When Mike O’Brien was crafting the menu for the Berliner, the compact German beer hall that opens tonight at the former Malmaison space in Georgetown, the chef kept the research and development to a minimum.
Since his first professional cooking gig, O’Brien was fated to make sausage. He’s been stowing away recipes ever since, giving him a frame of reference for the meat of the Berliner’s lineup — a sausage section that features six varieties, including two types of bratwurst.
“There’s a fine line between really good sausage and really bad sausage,” O’Brien says. He likes overseeing the process because it’s so meticulous.
O’Brien’s first externship out of a culinary school was a job at Liberty Tavern in Clarendon that required him to step up to the meat grinder when another chef abruptly quit.
When O’Brien was developing the Berliner’s mettwurst, all he had to do was tweak a Cincinnati-style recipe for the spicy pork sausage that he learned from a co-worker when he was a part-time butcher at the Blue Duck Tavern.
After cooking at Birch and Barley, Churchkey, and the award-winning CityZen, O’Brien got a graduate degree in sausage-making when he moved to Northern California to become executive chef of Mikkeller Bar. He calculates he literally made a ton of sausage in the first two months. “1,000 pounds each month,” O’Brien confirms.
Mikkeller Bar took off with help from an early positive review by former San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, and O’Brien developed the herby falafel recipe that will call to vegetarians and people on the prowl for late-night bites at the Berliner. O’Brien’s recipe had to pass muster with the Popal Group, a restaurant company that owns Lapis Bistro and was founded by Afghan immigrants.
Consulting at the Trappist in Oakland and leading the kitchen at the Monk’s Kettle in the Bay Area further prepared O’Brien to compose a beer hall menu back in D.C.
The sausages at the Berliner include a house brat made with pork and veal; a Wurttemberg brat made with pork and bacon that’s named after a regional style in Germany; the mettwurst; an applewood smoked, half-beef, half-pork frankfurter with a paprika-red hue; a chicken fennel sausage; and a lamb merguez. The last two are made with sheep’s casings to ensure that people who don’t eat pork don’t have to omit sausages.
Naturally, O’Brien is also fastidious about what garnishes to use. He makes the yellow mustard and whole-grain mustard in-house along with two types of relishes: a classic cucumber variety and a garden relish that’s a play on Italian giardiniera. There’s also curry ketchup and plain ketchup.
“I don’t agree with people who put ketchup on a hot dog,” O’Brien says, adding that preference goes back to when he was a kid. He gives currywurst a pass.
Aside from sausages, the Berliner also offers a kofta meatball made from lamb, beef, and turkey. There’s a spaetzel gratin made with Emmenthaler cheese and celery root, a pretzel with beer cheese, and a chicken schnitzel sandwich.
O’Brien has also curated the beer list for 24 taps, putting German powerhouses (Hofbrau, Augustiner, Spaten, Weihenstephaner) alongside local brews. He’s especially happy to have Mahrs Brau Ungespundet, an unfiltered German lager he’s imported directly to the restaurant because he couldn’t find it distributed in D.C. The first 100 guests tonight will get one complimentary beer.
Read the full food menu for the Berliner below:
The Berliner is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to midnight.