Amador – Amazing in Mannheim

Juan Amador

The restaurant had only been open in its new location for about a week when I dined there this past fall. As it was just a little bit before the release of the 2012 Michelin Guide to Germany, there was concern amongst some culinarians that the timing of the move might have cost Amador its third Michelin star. It didn’t, nor should it have. I had never been to Amador at its previous location near Frankfort, but this new one was extraordinary.

The location of the new Amador certainly suggested that it need be worthy of three Michelin stars as one really must undertake “a special trip” to get there. Most “destination” restaurants are located in interesting destinations in their own rights, whether they be in the hearts of major metropoli or in the bosoms of rural splendor. Not so, Amador. Mannheim is certainly a lovely enough city and worth a visit, but Amador is not located in the heart of this fair burgh. It is more accurately described as being situated in the outer ring of Mannheim, interestingly enough in what otherwise appears to be a blue collar shopping center. I had the sense, though, that this was no accident. Juan Amador likes to surprise and this location was merely the first of many.

My taxi driver had a bit of a hard time finding the place even with the address, but a glimpse towards the rear of the large parking lot, revealed an enclosed structure that had a door and a sign that indicated that we had actually arrived. The exterior of the building is spare and clean with a gun-metal gray entrance door ensconced within a rusted steel mantel blanketed with brick. As the restaurant had not yet opened for the evening, I was admitted through a side entrance that led to an expansive courtyard, which would be perfect for summer cocktails or al fresco dining.

The interior of the restaurant, which had previously housed a porcelain doll factory before becoming a second Michelin one-starred restaurant of Amador’s, had been refurbished, maintaining the same color scheme, but with new details. The red, white, black and gray schema was striking, achieving a balance between stark simplicity, elegance and luxury. Just past where the main entrance to the restaurant lay, there is a reception room and to the left of that, as one enters, is a smoking lounge and wine cellar. The lounge overlooks the entrance and beyond that the dining room.

Being a bit of an Iberophile, the first German chef who I had heard of and who registered on my radar was Juan Amador. Chef Amador was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany of Spanish parents. Over the past decade he had developed a reputation of being the foremost Spanish-influenced Vanguardist chef in Germany and one of the foremost in the world. My expectation going into the meal was that given Juan Amador’s Spanish background,  this was going to be a very “Spanish” meal. Once again, I was surprised.

Clearly, Juan Amador, who first opened his restaurant almost 9 years ago with a decidedly Vanguardist bent, owes a lot to his parents’ native Spain and its Vanguardist culinary movement spearheaded by the Adriás at elBulli. He fully acknowledges that, but then talks about his “evolution.” It’s not that he no longer uses whiz-bang Vanguardist technique. Instead, like others, he now uses those techniques not as the stars of the show, but more as supporting actors. The techniques are there to enhance the dish. Amador’s evolution is not so much a repudiation of those techniques as it is an acknowledgment of the movement’s maturity. Amador considers his cuisine, like those of his German contemporaries, to be a very personal style of cooking, emphasizing top quality ingredients and above all taste and gustatory pleasure. The meal I enjoyed did, in fact, provide a magnificent array of gustatory pleasures in a very personal style.

Tapas and Snacks

Amador’s style does indeed derive a lot from his Spanish cousins. His family hails from Andalucia, but he spent a lot of time in Barcelona and Valencia while growing up. This can clearly be seen in the construction of his meal. While a multitude of chefs have started meals in recent years with “snacks,” this was one of the great innovations that came out of Cala Montjoi. Amador’s influences, however, go well beyond Spain. He has a lot of relatives in Alsace and he also spent a lot of time there. His “French Pizza” with bacon, creme fraiche and spring onions was a clear and delicious reflection of that experience and influence. His “Handkäs mit Musik” was a modernist treatment of a classic German dish, done with wit and taste, but in a totally different way from the interpretation of the same classic dish by Sven Elverfeld at Aqua. The cheese was squeezed from the tube onto onion and vinegar macarons. With the light macaron, this may be the ultimate cheese doodle.  “My own Stammer Max”  showed that Amador was not afraid to pay homage to other chefs. With this dish, he utilized Grant Achatz’ “pincher” to hold a quail egg encrusted with bread. That was eaten and followed by a ham “foam” that was drunk directly from the small test tube. The combination was meant to evoke the feeling of breakfast. Ruinart Champagne was a very pleasant foil for these introductory bites.

Amador’s breads were mostly crumb, but they had a nicely crisped crust. The flavors of both breads were excellent with the sourdough being particularly delicious. The butter was unsalted from France and was offered with maldon sea salt.

