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Pauly Saal: No ordinary school lunch

Pauly Saal's main goal is simple: to present German cuisine in such a way that pleases eye, palate and belly alike by providing local, fresh food and regional novelties.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

Part of the bizarre, edited-history experience of the Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule, the new arts centre on Auguststraße (which was actually the ‘normal’ East German Bertolt-Brecht-Oberschule for much longer than it was a Jewish girls’ school), is the exclusive restaurant in the former school gymnasium.

And an experience it is: entering through the 1920s-retro lounge into the elegant six-metre-high dining hall is quite a visual sensation. Huge amber-tinted Murano chandeliers from the Venetian glass company Pauly & C (hence the restaurant’s name) dominate the room. Benches upholstered with deep green chenille are arranged in quadratic formations around tables decked with linen, classic silverware and weighty water glasses.

There is art – two anthropomorphic stuffed foxes with bandaged limbs and a giant rocket over the aquarium-style window to the kitchen. Illuminated by a cathedral-sized window overlooking Auguststraße, this is a school gym turned design temple.

The servers glide smoothly like butlers between tables, cutting bread and carving meat on an altar in the middle of the room. One wouldn’t expect anything less aesthetically rigorous from the makers of art crowd nosh pit Grill Royal. No overpriced luxury steaks here though. Instead, Austrian maestro Siegfried Danler, formerly of Hamburg’s Michelin-starred Le Canard, subscribes to more sophisticated local pleasures – a take on neue deutsche Küche that somehow manages to please eye, palate and belly alike.

Since April, it is available for lunch with a menu that seems to appeal to tourists in the know, Mitte art wigs and other tasteful jet-setting urban professionals, while making sure to keep undesirables away: not everyone succumbs to a €32 lunch deal on a regular weekday, even if it’s actually worth the money.

Our lunch began with Ostsee Heringseintopf, a fish soup concoction of herring and salmon in a broth so perfectly balanced and aromatic, it made up for the smallness of the plate. Less interesting, and perhaps the only disappointment of the meal, was the Fresh Spring Salad served in a deep glass bowl – a mixed salad of lamb’s lettuce turned flaccid by the sautéed potatoes dropped on top – and the pumpkin seeds did little to save it. Lukewarm lettuce anyone?

The Germanic mains were the highpoint: the Zickleinschulter (shoulder of goat kid) came with a healthy dollop of mash decorated with bites of blood sausage and a mess of tangy wild-garlic-tinged Spitzkohl (pointed cabbage). It’s impossible not to chew slowly on such a holy dish!

The zander was a brilliant take on freshwater fish, an underemployed resource in a city surrounded by a thousand lakes. Presented in a Le Creuset-style baking dish, the fish was hot, tender under its crispy skin, and served on a succulent mattress of slices of cucumber and radishes topped with their own spirited foamy concoction. It also came with a generous glass bowl of shredded apple and celery salad – a light, easy accompaniment to this vernal dish.

The credo of hyper-local-fresh-seasonal is in full swing here: the goat kid was slaughtered in Brandenburg only days before, the zander caught that morning in a local lake. This is proper German food, unafraid of mashed potatoes and cabbage, both artful and hearty. The dinner menu is marked by regional novelties: Brandenburg snails, smoked trout, jellied suckling pig, goat tongue and liver, Pomeranian entrecote… and prices as top-shelf as the night-time clientele.

Desserts are no less sophisticated, seriously executed and satisfying – as testified by the Herrenschokolade (bittersweet dark chocolate) mousse set with (slightly salty) sheep’s milk and fresh elderberries. By the time you get there, the menu will be a new one. Count on Danler to unearth new seasonal goodies from small farmers with whom he has a personal relationship. Slow food indeed. You should make sure to enjoy it with elegant and discerning company.