Monday, June 24, 2024

Ten Years in, Berlin becomes the bistro it always wanted to be


Ten years ago—almost to the day—I strolled up to what would soon be commonly known as Berlin on 4th Street. It was nearly four in the morning. Pitch black. Its doors had never been opened before and I held the responsibility of welcoming its first guests.

People thought its owner Kerstin Kansteiner and neighboring Fingerprints owner Rand Foster were, frankly put, out of their mind for investing in an area in Downtown. And I, as some wide-eyed, highly-opinionated twenty-something, had very high hopes for the space. 

I particularly wanted it to reflect the specialty coffee scene: With names like Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle growing, along with more local roasters taking in on the action, I was hoping Berlin could reflect that—and, much to my ear-to-ear grin, it has, now hosting Stumptown as its house bean for at least the past couple years.

But Kerstin—longtime Long Beach resident by way of Germany and the woman who held me through my post-grad life with work at Portfolio, her first and most well-known business along Retro Row—well, she wanted more. 

She expressed this quietly while Berlin was being constructed but her inner business sense didn’t make it loud: While we ventured everywhere from L.A. to San Francisco, looking at design and offerings to provide something new, there were only subtle hints said aloud as to what Kerstin really wanted to achieve.

Or, perhaps, I and others simply weren’t listening enough. 

There was something Kerstin always repeated after every brain session and every visit to yet another another coffeeshop: “I just don’t know if people understand what I want. I want a bistro. Not just a cafe. I want the spaces I remember from home.”

The steak tartare from Berlin Bistro. Photo by Brian Addison.

What so many didn’t get at the time is that Kerstin didn’t want another Portfolio—though that is precisely what people were expecting of her. She wanted a restaurant—but one the that didn’t succumb to a staple menu or expectations. She wanted what she missed in Europe: Quality food from a place you happened to stroll by. Food driven by the season, not demand. A space that was by no means somewhere which sought a Michelin star but she also didn’t want yet another a place where someone mounted their laptop for hours on end in search of free, caffeinated refills.

Kerstin found herself in a conundrum: She wanted more than what she was known for—the coffeeshop—but she found herself unable to battle her own patronage out of respect. People expect and return to familiarity. 

Then, as we all know too well, a pandemic hit. And she saw it as a sign to finally achieve what she sought all along.

The braised greens from Berlin Bistro. Photo by Brian Addison.

In full admittance for this piece, I say one thing: I am unsure of advertising my excitement about Chef Rob Fry’s menu at Berlin—a relatively accessible menu that flexes his ability to relate with patrons before diving head-on into what I am sure are his outstanding abilities. 

I am second-guessing myself on advertising this. Hear me out. I admit that not because I am uncertain of the quality of food I am about to profess—no, there is no question on that—but I am unsure I want to so happily proclaim excitement over a chef because I am so afraid this is some strange social hoax.

You see, I got to recently experience food that left me genuinely excited. It was exciting for so many reasons: It was seeing food that was, for the most part, rare in Long Beach; in fact, it reminded me of the work of Chef Dima Habibeh of Ammatoli, Chef Jason Witzl of Ellie’s/Lupe, Chef Brian Lavin of Wood & Salt, Chef Melissa Ortiz who introduced the introductory menu at Bamboo Club…

The crab toast from Berlin Bistro. Photo by Brian Addison.

It was food that not only uplifted me; it was food that was thoughtful, beautiful, fun… And that also meant it was food meant to be experienced _in the restaurant_ it was being served at.

Every one of the previously mentioned chefs had the chance to introduce their food pre-pandemic: It didn’t arrive on the dependence of a food deliverer who might have had many orders (because the pandemic has created a monster for them to navigate) nor did it have to travel far to get to my mouth. It was a moment that is rare nowadays: A chef offering me food the way they would have served it were we not under extraordinary circumstances.

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Even more problematic was the fact that what left me genuinely excited was that I wanted _more_. Fry’s food is wonderful—and I say that genuinely. There wasn’t a single thing on the menu which didn’t particularly delight me in one way or another because we are witnessing a young chef who is at the beginning base of what is hopefully a shining trajectory.

The duck egg toast from Berlin Bistro. Photo by Brian Addison.

It’s his steak tartare: minuscule cubes of New York strip lathered in a tart coating—that tartness cut with a sharp-but-subtle grate of fresh horseradish and the witty addition of the nuttiness with both grated hazelnuts and hazelnut oil—served with a healthy heap of grilled Gusto bread to heap the tartare onto.

It’s his braised greens: Using a black cabbage kale—its an Italian variety often dubbed “lacinato” or “dinosaur” kale—he somehow creates a vegetarian-friendly dish that is as hearty as it is warming. Hefty chunks of Maitake mushrooms and a single fried egg sit amid greens brushed with the sweetness of sherry. It’s, simply put, awesome.

It’s his variety of toasts: Yeah, sure, laugh at the California stereotype of toasts but you’re talking about a place that is likely to anger many a people by its removal of its breakfast burrito—the introductory menu has to have a point of entry and Fry does it with toasts.
Here, we have the ubiquitous avocado toast—one that is as colorful as it is scrumptious—but one that is happily overshadowed by its other carbs-as-food-delivery-devices plates.
We have toasts that live up to the idea of what toast should be.

There’s a Dungeness crab toast—heftily piled with the treasured seafood—whose creaminess is sliced with white grapefruit and vinegar-laced greens in a bright yellow aesthetic that makes one yearn for, well, the California sun while sitting in one of the countless parklets we now have.

This is solid food; food that is worth of telling folks, “I know you miss the burrito but try this.”

There’s a duck egg toast whose richness, placed in the center, is surrounded by salty cuts of Waygu pastrami and gruyere. And that saltiness? It’s cut with one of my favorite parts of Fry’s food: a “green harissa” with garlic and fermented chiles that is as addictive as it is colorful. (Speaking of green, his fermented jalapeño hot sauce is a wonder that is worthy of bottling and asking for as a side.)

This is solid food; food that is worth of telling folks, “I know you miss the burrito but try this.”

It isn’t crazy adventurous food—that’s for the eventual dinner menu and private tastings Kerstin and Chef Rob hope to create as the pandemic’s stress alleviates—but it is of such quality and wit that my biggest question isn’t whether folks will like his food.

My biggest question: When can I see Fry lift off the gloves he is wearing for the Food Educational Curve and exercise the things he would create with no barriers?

To echo the sense of excitement that the incredibly talented chefs that have introduced us to great food in the past few years, this is a welcomed addition to what will certainly be a revered talent to the Long Beach food scene.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.


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