BERLIN — Despite Berlin’s reputation for its uninhibited night life and progressive counterculture, traditionally the city’s fine dining restaurants have fit within the same ho-hum, predictable mold. In the past few years, several small but ambitious restaurants have managed to break free, but none have managed to match Berlin’s cheeky, creative spirit as successfully as Mrs Robinson’s.
Located in a small space (formerly a kebab restaurant) in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood, the tiny kitchen is headed up by two recent and young Berlin transplants: Israeli chef Ben Zviel and Samina Raza, a London native. Zviel, 28, who first trained with Amir Ilan in Tel Aviv and then, briefly, worked under Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York, had always desired the freedom to develop his cooking without compromise.
After some stints in Berlin, he decided that the German capital was one of the few major European cities affordable enough that he could make it happen. With help from several friends, Zviel and Raza renovated the space on a tiny budget and finally opened Mrs Robinson’s (named after a “saucy and warmhearted” friend of Raza’s) in late 2016.
“We have a small budget but complete freedom,” Zviel said. “We are committed first to our truth and then to our customers, never to the whims of an investor.”
From the street, the well-lit room with white-brick walls and pale oak floorboards can resemble a minimalist stage set. Once inside, though, it feels more like a friend’s dinner party where everyone is hanging out in the kitchen. An initial visit just a month after Mrs Robinson’s opened revealed an early taste of what Zviel aspired to: a lively kitchen where he could play and riff with Asian-inspired, umami-rich dishes directly inspired by New York City chefs like Dufresne and David Chang: a bowl of crispy charred Brussels sprouts served with crunchy toasted rice and loads of fresh chopped cilantro; shrimp noodles in a buttery sake-saffron broth, loaded with little salty bombs of fish roe and caviar; a fried soft-shell crab served on a fluffy white bao bun with homemade spicy mayo and a thin slice of kohlrabi. (Because Mrs Robinson’s encourages both sharing and indulging, there is little difference between appetizers and mains.)
During another visit in December, over some obscure and upbeat ‘70s music, a guest and I perused the menu, which had clearly evolved since my last visit. We started with an off-menu special: two spicy deviled eggs with fried oysters, which were messy but delicious. There were hits and misses: A generous and gutsy sandwich of aged beef tartare, fried sweetbreads, shiso béarnaise and hot sauce was a standout; the octopus Bolognese had great potential but the ratio of sauce to pasta overwhelmed.
The biggest surprise at Mrs Robinson’s is the desserts. Unlike most Berlin restaurants, Zviel treats it as a grand finale. A thick, creamy popcorn soup is poured around passion fruit ice and a swirl of sweetened black tahini cream, under which are obscured sweet crunchy bits of caramelized popcorn and peanuts. A rum banana cake was served with a nondairy amazake (traditionally a sweet, non- or low-alcoholic Japanese beverage) ice cream and like the popcorn soup, kept revealing new flavors and textures with every bite — hidden at the bottom was a layer of toasted puffed quinoa and amaranth. Like a catchy tune, the dish replayed in our minds days later.
Mrs Robinson’s, Pappelallee 29; 49-152-0518-8946; mrsrobinsons.de. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is 100 euros, about $120.