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Not The World’s 50 Best Restaurants..

Not the world’s 50 best restaurants..

Had I but world enough and time, trotting the globe to eat wouldn’t be such a crime. I am a self-confessed World’s 50 Best Restaurants junkie. I find it commendable that the list is streamlined towards unearthing innovations where (occasionally) no ordinary foodie has reached. There is a catch, though. “Innovation” does not always guarantee “satisfaction”, and no “satisfaction” often means a “waste of time”. But, who am I to judge? I am an amateur eater, have made it to only 21 out of 50 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2012 and some other odd ones that are now off the 2012 list. Also, given the effort chefs and the restaurant teams have put in to make their establishments a success (and the fact that everybody has his/her own preference), it would have been too mean to publish my carefully selected top 10 “waste of time” list. (Personal email exchange is welcomed).

So, I am having this instead – a very personal “Life-Changing 10″ restaurants in an alphabetical order. These places have somehow changed my personal view on cuisine at different points in my life and I have no hesitation to return to these places.

(NB: To understand how my preference works, I’m pro innovation, hate over-complication and I also love food that retains a touch of comfort. I am usually inclined to appreciate subtle and no-fuss flavours).

- AQUA -
Wolfsburg, Germany

Visited: Winter 2011/12
Why: Chef Sven Elverfeld not only refines but redefines what humble German cuisine is to firework effects. In Chef Sven’s hands, “Candy Apple” was made entirely of sugar crust and shattered with a touch of a spoon to reveal ethereal yogurt foam (precisely as sour as a Granny Smith) and caramelised pecan core. The watery essence of apple underneath bound the dish together. My meal at Aqua was full of these brilliantly executed, non-alienating surprises.
On #Worlds50Best: 22
More photos here.

 

- L’ARPEGE -
Paris, France

Visited: Winter 2010/11 & Winter 2010/11 (Twice)
Why: Not that I don’t love red meat but it is chef Alain Passard’s take on vegetables that is a classical revelation. I still remember my plate of root vegetables with cous cous and argan oil at L’Arpege – the exuberant crunch, the acidity and sweetness from multi-textured root vegetables cooked by various means. This is innovation but this is also firmly grounded in classical French techniques.
On #Worlds50Best: 16

 

- Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare -
New York City, USA

Visited: Spring 2012
Why: Chef Cesar Ramirez rocks this tiny space, an appendix to Brooklyn Fare supermarket. He not only has fine eyes and unlimited budget to fly in the premium fish in the world but he also has the greatest and most creative mind, with huge respect to Japanese sensitivities, to dazzle 16 odd diners with (arguably) the BEST seafood in the world. I still recall Red Snapper served sliced with rich but cleansing ponzu sauce and toppled with crispy snapper scales or utterly rich and creamy sea urchin with yuba, wasabi and dill. As CTBF runs a no photo policy, I was only naughty enough to snap a shot of chocolate truffles at the end. (Lame, I know).
Not #Worlds50Best (This is unbelievable!!!)

 

- Faviken -
Jarpen, Sweden

Visited: Winter 2011/12
Why: Youthful and talented, chef Magnus Nilsson makes the most of his adverse environment to create a spectacular “real food” meal, paying respect to the raw beauty of the produce, the ways flavours should naturally be maximised, and the gastronomic timelessness as opposed to flashy and fashionable cooking. Cod “lightly brushed with honey and fried in a dry pan” had the burnt sweet crust that immersed itself with the firm sea-sweet fish. The pairing of carrot cooked in “almost burnt sour milk” and spruce and alcoholic vinegar jelly was striking and effective. Apart from the food, the setting at Faviken – embraced by sleepy mountains and a tranquil lake – is purely magical.
On #Worlds50Best: 34
More photo here.

 

- Hedone -
London, UK

Visited: 5 times since its opening
Why: My first meal at Hedone was not successful but there was this minimal but otherworldly piece of mackerel (with salad and Japanese dressing) that enticed me back to try more of chef Michael Jonsson’s cooking. This is the place to go for upper-crust produce prepared minimally to enhance its natural flavours. Chef Michael’s approach, I’d describe, is French with a touch of Scandinavia, where he originates, while his best of dishes range from Cevenne Onion with Pear, Scallops with Radish and Squid Ink and Venison with Foie Gras and Chestnut Veloute.
Not #Worlds50Best (I foresee Hedone to be on the list in just a matter of years).
More photo here.

