The Night the Stars Shined at Germany’s Gourmet Restaurant Lerbach

Nils Henkel, Sven Elverfeld, Christian Bau, Thomas Bühner & Ingo Scheuerman

If there was ever going to be a time to get a close look at the Neue Deutsche Schule of high-end German cooking, this was going to be it. With all four of the major culinary figures of this contemporary movement, representing 11 Michelin stars amongst them¹, gathered together to share the cooking, there could be no finer opportunity to compare and contrast and to finally understand what Ingo Scheuerman and other proponents of this group  have been trying to tell the world – Germany has a breed of cooks currently at the top of their game and united by their adherence to the so-called “traditional German virtues” that can be seen throughout other creative areas such as engineering, painting and architecture. Scheuerman has called this school the culinary equivalent of the Bauhaus Architectural style of the last century. One of the major tenets of Bauhaus design was to unify art, craft and technology with results apparent throughout the worlds of German industrial production, architecture and art, the influences of which have been apparent throughout the arts world-wide.

The dinner was designed to display the work of these culinary stars to a few fortunate members of the international culinary media as well as a few notable guests from the wonderful Chef Sache program that had just finished in nearby Köln. These guests responsible an additional 8 Michelin stars included Elena Arzak, Marc Haeberlin and Andoni Luis Aduriz. Nils Henkel was the host chef at his restaurant – Gourmet Restaurant Lerback – Nils Henkel, housed in the lovely Schlosshotel Lerbach² in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. The stars were clearly out in force.

Prior to sitting down for dinner, we all gathered in the lobby for some “fingerfood” and amuse bouches. Unlike the main meal, these bites were not directly attributed to specific chefs. To wash the bites down, we were poured a wonderfully crisp German Reisling, the 2008 Rüdelsheimer Berg Schlossberg Reisling Sekt Brut from the Rheingau. This was bone-dry, but with great fruit and acid structure. We were not only experiencing the best of what Germany has to offer on the plate: formidable German viticultural talents were also fully on display in the glass.

   

The amuses gave us a chance to sample a variety of delights, including Christian Bau’s room temperature goose foie gras covered with seaweed and served with a matsutake chip and frozen goose liver pearls (demonstrated by Bau onstage at Chef Sache earlier in the day); a combination of oyster with bright green cucumber; langoustine with carrot, beetroot and curry; and another of a crab rice ball paired with a crab cake covered with a dashi gelee and watermelon sorbet. These were pass-around hors d’ouvres, but they were each intricate, detailed and delicious. They were more elaborate than I typically see in similar circumstances. It was clear that great care, thought and skill had been put into each of them. These were not throw-away amuses.

From the hotel lobby we were led into the intimate and luxurious, yet light and airy, bi-level hotel dining room. There were two large tables set up on the upper level for our group and one large table set up in the lower level for the guest chefs and other dignitaries. The photo above was of the centerpiece of our table.

Foie Gras, "Lumumba" & Plum - Sven Elverfeld

Sven Elverfeld spearheaded the formal sit down meal with a dish that visually reminded me of Andoni Luis Aduriz’ Chocolate Cake with gold and chocolate bubbles.  Both Aduriz initially and here Elverfeld used big bubbles to draw attention to their dishes and both used chocolate in a sweet treatment, but that is where the similarities end. Aduriz’s dish was clearly a dessert, while Elverfeld’s was savory with sweet elements built around foie gras. Elverfeld’s dish wedded chocolate in the form of “lumumba” and foie gras with plum in three distinct layers. This was artfully paired with an incredible sweet wine, a 2008 Westhofener Morstein Scheurebe Beerenauslese Goldkapsel from Weingut Seehof, Familie Fouth in Westhofen in the Rheinhessen. This was a brilliant pairing. The wine added great acidity and sweetness to balance the supple fat of the foie gras and the underlying bitterness of the chocolate. Elverfeld had demonstrated this dish earlier in the day at the Chef Sache. It is a dish that is more complex than initial appearance might suggest. It is built in layers and engineered to combine the various ingredients in such a way to enhance each of their individual strengths and textures. I suspect that with Andoni Luis Aduriz in the room having dinner, the similarities of form between Elverfeld’s dish and Aduriz’ was no mere coincidence. This was an outstanding and unusual foie gras featured dish.

Summer Tomatoes - Buffalo Mozzarella, Basil, Tomato Tea - Nils Henkel

Nils Henkel also served a dish that he demonstrated earlier in the day at the Chef Sache. Henkel’s approach is to create a light cuisine centered around a concept of “Pure Nature,” in which he focuses on bringing out the inherent flavors of pristine ingredients, especially vegetables. This dish re-explored an Italian classic, the Caprese Salad. Deconstructed and re-examined, Henkel infused the dish with a variety of textures, temperatures and subtle flavor nuances using a variety of modernist techniques, yet still respecting the integrity of the product. The dish was paired with a Silvaner, the 2009 “Grosses Gewächs” from Fürstlich Castell’sches Domänenamt from Castell – Franken. The wine started with a grassy, barnyardy nose tat evolved into peaches. It was delightful.

