As Berlin assumes the role of German capital, its restaurant scene is leaping and bounding ahead of rivals Hamburg and Munich
Heiner Orth

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.

the über-chefs

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 Lang‚loving women.

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.

down-home deutsch

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.

a clubhouse for the smart set

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.

The Facts

Mensa 5 Lützowplatz; 49-30/2579-9333; dinner for two $105.

Guy 59‚60 Jägerstrasse; 49-30/2094-2600; lunch for two $50.

Vau 54‚55 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 14‚16 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.