Restaurant Ernst is the most exclusive and difficult-to-book dinner in Berlin at the moment. A counter-dining experience that seats only 12 people every night and serves between 35 and 40 small bites at a rapid pace. Produce-driven gets a new meaning as the young Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn and his team aim to serve only the freshest, most high-quality ingredients that they source from select farmers they work closely with. Not hyperlocal at all – just the best of what’s in season. The restaurant was recently awarded its first Michelin-star.
I discovered this hidden gem thanks to the city’s best food writer – Berlin Food Stories. Ernst was probably my most anticipated meal when I went to the German capital last summer to make my foodie map of Berlin. As different of an experience as you can get from my other highlight of the trip – restaurant Tim Raue – but what the two have in common is the inspiration from Asia. While Raue found his culinary path in life through the contemporary Chinese kitchen and South-East Asian street food, Watson-Brawn is mostly influenced by his time working in Japan at the three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Ryugin. Where Tim screams at you with spices and pungent flavors, Dylan whispers softly in your ear and presents each ingredient almost naked, just ever so slightly enhanced by salt, acidity, or umami, typically in the form of shoyu, dashi, or miso.
It’s All About the People
At restaurant Ernst, they visit all the farmers and winemakers they work with. Literally. For that reason alone, there was no sake on the menu when I visited. Not because they didn’t want to serve sake, but simply because they hadn’t been to any producers yet. Shishito peppers, plums, onions, apples and herbs come from their main gardener Branca, who runs a small farm in Beeskow, about two hours outside Berlin. Besides that, the ingredient sourcing has nothing to do with the current trend of using hyperlocal produce.
– Our relationship with the farmer is the most important to us because we want to secure the quality while also making sure they make a decent living, explains head chef Dylan Watson-Brawn.
I learn that all of the dairy products come from a guy called David who’s raising Angler Rotvieh cattle close to the Mecklenburgische Seenplatte in north-eastern Germany. Melons and peaches are from their friend Angelo, a farmer from Sicily in Italy who is located at Mount Etna. Zucchinis and chards come from the more than 30-year-old biodynamic Gärtnerhof Staudenmüller in Uckermark in Germany, where a lady called Sieglinde also picks wild blueberries. This is the kind of information that the team at Ernst are conveying to all guests throughout the night.
The 26-year-old chef Watson-Brawn also has experience from restaurant Noma. In Copenhagen, he got tired of seeing cooks who didn’t work hard enough and who just wanted the famous restaurants on their resumé. That’s why the hiring process at Ernst is a long one. If you wanna work here, you really have to prove it.
– You can’t just send one e-mail and expect an answer. We will ignore the two first, and, maybe, reply to the third, explains Dylan.
One guy just showed up at the door, having sent multiple e-mails with no reply, after traveling six hours from his home. That showed some dedication. He got the job eventually.
An Exclusive Japanese-Inspired Counter Dining Experience
I arrived by taxi to the quiet district of Wedding and found myself on Gerichtstraße 54 facing Ernst. A grey, slightly yellow-washed, concrete wall. An aluminum door bathing in the last rays of sunlight this July afternoon, and an equally shiny doorbell imprinted with the letters ernst. I rang the buzzer and, soon, chef Dylan Watson-Brawn himself came to open the door for me. I was the last of the twelve men and women to arrive this evening. I might even have been the thirteenth, I’m not sure, as it looked like I was kinda squeezed into the dinner party on the far end of the counter, and I can’t remember any other single diners. Everyone was seated around the same bar, facing the kitchen, and watching the chefs work.
The show started immediately, and once it did – never stopped. In fact, the pacing at Ernst is quite unique and rather impressive. Since every one of the 37 courses I would be served this night was basically of snack size, the entire meal seemed to be given the usual pacing that snacks are given in a tasting menu. The moment I finished a dish, down to seconds after, a chef would clean my plate and cutlery. Due to its small size, Ernst hires no waiters apart from a sommelier. New cutlery came quickly from a second chef, sometimes a new wine glass if the sommelier was changing the pairing, and before I could finish my notes from the previous dish – the new one arrived. On average, I had a new course every 5 minutes over the course of 3 hours. Thus, I can’t recommend anyone the task of shooting photos, video, Instagram story, and trying to make sense of this meal all in one night. Just go and enjoy it.
I didn’t love every dish at Ernst, but I don’t intend to go through the meal course by course. This is not a restaurant that creates signatures. Instead, it’s all about the fresh, daily available produce and the pure flavors that can be extracted from such high-quality ingredients. Some dishes were a bit dull and bland, while other bites bordered to genius. Among my favorites this particular night was a peach from Sicily, carefully touched down on the grill, served with shaved kombu seaweed. An elegant and well-balanced serving where the sweetness of the peach is enhanced and in focus. Grilled salad heart with chicken fat and a buckwheat emulsion was also packed with saliva-inducing flavors. A grilled brioche could not have been more perfect there it lay lonely on a plate, simply with a spread of butter – freshly made the same afternoon – and trimmings of crown dill. It leaves you wanting more, and that’s the point, you’re not getting any. Just that one bite. Close your eyes and enjoy it.
What impressed me the most, perhaps, was Watson-Brawn’s clever use of salt (in different forms) throughout the meal. Especially in the desserts, and, particularly, my favorite course of the meal which was a salted milk ice cream with raspberries from 35 year-old raspberry bushes. Tiny salt particles gave the dish a crunchy element, while also lifting the flavors of the subtle milk ice cream. A dish that made it to fourth place on my top list of best dishes in 2019.
Have you been to Ernst or did this make you want to go? I’d love your feedback, so please leave a comment below.