Tomato Tea - Nils Henkel

Henkel’s dish highlighted some of the best and worst aspects of Modernist cooking though. The dish was complex, beautifully constructed and very, very stimulating intellectually. It was also mostly very tasty with clean, clear flavors. The tomato tea with an oregano flower was particularly clean, but the dish had some less pleasurable elements like the frozen mozzarella cylinders that lacked flavor and the texturally unsatisfying napolean that left me feeling how wonderful a well-selected traditional Caprese Salad with brilliant, acidic, mid-summer tomatoes, freshly made raw-milk mozzarella di bufala and pristine basil really is. Sometimes, a classic dish cannot be improved upon, no matter how clever the attempt.

Lightly Smoked Arctic Char - Vinaigrette of Elder-Capers, Cress Mash, Char Caviar - Nils Henkel

Henkel’s dishes came back to back. His second dish was a fish course with a lightly smoked arctic char. The dish was surprisingly sweet and minty with the inclusion of the elder flower capers, but the sweetness was tempered by the smoke on the fish and smoky flavors from the wine pairing, an unusual and rare Sauvignon Blanc, the 2010 “500” Trocken” from Weingut von Winning in Pfalz. The overall balance was good, though a touch sweet for my palate.

Turbot - Sweet/ Sour/ Salty/ Spicy - Christian Bau

Christian Bau has the reputation amongst the four chefs cooking at this dinner of being the most internationally focused with a special emphasis on Asia. This turbot preparation was all about balance on the palate. It was light and delicate, but with precisely orchestrated flavor. The aroma of ginger from the oil poured on top  created an anchor for Bau’s turbot, a relatively neutral vehicle as well as the macadamia and almonds crumbled on top of the fish. The plate was adorned with pure sweet potato dollops and a quenelle of salty and slightly sour capers. The wine pairing was equally fascinating and tasty. Using the king of Germna grapes, Reisling, Weingut Markus Molitor from the Mosel crafted a beautifully complex 2003 Bernkasteler Lay Spätlese, that mirrored all of the different layers of flavor that were in the dish. One commonality that was becoming apparent as a uniting element of these chefs was a focus on purity of flavor, on finding the essence of specific ingredients and bringing them to the fore. Of course, this approach is not unique to these wonderful German chefs. The Adriá brothers of Cala Montjoi in Spain were nothing if not obsessed with purity of flavor in their work at elBulli and this emphasis on purity of flavor, perhaps most notable in their “spherical olive” was one of the keys to their success. So, here with these four German chefs, who have taken this approach but not quite in the same way as the Adriás.  This approach had been shown most clearly the day before with Thomas Bühner’s Pure Venison at La Vie, but was also apparent at this dinner in Elverfeld’s foie with lumumba and plums and both of Henkel’s dishes. Elverfeld’s dish was a complex layering, but each layer remained defined even while complementing the other layers. Henkel’s tomatoes were brilliantly rendered and his char allowed subtle flavors to remain distinct, yet in harmony. The same was true with Bau’s explicit exploration of flavor balance. The irony in his dish was that the turbot, what traditionally would be the focus of the dish, was really nothing more than a vehicle for the other flavors and textures that Bau applied. While I may have had quibbles with some of the details of some of the dishes in the way someone might like one song over another, there was no arguing with their focus, harmony, skill and precision. What was coming out on the plates was high culinary art, but masterfully crafted.

King Crab - Smoked Egg, Pumpkin, Sot l'y laisse - Thomas Buhner

Though it was Thomas Bühner’s dish from the day before that set the tone for purity of flavor that the other three chefs continued, this dish of his veered into different territory. It wasn’t that the ingredients lacked purity. Rather, the dish as a whole did not focus on any particular element. There was plenty of textural contrast from the crab to the chicken oysters (sot l’y laisse) to the egg yolk to the pumpkin puree and more – it was all covered. The flavors worked together, but not with the degree of individual expression seen in Buhner’s other dishes. This was a dish more a symphonic melding of tones than a jazzy composition filled with solos. It was a dish that I could not fully grasp, but which grew on me as I continued to eat it. Ultimately, this was a dish that I would like to explore further. As with all the pairings, the one for this dish highlighted not only the sommelier’s (each pairing was chosen by the sommelier from the chef’s restaurant) skill, but the extremely high quality of German wine. This one, from Weingut Manz, the 2008 Weinelsheimer Kehr, Reisling Goldcapsule Trocken, a dry late harvest wine, was full of fruit, but somehow still bone dry.

