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Critic’s take on seven new Japanese restaurants in Berlin

Our food critic's hunger for gourmet izakaya dishes, delicate set meals, and fresher-than-fresh sushi knows no bounds. Jane Silver tries out seven new Japanese restaurants in Berlin.

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Photo by Patricia Ziehn. Our food critic tries Little Long in Kreuzberg, just one of Berlin’s most recent izakayas to open up shop.

The purists

It’s not exactly a Little Tokyo, but the area around Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz now boasts Berlin’s highest concentration of Japanese restaurants. It started with Shiori (Max-Beer- Str. 13), where the namesake chef serves ex­quisite kaiseki-style (multi-course) meals to just 10 guests a night; and Yokozuna (Torstr. 41), the city’s best-kept secret when it comes to takeaway sushi. As of September there’s also Jabe (Alte Schönhauser Str. 7-8) an ach­ingly chic, bold-flavoured izakaya from the Qua Phe/Royals & Rice Dynasty. But we’re most enthused about two hyper-authentic newbies – funnily enough, named after the Japanese numbers 1 and 3. Where’s ni? It’s only a matter of time.

Ichi (“one”, Straßburger Str. 60) slipped into the cellar abandoned by Arai, an abor­tive foray into high-end chuka ryori cuisine from the Shiori crew. New owners Ikue and Shunichi Nagamine inherited a gem of a space, designed by Kyoto-born architect Kuma Kenta to transport you as soon as you take off your shoes at the threshold. Where are you going? A Japanese mountain inn crossed with a Williamsburg gallery, maybe, with intimate lighting, arched brick ceilings and ikebana-like floral arrangements in every nook. You dine at a long, tatami-style table, seated comfortably thanks to ingenious car­peted notches built into the false floor. Chef Shunichi’s monthly-rotating menu is heavily centered on homey classics like oden soup, miso-braised mackerel or the house specialty chicken nanban – fried thigh meat drizzled with both vinegar and tartar sauce. Tender and lightly crispy, it’s satisfying for sure – especially as part of a €28 set lunch also featuring soba, tempura, soup, soy-sauce-marinated vegetables, rice, and sashimi (the superb Croatian black tuna toro is practically worth the price in itself). A six-course is €35, more if you’d like to sample excellently se­lected sake from an adorable crystal teapot. The cooking may be a shade less refined than the location, but the gorgeous platings – and the Nagamines’ impeccable hospitality – more than do it justice.

November saw the opening of San (“three”, Weydingerstr. 22) by Ishikawa-born BFFs Tomoya Sakashita and Takeshi Seto. The childhood friends moved here in 2008 and separately cooked, sliced and rolled their way around various sushi and noodle bars before teaming up to launch the restaurant they always thought Berlin was missing. Their long game paid off. Japanese regulars and guests from across-the-street Soho House are already cottoning on to San’s sushi menu, reliant on a secret coterie of fish suppliers throughout Europe. Its sole break from orthodoxy is the avocado in a handful of maki; otherwise, it’s all reverently treated tuna belly, yellowtail, sweet shrimp, mackerel and whatever else is in season. You can get an omakase dinner or a baroque-looking sashimi platter for €35, or try a mix of rolls, nigiri and warm plates like fried chicken or braised pork belly (€4-11). Or just come for lunch, geared toward well-heeled Mitte professionals. At €14, the Osakana menu – featuring lemony broiled salmon, fall-apart-tender fried eggplant, miso soup, pickled daikon, a salad-like kinpira of carrot and lotus root, and the sashimi of the day (some toothsome lightly cured tuna, in our case) – will fill you up without weighing you down, not to mention impress the hell out of your business date.

The interlopers

While Mitte bows to tradition, restaurateurs in other parts of the city are flying their fusion freak flag high. “East meets West” is the ta­gline of Little Long (Wiener Str. 60, Kreuz­berg), and to hammer it home, Vietnam-born owner Cao Ba Vu has covered the walls of his capacious new corner space in colour­ful, hand-drawn caricatures of Biggie, Tupac and Bruce Lee. Hardcore Japanophiles will run screaming from the cream cheese-filled sushi rolls and floppy gyoza, but everyone else should stay for the yakiniku. This is basically the Japanese version of Korean barbecue – but here it’s done over real charcoal, on your own tabletop Konro grill, with decent-quality Ar­gentinian Angus, tiger prawns, baby octopus and veggies offered as DIY grillables (€16.90/ person). It’s a riskier proposition than the usual electric BBQ: the uneven heat makes it hard to judge cooking times, and if you order the octopus, you’ll have a devil of a time pry­ing tentacles off the wire mesh. But the coal does impart a nice smoky flavour, which you can augment with a bevy of dipping sauces including one ginger-sesame number you’ll want to slurp straight from the bowl.

Meanwhile: under what circumstances is it okay to gorge on bluefin tuna soaked in truffle oil? With a napkin over your head, ortolan-style, to hide you from God and Ex­tinction Rebellion? If you’re a Charlotten­burger with robust finances, you do it out in the open at The Catch (Bleibtreustr. 41), a flashy Berlin spinoff of a popular Latvian sushi/izakaya concept. It’s true that half the seafood served here is overfished, and that flying it in from Spain daily melts Arctic ice faster than the salmon belly melts in your mouth. Not to mention the truffle oil, used so copiously the scent smacks you in the face when you open the door, a sure signifier of the kind of empty luxury beloved by Trump and, we guess, Latvians. But screw it, this place is fun. The cocktails are terrific (try the so-called negroni with sake, wild berry vermouth and an infused soy milk “fatwash”, served in a medicine bottle), and the seafood is as good as it gets, able to shine through liberal coatings of wasabi mayo, sweet­ened ginger-garlic sauce or, yes, truffle ponzu. Get the sushi – head chef Ruslan Kim worked at Ishin and knows his stuff. Even the spicy tuna (€12) is worth try­ing here, but the adven­turous should go for the ridiculous yet delectable roll with truffled sea bass, avocado and dehydrated sweet potato flakes (€11). Save room for a grilled entrée, like the kimchi-glazed octopus ten­tacle that unfurls itself against a mound of crushed cucumbers (€19).