I went to Germany to learn about the Neue Deutsche Schule of chefs that have emerged as the brightest stars amongst a glowing constellation of contemporary German food. One way to know them better was to get a sense of where they came from. One of the biggest influences on this school has been Harald Wohlfahrt, who has been Executive Chef of Schwarzwald Stube at the Hotel Traube Tonbach since 1980 and who has had thirty or so of his staff go on to Michelin stars of their own, including curent Michelin three star chefs Joachim Wissler, Christian Bau and Thomas Bühner. Schwarzwald Stube, Chef Wohlfart’s restaurant happens to be located in the amazing Hotel Traube Tonbach in the lovely town of Baiersbronn in the beautiful Black Forest of southwestern Germany on the other side of the mountains from Alsace in France. It’s sensational location would make my visit all the more fun.
I traveled to the hotel by train arriving in the early afternoon. The hotel Traube Tonbach is located in a scenic valley in the Tronbach arm of Baiersbronn in the northern part of the atmospheric Black Forest. The area is a gastronomic wonderland with not one, but two Michelin three star restaurants as well as an additional one star restaurant – all this in an area of only 15,000 inhabitants, making the area the highest concentration of Michelin stars in Europe!. The other three star, besides Schwarzwald Stube is Restaurant Bareiss, but that will have to wait for another visit.
The hotel, owned and built up over the years by seven generations of the Finkbeiner family, is beautiful and quite extensive. One can simply stay there without leaving the grounds and have an incredible experience. After a thorough look around of the impressive facilities and a relaxing massage, I was nicely loosened up for dinner and what a dinner it was.
Walking into the dining room, I immediately noted its old world elegance. The tables are bedecked with starched white linen tablecloths, the waitstaff is dressed formally and each of the tables sports a marvelous and unique sculpture of a bird made entirely of used silverware. The ambiance is a throw back to another age of dining, yet it wasn’t stuffy. Most men wore jackets, but few wore ties and service was efficient, but warm and genuine. This was the epitome of classic European service. While I enjoyed this, I wondered about the food. Would it also be a throwback? Would it be more classically French? Would I be able to discern a connection between Chef Wohlfahrt’s cooking and that of his Michelin three star proteges?
Chef Wohlfahrt started us with an amuse of three spoons, each with a different preparation centered around beef.
To the left was a beef carpaccio on top of diced king oyster mushrooms and covered with a crouton of Parmigiano.
Oxtail gelee was enriched with goose liver and enlivened by an unexpected flavor – ginger. I could have eaten a number of these.
The third spoon was a beef meatball, like a Lions-head meatball, with a crunchy exterior on top of a cilantro pesto. Each bite was delicious, rich and nuanced. With these bites, I couldn’t help but think of how my trip started with Sven Elverfeld’s nibbles at Aqua. While Wohlfahrt called his meatball “Asian” and the oxtail gelee was flavored with ginger, the Asian influence was interpreted through a very thick European lens. Elverfeld’s European lens had much less tint to it, as he incorporated more exotic elements more easily into his cooking. Wohlfahrt’s start was no less delicious for his less adventuress foray into more exotic (to Europe) cuisines, perhaps reflecting his generation’s relative stay-at-home roots. In Germany, it was his followers who began to branch out more incorporating more non-European elements into their cooking. Yet, Elverfeld’s roots could be clearly tasted in these delicious openers.
It is tempting given my remarks above about Chef Wohlfahrt’s “German lens” to think of his cooking as being traditionally German and focused on German ingredients, but that would be wrong as the next amuse showed. With this dish, Chef Wohlfahrt prepared Mediterranean tuna four different ways, again utilizing some distinctly Asian influences as well as some classic French techniques. Flavor was, again, impeccable. Each of the bites was served cold.
Chef Wohlfahrt’s exotic tastes may not have been as pronounced as some of his disciples, but they were present and developed. The raw tuna had been marinated in anise. On the right in the photo, it was built up with granny smith apple and topped with pecan. To the left, it is topped with radish and sesame mayonnaise. There is also a coriander mousse snaking its way across the plate. The gelees were radish.
The terrine used classic French technique with a modern touch. On the outside of the terrine there is a jelly of tandoori spices. Inside, the white stripes are a mousse of yuzu, the black stripes are a seaweed mousse and the center is a slice of raw tuna. The foam was well made, staying aloft for some time. The yuzu was the dominant flavor up front, but the tuna flavor came through at the finish, extending the length of the dish.
This tuna terrine was completely different than the other. The interior white was smoked tuna. This was flanked by marinated raw tuna and topped with an avocado mousse. With the latter element, I was expecting the bite to have a bit of a Mexican influence, but the reality was more Japanese in flavor.
