Bye, Bratwurst! Berlin finds its sustainable edge

Pauly Saal has earned a reputation for fish dishes.
Pauly Saal has earned a reputation for fish dishes. Photo: Supplied

Few cities in the world have as much glamour and grit as Berlin. Dive down any street and you'll find its beating heart in graffiti-scrawled buildings covered in vines, community gardens and splashes of street art.

David Bowie found inspiration in the bohemian neighbourhoods; urban art was born here and techno music thrived. These days, the city is a magnet for start-ups, art and design.

It's also one of Europe's greenest cities, with a sustainable bent that has become a way of life. Forget what you know about German food. In Berlin, an exciting farm-to-table scene is unfolding.

Hackesche Hofe, an art nouveau architecture complex dating back to 1906, is one of Berlin's main meeting places.
Hackesche Hofe, an art nouveau architecture complex dating back to 1906, is one of Berlin's main meeting places. Photo: Belinda Luksic

Today, the buzz on the street is about hidden food gems, finding the best vegetarian food or knowing the farmer at the local grower's market. The focus is on food that's seasonal, regional and organic – without a shred of sauerkraut or pork knuckle in sight.

Local favourites

If you visit one market, make it Markthalle Neun for Street Food Thursday. Each week from 5pm, the Kreuzberg market hall sizzles with a smorgasboard of international flavours. More than 30 food trucks congregate here, hawking everything from Nigerian soul food and Korean kimchi burgers to Portugese bacalao and Indian dosa.

Heidenpeters craft brewery is on site, along with a negroni bar, organic wines and vegan ice-cream. During the week, the farmers' market is a chance to meet local growers and sample their produce. Grab a coffee from hip roaster Kaffee 9 before heading inside.

Michelin-starred restaurant Pauly Saal, in the former Jewish girls school in Mitte, Berlin.
Michelin-starred restaurant Pauly Saal, in the former Jewish girls school in Mitte, Berlin. Photo: Supplied

In the warmer months, Berliners flock to Prinzessinnengarten, a large urban gardening project near Checkpoint Charlie. Behind the high gate at Moritzplatz roundabout, is a funky garden and cafe with a daily one-dish lunch menu using ingredients from the garden and other small local organic growers. It's hearty vegan fare served alfresco among the trees. Visitors to the garden can also learn about its sustainable farming practices, volunteer in the garden or pick up a plant.

Mitte, bitte

No matter where you find yourself in Berlin, the city rises like a phoenix, reborn and reimagined from the rubble of its past: Nazi bunkers reinvented as art galleries, the local Tempelhof Airport turned into parkland, and Pauly Saal, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the former Jewish girls school in Mitte.

Lunch here is the go, especially in the warmer months, when the restaurant relocates from its plush 1930s digs to an enclosed, sun-dappled courtyard. It's a seasonal degustation menu (three to seven courses for lunch, seven for dinner) brimming with seafood and singing with bright flavours – think cod cheeks with stinging nettle or king crab piquant with horseradish. At night, the Art Deco bar is a swanky spot for artisan cocktails, top-notch bar food and a vinyl-only playlist of vintage blues and jazz.

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Around the corner, Lokal flies the flag for locavore cuisine done well, with a small nose-to-tail menu inspired by what's been foraged, hunted or harvested each week. That could mean cured boar tongue with chanterelles, monkfish cheeks or whole roasted pigeon with wild broccoli. The local theme continues to the dining room – a fresh white space furnished with reclaimed wood made from the forests surrounding Berlin.

At Katz Orange, a modern farm-to-table bistro with an ethical food philosophy (and an instructive food lab upstairs), slow-food fans can indulge in dishes that are locally sourced and organic. Occupying the two-storey site of a former brewery, there's lots of rustic designer whimsy in play – from the exposed brick walls and woven textiles to the dramatic beaded shell chandelier.

Perch up at the bar, or in summer, in the courtyard in the shade of the large market umbrella, and order the daily house-infused vermouth. Then ponder such delicacies as Japanese onsen egg served on a cloud of smoky cauliflower mash, or the sumptuous sous-vide salmon with a side of chard. The restaurant's calling card, candy on bone, a hunk of local lamb or pork slow-cooked for 12 hours, is for two but the kitchen will happily knock out a single serve.

