Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Restaurant Review: Horvath, Berlin

It makes a nice change, in these days of insta-everything, to head out for a fancy dinner with no real idea of what you're likely to be fed. Such were the conditions of the meal that provided the crescendo to our recent trip to Berlin.

After a bit of online scouring, I had suggested Horvath as it's situated in the achingly trendy Kreuzberg area in which (obvs) we were staying, wasn't insanely pricey, and a lot of the dishes put vegetables, rather than dead animal, front and centre. This last point was relevant as Kasia and I had taken the trip with another couple, one one of whom is a fish-eating vegetarian. Horvath recently aquired a second Michelin Star, joining an exhalted club of six in Berlin. For what it's worth, London has 11 restaurants at this level and Paris 14. The chef is the young and rather photogenic Sebastien Frank, who is an interesting character. From eastern Austria, he has claimed inspiration comes to him from the dishes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What did they taste like then? We had no idea whatsoever, but looked forward to finding out.

Inside, the rare trick of making a room clad in dark wood paneling feel unstuffy had been nicely pulled off, partly through good lighting (both candlelit and more modern), partly by the fact of the uncovered tables, but also as the welcome from all the staff was warm and genuine.

Bread, butter, mashed potato
All three breads were excellent, and served warm. A wholemeal sourdough had ripe tang and apetite-forming bitterness about it while a black-pudding number was moist and piggy. Best was a sort of puffed potato effort, light as a gougere and wonderfully salty. These were served not just with butter, but also with a pot of excellently made mashed potato, which is something I've not seen elsewhere, but a great start to any meal. Any worries about leaving here and needing to hit up one of the many local kebab shops disappeared at roughly the same time as our second plate of breads arrived.

Amuse of roasted salsify
Lettuce, Yellow beet, pumpkin seed oil
The first two dishes out of the traps were more interesting than memorable. An amuse of salsify with apple gel heralded what would be a veg-centric evening. The first of the 5 course tasting menu we had gone for looked like something that had crawled from the ocean depths. Marinated chicory hid a jammy ragout of red endive and onion. A biscuit of pumpkin seed oil that tasted remarkably like a digestive was removed from a block of ice at the table and placed on top, and a sauce of yellow beets and more pumpkin oil was applied, also tableside. Like an indecisive sunset, this was pretty, but lacked conviction.

Brussels sprouts, almonds, champigon
No such issues with the next dish which was a masterful demonstration of how to make uncherished vegetables delicious. Brussel sprouts two ways and button mushrooms were the main event, but it was a variety of sauces and gels that provided the fireworks. An emulsion of mushroom water and almond oil had sensational depth, while a lemon and caraway paste plated on the spoon was a bracing shock to the palate. Blobs of a gel made from apricot seeds had a wonderful marzipan sweetness. Each element was powerfully good in its own right but, somehow, the whole thing just sang together beautifully. Possibly the most interesting plate of vegetarian cookery I've ever had.

Salmon trout, jerusalem artichoke, winter spinach
A plate of lightly pickled salmon had excellent texture and benefited from the nuttiness of some salt-baked jerusalem artichokes. Cisco caviar gave the thing some snap and pop, while the intrigue was provided by a solid disc of spinach and smoked lard. This was another delicious shock to the system, tasting like no more or less than the scrapings of the best bacon pan ever.

I should say at this point that each dish was being presented with a dinky card that gave the full run-down of ingredients. This is the first time I've seen this, but it makes life easier for the front of house - especially when they're doing the whole performance in more than one language - and also helps when you have one of those "what the hell is that" moments.

Beef shoulder cut, pepper, kale
The main meat dish was the most wonderful piece of shoulder of beef, an unusual cut to serve as a steak. It was cooked over coals before getting the sous-vide treatment, which gave the whole thing a gorgeous, almost burger-like smokiness. Crispy kale is always welcome on my plate, especially when covered in dots of ripe garlic purée. The trick up the plate's sleeve was a cream sauce of sour potato that tasted like a liquidised Russian salad, the familiar rendered in flashy new tones.

Cauliflower, Serbian butter, barley
For the veggie, a main of cauliflower looked beautiful and got a solid thumbs-up, making good and plentiful use of paprika.

Matched wines were all from Austria, Germany or Hungary and were excellent. I particularly enjoyed a vegetal pinotage along with the beef and a non-sweet Tokaji. No Blue Nun in sight.

Chocolate, "Kletz'n", Elderflower
Those wines, which were served in generous measures, were taking their toll by the time pudding came round so I pretty much scarfed this down. Bloody good, and wildly rich, chocolate brownie things were offset nicely by the mellow astringency of cream cheese with elderflower oil. More richness came from dried pear cooked in toasted butter.

Petit fours
Excellent coffee was served with some great petit fours of chocolate and pigs blood wrapped in a thin film of some sort of rice paper; a down-in-a-one job.

The straw that schnapped the camel's back
We were talked into trying a bunch of schnapps. Presuming that what they'd be serving up at a classy gaff like this would be considerably more enjoyable than Archers, we gave it a go, which proved to be an error. As far as any of us could tell, all of these basically tasted of raw alcohol, with just the merest hint of the thing it was actually meant to taste of. Sorry Austria, but you can keep this stuff to yourself.

It would have taken a lot more than this last mis-step to take the gloss off what was an absolutely stellar meal. Service was that perfect balance of attentive but not intrusive, the pacing of the dishes was good and there was a lovely atmosphere about the place. The bill came in at just under £100 a head including a hefty 19% service, which considering the quality of what we had, is reasonable. We could have shaved about fifty euros off it by skipping those bloody schnapps.

What I enjoyed most was finding delicious platefuls being constructed using materials and skills with which I wasn't really familiar. The kitchen avoids olive oil, using pig or beef fat. There is lots of garlic, onions and paprika, all of which would lead you to expect heaviness, but far from it; these are nimble, playful dishes that nonetheless pack some serious heft in the flavour department. I suppose you could make some sort of lazy allusion to the approach that places like l'enclume or Noma are inspiring, and, being lazy, I shall. There is certainly an integrity to this food. It feels like it belongs to this chef and this room. It's a lovely thing to find a novel genre of delicious, but that's exactly what we got at Horvath.


Horvath, Paul-Linke-Ufer 44a, 10999, Berlin, Germany
+49 30 61289992

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