Talking of fashion, foam is to today's Berlin cuisine what black lacquered wood is to restaurant design. Kleeberg's creations, however, emerge from the suds Venus-like, especially the warm smoked lobster subtly accented with crisp bits of bacon and served in a frothy tomato-tinged sauce. These days, new German menus are shot through with Mediterranean accents, and Vau's is no exception. My dégustation menu kicks off with an amuse-gueule of sardines with caramelized onions, followed by an artful appetizer of paper-thin slices of octopus accented by grilled vegetables and olive pesto. A 24-karat chanterelle risotto with nuggets of foie gras (and a little froth) gives way to a John Dory fillet paired with green favas and smoky sausage, a beguiling Iberian conceit. The dessert chef coaxes every bit of Nordic tartness and dark-ness from his elderberries, serving them in an elegant tart, and in an almost-black sorbet alongside a thin slice of luscious sour-cream pie.
In his youth, the amiable, baby-faced Kleeberg pursued a career as an actor, playing "little faceless soldiers." He deserves a gingerbread Oscar for his role as commander in chief of Berlin's restaurant revival.
The owners of StäV, who ran several well-known political hangouts in Bonn, were among the most vocal opponents of the government's transfer to Berlin. But after the move was announced, they resolved to pack up their pots and follow the politicos east. Their mission?To provide an oasis of Rhineland food and comfort to a brigade of homesick lawmakers. StäV couldn't have landed on a more archetypal Berlin street corner—facing an industrial bridge, a huge S-Bahn terminal, and (as ever) a clutter of scaffolding and cranes. No matter: after a few days in the city, you begin to find chaos strangely poetic. At least until the jackhammers start up.
Unfazed by diabolical street noise, regulars crowd the sidewalk tables, downing tumblers of Kölsch (a potent lager from Cologne) and tucking into thin crackling squares of Flammenküche, a delicious Alsatian pizza. Only a Wagnerian Rhine maiden could stomach Himmel und Ärd ("heaven and hell"), a mess of blood pudding, apples, and onions. But the zaftig grated-potato cakes—topped with apples, shredded beets, or smoked salmon—and the folkloric braised beef with raisin-pumpernickel sauce are reassuringly homey.
The conservative understatement of Berlin's new architectural idiom might make you appreciate the socialist grandeur of Karl-Marx-Allee, a relic from the G.D.R. days. If you're hankering for a slice of East Berlin that's neither corporate nor Communist, head for the city's oldest pub and restaurant, Zur Letzten Instanz, half-hidden on a deserted cobblestoned alley off Alexanderplatz. The place has the gemütlich feel of a battered suitcase: brown walls, brown floor, brown food. Go for the boxing-glove-sized braised pork knuckle and giant potato dumplings, fried potatoes with bacon, suckling pig roulade with red cabbage, and liters of Berlin's signature Schult-heiss Pils. Most of the clients are clearly Ossis (East Berliners)—their denim jackets are tattier, their hair longer, their laughs heartier. Pure nostalgia.
Schwarzenraben offers something for everyone: a sidewalk espresso joint for post-countercultural types, a downstairs bar for the Schickeria (the chic crowd), a supper canteen for media honchos and their overblond dates. Run by Italian brothers Rudolf and Ivo Girolo, the canteen's long space of arches and booths looks like Roman baths crossed with a fin de siècle arcade.
Ivo is one of those hosts who discreetly puts—and keeps—his hand on your shoulder while taking your order. "Italian food in Berlin?" He widens his eyes in disdain. "It used to be fettuccine mit cream und Speck!"
Oh, no—not here. Though the scene outshines the cuisine, Schwarzenraben's kitchen turns out credible gnocchi with sausage and green olives; super-fresh peppered sea bass baked between slices of eggplant; and a pleasant steak with polenta and spinach soufflé. And how can you not love a place that serves shot glasses of warm mint-infused grappa as a stand-in for palate-cleansing sorbet?
Over ricotta-stuffed figs and rum semifreddo I watch a peddler circle the tables. She chats about Joseph Beuys—in several languages—and isn't pushing roses or blinking cigarette lighters. Her ware?A stack of tomes on Berlin architecture. As I said, the city takes its self-image seriously.
Mensa 5 Lützowplatz; 49-30/2579-9333; dinner for two $105.
Guy 5960 Jägerstrasse; 49-30/2094-2600; lunch for two $50.
Vau 5455 Jägerstrasse; 49-30/202-9730; dinner for two $125.
StäV (Ständige Vertretung) 8 Schiffbauerdamm; 49-30/282-3965; lunch for two $25.
Zur Letzten Instanz 1416 Waisenstrasse; 49-30/242-5528; dinner for two $45.
Schwarzenraben 13 Neue Schönhauser Strasse; 49-30/2839-1698; dinner for two $70.
Prices do not include drinks or tax.