Prinzessinnengarten, a large urban gardening project near Checkpoint Charlie.
Prinzessinnengarten, a large urban gardening project near Checkpoint Charlie. Photo: Supplied

Panama, their newest venture in up-and-coming Schoeneberg, weaves together food and art in an area becoming increasingly known for its edgy art galleries (the achingly cool Urban Nation street art museum opened here last September). Just off Potsdamer Strasse, the breezy two-storey restaurant and bar has been designed with a tropical aesthetic – a sea of green, yellow and white filled with plants and studiously cool art.

In the kitchen upstairs, head chef Sophia Rudolph draws on her Michelin roots (she was formerly the sous-chef at Weinbar Rutz) with a share-plate menu of local produce and global flavours. Raw and wood-fired dishes shine – check out the confit of trout with sour beetroot or the succulent short rib smoky with Cajun spices. Vegetarians aren't overlooked either, with plenty of rustic grains, flowers and foraged greens.

Plant-based eating

The past decade has seen a proliferation of vegan and vegetarian restaurants across Berlin – a number so great that in 2015, US food magazine Saveur declared it the vegetarian capital of Europe. Yet until The Bowl, raw dining wasn't an option.

Plant-based restaurant The Bowl has helped change the face of Berlin dining.
Plant-based restaurant The Bowl has helped change the face of Berlin dining. Photo: Supplied

The plant-based restaurant opened in Friedrichsain in 2015 with an organic menu and no dish cooked above 40 degrees. Open from breakfast until late, the light-filled spot is the place to double down on acai and kombucha, raw desserts and nut-milk smoothies. But the real stars are the bowls – a rainbow of raw goodness packed with supergrains, gut-busting ferments and organic fruit and vegetables.

Over in Mitte, Cookies Cream has the kind of sexy grunge you'd expect from a nightclub. Entry is via the service alley of the Westin Grand and electronic music forms the soundtrack to a night here.

Yet the Michelin-starred restaurant – which is celebrating 10 years this year – is where chef Stephen Hentschel turns out impeccable vegetarian, artfully executed and with seasonality in mind.

You won't find tofu on the menu. Instead, head straight to nirvana with golden parmesan dumplings swimming in truffle sauce or columns of grilled leek topped with a crisp black sesame shard. There is a good selection of vegan wines, too.

What's new

Simplicity is the key at newcomer Lode & Stijn. One of Berlin's most anticipated restaurants when it opened in 2016, the relaxed bistro in Kreuzberg sticks to a straightforward formula – no more than three or four ingredients on the plate, cooked simply and in season.

Dutch chefs Lode van Zuylen and Stijn Remi made a name for themselves in Berlin's pop-up food scene, and their five-course set menu reads like a walk down their memory lane. Traditional Dutch bitterballen (meatballs) and gutsy smoked trout with blood sausage, a pop-up favourite, sits alongside more classic bistro fare. Be sure to order their award-winning sourdough.

At Wild Things wine bar, the food is designed to complement the wine – a curated list of natural grapes from some of Europe's best small-batch biodynamic vineyards. Murals of wondrous, toothy beasts are splashed across the walls – a homage to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are – and French oak barrels double as tables. The share plate menu is fun, with hits like seaweed popcorn, "iodine shot" oysters and fresh carved charcuterie. Before leaving, hunt out the secret mezcal bar. It's wunderbar.

Belinda Luksic was a guest of Adina Checkpoint Charlie and TFE Hotels, tfehotels.com.

DETAILS

Markthalle Neun, markthalleneun.de

Princessinngarten, prinzessinnengarten.net

Pauly Saal, paulysaal.com

Lokal, lokal-berlin.blogspot.com.au

Katz Orange, katzorange.com

Panama, oh-panama.com

The Bowl, the-bowl.de

Cookies Cream, cookiescream.com

Lode & Stijn, lode-stijn.de

Wild Things, wildthingsberlin.de