Paul Sullivan enjoys a high end dining experience that’s refreshingly down-to-earth…
The wall of concertinaed silver sheeting strung up in front of me at Glass has a slightly mesmerizing 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 and head chef. His distended reflection 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.
His presence is a large part of the Glass ‘experience’, which takes place in a deliberately no-frills environment. There’s no music, no major interior decor “statements” (save for the silver foil wall, which is more weird than anything), and no one whisks away your coat. In fact there’s not even a proper ante-room to speak of; guests step right into the main room, which, with its smattering of simple but elegant wooden tables, lack of starched table clothes and exposed pipes on the ceiling feels way more like an informal cafe than a high-end restaurant.
“I was very fascinated with cooking from before I can remember,” Gal tells me during one of his frequent visits to our table. “Our family’s favourite past-time was going out to a restaurant or eating a very good home-cooked meal. We had a big cookbook library at home, and even before I knew how to read, I used to browse through the photos while I ate my breakfast. I cooked at home from a young age, but never thought about doing it as a career. ”
But career it became; starting with various food-related jobs in his native Tel Aviv (cleaning and preparing fish and seafood deliveries for restaurants), Gal made his way into the kitchens of famous local restaurants like Orca, Mul Yam and Brown, and eventually around the world – to Alinea (one of only two restaurants in Chicago to bag three Michelin stars), and to London’s Maze and Hibiscus.
In 2011 he moved to Berlin to open Glass. Located inside a former gym, the restauraunt – whose interior is designed by Mexico City-based architects Christoph Zeller and Ingrid Moye - is set slightly back on Charlottenburg’s Uhlandstrasse, a modern glass cube in the heartland of the ‘old school’ West Berlin scene (the Paris Bar is just around the corner).
“I was looking for an empty space that wasn’t a restaurant before,” says Gal. “I was pretty sure I wanted to do it in Charlottenburg and not on the main roads like Ku’damm or Savignyplatz. I wanted a cool, quiet place, off-the-centre by an inch. I looked through some websites and found the place. At first it was really hard to imagine it as my restaurant, but with some help from friends I really came to see the potential in the place.”
As well as setting up a deliberate ‘tension’ between sophisticated cuisine and unpretentious atmosphere (the staff are also wonderfully assorted in terms of age and personal style, ranging from a bearded hipster to a very down-to-earth ‘echte Charlottenburgerin’), Glass is unusual in other respects too.
There are only two main dining options on the menu: six courses for 45 euros, or eight courses for 59 euros, though vegan versions of both are available, as are associated ‘wine tours’ should you want them. Not just some but all of the wines are available by the glass, and even my Gin & Tonic aperitif was unorthodox – well, the Thomas Henry mixer was standard enough, but the gin turned out to be Ungava, a Canadian blend that’s deliciously sweet and aromatic thanks to botanical ingredients sourced from the arctic.
Then there’s the food. Gal claims he never serves the exact same menu twice; when he’s pleased with a specific course, he may keep it for 3-4 days, but the vegetables dishes, soups and openers are constantly changing. Each course is very different from the last, though all of them are immaculately presented in nouvelle cuisine style (don’t come here for a gluttonous feast), and many carry some kind of personal story or theme related to Berlin.
A ravioli of oxtail, served on a spoon, exploded in my mouth like a juice-filled bomb; the ‘earth salmon’, served raw, was chilled to perfection; the short ribs, while definitely short, were also delicious; and the dollop of mustard ice cream in the pine nut gazpacho was a major innovative success.
But not everything was mind-blowing. The lovingly-crafted collection of Lilliputian vegetables – prepared as a homage to Tempelhofer Feld’s city garden – was more aesthetically-pleasing than appetite-crushing; a scattering of crunchy pumpernickel tasted too gravelly for my taste buds; and the foam of gin and tonic wasn’t anywhere near as substantial, or enjoyable, as what I had in my glass.
What was beyond reproach, however, was the deconstructed dessert, which required an extra sheet of the silver sheeting (actually a type of metallised polyester), a hissing tub of liquid nitrogen and a personal explanation from Gal that invoked childhood memories of sweet-filled picnics. Novelty theatrics aside, it tasted fantastic.
“I don’t think fine dining needs to be served in a pretentious surrounding,” says Gal when we talked after the meal. “You don’t need 500 positions on the wine list, table-cloths and waiters in tuxedos. If you take out all the ‘chi chi’ and fake luxury out of a restaurant, and focus solely on the food, then you can listen to the stories that the food is telling. This is why I take the time to go out to every table and explain the concept and the story behind the dishes.”
The refreshing lack of pomp and overwrought formality in Glass almost certainly means its owner won’t be awarded any Michelin stars soon. But Gal seems unbothered by this fact, seeming more in thrall to Berlin’s street food, supper-club and casual dining scenes as much as its burgeoning higher end scene.
“There’s cool shawarma places, excellent small burger joints, pop up restaurants, supper clubs, food festivals, markets…” he enthuses. “These all show that the city has amazing potential when it comes to food. I think Berlin is an amazing city all round in that it’s a large European capital that lacks pretentiousness and over-trendiness. It has a large alternative community, a place for arts and culture, for new thought, or different thought. It’s a place I can really express my style of cooking, where people have the patience and time to appreciate it, and not write it off as a trend or a gimmick.”