Spice Pigeon - Kefir, Pomegranate, Sesame, Cous Cous - Sven Elverfeld

Sven Elverfeld made his second appearance with the main course, this one centered around pigeon. Elverfeld is a chef who relishes re-interpreting traditional German cuisine, but who also does not shy away from exploring more exotic flavors as he did with this dish. Here, he included keffir, pomegranate, sesame and cous cous, none of which are culturally of German origin, though they may represent sub-elements of contemporary German culture. The dish was simply delicious, though without the apparent sense of each element having been placed just so. I enjoyed it very much along with the pairing, a German Pinot Noir, in Germany called “Spätburgunder,” the 2007 Recher Herrensberg “Grosses Gewächs” from Weingut Jean Stodden of the Rech – Ahr.

Gorgonzola - Beetroot, Marjoram, Pistachio - Thomas Bühner

It was up to Thomas Bühner to serve the cheese course. In this case, it was a highly manipulated cheese course, composed in such a way that it could also have been considered a salad. The course was centered around gorgonzola, the sweet and creamy, Italian blue cheese.The main component visually was a piece of an elBulli-like orb of gorgonzola that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen, but the cheese was also present on the plate in a variety of iterations, including in biscuits that had been sliced, chips and crumbs. This creamy composition was balanced by beetroot, also prepared several different ways including the use of the green tops, and accented by a lusciously delicious pistachio ice cream. This dish brought Bühner’s approach back into a very clear focus. The excellent pairing was a 2009 Muskateller Spätlese, Burkheimer Feuerberg from Weingut Bercher in Burkheim, Baden.

Black Forest Gateau 2011 - Christian Bau

Bau’s food may have a strong internationalist reputation, but his interpretation of a Black Forest cake, a traditional German dessert, placed him firmly within his native land. He once again focused on clarity of flavor and precise engineering to achieve a dessert that was even better than the sum of its impressive parts and succeeded where Henkel earlier did not: I did not feel that I would prefer eating a more traditional preparation of this classic dessert centered around chocolate and cherry. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to dine at Schloss Berg, Bau’s restaurant, but his contributions to this particular meal, certainly piqued my already strong desire to do so.

"Übermut" Deutscher Likörwein

Each of the wines served was extraordinary, but the final one, a port-like sweet red from Thomas Hensel and Markus Schneider of Bad Dürkheim in Pfalz, was extraordinary. It was certainly sweet, but also impeccably balanced. The name “Übermut” means “high spirits” in German, which is certainly apt for this viticultural beauty.  It wasn’t made with the same grapes as port, though. Instead, it was made with a base of an unusual varietal, Cabernet Cubin, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Lemberger. Based upon my experience with the wines of this dinner as well as throughout my trip, I strongly feel that  the best German wines are second to those of no other country. They are extraordinarily delicious and extremely food friendly.

Noshereien - "Nibbles"

The meal closed with a delightful variety of petits fours, which in German were called “noshereien” or “nibbles.”

The "Neue Deutsche Schule"

This meal provided a rare insight into a serious new school of gastronomy in one sitting.  A meal combining disparate personalities can often be disjointed and uneven, but this meal flowed well and was not in the least disjointed. Each of these chefs has a distinct personality and style, but it was easy to see how they can be combined under the unified heading of “The New German School.” Their similarities are strong, while their disparities provide color without clashing. This was quite a complex and pressure-packed meal that was pulled off beautifully. That it was managed so smoothly was all the more impressive given that each of the chefs had done major presentations earlier that same day at the Chef Sache in nearby Köln. This is a movement of precision, craft, product, ingenuity, tradition, modernity, ingenuity and intellect much like its antecedent in the worlds of art and architecture, the bauhaus movement of the early Twentieth Century. While the cuisine may not be as easy to isolate in a nationalist sense in the same way as vanguardist Spanish or the New Nordic cuisines are, it is clearly still a German cuisine and reflects contemporary Germany in the very best sense. There is no doubt in my mind that Germany should be on the travel itinerary of every serious diner³.

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¹ At the time of the dinner Nils Henkel had three Michelin stars and Thomas Bühner two. Shortly after, the 2012 Michelin Guide was released with Henkel and Bühner switching places.

² With a meal like this one, it was particularly nice to not have to go anywhere afterward. All the guests were housed at this beautiful, atmospheric manor hotel.

³For more in depth analysis of the German high end dining scene as well other areas around the globe I strongly suggest High End Food, the blog of Ingo Scheuerman, who was the main organizer of this incredible dinner and trip along with the German National Tourist Board. A few other relevant blogs for this trip as well as other areas include The Ulterior Epicure, ChuckEats, VeryGoodFood, Cookcooning,  A Life Worth Eating, Gastros on Tour and Fulgurances.


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