Although our dinner at Vau, Kolya Kleeberg’s stylish restaurant in the centre of Berlin, was exceptional I decided not to write about it for a couple of days. As the afternoon before Vau had been spent witnessing a chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man – at the extraordinary Jewish Museum and the poignant if more ramshackle Checkpoint Charlie Museum - I wanted to be quite sure of my conclusions. On that particular Saturday evening, perhaps just a soothing bowl of plain rice would have been enough to restore my equilibrium.
But back at my desk, my initial impressions about what Kleeberg and his team have achieved over the past eight years seemed even stronger. And my conclusion that this restaurant will not just delight visitors to this site but also enlighten many chefs and restaurateurs seemed if anything even more valid.
The evening began interestingly as we were shown to our table in this modern restaurant with an outside courtyard by a young waitress whose rather androgynous face looked straight out of Cabaret. And no sooner had we sat down than I got a glimpse of Kleeberg in action. But although he was dressed in his chic chef’s outfit of white jacket and pinstripe trousers with a grey checked kitchen cloth hanging by his side, he was working as a waiter.
And a pretty good waiter, too. Kleeberg went past our table with two main course dishes balanced expertly in his hands at a great lick, leading a younger waitress in his wake. He delivered these ultra-professionally to a nearby table, explained briefly what they were and, after wishing them Guten Apetit, turned and started back to the kitchen. En route he spotted my small notebook and promptly explained that I needn’t bother to write the dishes down, that we could take the menu away, before switching into English and dashing off to get his manager to bring us their menu in English. Then he was gone.
This was the first of Kleeberg’s many forays into his restaurant, a symptom of what he subsequently explained was his particular approach: to give his customers the impression that his restaurant, although modern in design, is set in the mould of a chef/patron restaurant of the old French school, the kind which used to boast the sign above the front door that ‘le patron mange ici.’ But in fact Kleeberg’s strategem goes far beyond this.
It may appear from the intense media attention of recent years that the most difficult aspect of any restaurant is its kitchen and what it produces. But this is not the case. No dish, however complicated or intricate, provides the same challenges as that of communication, whether it is between the customer and the receptionist, the customer and the waiter or, finally and often most problematically in my experience, between the waiting staff and the kitchen.
Recently, better technology which can beam the order directly from the table to the kitchen and far more intensive and comprehensive staff training have contributed to overcoming these considerable obstacles. But the speed with which so many chefs are now beginning to follow the example set by Joël Robuchon at his L’Atelier in Paris and Tokyo, where there is only a small counter between the customer, the waiting staff and an open kitchen, reveals that many are now determined to eradicate the physical and communications barrier epitomised to date by the swing door between the kitchen and the restaurant.
Kleeberg admitted that many see his peregrinations as a gimmick but he protested that this wasn’t the case at all. “Most of my kitchen brigade has been with me for at least five years, they know the kind of food I want to see. I also want them to know I can rely on them whenever I am not physically there.” Nor does there seem to be any apparent friction in the restaurant itself where Kleeberg sensitively does not take the orders and very sensibly leaves the wine side to his extremely knowledgeable sommelier and long time friend, Hendrik Canis.
Certainly, what emerged from two different four course tasting menus was very, very good. Two cool soups, the first of herbs and Charentais melon with a hefty slice of marinated lobster claw, the second a spicy, tomato and peach gazpacho, hit precisely the right notes on a warm evening and prepared the way for a piece of crisp halibut with tomatoes and tarragon and, perhaps the best dish of the night, an unctuous, lip-smacking ragout of cockscombs, sweetbreads, ceps and artichokes. The kitchen then revealed its traditional pedigree with a dish of suckling pig, as cutlets and confit, with beans and chanterelles and its modern face with a fillet of John Dory swathed in peas and broad beans. Finally, two stunning desserts: a glass of cool plum granita topped with a hot chocolate soufflé and a bowl of cool almond milk, in which lay a crisp slice of crème brulee and slices of apricots and fresh almonds.
The kitchen only hit a slightly wrong note with the petits fours served as Kleeberg was explaining to two women at the table opposite the rather intricate details of just how their desserts were to be prepared. The mini choc-ices and jam doughnuts were just too sweet and too large.
This, however, was a minor aberration. Vau manages to deliver the precision of a top class restaurant without any pretension and, most importantly, without any stiffness or sense of condescension from the staff. It is a great team effort due in large part to a highly talented chef who over the years has evolved into an extremely swift waiter.
Vau, Jagerstrasse 54/55, 10117 Berlin, 030.20.29.73-0 www.vau-berlin.de (from 70 euros for three courses).
Bar am Lutzowplatz, Lutzowplatz 7, 10785 Berlin 030.26.26.80-7, for excellent cocktails and where the Happy Hour stretches from 1400-2100!
Café im Literaturehaus Wintergarten, Fasanenstrasse 23, 10719 Berlin, 030.88.25.41-4, for a light lunch and a sense of the city’s literary past.
Käfer im Deutschen Bundestag, Platz der Republik, 11011 Berlin, 030.22.62.99-0. The café at the top of the Reichstag, open for breakfast from 0900 at the weekend.