The New Berlin is a giant project in progress, a city obsessed with its future and self-definition but showing no sign of a due date. From the traffic-light-red Info Box perched on stilts over Potsdamer Platz you can take in 360 degrees of glass-and-girder jungle: corporate playgrounds sprout up next to vast desolate lots; excavated streets plow through neighborhoods that seem to gentrify as you watch. But alas, the meek new world of Berlin's architecture is both overbearing and underwhelming. It's the city's turbocharged restaurant scene that leaves you agape.
How did it all happen so swiftly?Where are the growing pains, the identity issues, in a city cruelly severed for more than 40 years?Who delivered such smart design, savvy service, and confident transnational cooking to a town whose pork-heavy cooking was the butt of jokes?
The explosion is so intense that Berlin's meddling city authorities recently tried to spoil the broth by restricting the number of restaurant openings in Mitte, the city's historic core. Fortunately the proposal didn't pass. Except for the always-mobbed restaurant under Norman Foster's glittering Reichstag dome (it's the view, not the food, that causes the stampedes), the city's best tables are yours for the asking, even on short notice.
"Berlin is a culinary wasteland," scoff white-tablecloth snobs from Hamburg and Munich. Obviously, they haven't visited the capital lately.
A man with a perpetual self-satisfied grin and the square-jawed good looks of a star quarterback, Markus Semmler incarnates Berlin's newest profession: celebrity chef.
To prove it, he has several cookbooks, a TV show, and a just-opened gastrodrome called Stil to his credit. And the guy can cook. At his flagship, Mensa—a feel-good affair of off-white curves, glass, and warm wood—Semmler's best dishes have the voluptuous precision of the stuff you swoon over at Gordon Ramsay in London or Jean Georges in New York.
An appetizer modestly called "duo of cèpes with rabbit" arrives as a stark white plate bearing two cups of mushroom elixir: a powerfully fragrant dark consommé and a celestial frothed cream; gilding the lily are sautéed cèpes and two succulent slices of rabbit loin. The dish is intelligent, flavorful, and unapologetically haute. Equally thrilling is the monkfish carpaccio, fanned around a glistening jellied-tomato mousse, its delicate flavors brought into focus by a sharp vinaigrette with an intriguing seaweed perfume. In the lobster salad with Sauternes dressing, tiny nuggets of crustacean are buried like jewels in a mound of beautiful greens and seven herbs. Each mouthful brings a surprise. The main courses are polished if somewhat predictable: a loin of venison with wild mushrooms and addictive bacon Rösti; truffle-crusted turbot on a bed of risotto. And I still dream about Semmler's plum strudel.
Tucked into an arcade in the middle of Mitte's new shopping wonderland, the five-month-old Guy is steps away from Jean Nouvel's ultramodern Galeries Lafayette and Karl Friedrich Schinkel's neoclassical Konzerthaus. With its bouquet of eclectic references—an Orientalist pond in the courtyard, pseudo-Renaissance artwork, Bauhaus color scheme, a baroque candelabrum—the sound-bite space catches the moment without shaking you up. The surprises here are the focused fresh flavors from young chef Andreas Krüger, the $25 lunch bargain, and the substantial wine list, with every selection available by the glass.
The rich, creamy pheasant pâté, framed by a wine jelly and offset by bright dots of parsley sauce, is an ideal après-shopping indulgence. Slices of superb smoked venison and dabs of fig chutney surround an arugula salad—the kind you expect to be a throwaway garnish—that consists of impeccably dressed boutique leaves. And I challenge you to find a better shellfish bisque, even in Paris.
Krüger's almost Californian dedication to quality shows in the vegetables that arrive with the entrées: crunchy haricots verts and a confetti of diced white and purple potatoes arrayed around a melting braised lamb shank; adorable baby zucchini and tender asparagus with the moist baked zander fillet. Perhaps the menu sings a familiar tune, but what perfect pitch.
The interior of Vau echoes the look of the New Berlin: ocher-hued wood framing those louvered panels you see on façades all over town. The smart, vaulted room—so narrow you could be eating inside one of Schinkel's Ionic columns—dead-ends at an altarlike black wall dramatically bisected by a bar of white light, an effect that seems borrowed from a Robert Wilson production. (If only someone would beam the neo-Expressionist paintings back to the eighties). Chef Kolja Kleeberg's understated but hyper-urban cuisine is perfectly in sync with the setting—just right for businessmen in dark suits and Helmut Langloving women.