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.
The Ritz-Carlton Wolfsburg
Tel. +49 5361 606056