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Steffen Henssler vs Tim Mälzer: Celebrity chefs come to Berlin

Two Hamburg celebrity chefs come to Berlin and pit sushi against pasta in rival luxury hotels.

Farm to table it ain’t: Go by Steffen Henssler. Photo: GO by Steffen Henssler

Do the names Steffen Henssler and Tim Mälzer mean anything to you?

If yes, congrats on actually getting your Rundfunkbeitrag money’s worth. If not, think duelling German Jamie Olivers, daytime TV fixtures who make Tim Raue look press-shy.

Henssler made it big with his version of Japanese food; Mälzer with European fine dining. Both are now goateed middle-aged Hamburgers who spend more time in front of cameras than behind stoves. And, whether by coincidence or as a killer piece of synergy for their current competition show Mälzer und Henssler liefern ab (Mälzer and Henssler Deliver), both have recently opened Berlin outposts – in the city’s swankiest luxury hotels, no less.

Henssler got here first. Or rather, his sushi delivery service Go by Steffen Henssler did, as part of its pandemic-inspired expansion into Germany’s wealthiest cities (and Brussels). For the past year, Berliners and even Brandenburgers have been able to order sleek black boxes packed with creations like the “Rich Boy Roll”, an unholy conglomeration of kimchi tempura crab, seared salmon, caviar and saffron truffle mayonnaise. But it wasn’t until December that the Go team, having relocated from the kitchen of Mitte’s five-star Hotel de Rome to the Ritz-Carlton on Potsdamer Platz, found a sit-down home for Henssler’s fusion fare.

Or did they? Technically, the restaurant version of Go is a “pop-up”, although nine months is an eternity on today’s gastro scene, and the tasteful Asian makeover of the Ritz’s former Fragrances bar – some kanji here, a decorative sake barrel there – appears built to last. More importantly, though, the dine-in menu barely bears Henssler’s fingerprint. Instead, as conceived and executed by Nobu Matsuhisa alumni, it’s a stealth attempt to bring that chef’s particular brand of Japanese-Peruvian decadence to Berlin. Meaning fewer whacky rolls, more bluefin tuna, wagyu beef and edible gold.

All of the above featured in the omakase we tried (€99 and up), a parade of guilty pleasures best appreciated by those who’ve just scored a round of financing or sold their first NFT. Farm to table it ain’t, but if you’re going to eat otoro (bluefin belly) you could do worse than the soft pink petals carved by sushi chef Shigeru Fujita, showered in finger lime “caviar”, dried shiitake and unnecessary but undeniably sexy bits of gold leaf. It arrived as part of a towering sashimi platter that also included yellowtail with yuzu kosho, sea bass with truffle, salmon with miso and rosemary and a pair of oysters for good measure.

Miso-marinated black cod, that ancient Nobu cliché, was as delicious as it ever is, but overshadowed by slices of premium Hiroshima wagyu presented with a hot stone for DIY searing, needing only a sprinkle of salt or whisper of dipping sauce to complement their buttery richness. And then there was that final hand roll: cool fatty tuna slices against perfectly warm sushi rice, a daub of fresh-grated wasabi, a scoop of briny black caviar and, why not, more gold leaf, wrapped by Fujita tableside and devoured with the nori still crisp. As we chased the last bite with a custom cocktail that alchemically combined cognac, yuzu, chocolate and white truffle, we felt bad for the delivery customers still making do with Henssler’s boxes. They have no idea what they’re missing.

Chiaro: Italian with a Japanese twist. Photo: 3c4y Photography/Tommas Bried/London/Berlin

Let’s back up a few months. Why did Go have to leave Hotel de Rome? To make way for Tim Mälzer, of course, brought in last autumn to remake the luxe fortress’ fine, if staid, Tuscan restaurant La Banca in his own image. In October, a cavalcade of German B-listers walked the red carpet at the opening of Chiaro, an art-festooned space bearing the cryptic motto “Italian but not Italian”.

What could describe Lady Gaga’s performance in House of Gucci instead refers to the menu, created by Mälzer himself in collaboration with employees from Hotel de Rome and his Hamburg restaurant Bullerei. Call it Italian with a Japanese twist, or if you’re feeling less generous, a blatant trolling of the Italians Mad At Food Twitter account.

Sometimes, it works. Even if the “Katsu Tramezzini”, filled with beef tartare, shred- ded lettuce and a dab of caviar, had little to do with either of the dishes in their name, the umami-rich triangular sandwiches made for a powerhouse of a starter. Too powerful, perhaps: an order of four (€20) almost defeated our party of two. We had no such issues with the red shrimp carpaccio in shellfish vinaigrette, which vanished off the plate nearly as soon as it was served.

Our happy memories of it helped get us through the cacio e pepe with smoked eel and trout roe, a pallid mass of noodles, salt and blasphemy that should never have left Bullerei, its original birthplace. The combination of cheese and seafood fared better in the “Gyoza di Scampi”, shrimp dumplings crowned with crispy parmesan in lieu of the usual cornstarch crust. Still, the portion was small for €18 and we’d never have tasted the ‘nduja in the dish if the spicy Calabrian pork spread wasn’t name-checked on the menu. Lamb osso bucco with smoky calamaretti and parsley root puree, washed down with an excellent Valpolicella (there’s nothing “but not Italian” about the wine list) was as competent as you’d expect at a luxury hotel, but didn’t convince us that Mälzer’s claims of being the “best Italian chef outside of Italy” had any validity – or that his heavy hand in Chiaro was a good thing.

Ah, but then came dessert. No dish screams “Italian but not Italian” more than Spaghetti-Eis, and at Chiaro the vanilla strands are served tableside, pressed out of the same metal gadget your corner ice cream parlour uses but upgraded with miso caramel, crunchy meringue and umeboshi strawberry sauce. Best Italian food outside of Italy? Niente affatto. Best ice cream disguised as spaghetti in Berlin? Unbedingt.

So who wins? I’m tempted to say Henssler, even if his non-involvement feels like cheating. At any rate, this year’s non-quarantined Berlinale VIPs would be advised to opt for his omakase over Mälzer’s pasta (assuming that the similarly Nobu-indebted 893 Ryotei is already booked out, or too far from Potsdamer Platz). On a macro scale, is it too pessimistic to say we all lose? Raue aside, Berlin has thus far avoided the celebrity chef plague that’s hit other cities, where tourists flock to the names they know instead of giving the local scene a try.

And so I’m afraid Mälzer and Henssler’s incursions represent the beginning of the end. With them here, can Gordon Ramsay, Salt Bae and an actual Nobu be far behind?