 

- Mugaritz -
San Sebastian, Spain

Visited: Spring 2011
Why: My overall meal at Mugaritz was deceptively simple and with the unmissable regional Basque influences. “Fake Saffron Rice Just Rested” looked like juicy pumpkin seeds and was served in rich saffron sauce and toppled with white bread crouton. “Nails and Flowers” featured a crystalised sugar cone as translucent as a raincoat, with milky ice cream, chocolate nails and edible flowers. The topicality does not stop the meal to resonate the universality of emotion, and by the end of the meal, the ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine of Andoni Luis Aduriz left me in a nirvana of sort.
On #Worlds50Best: 3 (I was rooting this to be no.2!)
More photos here.

 

- Nahm -
Bangkok, Thailand + London, UK

Visited: 3 Times in Bangkok, Countless in London since 2008
Why: For a Thai who has grown up and become jaded with Thai food, Chef David Thompson is an inspiration. His delicate touch and stubbornness to the long-standing tradition both preserves and revolutionises Thai cuisine. While meals at Nahm London are, at times, inconsistent and restricted by means of daring audiences, its Bangkokian flagship pushes boundaries to the max. Say, a refined version of Pla Rah Song Kreung (rotten fish) for upper-class urbanites. In London, Nahm is the only restaurant where I can find the rarest of Thai desserts cooked to absolute perfection. Next year 2013 in Singapore it would be interesting to see how Nahm fares on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
On #Worlds50Best: 50

 

- Noma -
Copenhagen, Denmark

Visited: Spring 2010 & Autumn 2011
Why: I first went to Noma with zero expectation or knowledge about the restaurant (before #Worlds50Best fame) and the meal ended in subliminal reverence. Chef Rene Redzepi is a nationalist genius and his creations are well matched with taste, imagination and artistry. I don’t think I need to say much else.
On #Worlds50Best: 1
More photos here.

 

- Pyongyang Hae Dang Hua -
Beijing, China

Visited: 4 times since 2010
Why: This is the ultimate North Korean restaurant of the finest produce and the most impeccably trained kitchen brigade. Pyongyang Hae Dang Hua stands for the opulence of the old world unpolluted by globalisation (one of the very few things that closed countries such as North Korea benefit from). While the kitchen does not intentionally push boundaries, the culture in which we live in and our familiarity with the modern world makes this meal something of a rebellious, retrospective experience. Snapping Turtle was dissected, reassembled and simmered in medicinal ginseng stock, while Dog Meat Hot Pot featured braised roulade of dog’s legs toppled with some ground nuts, spring onions and an infusion of tomato and chilli sauce.
Not #Worlds50Best

 

- Shinji by Kanesaka -
Singapore, Singapore

Visited: Winter 2011
Why: I have never embarked on a proper gastronomic adventure in Japan and having been on this side of the world (where good Japanese food is scant) I lost interest in such cuisine. Shinji by Kanesaka (praised by my much better eating friend) in Singapore rekindles my faith in prime Japanese produce with premium sushi-making skills to match. I still dream of Oshino-san’s Uni Risotto, which involved a mashing of sea urchin with sushi rice (an estimated 2:1 ratio) until the rice turned creamy and golden and a toppling of chopped tuna belly. The pure, savoury, sea-like custard-y thing passed through my nose and throat at every spoonful – simply the raunchiest bowl of food I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Not #Worlds50Best
More photos here.

 

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Aqua Restaurant, Wolfsburg

Cars..

Restaurant Aqua is, practically, a restaurant in a car park. Situated on the ground floor of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in a small, kind-of-chaavy industrial town of Wolfsburg, this is a fine dining lair in (pretty much) the middle of nowhere. While Wolfsburg itself isn’t a no-go town, its attractions are tailored only for car enthusiasts. Say, a working Volkswagen factory, a Volkswagen museum, a handful of automobile installations, a hotel and a massive food hall, all of which are collectively known as The Autostadt. You go there to buy cars.. (or, for car pervs, rub yourselves against some vintage ones) and get out, a process that shouldn’t take no more than half a day.

I went …instead… for food.

Restaurant Aqua, spearheaded by a very talented and progressive chef Sven Elverfeld, currently holds 3 Michelin stars and No.25 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Guide (2011). (I am certain it will climb up the rank very quickly in years to come). And for me, it is among my top 5 favourite restaurant destinations in the world. (The Other Bib says it is his best fine dining experience to date, preferring it over Noma, Can Roca, etc. but it’s my blog so I won’t talk much about his impressions).

