My greatest weakness: I can’t say no. It’s horrible. I strive to be a meaner, more disinterested person; a perfect radiation blend of Lucille Bluth and Rihanna. But then someone invites me to a Sake tasting and maybe 2-8 cocktails and I throw all of my principles overboard (which were pretty thin to begin with).
Thankfully this time that was a good thing to do. Turns out the Zenkichi Berlin, a fresh Japan-by-New York import in Mitte, is even more fun when you’re intoxicated! Mainly because it’s dark and a little confusing. And nobody speaks German. It’s in a very inconspicuous part of Mitte, in a basement without windows. Zenkichi is noble, but with modern class, like a black and white film noir. It’s where the neurotically well-dressed Yakuza boss villain meets the destined protagonist-hero to blackmail him into doing something nasty in order to save an orphan, or something. Jazz music is playing. In the movie. Not in the restaurant.
Anyway. The labyrinth of hidden tables also provide idiots like me with the involuntary games of “find the bathroom” and “find the right table you were seated at, or you know, whatever, if it takes longer than 10 minutes, just find new friends.”
Zenkichi is located right under House of Small Wonder, the beautiful Asia-inspired café that we portrayed a couple of months ago. Zenkichi is the grown-up version of that, a real Japanese restaurant with an elaborate Tasting Menu and an emphasis on Sake as the preferred beverage companion (no wines, sorry girls). The concept of Zenkichi is quite unique to Berlin, where everything usually revolves about seeing and being seen (think: Grill Royal).
But Zenkichi is not only hidden from plain view to the regular passers-by (which is a very good thing considering its central location right next to Friedrichsstadtpalast, aka Basic People Purgatory); it’s also in a dark, concrete basement with low ceilings and many twists and turns. The tables are hidden behind Japanese roller blinds, providing you with full privacy from other customers. Perfect conditions for an impressive date or a pretentious business meeting! Or, you know, for cheating.
Not so perfect if you’re in that post-pregnancy phase of your relationship where you don’t talk or touch anymore. At Zenkichi Berlin, you won’t even have the comfort of looking at other miserable couples (and on that note, let me tell you quickly that you also won’t have any phone reception or free Wi-Fi).
But worst comes to worst, at least you’ll be delightfully distracted by the wonderful Japanese food. If your palate has been raped by countless mediocre take-away Sushi experiences, you should come and celebrate new beginnings here. Zenkichi has been missing on Berlins menu of restaurants: a Japanese dinner experience with a strong emphasis on high quality. I appreciated Zenkichis “no fuss” approach as I’ve grown to hate fine dining experiences that are so experimental that they become annoying; so compartmentalized that you lose all patience with the menu.
At Zenkichi, even if you’re no expert at Japanese food (because obviously that’s what I am), you won’t be overwhelmed. The ingredients, textures, smells and compositions are familiar enough to be comforting, and yet original and perfect in their execution. That comes as an unexpected surprise to anybody who’s ever tried to eat high quality Japanese food in Berlin.
The portions are small, and you know what they say: the smaller the plates, the higher the prices – but the experience is completely worth it. I can’t stress enough how important it is to go for the 8-course tasting menu (65 Euro), as it will make any choices and questions you have about Japanese cuisine easier for you. Don’t be fooled by your idea of Sake, either – go for the premium tasting menu (26 Euro), which will include three glasses of different Sake, served cold.
My favorites from the menu? Hard to say. Zenkichi focuses on fish, and the Black Cod is one of the few reasons for a nihilist like me to continue living this exhausting life. And then there was the Monkfish Liver, a dream of taste and texture.
I wanted to turn on the TV and watch an episode of “Chef’s Table” just to see who created this, and how, and why. It deserves as much. There were other things that were top-notch but didn’t leave such a lasting memory. I just had another glance at the menu and realized I’d completely forgotten about the duck. I guess that’s a side effect of having many courses, but maybe I was already pretty wasted and just didn’t care about mindful eating anymore.
Most likely, I ended the evening by inhaling what was left on the table, and 100% probably also insulted someone.
Zenkichi focuses on fish and meat, but will provide vegetarian alternatives and take care of your other dietary restrictions if you have to insist on them. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that you will hang out with the owner of Zenkichi (and House of Small Wonder), Shaul Marguiles, who is definitely in my personal Top 10 Hilarious People Offline list, and a very charming and generous host.
On a last note, please don’t go to Zenkichi without me.