It was one year ago today, that I had this meal at Vendôme, Chef Joachim Wissler’s 3-Michelin starred beauty of a restaurant located on the spectacular grounds of the magnificent Schloss Bensberg Hotel. It was my last blow out meal of an incredible blow out trip to explore Germany’s luxurious and somehow generally under-the-radar fine dining scene. The trip focused on high end dining, especially the restaurants that fell under the guise of the Neue Deutsche Schule of German chefs cooking with similar inspirations and similar foci on precision, organization and intense craftsmanship. Over the course of the week, I dined at 5 Michelin 3-star restaurants¹ and had another meal at the then 3 Michelin starred Gourmet Restaurant Lerbach² with a meal prepared by chefs with 11 Michelin stars amongst them. Needless to say that I ate unbelievably well that week. Each meal was simply sensational, but by chance or otherwise, the single most sensational meal of them all turned out to be this very last one.
This write-up has been a long time coming, but I have never forgotten this meal. I wrote up each of the meals from Germany in chronological order with as much detail as I could recall. Each report was quite time consuming. In the meantime, other great meals and trips came up that also merited attention, not to mention obligations to my family and my principal career. As time wore on, though, I decided that I would post this report on the anniversary of the meal in its full seasonal splendor. I hope that you, dear reader, agree that the report was worth the wait.
The grounds of the Hotel Schloss Bensburg are from another era, reminiscent of the splendor of Versailles in its manicured perfection.
To stroll these grounds on a sunny and pleasantly warm early autumn day is enough to put anyone in a romantic mood. Alas, I was dining alone.
The restaurant is situated in its own building off the main hotel.
Inside the space is divided into smaller, more intimate dining rooms, separated by discreet curtains and fabricseach elegantly appointed and charming in the afternoon sunlight. The charming grounds are visible from airy windows throughout the main dining rooms.
Each table had a setting with at least three perfect red roses per table. The roses were set in beautiful, modern crystal vases, that when looked upon from above resembled eyes. Ifound these to be strikingly beautiful. A glass of Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvée Champagne was immediately brought to me upon being seated. There were other diners in the restaurant, but we were seated with plenty of space between us. Having traveled by train from The Black Forest, I had a late reservation for lunch. This was just as well as I had enjoyed a substantial breakfast at Traube Tonbach early that morning. Truth was, as a result, I wasn’t really all that hungry for lunch.
My appetite started to get piqued, however, when the amuses started rolling out. A spoon of Italian cassis and mint was bright and expertly balanced. A lollipop of goat cheese and red pepper was a very nice, sophisticated bite. The pepper dominated up front, but the goat cheese cleaned it all up.
A “leaf of carrot with carrot praline and Campari powder was crunchy and delicate with more than a hint of bitterness, but the bitterness was nicely counterbalanced by the sweetness of the carrot. It was daring and it worked.
The fourth and final amuse that I was given was a mint cornet filled with verbena and elderberry. This was totally refreshing and came with the additional surprise of pop rocks, which added the great mouth feel that put this wonderful, fun bite over the top. While pop rocks are no longer the incredible fine dining novelty that they were when I first had them in Oriol Balaguer’s bon bons about 8 years ago, they can still be a huge asset when used appropriately as they were here. This was a wonderfully bright bite that was made that much brighter. It set both my mouth and my appetite to life.
Vendôme is as comfortably elegant a restaurant as I have ever been in. The first course, entitled Maccaron, was a wonderful example of that. Two distinct, but related maccarons were served with mushroom as the common element between them. These were incredibly sophisticated and delicious morsels of mess-making finger food. On the right was a mushroom maccaron filled with summer truffles and soy mayonnaise. To the left, the maccaron contained ricotta cheese, gelee of ham and minced mushrooms. The first one with the summer truffles tasted like the very essence of mushroom in a light and delicate package. The second was creamier, very different texturally, but also delicious with a fabulous, long finish.
There aren’t too many foods more basic than bread and butter, but when the bread has a delicate, crunchy exterior and cloud soft, pillowy crumb as this did and the butter was soft and salted Alsatian butter from the master fromager, Maître Anthony, it becomes something extraordinary. Germany is known for having great bread and I had much wonderful bread on this trip. This bread that gave me as much pleasure as any.
