After a brief hiatus to deal with the less appealing aspects of student life (exams), Sym’s Big Day Out is back with a special review from Berlin! Known for being at the cutting edge of, well, pretty much everything, it’s no surprise that Berlin has its fair share of innovative and creative food concepts. As such, it’s something of a Mecca for foodies who focus on originality – granted, there are few restaurants in Berlin that exhibit traditional fine dining, but there are many that push boundaries and eschew conventions. Among these is Coda Dessert Bar in Neukölln.
Coda was opened by René Frank in August, and has been raved about by local food writers ever since. René has headed up the pastry section at multiple 3 Michelin-star restaurants, most recently at La Vie, and is now employing that experience by focussing on a solely dessert-based venture. Refreshingly, René played the host, served and explained dishes, and could be seen constructing masterpieces in the open kitchen.
Although desserts are the sole food on offer, the breadth of ingredients is much broader than that which one would see on the dessert menu of a normal restaurant: anything artificial is banished from the kitchen, and everything – from herbs, to nuts, to chocolate – is used to conjure up the perfect dish. Alongside each dish is a suggested, paired drink: in line with the natural, homegrown approach taken towards the food, these drinks are engineered on site, with all spirits and cordials being concocted within the walls of Coda.
What do they do?
Despite the superficially narrow range of options available to such a concept, Coda provides quite an array of ways in which one can explore the menu. First of all, there is a 3-course menu (€25, or €42 with the paired drinks). Alternatively, diners can pick and choose from the offerings within this menu, with individual desserts costing €9-€11 and the paired drinks coming to €4-€7 each. Finally, there is a 6-course menu (bearing some overlap with the 3-course menu), from which one can choose to have any 4, 5 or 6 dishes, with or without the paired drinks. The full works (6 courses with accompanying drinks) tops out at €82. Alongside the main dishes, various nibbles are also offered.
What immediately becomes clear from the description above is that Coda is not exactly a cheap affair – it is very much a treat, but one could easily (although perhaps not healthily) treat their visit to Coda as their evening meal, and – given René Frank’s experience – might well expect to taste some of the world’s finest desserts in doing so. With that in mind, the hefty price-tag may be capable of justification, given what people will pay for tasting menus in traditional restaurants.
What did we have?
Straying away from complete gluttony, we had 2 desserts each (charged at €9 per dessert), preceded by a snack, and – in my instance – accompanied by the suggested drinks.
Our opening snack was Pork Popcorn (€3). This consisted of pork skin lightly caramelised with five-spice. It would be best to describe this as Coda‘s take on crackling, but without the hefty dentistry bill: it retained the soft and chewy consistency that one would expect from popcorn, whilst adding the saltiness and smokiness of pork. Accompanying the caramelisation, the five-spice tamed the pork flavours, leaving each piece of popcorn as a delightful nugget of the ever-welcome sweet and salty dream team. We also both had a glass of Riesling (€4 for the usual German measure of 100ml) – this was exquisitely sweet and, whilst a welcome partner to any sweet dish, was particularly appropriate for the popcorn.
Laura kicked things off with Pineapple, Coriander, Cashew Nuts, White Chocolate, and Sake. The pineapple was in simple chunks, and the cashews had a consistency similar to granola. The white chocolate was a jelly with a mousse-y texture, filled with very bright coriander mousse. Finally, the sake was in the form of ice cream.
Laura found the white chocolate to be very well executed, and it very aptly complemented the pineapple. The coriander, whilst a surprising addition, was subtle but welcome. The sake ice cream brought through strong liquorice flavours, which were a little overpowering and didn’t quite fit with the dish. However, this was a clever conversion of the texture of the food which was a sign of things to come in later dishes.
One slight complaint should be noted here – our dishes were brought one-by-one in accordance with the order of the 3-course menu, meaning that I was left hungry whilst Laura tucked into the pineapple dish, and she was left waiting whilst I gobbled up the cheese dish described below, before we simultaneously devoured the chocolate finale. Perhaps this was down to a breakdown in communication (other diners seemed to be receiving different dishes at the same time as each other), but it did seem to defy logic that, despite us ordering two dishes each, they arrived in 3 tranches.
