At first glance, it might be hard to see why Otto, a tiny restaurant on the quiet end of Oderberger Straße in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, should be a destination worth going out of your way for. But I’m gonna come out of the gate strong on this story and claim that Otto is not only special; it’s really one of THE most important German restaurant openings in Berlin over the last few years. Period. Do I have your attention? Good! Read on then.
“Ursus belongs to a rare breed in Berlin’s food scene: natives”
Vadim Otto Ursus has a very unusual name, but he’s also unusual in another regard. Born and raised in Prenzlauer Berg, just a few minutes north of the location of his restaurant, Otto, he belongs to a rare breed in Berlin’s food scene: natives. Born Berliners. The world congregates in Berlin right now and restaurant professionals from near and far flock to the city at an increasing pace. Ursus, on the other hand, did the exact opposite and left Berlin.
After his cook’s apprenticeship at Neugrüns Köche on Schönhauser Allee, he embarked on a kitchen journey around the world where every stop had one thing in common: they all belonged to the innovative elite of contemporary dining, be it the uniquely remote Koks on the Färöer Islands or three-star Nordic powerhouse Maaemo in Oslo, Loco in Lisbon, or a stint at the legendary Noma Popup in Mexico.
Lucky for us, the sum of these experiences led Ursus to return to his roots in northeastern Berlin and eventually open “Otto” together with Cate Gowers, the formidable host, manager and sommelier of Otto (ex St. Johns, London), who Ursus was lucky enough to meet during a month-long summer takeover of Mrs. Robinson’s before the opening of the restaurant.
Otto is a simple restaurant that seeks to integrate itself into the neighborhood. The restaurant itself is a tiny box with a connected kitchen and blessed with high ceilings and one of Berlin’s widest boardwalks for long summer nights on one of East Berlin’s prettiest streets.
The food is contemporary but quintessentially German. On weekdays there is lunch with only one option – basic German fare with a massive comfort factor: Königsberger Klopse, fried chicken “Brathändl,” East German Sredziner-style goulash, etc., etc. Hearty and honest food where the quality of the ingredients makes all the difference.
“The food is Contemporary but quintessentially German”
For dinner, the menu is much more extensive and complex, yet still utterly comprehensive. All cooking is based on a philosophy of minimal interference with exceptional ingredients from Berlin’s surroundings, and lots of it comes directly from the hands of Ursus and his crew. They operate their very own test/fermentation kitchen out of an old GDR bungalow in the Schorfheide (a natural reserve North-East of Berlin), which supplies the restaurant with astonishing ingredients throughout the year. The utterly sublime pickles, from classical cucumbers to green tomatoes and gooseberries (truth be told – best pickles in the city), are just some examples of the lacto-fermented wonders to come out of that kitchen. Others include spectacular charcuterie, marvelous garums and koji cultures that you’ll eventually encounter in the cooking at Otto.
“They operate their very own test/fermentation kitchen out of an old GDR bungalow “
A meal at Otto is a showcase of the astonishing possibilities of German cooking once you apply a “New Nordic” framework to it, something that makes all the sense in the world for a place like Berlin, where preservation and fermentation technique is a traditional part of cooking. Take Otto’s classical trout dish: Trout are deboned, butterflied and then grilled over high heat while being basted in a trout garum, an umami bomb fermented from the trimmings of the fish, basically a local fish sauce. Or the wild boar tartare, which is as light and floral as the flowers that are mixed into it. The potato rösti with rainbow trout and labneh? Just as vibrant as the grilled oyster mushrooms drizzled with an umami-packed egg yolk koji sauce.
The food at Otto is minimalistic and reduced without being even remotely abstract or offensive. It’s just brilliantly tasty and utterly pleasant cooking that lifts the spirits. It fits perfectly into the humble space and also with the big-smile service experience, masterly coordinated by Gowers, who comes armed with a battery of her superbly curated natural wines.
“There are very few other German restaurants in the whole country that do this better or excite me more”
Gathering work experience outside of Germany is a highly unusual practice for German cooks and, as a result, they tend to get stuck in a food filter bubble that produces extremely like-minded restaurant experiences. The brilliance of Otto lies in Ursus’ remarkably successful application of his work experience abroad to a German setting, and in my world, there are very few other German restaurants in the whole country that do this better or excite me more. Along with peers like Hallmann & Klee, Otto is spearheading a new generation of casual, modern German food in Berlin, and these restaurants are in every regard must-stops on everybody’s Berlin bucket list. And, let’s fact it, looking at how well the team around Ursus and Gowers have handled the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 with their insane pantry shop and takeout business, I’m convinced that we’re only watching the tip of this culinary iceberg.
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