At Panama, paradise draws nigh

The Contemporary Food Lab have launched a new restaurant in Berlin and alongside its ambitious culinary mission, it’s got a drinks program to balk at. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin finds out more about the restaurant and bar inspired by a 70’s children’s fable.

Art owls have long flocked to Potsdamer Straße, flitting up and down the street packed with some of Berlin’s finest galleries. Apart from that, the area – one straddling Mitte and Schöneberg – has stayed relatively quiet (the fabulous Victoria Bar aside). But what the street’s art mafia don’t realize is that is that with the opening of Panama, they’ve not just got a new restaurant – but they’ve got a great bar too.

Bringing the exotic home

Panama isn’t a restaurant serving Panamaian cuisine – or even Central American. It’s nothing to do with tax evasion either. Instead, it’s an iconic German children’s book from the 70’s titled ‘Oh wie schön ist Panama’  that provided the inspiration for this new venture. Ludwig Kramer Clett, head honcho at the city’s Contemporary Food Lab, who run both farm-to-table harbinger Katz Orange and recently opened Kreuzberg deli Candy on Bone, came into the CFL offices early this year, full-blown concept literally in hand.

In the book, a cohabiting bear and tiger, who share a small cabin on a river, see an empty crate of bananas drifting across the river. The crate is stamped with “Panama”. Desperate to visit the country, they jump into the crate. After a long and entertaining journey – including meeting a wide cast of dutifully zany characters – they encounter a crow. The crow says if they climb a big tree, they will see the land of their dreams from above. Having climbed the tree, they spot an abandoned cabin by the river and they convince themselves this must be Panama. Instead, it’s a slightly altered version of their original home. The moral of the story: paradise is closer than you may think.

It’s a story which applies to modern-day Berlin. “Many people move to Berlin thinking it’s going to be paradise on earth, even if it doesn’t look like it,” says Anna Küfner, PR Manager of the entire CFL operation. Lo and behold, the “oh wie schön ist…” story, and its wider meaning, are reflected throughout the two-floor establishment, set in a gorgeous Denkmalschutz-protected „Hinterhof“ perfect for long summer evenings. There’s things from far away, and things from nearby. The wood is sourced from Germany and there’s art by native artists – most notably a neon bone by Karim Seiler. This is juxtaposed with the exotic, palm trees, deck chairs and more. It’s genuinely both a cozy and classy space, full of light and clearly lovingly decked out by designers Nora Witzigmann und Karoline Butzert.

Global, but regional

This big mishmash also has it’s foot in the menu, although they stray from using the bedraggled term fusion – there’s no ramen burgers and kimchi fries here. Sophia Rudolph, formerly known for her work at Michelin starred Weinbar Rutz and once an apprentice of the famed Alain Ducasse, has taken on the role of Head Chef, focusing on raw ingredients and locally sourced produce. The menu, adorned with wavy typography and cutesy titles (Little Things, Leaves and Flowers), includes dishes such as venison tartare with pickled shiitake, currant and nigella and potato from the fire, salted herring and iberico ham. The smoked bell pepper, flamed marshmallow and café caramel, a dessert option, is already a popular option. Expect a switch-up on the menu every 2 to 3 months.

For all matters of imbibing, they’ve sourced Phum Sila-Trakoon. It’s the – thankfully temporary – closure of Le Croco Bleu that saw him with time on his hands. His associate bartender Maximilian Heidenreich too. The restaurant is now another one of Berlin’s fledgling scene of restaurants serving up noteworthy tipples.

“We’re bar nerds but focused on having a good time,” explains Phum. With a menu reflecting Marco Polo’s jaunts around the world – from Saigon, to Constantinople to Berlin itself – he’s not lying. Try the Berlin Retox, an ironic gag on the city’s hedonistic credentials, a drink equipped with Steinreich Korn grain, apple, lime, savoy cabbage and nettle. He’s also stayed true to the wider mission, with GSA distillers such as Revolte Rum, Ferdinand Frederick and Steinreich on the menu and Austrian and German digestivs used innovatively in his cocktails. This is in addition to many ‘exotic’ libations such as the Isreali Sabra Liqueur, a wine list including many natural wines and 93 Rieslings (!), a wide tea selection, and some home-made sodas, including a hay lemonade. Guests can either sit at the bar or head to a table for a full dining experience.

There’s more coming very soon. The room to the right on entrance – used as a popup oyster bar at the jam-packed opening in June – is set to become the Tiger Bar. Intending to focus more on the good stuff, Phum kept rather schtum but said there will be a big range of international beers on offer, including some from Japan. There will be champagne too. The renaissance of Potsdamer Straße continues apace.


Foto: All photos via Philipp Langenheim & Corina Schadendorf