Here the tuna on the outside had been pickled. Within the roll is tuna tartare. On top are flying fish roe and underneath mango mousse. The thin purple wafer is an element that Chef Wohlfahrt has resurrected from earlier years for this dish, a purple potato crisp more thinly sliced than a delicate sheet of paper. This was quite a delicious, elegant and interesting foursome of tastes. Each plate was tied to the others by the commonality of tuna as well as technique, but each taste was distinct from the others, showing a virtuoso mastery of finesse and range of flavors and textures that kept everything interesting as well as delicious.
The first wine was a lovely, dry Riesling from the Pfalz area of Germany. From 2009, this wine was very fruity with a bit less acid backbone than the 2010′s. Rieslings are incredibly food friendly wines and this was no exception to that. It was quite lovely.
The second appetizer featured two plump Gillardeau oystersfrom France. These were poached in soy sauce and served atop a light soy gelee. Between the oysters lay a mousse made from the oyster water. On top of the oysters Chef Wohlfahrt placed quenelles of regionally farmed sturgeon Imperial caviar and seaweed croquants. Accenting the oysters were cucumbers, a cucumber mousse, cucumber gelee and grated cucumber. This was certainly not the first dish that I’ve had that have paired oysters with caviar – Thomas Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls” may lay claim to that – but this was as elegant a preparation as any I’ve had since. The oysters were allowed to shine through with all their briny brilliance, but each component accented the dish, elevating it beyond the sum of its considerable parts.
Gewurtztraminers are probably best known from Alsace in France, but that is actually quite close to Baiersbronn. This particular Gewurtztraminer is from the area near Baiersbronn. This wine was high in alcohol and residual sugar, but both were well balanced by great acidity. This still had the floral notes that are so prevalent in Alsace Gewurtztraminers. Rose petals were particularly prominent.
We were told that the waitress bringing the next dish to the table was blind and could only find our table by smelling the brioche.
I was glad the waitress’s sense of smell was acute.The terrine was a combination of lightly smoked pigeon breast and grilled goose liver. Both the goose liver and the pigeon had been cooked and cooled before being combined within the terrine. It was served with grilled pigeon breast, leg confit, the heart and liver of the pigeon, artichoke purée, grilled artichoke heart and pine nuts. The goose liver was from nearby Strasbourg in Alsace. The preparation was sublime starting from the accompaniments on the side and proceeding towards the classic terrine. This was certainly a delicious dish, but seemed to owe more to French gastronomic tradition than it did to German.
Slow Food. Our waiter had a wonderful wry sense of humor (he was as good a waiter as I’ve had). This dish was slow food in more ways than one. The stars of the dish was the Swabian Alb snails, slow creatures, but tasty ones. The waiter was also extremely informative. He told us that these snails came from within twenty kilometers of the restaurant from an area with a history of raising snails for consumption dating back to the Roman Empire. They had, however, in the latter part of the Twentieth Century taken a back seat to tanks, as the area had been taken over for military exercises. In recent years, though, the military purposes of the area were removed and snail farming once again resumed, with these excellent results – recognized by Slow Food. Here the snails shared the plate with chanterelles, porcini, parsley and a thin strip of bacon. This earthy dish had a hint of a frizzante effervescence to it that was fun and totally unexpected, reminding me of very subtle pop rocks. It was a brilliant touch to take an essentially classic dish and add something unexpected – here in the dish’s texture and mouthfeel – to elevate it to sublimity.
The 2007 St. Aubin Les Combes, a biodynamic wine was elegant and a superb accompaniment to the snails. This was the best example of a Chardonnay that I had had in some time. It was very complex with great acidity and that nice sour creaminess that makes Chardonnay special, but is too rarely tasted. The wine pairings were right on with interesting and delicious wines that matched perfectly to each dish.
This meal was clearly luxurious, but no dish was more luxurious than this. The langoustine was perfectly cooked and seasoned. The vegetables added texture and flavor. The avalanche of Alba truffles put this already amazing dish over the top into true decadence.
The pinot gris, here called Grauer Burgunder, also had wonderful acidity to go with its great flavor and impeccable balance. The sommelier, Stephane Gass, noted that 2008 was one of his very favorite vintages in the area and this wine did nothing to dissuade me of that opinion. The acidity was particularly important to cut through the incredibly rich and sweet langoustine.
All of the courses were served by waitresses wearing charming local garb.
The turbot arrived under a cloche. The cloche was removed to reveal a thick cut of turbot resting atop a squared bed of coriander spiced spinach. To the side was a quenelle of rice “cream” along with a tomato, red pepper and a shiitake mushroom. Shellfish roe had been dried and powdered and then sprinkled atop the fish. There was a browned crumble of macadamia nuts on top of the fish. A Thai inspired sauce with kaffir lime, coconut and curry was spooned into the bowl. The flavors were intense, but as per Chef Wohlfahrt’s signature remained impeccably balanced. Each bite carried different flavors with the one constant the kaffir lime. The rice cream, made from the starch that remained in the water after rice was cooked, reflected the flavors of the dish, but provided an intensely creamy texture that was almost like eating melted cheese. The dish reminded me of the style of Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his best.