Next came Mountain Cheese with Pear, Sauerkraut, and Liquorice. The cheese was grilled, and the pear was dried, the sauerkraut came as ice cream, and the liquorice was in the form of dust. As one can see, this demonstrates the breadth of technique and the imaginative use of ingredients that Coda champions.
The cheese oozed upon being pierced, and was very creamy, with moderate strength. Turning away from more traditional combinations such as cheese and grape, the acidity of the pear and sauerkraut provided a sharp (but delectable) contrast. The liquorice was a more subtle flavour in this dish, which was probably for the best – there would’ve been too much going on if it had been a more intense flavour. The genius of this dessert came in the temperature variations from the warm cheese and pear, to the freezing sauerkraut, and a unique combination of flavours that worked excellently. The accompanying drink was a combination of Pear Cider and Pine Cider (€4) – this unsurprisingly brought through the flavours of the dried pear, and continued the mountain theme initiated by the cheese!
We finished off with Chocolate, Plum and Chicory, accompanied by Hazelnut. The chocolate took the form of a mousse, encapsulated in a chocolate shell, topped with a plum ice cream and dried plums, drizzled chicory, and hazelnut crisps. The charcoal element was two-fold: the dish was presented with a dome on top, which detained charcoal smoke and and allowed it to soak through all of the ingredients; and, a smattering of dust around the plate.
The chocolate was strong and bitter, but this was balanced out perfectly by the plum flavours. The hazelnut provided additional depth in flavour, with the whole dish taking on quite a dark taste. This was certainly a good thing, though, with the charcoal certainly leaning in favour of a dark, intense bundle of flavours. The chicory didn’t seem to have much of an impact – it’s not entirely clear what its role was. The accompanying drink was Lambrusco, sprayed with Peated Single Malt. The Lambrusco (€7) was very sweet and fruity, going well with the plum and taking the edge off of the darker flavours. The addition of the peated whisky did, however, serve as a reminder of the smokey overtones of the dish. This was a very tasty and appropriate pairing.
Value for money – 4/5: Coda may cost a pretty penny, but these are probably some of the finest desserts in the world. Given that fairly ordinary desserts usually cost upwards of £5 (on a good day), the slight uplift in the price is wholly justified. Better value for money could be provided if the pairing drinks were a little larger – Coda‘s justification for fairly small drinks is that a given diner might be having 6 of them and may wish to do so without getting drunk, but I feel that few would really complain if the drinks were a little bigger! Alternatively, given their size, perhaps a slightly lower price would be appropriate. That being said, though, the drinks were imaginatively and wisely crafted, and Coda‘s homegrown approach shouldn’t go unmentioned.
Creativity – 5/5: Coda is about as creative as it gets. The tasting menu approach to desserts is essentially the creation of a new genre of dining. Within that genre, Coda uses a variety of techniques and curious combinations to create imaginative dishes with unique flavours. (Note: previous readers will note that I have usually rated on the basis of pretentiousness, rather than creativity – I’ve changed this, as I feel that labelling certain places as pretentious is perhaps unduly dysphemistic, and that it would be more useful and interesting to consider creativity, even if that may sometimes blur into pretentiousness. Given that creativity is – in my books – certainly something to be lauded, if well-executed, I will now also give overall ratings based on the combination of the three metrics.)
Atmosphere – 4/5: Elusive to the passerby, Coda comes without a sign indicating its existence. Once inside, however, the staff are keen to make patrons feel at home. The interior is dark and stylish, with everyone having a view into the vast, open kitchen.
Overall – 13/15. Coda was a truly special dining experience, and it has established a new genre of dining in a spectacular fashion – many other venues will surely follow suit, but they will do well to rival Coda in terms of quality and precision.