Sheer audacity. To label a dish as “pure” takes audacity on the part of a chef. However, when the chef can back it up the way Thomas Bühner does at La Vie in Osnabrück, Germany, it goes from audacity to brilliance. Bühner’s “Pure Venison” is just that. It is audacious, but also absolutely brilliant, earning a place on my list of top dishes of what was an amazing year. It also has set a new standard for me, not just for venison, but for meat – it was that good. Chef Bühner and La Vie earned its third Michelin star this past fall. That third star would have been deserved for this dish alone, but my meal at La Vie was more, much more, than that one dish, as great as it was.Chef Thomas Bühner is one of the four chefs considered central to the Neue Deutsche Schule movement of high end German cooking pulled together by the so-called “German virtues.” These chefs are aligned by their technical precision and virtuosity rather than shared culinary styles or ingredients. Though none of them adhere to any purely ethnic approach, some rely more on reinterpreting German traditional dishes and others emphasize a more global palette (and palate). Thomas Bühner, it turns out, is somewhere in between, with clear German references and an emphasis on regional product, but with a decidedly global influence, though he, like the others in the school, craft a meticulous cuisine. One might think that with such a focus on craft, the food might lack “soul.” That thought, as logical as it would seem, couldn’t be further from the truth. There is real passion here.
Bühner and his wife have been at and in control of La Vie since April, 2006. Osnabrück is an historic city, most widely known as the location of the signing of The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30 Years War in the 17th Century. Indeed, Bühner’s own home is the very building in which the historic treaty was signed. The restaurant is located one street over from Bühner’s home and is itself housed in an historic building, this one dating from the 18th Century.
Chef Bühner’s approach to food is to highlight and focus an ingredient’s natural flavor. To do this, he employs a variety of techniques, but his favorite may be low temperature cooking, utilizing sous vide extensively. At La Vie, they try to use as many regional products as possible, but according to Chef Bühner, “Only when it makes sense.” Much of the vegetables used in the restaurant are grown in the restaurant’s own garden.
Upon our arrival at La Vie, we were invited upstairs to the lounge, where we were greeted by some fine Champagne, De Sousa Brut Rosé. This non-vintage bubbly was crisp and quite pleasant.
Canapés were passed around. They were beautiful and tasty. The lounge was an elegant location to relax as we continued to acquaint ourselves with each other and with Chef Bühner. With such delights as “Oyster,” “Tomato Foam,”, “Charred Polpo ‘Sushi'” and others, we got a quick introduction to the precision, craftsmanship and facility with flavor and texture that is the trademark of Chef Bühner and La Vie. The tomato foam, in particular, was a wonderful example of the use of a technique to bring out the most in a dish. While “foams” have developed a bad reputation since they began appearing everywhere after having been introduced by Ferran Adria and company at elBulli, that is mostly because they were poorly conceived and poorly executed. Not so for Bühner’s which had all the hallmarks of the technique at its finest. Bühner’s tomato foam was light, airy and full of sublime tomato flavor. I was excited for the lunch to come.
After our warm welcome and lovely starters, we were escorted downstairs to the dining room, a warm and well-lit space, very comfortably arranged. I sat at the table directly above with Chuck, Bonjwing and Adam, always congenial company.