Worthy of four stars

The Michelin rating is hard to gauge, and the level of 3-starred cooking varies distinctly from one country to another. And at Aqua (as well as at some other places in Belgium which you’ll get to see in the near future), the excellence of the meal wanders beyond my typical 3-starred recognition. The same can be said about the price. Aqua only does two tasting menus – “Visions” and “Impressions” – from which you can choose from 4 to 9 courses. The “Visions” is shorter, while the “Impressions” is more lavish. The price fluctuates between €135 and €205. Dishes can be added and swapped between the two menus with additional (though relatively minimal) charges. I opted for the “Impressions” with additional dishes of Smoked Eel and Beef Tartare. But before all that..

.. the procession of oh-so-refined amuse bouche.

A few “rolls” (Image 1). The “Fish & Chip” in the middle stuck to my mind. The crisp-like cone was filled with a perfectly battered ball of fish and finished with vinegar jelly. The contrast between the sweet, fluffy fish and the acidity was comfortingly innovative. The texture – varying degrees of crispy-ness from the cone, the matchstick “chip”, the fish – was neither Cornwall nor Scotland but otherworldly. The roll of pork terrine and pickled caper was also a flood of gusty and tasty flavour in one mouthful. Imagine falling-apart meat with a little porky grease being washing down by the pickle acidity. Caramelised olives (Image 2) were perfect cleansing boosters prior to the grand meal. Identical black olives arrived covered in ridiculously thin sugary sheets. Sensational – the tangs that prickled my taste bud and the sublime sweetness that was so soothing. Some “spoons” (Image 3). On the left was a nano-cube of dense but tender, richly caramelised pork neck with apple and crackling; on the right a gentle piece of marinated mussel with white tomato cream. Good but totally upstaged by the two warm “shots” (Image 4) of bell pepper and anchovy (left) and peas, mint and pecorino (right). Both were technically flawless. The layer of froth provided another dimension of before-taste texture. I preferred the crystal clear sweet bell pepper consomme with a salted hint of anchovy to the silky pea and pecorino infusion.

 

“Smoked Eel” with pumpkin, green apple and pumpkin oil was a playful two-way dish using the same ingredients. The first (Image 1) featured eel fillets and deep-fried eel skins in an entourage of tender pumpkin cubes, puree, tapioca-like green apple gel and (if I’m right) apple vinegar. Very well informed taste combination. The main “eel” flavour was balanced by the fruity acidity and the sweet creamy pumpkin. I found the second (Image 2), which included slivers of eel and crushed pumpkin nuts on a bed of pumpkin puree and green apple sorbet, more intriguing, specifically in the cooling acidity of the sorbet. “Foie Gras & Iberico Pork” (Image 3) was decorated with toasted nutty amaranth seeds, frisee and perilla leaves. I loved how the sweet buttery foie gras interacted with the fatty and more robust Iberico pork; then came a light background taste from onion tapioca and Granny Smith gel; the leaves added a crispy texture and a mint-y finishing touch. “Beef Tartare a la Borschtsch Hot/Cold” was my photo disaster. Basically I was stunned by the beauty of snow-white, frozen sour cream ball and a second later a hot jug of borsch was poured over. The ball disintegrated to reveal a naughty filling of tartare and caviar – the sight to behold. The beef tasted medium aged and very pure; the caviar pearl injected exuberant salt; the borsch was distinctly beetroot-y but subtle in acidity. It was a dish of luxe but did not top the innovative borsch I swooned over at Varvary.

 

“Cauliflower & Egg Yolk” (Image 1-2) was a paradox of humility and pomp. The genius of this dish was the complex layers of smooth cauliflower puree, herb reduction, runny (poached) yolk and aged parmesan emulsion; it was almost soup-like in consistency. The pungent cheese oozed comfort, while the cauliflower gave enough sweet body to the dish. The truffle aroma was an unforgettable finishing touch. “Brittany Sole” (Image 3) was done Finkenwerder-style. The firm fillet, roasted and toppled with crumb-y crust, was accompanied by parsley puree, brown shrimps and vinegar-y broth. Very clean flavour with the focus on the fish. “Glazed Calf’s Sweetbread” (Image 4-5) came in a glass casserole. The sweetbread was diced and glazed in a rich beef-y jus with potato and celery; layered with nut’s butter and thin shavings of mushrooms. The earthy-ness of the ‘shrooms and the butter lightened up the hearty jus.

