Berlin eatery follows carbon-neutral path; menu mixes pure and break-the-rules approaches

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BERLIN -- The vibe at Germany's first carbon-neutral restaurant is more hip than hippie.

Minimalism is the mantra at Foodorama, with its cobalt-gray walls, soft lighting and single stem daisies perched atop gleaming blond maple tables, all nestled among the boutiques and balconies in Berlin's fashionable west Kreuzberg district.

Corporations such as Dell and Google have embraced the carbon-neutral ethos, but with rare exceptions restaurants have been slow to follow.

Not Foodorama, which was dreamed up by German branding agency Lab One to sell environmentalism to foodies.

For every ton of carbon dioxide produced by the all-organic cafe, its owners say they will buy carbon certificates for a Kyoto-standard wind park in Karnataka, India.

The restaurant, which opened in September and seats 100 inside (and another 120 outside) marks a departure from Lab One's typical projects, which entail creating promotional material for clients such as rock bands and movie studios.

Agency director Ozan Sinan said Lab One is composed of "hedonistic people who asked each other what can we do besides our core business? We are afraid of what's happening in the world. We want to start something ourselves."

The menu is a combined effort to be both pure and break the rules, Sinan said, resulting in selections such as yakitori schnitzel and a gourmet version of the Berlin classic currywurst, with herb mayonnaise and homemade ketchup.

The novelty can take some getting used to.

When one diner protested that she had not received the tomato soup she'd ordered, server Ramona Weihmann said she gently pointed out that the steaming white broth was made from heirloom white tomatoes.

Though Sinan's childhood meals bore little resemblance to Foodorama's posh cuisine, his mother's economical, seasonal cooking neverless shares much philosophical ground with Foodorama's offerings.

"I was raised with a natural sense for conservation precisely because it wasn't a luxury environment," he said.

Lab One worked with Climate Partner, a Munich-based environmental consulting firm, to devise a checklist of eco-friendly measures in creating Foodorama. These included using bio gas, derived from agricultural byproducts and produced in gas plants outside Berlin, and zero-emission electricity, created from renewable energy sources.

In both cases, Foodorama pays extra for the green alternatives. Other strategies, such as insisting employees bike or take public transportation to work, and investing in state-of-the-art insulation, also shrank emission estimates.

Climate Partner project manager Kai Gilhorn said he and his colleagues even calculated the amount of emissions required to produce each dish on the menu, and briefly considered putting the figures on the menus.

"But that might make people feel guilty for ordering beef instead of vegetables, which may not be what the restaurant wants," he says.

Despite the global financial crisis, Sinan believes the restaurant still can make a profit, even after the emission certificates are purchased at as much as $3,000 a year.

Though some bottles of organic French wines run around $120, most items on the Foodorama menu cost about $16, considered steep for the neighborhood but a bargain relative to many gourmet eateries.

And already rave reviews are coming in. Tipp, a popular biweekly city guide, recently raved about Foodorama's roast veal and said its chocolate mousse was "swoon-inducing."

Bernd Mueller, 64, munching on a salad, gave a more measured response, calling the food good but not exceptional -- and said he was largely attracted to the restaurant by its organic guarantee.

"Organic tastes different. I cook about 90 percent organic at home, and there aren't that many other organic restaurants in Berlin," said the retired lawyer who lives around the corner and already has become a regular.

Evi Levai, 25, and his girlfriend Constance Laureau, 24, university students visiting Berlin from Paris, said it was Foodorama's elegant lighting that drew them in from the sidewalk.

"The organic part was another plus," said Laureau. "And the menu is a lot cheaper than it would have been in France, although it's surprisingly sophisticated."

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