I don’t think a top restaurant must serve bread, but if one is going to tempt a diner to take up precious digestive space, then it ought to be worth it. La Vie’s breads certainly were and so was the butter, which was on a plate, like many used here, that was made by Pieter Stockmans of Belgium.Our amuse was a veritable seascape featuring some lightly pickled, marinated mackerel along with passion fruit and black sesame ice cream. The dish as a whole worked well together, though for me, the star was the black sesame ice cream. The sweetness of the ice cream was muted, allowing for the sesame flavors to really shine. Additional black sesame crumbs underneath the ice cream added texture. It was paired with a 2010 Volkaner Ratsherr Silvaner from Max Müller I in Franken. A Kabinett trocken, the wine was dry, but still with good fruit. Our first official course looked as if it might have come from Denmark or Benelux, but then these areas are actually quite close to Osnabrück and the shrimp are from the same North Sea that also washes those same coasts. These sweet morsels were complemented by cucumber, green asparagus, leek and something called “beach sand.” The cup to the right in the photo was an intense shrimp tea. The dish was paired with 2008 Feuerberg Weissburgunder Grosses Gewachs, Bercher, Baden. With accents such as Iberico bacon and ricotta, this dish was an example of Bühner’s widened palette. Germany may have been the source of most of his ingredients, but he was not limited to that geographical area either in source or inspiration. The Iberico was, by definition, from Spain: the ricotta may have been sourced in Germany, but it is an Italian style cheese: and the flavors together had a bit of a southeast Asian feel to them. The point of the Neue Deutsche School, though, is that this type of sourcing and inspiration is entirely permissible. What is most important is precision, design and craft, of which this and the other dishes served have in abundance. This remarkable dish also had flavor in abundance. Each bite was different, interesting and delicious, with everything centered by the smoky langoustine. The pairing with same 2008 Feuerberg Weissburgunder was just lovely. This was basically a dish centered around wings, albeit not mere chicken wings. The guinea fowl wings tasted like barbecued wings with tandoori seasoning. They were dusted with carrot and garlic, furthering the concept of Bühner’s global ideation. The dish, which also included artichokes, bean seeds and petals wasn’t overly exciting and the skin on the wings wasn’t crisped in a way that we would have preferred, but it did grow on me as I ate it. I liked it more by the time I finished than when I had started. while this was by no means a bad dish, it was the weakest and least popular dish of the meal at our table. Once again, though, the pairing, this time with 2010 Roter Veltliner – Scheiben – Leth, Wagram was nicely done. With an air of mystery, we glimpse a view of something tucked underneath the warm potato foam. It was a pumpkin curry ice cream. The sweet ice cream was just enough to mix in and give a punch of spicy flavor to the rich potato foam. With a wonderful contrast of temperatures, this was a decadently delicious interlude before the main course. The venison had been poached with red wine and spices at a precise low temperature. While it was supremely tender, it was also full of intense, concentrated, amazing flavor that was even more pronounced in the venison tea in the cup on the side of the plate. The tea had been extracted and distilled from venison meat with nothing else added, making it pure venison. Completing the plate was a celeriac puree, beets, lettuce, nasturtium, a raspberry and chanterelle mushrooms. The venison was by far the best and most emblematic example of this meat I have ever eaten and one of the finest meat dishes I have ever had. It truly represented the essence of venison. Bühner’s audacity was well earned and not overblown. This was the real deal. A pairing with 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – Asinone – Poliziano/Toskana was also ideal. The wine had enough tannin and acidity to play with the deep flavors of the venison. After the tour de force that was the venison, it was time for dessert. The first was a whimsical concoction uniting Tanariva a 33% milk chocolate from Valrhona in the form of an airy “donut” with marinated cherries and caramelized quinoa. The sour cherries added beautiful acid to cut through the sweet chocolate. Though not particularly chocolatey, the dessert was sophisticated and delicious.
Bühner’s apple had an appearance similar to the one we had the previous night at Aqua, but the details were different. The thin, cool, fragile blown-sugar shell housed an ice-cold, frozen apple powder inside. The apple itself sat upon a warm apple purée. Additional texture was provided by hazelnut cookies. This dessert reminded me of a brilliant German botrytised Reisling with a bracing acidity to balance the sweeter elements. This dish, like the venison embodied the best of what the Neue Deutsche Schule was supposed to represent, including traditional German culinary elements with impeccable technique.As with any high end restaurant, the last dessert is not the end of the meal. At La Vie, the selection of mignardises was superb. I opted for one of each of the exotically flavored, delightful macarons (yuzu and basil were particularly special), a variety of the dark chocolate bon-bons (curry and yuzu-sancho rocked my boat) and a taste of the orb of creme brulee enrobed with a white chocolate shell. These were exquisitely conceived and crafted. After this fabulous lunch, I was not in the least surprised and quite heartened when Chef Thomas Bühner and his team at La Vie received their well-deserved third Michelin star this past fall. The food was intricate, imaginative, well-conceived and above all, delicious. The craftsmanship was exquisite and the ambiance luxurious without being pretentious. La Vie is everything a Michelin three star restaurant should be. Though many of the flavors are global, the backbone of the food seems to me to be undeniably German, and not just because of the “classic German virtues” associated with it. The second of the Neue Deutsche Schule restaurants visited on this trip, I now was starting to get a sense of what this school of cooking was all about, even if actually pinpointing the true unifying glue of the group remained somewhat elusive. Perhaps, it is the inclusion of global influences amongst a a base built on traditional German cooking and adding the high standards of German design and engineering are really what it’s all about. Regardless of the deeper context, based on this and the meal at Aqua the evening before, I was starting to become an avid student of the school.