As wonderful as my first bites were, this course was the first that demonstrated a chef in a league of his own. Calf heart carpaccio was matched with artichoke prepared a number of ways. There was a tartare of artichoke, a baked leaf and fresh artichoke. Most amazingly the internal hairs from the interior of the artichoke were individually fried in hot oil. The dish was finished with a Parmesan cream, a chip made from veal tongue and a pine nut vinaigrette. The veal heart was extraordinary. The texture was silky. The opposite texture was achieved with the still delicious tongue chip. The various textures of artichoke were simply brilliant and worked harmoniously with the veal and the Parmesan cream. This was a superstar dish unlike anything I’d ever had before or since.
This 2008 Blanc Fume de Pouilly was a lovely match for the heart with tropical fruits, especially mango, passion fruit and guava on the nose. Yet, the wine itself was dry with good acidity. The tropical fruit fell to the background on the tongue.
The first seafood course was hamatchi with soy mayonnaise, sesame, orchid leaves, Norwegian fjord shrimp and colatura d’alici. Chef Wissler showed a deft hand with this dish, playing with bitterness and acidity, expertly walking a fine line between them. The orchid leaves and buds were lightly pickled (for 7-10 days), giving the necessary acid tones.The satiny hamachi was played like a Stradivarius by a world-class violinist.
As much as I love the scent of roses, I am not typically a big fan of roses in food. Usually, a little bit goes a long way. Chef Joachim Wissler absolutely blew me away with this magnificent course.Underneath the pickled German roses on the top of the plate was a gelee of German ham along with chanterelles. A ham vinaigrette was dripped on top of it all. The scent of the roses ushered me into wonderful flavors. The tiny mushrooms added just the right notes along with a touch of wasabi to keep everything in perfect balance. The rose essence was clearly present, but delicate and kept from overpowering the dish. Nothing dominated, but unlike the U.S. Congress, all worked together in a harmonious fashion. The ham contributed wonderful flavor and the umami to make this a distinctly savory dish. With this dish, Mr. Wissler showed that he was both an Engineer and a Poet.
The roses were paired with the most German and most food friendly of grapes, Riesling. Great structure and flavor from this wine, a 2008 Centgrafenberg from Weiungut Paul Fürst in Franken, performed synergistically with the dish. This was no war of the roses.
In Germany, they tend to use the word “crab” when translating the German word for crayfish into English. This was rather confusing at the beginning of my week there, but something I got used to as my experience grew. Here, the crayfish lay in a cream of Tandoori Masala with lemongrass cous cous.
Served along with the crayfish was a cup of crayfish foam scented with coconut. This was to drink and provide additional aroma for the dish. This course also followed the theme from earlier in the meal as well as at other restaurants from this trip by incorporating flavors and textures from Southern Asia. Wissler used them well, despite mixing up several distinct cultures. The flavors were crisp and bright, making this course, once again, outstanding. Another detail that contributed to the startling brilliance of this course was the attention to minute detail. Even the claws of the crayfish were perfectly removed from the shells and completely intact. I had never previously seen that.
There was no letdown from course to course. Next was goose liver with a tartar of zucchini and a sauce of chicken broth. As with all of the dishes served, the execution from Wissler’s kitchen staff was flawless. The seared gooseliver foie gras was sublime. The dish was entirely savory without a significantly sweet component. The zucchini incorporated a subtle smokiness that gave the dish just a little extra.
Served alongside the goose liver was a risotto with the crackling skin of guinea fowl. This was a deep, rich, crunchy and absolutely amazing side for the foie gras.
Whatever additional touch the foie gras course might have needed was supplied by this fabulous 2002 Condrieu Jeanne-Elise from Pierre Gaillard. It had caramel components, bracing acidity and delightful fruit. It was served from a 375ml bottle.
The Condrieu was served exclusively with the goose liver course. From there, I was brought a lovely Pinot Noir from the Pfalz region of Germany to pair with the next two courses. I was poured the 2005 Sankt Paul from Weingut Friedrich Becker.
Billed as “the most German dish” on the menu, “because we eat a lot of pork,” this was also extraordinary. Though every element on the plate was superb and had a role, there was no doubt that the suckling porkbelly was the superstar here. A thin slice, it incorporated sensational flavor and startling textural contrasts from the perfectly crisp exterior to the meltingly soft interior. It was accompanied by a chickpea puree, boudin noir, granatapfel or pomegranate gelee and a lovage laced pork sauce. I have enjoyed many a stupendous pork dish in my life, but I can’t recall one that surpassed this in terms of flavor, texture and craft.
