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Le Pistou: The art of simplicity

Arriving during the heyday of divided Berlin, French chef Claude Massel makes traditional and delicious French food for the bon vivants of Charlottenburg and anyone else who wants a different experience in City West.

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Photo by Erica Löfman

Arriving during the heyday of divided Berlin, French chef Claude Massel makes well-made traditional French food for the bon vivants of Charlottenburg and anyone else who wants a different experience in City West.

When you hit a new restaurant it’s sometimes good to know exactly what you’re after. When I entered Le Pistou and sat at one of the simple, professionally laid tables (starched napkins with rings) in the low-key warm interior, I didn’t even need the menu. “Soupe de poisson et raie aux câpres, s’il vous plaît!” A French chef I know had tipped me off that Claude Massel’s fish soup and skate were well worth a try – and they were just what I had come here for.

Massel belongs to the old guard of French chefs who landed in Berlin during the heyday of the Allied-occupied West. Like many, he did his time at the Paris Bar in the 1980s and catered to the decadent bohemia of Savignyplatz. After the East opened up he launched his own establishment, Le Provençal, in the Nikolaiviertel until a nasty row propelled him back to his western comfort zone. Three years ago he opened Le Pistou in a rather unspectacular storefront in remotest Charlottenburg, sadly too far west to get the buzz it deserves. But some regulars have followed him all the way, joined by local bon vivants and older folks from around the Schloss.

A retrospective look at the menu speaks for time-tested classics: Cotes D’agneau; rognons; duck confit, roast beef. No trace of fusion or experiments; here, we’re light years away from the bold, at times reckless and somehow ostentatious creativity at work in many a new Berlin kitchen. Clearly it’s not Massel’s ambition to revolutionise French cuisine, but to serve simple well-executed dishes. Memorably, legendary French chef Ferdinand Point would test his new cooks with a deceptively easy “fry me an egg” assignment. In a city where many self-appointed chefs would probably fail the test (in Germany you don’t need any formal training to open a restaurant), it is sometimes a relief to be able to order something basic, trusting it will be done right.

Massel’s soupe de poisson (€7.20) would probably unsettle many – a fish soup and you can’t see the fish? “It happens,” acknowledges the deadpan chef. “They ask where the fish is.” “They” must have expected bouillabaisse – more of a stew than a soup, with whole bits of seafood in well-spiced broth. Massel serves it once a year, on Bastille Day, and it’s a full meal. But on any other night, his fish soup is a blended affair, made from dorado and gurnard prepared Provençal-style, with saffron, cayenne pepper, turmeric, aubergine, courgette, garlic, tomatoes, and a drop of white wine all mixed into an unspectacular liquid.

But since food is more about trusting your tastebuds than your eyes, a single spoonful will convince you that you can do without the “bits” – add some cheese, eat with rouille (saffron mayo) on mini toasts, close your eyes (if that what it takes) and enjoy! Fish soup rarely gets this good in Berlin. My only grudge? It could have been a little spicier.

Next up, the skate au beurre noir (€18.50), a mighty, plump wing of fish covered in slightly browned butter and capers, with a side of perfect pommes anglaises (boiled to order) and topped with a whimsical branch of thyme in a nod to Massel’s Provençal origins.

Funny how skate’s spongy, stringy texture, often compared to scallops’, turns off some eaters. An advantage of skate is that it has no bones, just a cartilage skeleton down its middle. The flesh is easy to eat, mild in taste and extremely nourishing. Expertly poached and covered in melted butter, it is one dish you might want to travel all the way to Westend to eat again – especially when accompanied by a beautifully mineral-laced white Côtes du Rhône (€3.50/glass).

We rounded out the experience with a moelleux au chocolat (€7.90), that trendy ubiquitous dessert that should be done à la minute and perfectly timed in order to reach its perfect texture: a delicate balance between a slightly crispy doughy shell and a velvety, runny centre that oozes as you stab your spoon into the cake. It is easy to mess up, not unlike the cooking of the perfect poached egg. For the moelleux it’s 11 minutes in the oven, not a second more, not one less, according to Massel, who served it with a large scoop of creamy homemade ice cream.

My French restaurateur friend recently confided to me that he got the recipe for his own perfect moelleux from none other than Massel. Some chefs do share their secret recipes, and that’s good news for us.

Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.