The only door in Berlin that’s been proven more difficult to enter than the one of the notoriously famous nightclub Berghain over the last years might be the one to the restaurant of chef prodigy Dylan Watson-Brawn. Getting one of the six seats his legendary private dinner restaurant Ernst has hands down been the hardest reservations Berlin has seen. This year saw the end of the apartment dinners to make space for a new chapter. This is the story of Ernst the restaurant.
“On the Southern tip of Gerichtstraße in Wedding, a place still devoid of any gentrification staples in the likes of Matcha Lattes and Vegan Brunch Cafés, the groundbreaking eatery finally found a permanent home. “
Your chances of experiencing Ernst increased dramatically on August 9th 2017 as the project made the long-anticipated move from a private apartment setting to a real restaurant. On the Southern tip of Gerichtstraße in Wedding, a place still devoid of any gentrification staples in the likes of Matcha Lattes and Vegan Brunch Cafés, the groundbreaking eatery finally found a permanent home. Half the store fronts on the street might be boarded up and covered in graffiti with piles of old furniture and mattresses lining the street, but house number 53 now features two massive ground-to-ceiling windows and a shiny aluminum door that only opens if you ring a circular bell with the engraved letters “ernst”.
“Half the store fronts on the street might be boarded up and covered in graffiti with piles of old furniture and mattresses lining the street..”
Push that door bell at your own risk. It might change your perception of eating, just like it did for me once in an apartment in Moabit in the spring of 2013. I had followed the invitation of a young chef by the name of Dylan Watson-Brawn for a meal in his hone. What sounded like a simple affair of simple fare turned out to be one of the most impactful meals of my life. Watson-Brawn was 19 years at the time, serving fine dining dinners out of his home with the help of his friends under the project name Jung, Grün & Blau. In the course of the following years the friends in his team changed, and Jung, Grün & Blau eventually became Ernst, but the location of the dinners remained in his homes. The legend of Berlin’s most produce-focused and exclusive restaurant started spreading and the success allowed Watson-Brawn to eventually form a team and a restaurant just like he wanted – devoid of any compromises
“A remarkably focused 24-year old Canadian from Vancouver that left school when he was 16 and in a turn of fate ended up as the first Gaijin in the kitchen of the legendary three star fine dining institution Ryugin in Tokyo.”
To understand Ernst you must understand Dylan Watson-Brawn. A remarkably focused 24-year old Canadian from Vancouver that left school when he was 16 and in a turn of fate ended up as one of the first Gaijins in the kitchen of the legendary three star fine dining institution Ryugin in Tokyo. His later internships at some of the Western world’s most famous modern restaurants surely added perspective, but it was his time in Japan that made Watson-Brawn the chef he is today and taught him to truly appreciate and understand pristine produce and how much dedication to the cause and sacrifice it takes to cook truly great food.
This Japanese restaurant philosophy is reflected in every piece of the Ernst performance. Pushing the before mentioned doorbell will open the massive metal door and reveal the face of sommelier Christoph Geyler. Moments later you will find yourself as one in the dozen of curious guests, seated around a massive maple wood counter that circles around an open kitchen. The venue design with its mix of grey concrete and brown marble with the bright counter and lights will not set new standards in Berlin cool, what it does however is convey a very Japanese vibe. Ernst Berlin delivers a intimate counter dining experience unlike anybody else in Berlin, even compared to old-time favourite Nobelhart & Schmutzig where the larger setting limits intimacy.
“At Ernst these 30 plates are served within the course of three hours, an amount of time which might imply a rushed experience but where in fact quite the opposite happens.”
All the food at Ernst will be prepared and plated in front of your eyes. During a meal here you will be served around 30 plates of food, a breathtaking amount that would tie you to your seat for a minimum of five hours at any other restaurant in Berlin. At Ernst these 30 plates are served within the course of three hours, an amount of time which might imply a rushed experience, but where in fact quite the opposite happens. The pace at Ernst resembles that of a captivating and immersive theatre act, mesmerizing and fascinating to an extent where you might just forget to check the time entirely until its time to leave. Truth be told, I have problems recalling any other restaurant I’ve visited in the past years where the pace is better and I can’t emphazise enough just how important that is.
This extravagant number of dishes is also possible to eat as they are inherently simplistic. A cow’s milk cheese made just before service with lemon verbena is gulped down in one spoon and scrapes by your tastebuds barely noticed. Did you really eat it? Salad leaves are hastily turned in beurre monté. That’s it. Bloody damn salad leaves. But then things start happening. Peeled tomatoes are sliced and served with toasted basil oil and the drippings of imperfect tomatoes. Cold cucumbers have been chargrilled and explode in your moth courtesy of the accompanying jellied apple vinegar. Exceptional charred green shishito peppers are dipped in a thickened pepper dashi and topped with powder of the same peppers. A zucchini is deep fried tempura style in a stunning barley batter. Tomatoes that have been hanging over the grill throughout service display an unprecedented intensity in subtlety for both sweetness and smokiness.
