The former brewery Bötzow Berlin, on the border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, lay fallow for 20 years before being purchased, in 2010, by Dr. Hans Georg Näder, the owner of Ottobock, a prosthetics manufacturing company. Dr. Näder plans a grand transformation of the sprawling complex, with space planned for a scientific research campus, art galleries, stores, offices and even a hotel.
The first inhabitants of the space are a team of cooks under Tim Raue who send out their high-end take on classic Berlin comfort food (Königsberger Klopse, Brathering, Sülze) from Thursday to Saturday every week at dinner as well as at lunchtime. The restaurant, called La Soupe Populaire, is located in a part of the brewery called the Atelierhaus. Each month, a new installation of art graces the gritty walls (this month, Andreas Gursky) and the cooks come up with special menus to pair with the changing pieces. But the regular menu holds fast.
The location is a distinctly weird place - cavernous and dark and spooky, you find yourself not really wanting to walk through the echoing hallways by yourself. But, improbably, a cozy, warm restaurant has successfully been crafted within the slightly forbidding walls of Bötzow Berlin. Mismatched china for bread dishes and cheerful, floral seat cushions mingle with the austere elegance of KPM Urbino porcelain plates. The charming, convivial atmosphere softens the harshness of the exposed pipes and brick.
Michael Jaeger, the chef de cuisine, sends out well-crafted German comfort food from a kitchen that clearly has a twinkle in its eye as well as serious cooking chops. Senfei, that old cafeteria classic of boiled eggs in mustard sauce, has been reimagined as a soft-cooked poached egg quivering on top of a silky mustard sauce. There are crisp homemade potato chips for some textural contrast and a bit of char caviar on top but to cut through the unctuous richness of it all, a layer of cool cubes of sour beet salad is hidden at the bottom of the bowl.
Another evening that I was there, I had the pleasure of eating a slice of Spanferkelsülze (not pictured) with a bit of sweet mustardy pickle alongside as an appetizer. Sülze (aspic) certainly has had its image challenges along the way, but Jaeger's take - the meat tender and savory, the aspic just barely there, and coins of spicy carrots studding each slice - gives this tired old dish a much-deserved new life.
Mains include this dish of nicely cooked cod served with Schmorgurken and a creamy, bright green tarragon sauce. I'm not sure I'll ever love Schmorgurken, but given the Soupe Populaire treatment, it's hard not to like them. And besides, it's wonderful to see a restaurant concept adhered to so rigorously and so successfully. Oma's Berliner Küche never had as good an ambassador as La Soupe Populaire.
Königsberger Klopse, served with shreds of sweet-sour beets and buttery puréed potatoes are clearly the kitchen's pride and joy. They are rich and porky, capped with a few crunchy breadcrumbs and just a bit too salty for my taste.
The wines on the menu are almost entirely German and quite excellent in addition to being good value. I'm particularly partial to the Dreissigacker bottles.
The first night I was at La Soupe Populaire, dessert was a modernist take on Bienenstich - two layers of plain yellow cake filled with cream, apricot ice cream and topped with a crunchy disc of caramelized almonds. Though I loved the attempt at reimagining this old stalwart, I found the cake a flavorless disappointment and the other elements, while delicious, couldn't redeem it.
But the second time I went, dessert was a raging success: a scoop of lusty cherry sorbet atop a silky poppyseed mousse with little cubes of toasted brioche scattered throughout. I scraped my bowl clean and realized I loved this version even more than the original, ribsticking dessert. Which is how it should be.
La Soupe Populaire is a lovely addition to Berlin's restaurant scene and I've already recommended it to many people. Go if you're a tourist, go if you're a longtime resident - it holds something for both, an introduction to Berlin as well as a reminder of how fun, creative and wonderful this city can be. I'll brave the scary halls of Bötzow anytime to go back.
PS: A nice little bonus: there's free parking on the grounds.
La Soupe Populaire
Bötzow Berlin - Atelierhaus
Prenzlauer Allee 242
Tel: (030) 44 319 680