning whether you ever should eat a caper again. The two desserts at the end are not as convincing as the mains, but out of context they are still very strong. The flower pollen ice with schmand needs to melt down to develop the right flavours and the yeast ice cream with malt, quinces and apple compote is slightly overpowering in terms of acidity.
Throughout the whole meal hosts Billy and Juliane will be by your side, Billy’s massive beard will be the first thing you see when you are let inside after ringing the mysterious door bell and also the last thing you see before you are released into the Kreuzberger night. He is also in charge of your hydration and will very intelligently consult you when it comes to wine and other beverages. He suggests drinks in a very relaxed manner, suggesting a lot of unconventional drink pairings that you might not expect. Like a lambrusco to kick the night off, a Heidenpeters beer to go with the onion dish or a pear cidre to go with the desserts. There are no prices to be found when it comes to beverages, which for sure will raise eyebrows among the non-splurging guests as you’re expected to surrender completely to the sommelier. Prices for beverage pairings might be a solution, but I do understand the level of flexibility Billy wants to keep by refraining from pricing. Beverage pairings were excellent throughout the whole meal and it quickly becomes clear how this is one topic where Billy feels completely comfortable. During the night it also becomes clear that is is not the case for everything though and how this is in fact the first week of Nobelhart und Schmutzig. Service is quick and attentive when it comes to food, but you can clearly sense the underlying nervousness of a new opening. The restaurant is fully booked, including the large table off the bar, and since sommelier Billy wants to be in charge of all drink suggestions he is forced to spread himself too thinly across all dinner parties resulting in a hectic service. In the future it he should have someone like the lovely front of house Juliane be able to cover for him in order to guarantee a smooth service.
We might be on track for the first modern Berlin restaurant that truly echoes across the borders of Germany
I tried very hard to not be affected by any expectations or opinions when it comes to my judgement of Nobelhart und Schmutzig, but in the end that’s really impossible and you will always expect something. I’ve had a couple of days to think about it and I realize that Nobelhart und Schmutzig actually does live up to the expectations, but also doesn’t hit the famous homerun out of the ballpark. But since the expectations were so high, this still means it is a very exciting restaurant with the possibility to impact the whole scene. And no, their ideas are not new and crazy innovative. The radically local menu concept can be found all over Scandinavia, the open kitchen concept at Momufuko Ko, the sheep skins on the stools at Noma and the website kind of looks like Fävikens. That’s totally ok though, because the famous wheel does indeed not have to be reinvented every time and the Berlin dining audience might need to learn how to walk before they run. Nobelhart und Schmutzig is the next step in a gastronomic evolution and it’s been growing on me since that moment when Billy sent me out into the Kreuzberger night. Everything at this restaurant is set for the most unconventional and relaxing fine dining experience Berlin can offer, but the success of this concept is heavily dependent on how relaxed and confident the staff themselves are in their roles. This is not easy in this very open and no-chance-to-hide environment, and even harder in the first week of service. The kitchen crew is on track, I can see the confidence shine in Chef Micha’s eyes and his food service was pretty much flawless. If Billy manages to project this confidence to everyone, including guests, and Chef Micha managed to refine the balance of his menu a bit more, then we might be on track for the first modern Berlin restaurant that truly echoes across the borders of Germany. That makes me pretty fucking excited and I can’t wait to follow that journey.