The Pauly Saal in Berlin was once a gym where schoolgirls burned off calories. Now it’s a place to pile them on, with duck pate, meaty roasts and sweet pastries.
The restaurant in arty Auguststrasse aims to recapture the Berlin of the swinging 1920s and 1930s, when Marlene Dietrich was singing cabaret and Brecht and Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” was taking theater audiences by storm. With high ceilings, chenille-upholstered benches and outrageous swirly orange Murano chandeliers, Pauly Saal, open since February, has retro panache.
What it lacks is warmth and coziness. The building was a school for Jewish girls in the 1930s, and that institutional feel lingers in the height of the ceiling, tobacco-colored tiles and ecru walls. The lighting is too bright and flat, a flashback to the classroom.
A huge red-and-white missile hangs over glass panels that offer a widescreen view of the kitchen, and a pair of wounded foxes with walking-sticks and caps, a Daniel Richter artwork, stand guard on pedestals at the opposite end of the room.
The culinary concept is to provide hearty meals of local ingredients that diners share, rather than each ordering their own separate dish from the menu (though you can do that too.) Waiters carve on a central island in the restaurant and carry plates from there to the table.
They bring a mix of hits and misses, though luckily -- considering the prices -- the hits predominate. A plate of handmade local delicacies included a nutty, rich duck pate as the star turn. The cornichons and beetroots that came with it were no better than you can buy in a jar.
A bright green celery soup was a sophisticated treat with fizzy foam, celery dumplings and a hint of anis. Roast duck with spiced pear, quince and cabbage, a dish you can only order for two or more at the royal price of 62 euros ($79.80), was wonderfully tender and succulent. It came with a concentrated rooty sauce and silken mashed potatoes.
A side-dish of fibrous chewy chunks of pumpkin unsurprisingly went uneaten. I have twice had undercooked pumpkin at Pauly Saal now, and it really is too expensive a restaurant for that.
The roast meat is a better bet than the fish, in my experience. I’d recommend the shoulder and saddle of venison with candied orange jus, juniper-kohlrabi salad and marinated plums. An ox entrecote, served on a charcoal grill for two or more people, was cooked and seasoned to perfection.
The selection of desserts is limited and there’s nothing to get the pulse racing. A poached peach disappointed; a summer plum tart with almond ice cream was light and flavorsome.
Pauly Saal has a good wine selection, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles to choose from. For an aperitif, try a Hugo, a lovely light, refreshing drink that originates from South Tirol and is made of sparkling white wine, fresh mint leaves and elderflower cordial with mineral water.
Like so many buildings in Berlin, the Jewish girls’ school has a somber history. Built in 1930 in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style, it closed under Nazi orders in 1942. Most of the teachers and pupils were deported and died in camps.
It reopened in 1950 as the Bertolt Brecht School, a regular East German secondary school, and closed again in 1996 because of a lack of pupils. It was finally returned to Berlin’s Jewish community in 2009 and has since undergone a thorough renovation. As well as the Pauly Saal, the building houses art galleries, a delicatessen and a kosher cooking school.
The restaurant attracts a hip and moneyed crowd -- as does another venture by the same Berlin team, Grill Royal. On the three visits I’ve made to Pauly Saal, the service was courteous and on the most recent, even friendly. In summer you can sit in a pleasant courtyard at the back of the building.
I’m sure I’ll go back to the bar, and not just because I’m in danger of getting addicted to Hugos. It’s a homier space than the restaurant, with peaceful green walls, comfortable leather chairs and elegant wooden surfaces.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Expensive. Calculate at least 100 euros per person for three courses with wine and aperitif.
Sound level? The right level of background chat.
Date place? I’d go somewhere cozier.
Special features? Wounded foxes, missile.
Private room? Yes, for as many as 35 guests.
Will I be back? Possibly; definitely to the bar.
Pauly Saal is at Auguststrasse 11-13. Information: http://paulysaal.com/ Telephone: +49-30-3300-6070.
What the Stars Mean **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. 0 (no stars) Poor.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Robert Heller on music, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Greg Evans on film.
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