This Riesling from the Rheingau’s Georg Müller, was fruity and impeccable was billed as “Spätlese” but was vinified to be impeccably dry, but still fruity.
This next fish course was served on large plates shaped like fish. Red mullet is one of the great fish of the Mediterranean and this one did not suffer by its transport north. It had Mediterranean elements in its treatment, such as a tomato ragu underneath, tiny squid pieces to the side and pesto and garlic chips on top. It also received an escabeche that was spooned around the plate. But it wasn’t strictly a Mediterranean dish as beneath the pesto it also had a layer of nori or seaweed, an ingredient only relatively recently being used in Mediterranean kitchens. We could smell the vinegar from the escabeche as we contemplated the dish, but upon tasting the dish there was a bit of an imbalance towards bitterness. While still quite good, this was the one dish of the evening that had a less than perfect balance of flavor elements.
The wine pairing was a Chardonnay of the region. It was well made and tasty, having only mild influence from oak.
Perhaps it was just a strange translation, but the use of the word “pet” above, was not my own. Nor was the word “pits” associated with the beans. Happily, pits were nowhere to be found on the plate. If that was not well translated, then I will also assume that the rabbit on the plate above was no one’s particular pet. Whether or not, my assumption was valid, the rabbit was quite delicious. The dish used the various parts of the rabbit including a roulade of belly with basil in between, the loin, filet tops with rosemary skewers and spicy gyoza raviolo filled with liver and other offal. The raviolo sat atop a bed of black trumpet mushrooms. The plate was filled out with favas and red-wine braised onions and finished with a rosemary sauce. Served alongside the rabbit was a lightly scented rosemary polenta covered with truffles.
This Cote Rotie from the great vintage of 2004 had silky tannins, chocolate, licorice and violet buried within.
This was a mousse of Gaperon cheese, a cow’s milk cheese from France’s Auvergne Region, that is worked with garlic and peppercorns. This light mousse was covered with Scorzoni black summer truffles, olive oil and salt. We were instructed to eat this witha spoon and no bread. This was simple in appearance, but absolutely decadent. This was my cheese course, even as much as the regular cheese cart enticed. My friend and I had wondered when a spoon had been placed prior to this course. This dish answered that question in spades.
Even after the Gaperon mousse, the cheese cart tempted, but it was time to move on towards dessert.
Made from 100% Petit Manseng, this wine sprang from the Jurançon region of southwest France. It is a moullieux wine that has felt the kiss of botrytis. It was a sweet wine, but with excellent acidity.
German pastry chefs appear to enjoy creating sugar shells fileld with delightful interiors and why not? Unlike other versions I had on this trip dedicated to Gravenstein apples, this was a play on the peach, in particular peach melba. The shell was created with sugar and colored to look like a peach. Inside was a Tahitian vanilla foam. The faux peach was accompanied by a salad of Saturn peaches and raspberries with lavender honey. Though the flavors were classic, this was the most modern dish in terms of presentation. The wine made a beautiful pairing with this dessert.
The last formal dessert was an ice cream made with 34% Caramelia milk chocolate from Valrhona. It came with a fresh compote of apple and Kalamansi. Despite the chocolate being a milk variety, the dessert managed to refrain from any cloying sweetness. It was light, refreshing and delicious as well as beautifully prepared with a texture reminiscent of cold sea urchin.
The attention to detail continued into the petits fours. I was quite full, but these still tempted…
…as did these.
I had a digestif of Zibartenwasser, a distillate of a local wild mountain plum (zibartle). It hit the spot.
This incredible meal came to an end with these wonderfully executed and delicious canneles.
This was a brilliant meal that despite its formal French roots never felt staid or stuffy. The food wasn’t overtly “German”, but it showed a playfulness akin to many of his contemporaries like Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and like these chefs, Harald Wohlfahrt remains at the top of his game, exhibiting great skill, precise flavoring, amazing balance and beautiful plating. To make things even more wonderful, Scharzwald Stube is part of a beautiful and luxurious hotel resort, Traube Tonbach (see my photoset on Flick’r to see more of this incredible hotel) in the incredible culinary area that is Baiersbronn in the beautiful Black Forest of Southwestern Germany. Schwarzwald Stube is the very definition of a Michelin three star restaurant. It is worth a journey unto itself and it comes as no surprise that Chef Wohlfahrt has engendered so many incredible chefs.