West Berlin restaurant Glass has changed its menu to celebrate middle eastern cuisine and traditions. Paul Sullivan reports…
The wall of concertinaed silver sheeting strung up in front of me at Glass has a slightly mesmerising quality. It’s not so reflective that I can see myself clearly in it (doubtless a good thing), but it renders the action taking place in the main dining room behind me into a surrealist tableau of abstract smears and smudged movements; a kind of “Plato’s Cave for Foodies”.
One of the most recurrent figures in this warped scenery is Gal Ben Moshe, Glass’s personable owner, head chef and Israeli transplant. His distended reflection, usually clad in a designer black uniform, glides from table to table, introducing and explaining his dishes as the wait staff deliver them, and patiently answering any questions the guests might have.
Gal opened the restaurant in 2012, transforming – with the help of Mexico City-based architects Christoph Zeller and Ingrid Moye – a nondescript former fitness studio into a smart, stripped-down space where the decor is limited to a smattering of black and white tables, an elegant winding chandelier and a few (regularly-changing) artworks hung at the eponymous glass windows, the music is subdued and the staff are refreshingly informal yet highly knowledgeable.
All the better for showcasing the ever-changing cuisine, of course, which has always been centre-stage. Whether ravioli of oxtail that’s served on a spoon and almost literally explodes in the mouth, to mustard ice cream audaciously matched to pine nut gazpacho or his legendary deconstructed dessert that involves silver sheeting and a hissing tub of liquid nitrogen, Gal has been nothing but creative and ambitious.
Over the last few years, this combination of restless, progressive and immaculately presented high-end fusion food and the restaurant’s general lack of pretension, has made him something of a cause célèbre in the local gastronomy scene. And should perhaps also have prepared us for his recent decision to completely scrap and former concepts and embrace a new menu entirely based around Middle Eastern cuisine – The twelfth-fourteenth century cuisine of the Hashemite subculture specifically, which roughly equates to modern day northern Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
“When I first opened the restaurant I was asked a lot why I don’t do an Israeli kitchen, and it was always hard for me to explain that I don’t think there is such a thing. Israelis are an immigrant society, we’ve been there as a homogeneous cultural entity for almost 70 years – everybody brought something from where they came from. Is Hummus Israeli? No. Falafel? Egyptian. If you came from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa, you brought different recipes that have nothing to do with Israel, with the climate, the “terroir”, the local herbs, vegetables and so on. I think that in the next 10-20 years we will see new original Israeli kitchen, because there are some very talented folks working there, but we’re not there yet.”
The first courses arrive – one a pureed blend of chickpeas, dates and beetroot, the other a cauliflower soup with müsli and plums – both of which taste way superior to how their respective lists of ingredients – however exotic – sound on the page. It’s already clear that this is not about replicating a historical kitchen, but more about inspiration: ideas, ingredients, techniques, flavour combinations.
“I think it is part curiosity, part social responsibility,” elaborates Gal, stopping of for another quick chat between serving other guests. “I think that with everything that is going on in the world people tend to forget the positive aspects of immigration, how it enriches a society. The exposure to new cultures is always a social growth drive and I think that the muslim immigration into Europe isn’t any different. On the other side of it, there is a huge sense of pioneering, doing something nobody else does. The more I read about it, the more I explored it. I got totally sucked into and inspired by it.”
Several more dishes arrive over the course of the evening: succulent slices of duck with honey, pomegranates and baharat; a mutton tartare served with sumac, aubergine and yoghurt; and a dessert featuring Kashk – dehydrated soured milk made to look like yogurt stones – mixed with blood orange water and pistachios.
“I think mutton is seriously under appreciated meat,” explains Gal. “I like it for its strong distinct flavour and how well you can balance it. And regarding the Kashk, it is part of the foundations of Arabic cuisine, rooted in the culture’s nomadic tendencies since it was a way producing a very strong flavoured cheese, that could later be rehydrated. I was amazed to find references to this all the way back to the 11th century, with different versions appearing in Afghanistan and Morocco. I think that once we start exploring these avenues the options are endless, we are going to try working with older milk cows, grown up game meat, matured poultry.”
These can all be expertly paired with a selection of over 150 wines – all available by the glass – from a variety of regions spanning Lebanon and Israel, Germany and France. Needless to say it’s a good idea to set aside three or four hours to enjoy the experience. It also goes without saying that the new menu concept will continue to evolve and adapt just as it did before. “We are already at the stage where we are changing the entire nine courses at least once a month. In the end I’ve been researching the idea for two and a half years and don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface of it. This is about bringing where I really come from, the ‘terroir’ of where I am from.”
For more information, prices and reservations, visit the Glass website