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“Creating a New Cuisine”: Lucky Leek in Prenzlauerberg
Lucky Leek serves an elevated vegan cuisine. The restaurant has earned some popularity and a mention in the Michelin Guide – no small accomplishment, given the first sentence of this paragraph. Chef Josita Hartanto has also published two cookbooks: this quote from her first, Vegan Genial, aptly summarizes her philosophy (my translation):
“In my cookbook, I don’t want to describe grandma’s old recipes in a veganized form, or include the 999th vegan Bolognese. It is about creating a new cuisine.”
I will return to this point later, after describing my meal at Lucky Leek. What follows will at points be critical, but to be clear: I enjoyed this meal, despite the missteps, and I would not hesitate to recommend this restaurant to vegans and non-vegans alike.
My five-course menu began with an amuse, which introduced what would become the theme of the meal: more. In this case, two amuses, instead of one: a minute sushi roll with a seaweed caviar and a spoon with a beet coleslaw and fried potato. Neither of the two proved interesting – not terrible, not poorly prepared or seasoned, but forgettable.
Moving on to the menu.
1. Blood orange salad, hemp cream cheese praline, red onion, black salsify pesto, parsley
Course one demonstrated the most restraint and made for a great start: this was a very light – even summery – salad of fruit and greens. Plant-based cheeses, generally speaking, aren’t very good; that was not the case here at all. The texture and the tang recalled that of fresh goat cheese. Salad courses do not always get the respect they deserve; this one showed care and skill, a balanced play of texture and flavour. Very, very good.
2. Jerusalem artichoke cream soup, green pea strudel, balsamic-mushroom marmalade
The soup: smooth and rich, with deep, roasted root vegetable flavour and warm spices (e.g. cinnamon, star anise). The balsamic and mushroom marmalade added complex acidity and sweetness, as well as bumped up the umami notes. Jerusalem artichoke chips, seasoned with the same spices that flavoured the soup, added contrasting texture. Excellent and satisfying.
The “green pea strudel” was a slice of wrapped and fried pastry, filled with a soft mash of green peas. The filling had been nicely seasoned with smoked salt, and the strudel was delicious.
But again, that theme: more. You might wonder what a winter soup of roasted vegetables and a very green and light-tasting filled pastry share in common. I have no idea. This was, in effect, two courses in one.
3. Eggplant gnocchi, bell pepper chili sauce, feta, kale, fried cauliflower
The stars of this plate, the gnocchi and the red pepper sauce, were excellent: the pasta dark, almost the colour of cooked sausage, with the texture you want from gnocchi (soft, but with a touch of denseness). Its flavour: rich, deep, intense – well paired with the sauce, which provided the high notes, sweetness, acidity.
Served alone and finished only with the cashew-based “feta” (again, great texture and tanginess), these elements would make for a stellar course, in want of nothing.
Trouble is (the theme gains in volume) they shared the stage with the following: a broad swoosh of eggplant puree (essentially sauce number two); three dots of a white puree I could not identify (sauce three); a few more dots of pesto (that’d make four); a piece of cauliflower, breaded and fried; a slice of grilled zucchini; and, most wet-blanketly, a pile of kale, steamed or sauteed – which in fact buried our heroes, the gnocchi and the pepper sauce.
Once again, we have more than one plate here, and in this case, the end effect is less than the sum of its parts. While nothing proved offensive (this kitchen does know how to prepare and season food) there were simply too many elements at play.
4. Celeriac filet with pumpkin seed crackling, stuffed mushroom, pumpernickel crepe, sauteed cabbage
By this dish, the largest and final savory course, the theme of the meal becomes cacophonous. This I can best explain by listing the components involved: celeriac filet, pumpkin seed breading, mushroom with stuffing, pumpernickel crepe, sauteed cabbage, spinach pesto, crème fraîche (on a spoon; see photo), pumpkin, beet puree, celeriac puree, two cherry tomato halves, a red-wine sauce, and mustard seeds.
A baker’s dozen, by my count. The end effect: This plate felt like what you might pick up and put together while browsing a buffet, hoping to try a little bit of everything. Confused and confusing.
The celeriac fillet with pumpkin seed breading was fairly featureless, the ground seeds more dust than breading. That sat atop a round slice of pumpkin, very much undercooked (i.e. hard). The stuffed mushroom ended up as stuffed mushrooms often do: soggy, lacking in texture. Almost unpleasant.
The highlight of the plate was the slices of pumpernickel crepe. The bread filling had an intensely savoury and satisfying flavour reminiscent of heavily caramelized ground meat; it went well with the sauteed cabbage underneath, which had a bit of a sear. Delicious: a fantastic little corner of the plate, well worthy of centre stage. It could not save the course, however, and was pulled down with the ship.
5. Coconut-poppy seed dumpling, mocha mousse, mango ice cream
The dessert course also went for quantity, in this case four main elements, but in this case, each component tasted wonderful. Clearly, this kitchen can handle sweet as well as savoury.
Less is more, as the saying goes. Is more less, then? In some cases – in some courses – yes. The high points of the plate (the gnocchi, the crepe), or the plate as a whole (the celeriac course) are lost in the noise. But make no mistake: This kitchen can cook. Skill is not lacking, only restraint.
Lucky Leek does deserve a lot of credit. Josita Hartanto is doing something few others have done or are doing – in her own words: “creating a new cuisine.” Elevated vegan food. This is extremely challenging, for all sorts of reasons: few historical or contemporary references; no accomplished chefs to train with and learn from; a relatively small customer base; a general and widespread distrust of anything “vegan”, and so on.
In many ways, Hartanto is on her own, and leading the way can prove demanding and lonely work. But, somebody has got to clear a path, and she has, without doubt, made impressive progress. Eating this food left me with a clear impression of her talent – and the distinct notion that, while she has done well, she is not done yet. Lucky Leek has pushed fine vegan cuisine this far and has the potential to take it further. Of this I am quite certain.
Depending on your budget, you could choose either the three- or the five-course menu on with weekends (€35 and €55). During the week you have the option of ordering à la carte, which would enable you to eat for less. Wines are available by the bottle or the glass, and each of the multi-course menus has a wine pairing option at a fixed price. Service is extremely professional, friendly and attentive. Reservations recommended (easily accomplished via the restaurant’s website).