Next up was the dish I looked forward to most, a three-Michelin-starred Brussels sprout served with its own emulsion and strong Mumme beer reduction. The actual surprise lay in the firm, whole sprout, and one bite into it led to this soft texture of hidden goat’s cheese. The loose leaves were also exceptionally cooked for crunch and became a refreshing contrast to brawny game salami and aromatic wafer-like caraway biscuit. Before the meat course came an intermittent dish of “Champagne Cream Sorbet” with a generous sip of Moet “Grant Vintage Rose 2002″. Bittersweet fizz to revive the palate. The last “Venison with Spruce Sprouts” was comfort. The venison was sous-vided with an understanding. Very dainty and it did not relinquish the game-y scent. I also thought a duo of savoy cabbage and swede puree a real craft; and another secret in the venison-filled swede dumpling. I skipped the cheese course.

The desserts, too, were spectacular. “Big Apple” (Image 1-2) was an inventive twist on the candied apple you’d find in any German X’mas market. This faintly green Granny Smith, however, was made entirely of sugar crust that shattered with a touch of a spoon. Inside it was heaven.. the ethereal yogurt foam that was precisely as sour as a Granny Smith would be and the edible core and seed made from crushed sweetened pecan. The watery essence of apple underneath bound the dish together. It tasted bloody like a caramelised apple but so light and without substance. More “rolls” of cookies and nuts followed (sorry I am too lazy to write); then came the “spoons” (Image 4) with baked alaska on the left and sweet potato ice cream with lemon-thyme-infused chocolate soil on the right; and a kind of German cake (this sounds incredibly lazy of me!!) with almond and raisin… and the biggest praline trolley I’d ever seen at a restaurant. I picked six out of nearly 20 flavour combinations (if I had eaten two courses less, I might have more energy to focus and write -___-” ).

It. Was. True. Bliss.

It is also, quite possibly, the best and most joyful 3-Michelin-starred restaurant I’ve ever visited. Sven’s cooking is avant-garde, inspirational, and above all else, delicious. Sven not only revisits the German tradition (basically of cheap food!) or marries it thoughtfully with meticulous French skills, but he also has revolutionised (and molecularised) German cuisine in a way that does not rob soul and hearty-ness off a typical German meal. At the end of my dinner, we were already talking about a return in spring and summer for Aqua… <3

GO FOR: Innovation. Comfort. The experience I am looking forward to reprising in spring/summer.
RATING: 5/5

Interested in The Autostadt? You can check out SB’s Facebook album here ;)

RESTAURANT AQUA

The Ritz-Carlton Wolfsburg
Parkstraße 1
Wolfsburg 38440
Germany

Tel. +49 5361 606056

www.restaurant-aqua.com

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The Hannover Weihnachtsmarkt(s)

What We Say:

Happy Christmas.

IF you want a German Christmas market experience of your life – let me be blunt – Hannover is not it. Though the history of the city dated back prior to the Holy Roman Empire, most of its pretty, fortress-y Medieval features were destroyed in WWII. And I was left with a rather depressing conglomeration of post-war buildings, refurbishings and a shopping scene where 4-floored Primark reigned supreme. I didn’t make a destination out of Hannover. I was merely passing by. I wasn’t entirely disappointed…

In another more serious note, the Weihnachtsmarkt is of a decent size. There are three different markets. One is situated in the Market Church (the most attractive spot where all the photos you’ll find on the Internet are taken); another is the Finnish Christmas Market on the Ballhofplatz; and a Medieval X’mas village in between.

 

How to Get There:

From the Hbf/ train station, look out for stalls. They form a path or two for you to stroll your way around the three markets. Very easy.

Best to Go:

The markets in Hannover aren’t the most excessively lit or the most eye-watering polychrome, especially when compared to my last year trips to Koln and Dortmund. For a need to bask in the Christmas scene, it’s best to go near sunset and hang around until all is lit up and glowing. I arrived in early afternoon and the city looked un-atmospheric.

What to Get:

There are the usual stuff – wursts, mulled wine, gingerbread, candied apples, chestnuts, etc. – but I detected a lot of mini puffy square doughnuts, (French) crepes, and reibekuchen (deep fried potato fritters). The average price for all was no more than €3, with the exception of supersized things. Oddly enough, a few stalls sold stir-fried noodles.

The main bit..

Moving on to the Medieval bit and the Finnish Market. The smell of flamed grilled salmon (flammlachs) really perfumed the air.. and my coat -___-

Back to the Church Market.

Getting dark.

The XXL Currywurst glared at me at €4 (How much does a Bratwurst cost at Winter Wonderland!?).

 

YES SS :-9

What Else:

Fire play at the Finnish/ Medieval Market. The woman was good. The guy (behind) dropped all the burning torches he juggled!!

And.. if you don’t quite fancy a German market, do settle for a Guinness  >_<