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Horváth: Poetry on a plate

Head chef of top-end Kreuzberg eaterie Sebastian Frank translates childhood memories of the Alps into a mouth-watering menu, which includes a succulent eel mousse and pine needle ice cream (though not together!).

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Photo by Jarka Snajberk

unendlich unentbehrlich unentgeltlich, die haarnadel einer forelle, die blauen handschuhe einer henne, die mütze einer roten maus

infinite essential priceless, the hairpin of a trout, the blue gloves of a hen, the cap of a red mouse

Inscribed on the back wall of Horváth restaurant, above the window to the kitchen, a quatrain by Viennese poet Ernst Jandl primes diners for what is to come: poetry on a plate.

Tucked away a few metres from the bustle of Kottbusser Damm in that part of Kreuzkölln that has become Berlin’s most expensive neighbourhood overnight, around the corner from the scrappy Hotel Bar and a couple doors from the Hardwax record store, the discreet Horváth is easy to miss.

The first impression suggests another wood-panelled Berlin gastropub – and indeed, this once used to be Exil, a favourite haunt of David Bowie over three decades ago. Inside, though, it becomes clear that this restaurant, named after the Austrian-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth, is a class apart from its neighbours.

Impeccably groomed, polite (mostly female) waitstaff, earth-tone walls, subtle lighting – and that invisible difference, the Michelin star, first awarded to chef Sebastian Frank in 2011 although “the place doesn’t even have tablecloths”, the young, shell-shocked chef was quoted as saying. But the Austrian’s earthy-poetic take on the food tradition of his Heimat seduced the fussy palates of the world’s strictest critics.

The young, boyish-looking Frank seems to be a modest guy who’s open to anything: for Arte TV he even cooked a fish in a washing machine at a Kreuzberg laundromat to demonstrate the art of sous-vide cooking, then served it to pedestrians on a bench outside.

Fun aside, Frank’s seasonal “Horváth Menu” is a rigorous odyssey through 12 artful dishes (which can also be ordered à la carte) for €114, eight for €89, four for €56 or five vegetarian delights for €65.

On the evening we visited we were surprised to be seated at a table dressed in white – a temporary measure due to new over-polished tabletops, the staff assured. No tacky shine here! In no time a basket of three bread sorts and spreads to match arrived, including a tiny muffin-like black pudding Brötchen – the nut butter and pumpkin seed oil were unnecessary. Delicious!

Most dishes here are named after their three primary ingredients – a nod to the minimalist simplicity of the place. No bombastic food titles, just hand-selected regional ingredients collaged in artistic compositions.

Take the “Flussbarsch, Kohlsprossen, Aal” – a delicious filet of perch, delicately fried Brussels sprouts and a succulent eel mousse. “Rotkraut, Chicorée, Quitte” came as a rich-velvety-red feast for the eyes before it became one for the palate, with a perfect tension between textures – crisp Jerusalem artichoke, firm vegetables, squishy mint gelée – and flavours: bitter endive, sweet marinated quince and cabbage.

Horváth is reputed for its venison and our Rehkeule didn’t disappoint: comparatively copious for its €28.50 price tag, the Brandenburg-sourced haunch was as soft as Bambi’s eyes. Served with a pungent, slightly caramelised gravy, a side of charcoaled beetroot and sour plums – let’s not forget the dash of puréed cress and the emulsion of pickle brine with a contrasting tangy horseradish flavour – this was memorable venison indeed.

One judges a chef by his ability to cap the meal with an adequately climactic dessert – the perfect denouement to his food narrative. Here, again, we were not disappointed. Our final trinity, “Kipferlkoch, Fichte, Schwarze Ribisel” (€12), sounded like an Austrian folk tale, and we were served a fantastic plate composed of pine needle ice cream (based on a homemade syrup made from pine needles harvested in May in the Austrian forest and left in jars in the restaurant’s front window over the summer), black currant mousse, and a milk-and-yeast dough ‘pudding’ – all extracted by Frank from his memories of a happy Alpine childhood, which we instantly started to contemplate with envy.

Highly recommended to anyone ready to spend on a superior meal the cash you could easily end up wasting on a passable one. From the relaxed atmosphere to the friendly waiting and kitchen staff to the playful but precise, world-class but unpretentious cuisine, with (mostly) German and Austrian wines to boot, Horváth is a rarity.

One of the few Michelin-crowned establishments in the world allowing you to dine like a prince without spending a king’s ransom.