Iced Beurre Blanc with Caviar and Hazelnut Milk

This is a dish that highlights the way that modernist technique has taken a supporting role. The cold beurre blanc was elegant and delicious, with great sourness and cheesy flavors. The caviar folded into it beautifully. There was nothing at all gimmicky about this dish.

The wine pairing was a 2010 Riesling Win-Win from von Winning in the  Pfalz (12% alc). The wine offered bushels of green apple to the nose and was crisp and delicious on the palate.

Aerated Fois Gras on Black Garlic and Black Sesame Cream

A modernist treatment was more obvious with this next dish, but once again, it wasn’t just used for its own sake. The dish was satisfying as a result of how the technique was used. The Adria’s sponge technique lightened the foie gras without reducing the fabulous flavor of the foie. The use of black garlic and black sesame added original flavor flourishes to the dish. The same Riesling was continued through this dish and held up quite well.

Mannheimer Schweinsbraten

Amador kept surprising me. His restaurant is not “Spanish” other than through influence. This was another dish based, not just just on German tradition, but in this case the local Mannheim tradition with roast pork. The flavors and textures of the dish were just superb with vinegar flavor up front and the deep pork flavor coming out with the finish as the vinegar began to recede. The cracker itself was somehow both crisp and chewy.

Ox "Muzzle" with Sweetbread, Radish & Parsley

I had never had ox muzzle before, but I was told that it is a specialty of the neighboring region of Pfalz. This also used vinegary acidity up front. Each component of the dish added a different textural component with the dish as a whole an exploration of the variety of soft textures with a few elements of crispness thrown in. The dish was both delicious and fascinating, albeit a touch awkward to eat.

Cod Tripe with Sweet Corn, PX Vinegar, Pimentón & Pork "Popcorn"

Just when I was getting used to the idea that Amador’s Spanish influence was limited only to technique, along came this dish that, despite the sweet corn, just screamed “Spain.” It was a dish that combined a variety of sweet elements with perfect balance and savoriness. This was a spectacular dish unlike any I had ever had before and my favorite of the evening.

King Prawn with Apple, Goat Cheese and Duck Foie Gras & Lobster Bisque on the side

I originally thought that this prawn was from Spain, but I was surprised yet again. It was from Brittany and it was treated in a way totally new to me by being paired with such diverse ingredients as green apple, foie gras and goat cheese. The lobster bisque, served in an insulated glass, hit just the right buttery and acidic notes alongside the prawn, which in another surprise was really a supporting player in this dish to the other flavors and textures that appeared with it. The net effect was a delicious dish, but without a clear focal point. Did that matter? To some, I suppose it would. While I love the taste and texture of a good prawn just about as much as anything and appreciate when it is the focal point, to me the most important attribute of a dish is the end result. While I expected a greater contribution from the prawn, I can’t say that the dish was less because the prawn itself did not play a greater role.

 The next Riesling was from the famous Rheingau. This one, a 2009 Alte Reben from Leitz, Rudesheimer Berg Rottland. This was less acidic than the Pfalz Riesling, but still crisp and a bit fruitier. Both were delicious.

Scallop with Soubise, German Bacon and Poached Quail Egg with Olive Tapenade

There was some visual trickery with this dish, What looks like a nice black truffle in the center was, in fact, a perfect quail egg that had been rolled in a tapenade. What looks like crab or lobster legs were, in fact, slivers of delicious German bacon. These went with a beautifully sweet scallop that was highlighted by a soubise sauce with onion and Parmigiano. None of the individual components of this dish dominated the others. The egg and its tapenade were truly background elements with the egg’s yolk providing additional richness to the already creamy soubise.

The wine selection for this dish shifted to Spain with a white Verdelho/Godello blend, the 2006 Lapola from Dominio do Bobei. Galician whites are amongst my favorites from anywhere. I got excited when I saw this one being poured, but my excitement dissipated when I tasted it. I love Ribeira Sacra whites for their steely fruit, but all I really tasted with this was oak. It was a big, Parkerized, modern style wine that tasted the same as many other big Parkerized whites from anywhere else. Fortunately, I still had some of the Riesling to go with the scallop.

The next wine was another Spanish white that had seen some time in oak.  The 2007 Remelluri, a white Rioja did indeed show oak, but somehow, the wood was more restrained and in the background than in the Lapola and the wine showed more varied nuances. It had a pleasantly unusual sweet-corn nose. When I tasted it, the oak was clearly there, but the wine had good acid structure and I found its smoky notes to be pleasurable. This wine may have been Parkerized, but it still showed some individual character with perfumey, floral notes similar to a Gewurtztraminer. 