When this plate was placed before me, I was fooled. It appeared to me that the long, yellowish item toward the rear of the plate was a sea cucumber. It looked very much like one. However, my eyes deceived me or I was purposely fooled. What appeared to be a sea cucumber was actually a vegetable component of yellow beans resting atop a bed of miso paste. The remainder of the dish consisted of saddle of venison, a ragout from the venison haunch , black trumpet mushrooms, pistachio cream and a venison jus. By no means was this a bad dish. It was still quite delicious, but was for me, the least interesting or compelling one of the day, especially given the standard-setting venison that I had swooned over not quite a week earlier at Thomas Bühner’s La Vie on the second day of this trip³.
It is not surprising in this era of savory desserts that peas would be a main component of a dessert, after all, they are inherently sweet. That said, these peas done as a granita and associated with a cream of coconut as well as a ring of coconut marshmallow and a touch of lime was something else altogether. This was light, refreshing and so wonderfully delicious.
This red sparkling dessert wine from Italy was a fantastic match for the pea granita. Both together were a refreshing treat that revitalized my palate.
When the second dessert arrived at my table I wondered if we had headed back to savories. This looked like more foie gras or a huge seared scallop, but it was a peach from Mallorca that had been grilled and topped with a lavender-buttermilk ice cream and was swimming in a verbena tea. The white orbs on the plate were dabs of almond cream with interiors of smoky almond powder. Herbs and edible flowers completed this tasty dish.
The final course finished on a note both light and refreshing. It also showed that Mr. Wissler was not afraid of using Modernist technique. He may have used Modernist technique elsewhere in the meal, but this was the one course in which its use was apparent. The parfaits were incredibly light and airy. They seemed to be foams that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen. If so, this was what that technique was created for. The predominant flavors were a lovely combination of fennel and grapefruit.
This formal meal set amongst immaculately manicured grounds closed in a mirror fashion to how it opened. The mignardises resembled the starting amuses. This cornet had an intensely flavored foam of chocolate and strawberry.
There was also a lollipop of buttermilk and pineapple ice cream covered in white chocolate.
A slate contained a chocolate kiss with a licorice mousse in the center and a blood orange gelee.
Finally, on the spoon, there was a very savory raviolo of birch with a rye bread cracker.
This meal screamed for a digestif. I was offered this German Waldhimbeer from the Black Forest. This spirit was made from wild raspberries and was a wonderful choice to bring the meal to a close.
Did I write “bring the meal to a close” above? No, that was the function of the bon-bons. After all, this was European fine dining at its finest. I chose three – grand cru chocolate, coconut and caramelized chocolate, all excellent. There were some exotic combinations, but somehow I did not try any of them.
In the United States and many parts of Europe, true old fashioned luxury fine dining is becoming harder and harder to find. In some respects that is due to changing fashions. Most, especially younger diners, want a more relaxed dining atmosphere. More importantly, however, this shift is due to the economics of luxury fine dining. It is very expensive to produce and very expensive to experience. The world’s economies have not, in general, been kind to this mode of dining. Happily, though, it lives in Germany. Vendôme was my final stop of a truly sensational week of fine dining at some of the finest restaurants in the world. The best part, though, was that although each of the restaurants had tablecloths, exceptional European service that knew where to draw the line between formality and friendliness (no haughty waiters in my experience on this trip) and luxe ingredients, they maintained comfortably relaxed, yet elegant atmospheres. There is a reason that this style of dining was beloved. These German restaurants understand it and provide it in spades. None were better than Chef Joachim Wissler’s Vendôme, which provided the ultimate in comfortable luxury, creativity and brilliant flavors and textures. His technique and execution were essentially flawless, yet his dishes spoke in poetry. For some reason, Germany didn’t used to excite me when I thought about its food. Thanks to Chef Wissler and his colleagues, Chefs Wohlfahrt, Amador, Henkel, Bau, Bühner and Elverfeld, I now think very much otherwise.Germany and its fine dining restaurants is a must destination for anyone looking to experience the ultimate in delicious, old world luxury fine dining.
See the entire photoset on Flick’r.
²Gourmet Restaurant Lerbach was demoted from 3 Michelin stars to 2 at the same time that La Vie received its third star.
³Buhner’s “Pure Venison” dish was without a doubt the most delicious bites of venison that have ever passed my mouth. At first, I thought his labeling of the dish to be a bit of bravado, but the name was apt. I cannot imagine a more sincere and definitive preparation of that meat than what Thomas Bühner put before us. Unfortunately, I believe that any version of venison now served to me will pale next to the memory of Bühner’s miraculous dish. From the same luncheon, Chuck from the super-literate blog ChuckEats, described the dish as such “Commanding – a meat course that belied its simplicity with complex aromas and deeply rich tastes. The tea was an extraction of venison that drank like wine – a complex long finish with viscous body.”