“Cold cucumbers have been chargrilled and explode in your moth courtesy of the accompanying jellied apple vinegar.”
The menu at Ernst is a radical love proclamation to the original nature of the served ingredients and a declaration of war to all salt addicts out there. Make no misstake, certain dishes are certainly undersalted. And several dishes will probably bore you. But even salt addicts and adventure-seeking diners will find some solemn in the vast array of dishes that keep on hitting the untreated maple counter in front of you. A tiny plate of Mangalitza ham selection from the legendary Wiesener estate in Austria is served along with a stern comment by chef Spencer Christenson on this being some of the world’s finest charcuterie. You taste it thinking of the boldness of the statement. You swallow it and know he’s right. A lonely piece of quail breast hides in open sight on your huge plate. You hear it was hung for several weeks, sealed in bees wax to contain moisture before grilled twice and confited once. You put it in your mouth and allow the taste explosions and intense moisture to blow your fucking mind. Only then to marvel at the grilled eel from the Havel two dishes later that’s been grilled on a Japanese binchotan grill and basted with a reduction from eel bones. Chances are its one of the best pieces of eel you’ve eaten outside of Japan. This food will inevitably make you think. About ingredients. About seasoning. About what fine dining in Germany is. And it might just change your perception of things.
On the beverage side, sommelier Christoph Geyler sets the same standards when he serves wines from his meticulously well sourced cellar with German perfection. The former sommelier of Rutz, whose looks easily could get him role as any German Hollywood villain, is on the steady path to becoming one of the most progressive sommeliers in Berlin. Despite his lack of love for the term “natural wine”, most of the bottles in his cellar are from by winemakers that adhere to the same low intervention standards as the other producers in the Ernst lineup. The wines are dominated by German and French producers but other regions make the occasional appearance along with a very fine selection of rare sour beer bottles from Belgium and Canada. The quality, elegance and uniqueness of the beverages served at Ernst underline the claim to fame and attention to detail of the project.
The secret to ingredients and wine quality seems to lie within the very close relationships the crew behind Ernst foster with their producers. Every bit and drop served at this restaurant are sourced from producers they know personally and the crew spend every free day out on the fields and vineyards with their suppliers. And no, while most of the ingredients certainly are locally sourced, Ernst isn’t radically focused on regional produce. The focus lies on seasonality and quality, offering items like Austrian Mangalitza pork and lemons from Sicily, and it will be interesting to follow the development of this philosophy. It is for me a reminder how regionality for ingredients should be a tool to maximize quality instead of a marketing message to attract diners.
“The quality, elegance and uniqueness of the beverages served at Ernst underline the claim to fame and attention to detail of the project.”
The food at Ernst is provokingly simple and, in a sense, a direct affront to many of the peers in Berlin’s fine dining world dedicated to increasing complexity, disguising ingredients and adding more and more layers of flavour and texture. For creators and followers alike of this dining style, the style of cooking at Ernst will be severely questioned and that’s ok. It’s fundamentally different. Personally I’m reaching a point of saturation for blow-my-hat off meals and I’d rather do a lot of other things than subjecting myself to another 4 1/2 hours of oversalted, oversugared and nauseating fine dining meals with dashi gels and wasabi beurre blancs where the pace is so slow that I fall asleep. Like doing my taxes. Or sorting my laundry.
“The food at Ernst is, in a sense, a direct affront to peers in Berlin’s fine dining world dedicated to increasing complexity and adding layers of flavour and texture.”
My friends from Munchies just wrote a piece on Ernst and the possibility for it to be the first three star restaurant in Berlin. I’m not sure thats true, and I also don’t think that’s the interesting discussion here as this would imply Ernst is similar to the extremely well-oiled machines of Berlin’s fine dining kitchens. Ernst won’t need stars or 50best rankings to fill its seats. What I find infinitely more exciting is the prospect of the first true destination restaurant this city has ever seen. Where people will fly in for a night just to go to Ernst. Where guests plan their trip around a restaurant visit and not the other way around. Today Berlin restaurants are side characters desperate to become more than that. Ernst is different. Ernst is a born protagonist. A main character that makes no compromises and that’s run by a fiercely hungry crew that have have their best years in front of them. Yes, Ernst is, without a doubt, one of the most promising and disrupting restaurant projects Germany has seen. And I’m convinced that the protagonist of the theatre play “Berlin’s food scene” only just entered the stage.