Turbot with Brussels Sprouts, Beef Tea and Cannelono of Beet Filled with Oxtail

In lesser hands this dish could have easily misfired. Combining a relatively delicate white-fleshed fish such as turbot with rich and meaty oxtail as well as sweet elements like beetroot and caramelized walnuts and the spiciness of mustard macarons is a tricky balancing act. Perhaps it was the slight bitterness of the few brussels sprout leaves, but somehow this dish worked with each component remaining in a tight balance. The Remelluri worked nicely with the dish too.

Mieral Pigeon with Purple Curry, Mango and Coconut

The next dish was brought to the table and described as one of Mr. Amador’s most famous dishes. Once I started eating it, I could understand why. Germans do seem to like their curry, and happily, so do I.  It was a boldly flavored dish with tropical Asian overtones that would have been equally comfortable coming from the kitchen of Jean-George Vongerichten. Regardless of what influences bore upon this dish, it was beautifully plated and in-your-face delicious.

The pigeon was paired with a German Pinot Noir from the Rheingau. This was a feminine pinot reminiscent of Burgundy. Despite its finesse, the wine had enough jamminess to hold up to the pigeon’s bold flavors.

German Lamb from Eifel with Muscat, Pumpkin and Cinnamon Flower

It might seem that the meal was all over the map, but it really was focused, not so much on geography, as on the interplay between flavors and textures. The lamb was another boldly flavored dish that balanced richness and sweetness.

The lamb was paired with a big, bold red from the Toro region of Spain. made from old vines, this was a powerful wine. The 2006 “El Viejo” from Matsu worked well with the lamb. A glass was good, but I’m not sure I could have survived a full bottle of this big, throaty wine.

Cheese cake with White Chocolate, Blue Cheese and Apricot Crumbles

Like a few of Amador’s German contemporaries visited on my trip, the cheese course was  a composed course. This course featured blue cheese in the form of a cheese cake with tahini, liquid nitrogen treated white chocolate “pops” and apricot. This was a fun, complex, well conceived and well executed dish. In fact, I would say that it was one of the most interesting and best composed cheese courses that I’ve had. The cheese came through nicely and was well complemented by its supporting ingredients.

"White Russian"

Dessert at Amador maintained the high standards of the rest of the meal. The “White Russian” consisted of buttermilk ice cream on top of a tart of dark chocolate ganache with vodka and Kahlua. Cold, creamy and crisp, this had layers of flavor and was ultimately the most sophisticated White Russian I’ve ever had.

The dessert was accompanied by a lovely Muscatel from Navarra in Spain from MonteCristo.

Petits fours came out in a fashion similar to the amuses at the start of the meal. There were a number of small, whimsical tastes based upon Juan Amador’s childhood memories. A frozen “Mozart’s Ball”, typically from Vienna, started this final parade. It was a melange of pistachio, chocolate and almonds. Crema Catalana came frozen with a touch of saffron. “Mohr im Hemd” was a slowly baked chocolate mousse with a unique texture. It had been covered with melted caramel. “Nippon Deconstructed was made of puffed rice with a passion fruit gelee and chocolate ganache. “My Own Black Forest” was served on an Alinea like antenna. Chocolate cake with sour cherries enrobed by bacon can’t be bad and this wasn’t.  I found it haunting. The last of these spectacular petits fours was based upon the classic Spanish dessert of chocolate, toast, olive oil and salt. Amador’s version was called the “Choc o Liva ” and had rye toast with salt and olive oil surrounded by chocolate.

Gin and Tonic

My meal was not complete until my gin and tonic digestif. This was another nod to Spain, where G&T’s have become the de facto national cocktail. This one was expertly crafted with prime ingredients and worthy of drinking in the best Spanish restaurants as well as at Amador.

The Kitchen Team at Amador

I was both surprised and amazed by my dinner experience at Amador. My expectation going in was that this was going to be a more overtly “Spanish” and vanguardist restaurant than it turned out to be. It wasn’t that the restaurant lacked those characteristics. Both were indeed palpable, though mostly hidden underneath the surface. I was surprised at how “German” the restaurant was, especially compared to those high end restaurants I had just visited. Amador had the same sense of engineering prowess and precision as the others and focused as much on reinterpreting classic German dishes as much as they had. The restaurant is very sexy. I had not been to their prior space, but based upon what I had heard about the space, the move here seems to make sense. The space fits the food and vice versa. What I found amazing, though, was how smoothly everything went given that Juan Amador and his team had been open in this space for less than a week. The service was outstanding. The food took chances and delivered in spades. The only part that for me was less than absolutely stellar was that a few of the Spanish wines fit a profile that was not to my preference. They represented the current, but waning style of international-styled wines as championed by Robert Parker. Even at that, though, the wines were very good for what they were. I can only imagine how wonderful the restaurant must be now. A month after opening the new Michelin rankings for Germany came out. There had been some concern that by moving so late in the Michelin cycle, Amador might lose one of its three stars, but rightfully, it did not.


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