A new menu concept? Interesting. Exactly when I dined at Aqua I received a mail about a new menu concept at Vendôme – 8 courses (plus desserts) at €150, 12 courses (plus desserts) at €190, and finally 16 courses (+ 8 desserts) in the grand “explorative voyage” at €245 – full stop.
Well beyond the price point of any other German three star restaurant (Amador is second with €209 for his 20+ course menu including micro menu and dessert tapas). In the midst of a quite substantial crisis which has hit the high-end gastronomy worldwide. Brave?
On the other hand, the old menu consisted of 7 courses together with some amuse, pre-dessert and petit four priced at €185. So, more value for money in the end?
Or does it only mean that all “extras” ar listed including amuse etc.?
Besides the numbers, what’s the philosophy behind? Surely, this can’t be about simply serving more courses. When introducing the menu concept on the website Joachim Wissler talks about “development” and that his menu is more than just serving small successive courses combing nature’s best products. He stresses that “the “how” and “what” are the aspects that truly characterize this new step. In it more attention is also placed on some of the treasures of our own neglected cuisine, which is generally referred to as “New German Cuisine”.“
Enough questions, time for answers. Booked a table for four, but unfortunately Steve P and Mrs P could not accompany us. So, only the two of us went end of May.
Somehow, the layout immediately struck me as something quite familiar having dined at Alinea… And I could not figure out the meaning of the bubbles here, but never mind.
One of the questions got answered immediately: there were nibbles (thank you, Andy Hayler, for this term – I really like it) not listed on the printed menu card.
On the left: smoked cottage cheese with raspberry and basilic – the freshness of the fruit worked amazingly well with the smoky cheese with its distinct mouth feel. Excellent.
On the right: lolly of goat cheese, mackerel on top of a baked polenta and eel with peach – here the eel stood out strongly as again the fruit – smoky combination provided the little extra kick. Excellent again.
The first element of the ‘real’ menu: Knäckebrot / crab / mussels / Frankfurt green sauce. Personally, I would count it rather as an amuse (or nibble). Served a little bit too warm the flavours could not really unfold. This was further exacerbated by the bread being not crisp enough resulting in a un-differentiated flavour profile. Moreover, some acidity would have done well to provide a broader spectrum of flavours.
Next up was ‘Blätterwald’ / brittle of vegetables / goose yoghurt dip. Another amuse, for me at least. Visually stunning, this was hard to eat as it turned out to be a bit ‘sticky’ especially for my fingers and teeth. Taste-wise, the cauliflower and the celery were clear stand-outs, algae and beetroot were still good. The dip provided a nice richness and so complemented the crispy ‘chips’. Very good.
For me, the first starter clearly showed the immense talent and perfection of Joachim Wissler: coral / parmesan / foie gras / basil pistou. The coral is made of parmesan topped with tomato salt and parmesan espuma, with a kind of foie gras ‘pudding’ (like an unburned crème brûlée), basil pistou (a pesto without pine nuts), accompanied by some balsamic vinegar and a truffled tapanade. Clearly the texture of the coral made this dish special – crisp at first when bitten and then soft and melting in the mouth. The parmesan was not too dominating and I found the herbal – rich – cheesy combination quite nice. Compared to the foie gras dish at my last visit (the foie gras ice with tuna belly and eucalyptus) this was a significant improvement – a masterpiece in dimensioning and textural interplay.
Next up was oyster / green apple and sauerkraut / Aquitaine caviar – a dish I have already commented on. But, hey, wait a moment – this time the caviar was completely missing and the apple was not as sparkling fresh as before. Yet, this dish is a benchmark in flavour and texture combinations. Excellent.
The following langoustine / grilled sushi / tonic and ginger was fantastic. The langoustine was covered by its corail and laid over a purée of basmati rice. Its clearly pronounced roast flavours formed a wonderful contrast to the slightly bitter, sweet and alcoholic ‘gin tonic’ sugo and the crunchy eatable paper of dashi, shiso and horseradish. A couple of weeks before this had been served with green almonds which were not in season any more. I could imagine this more herbal element could have elevated the dish even higher. Excellent to outstanding.
The warm octopus / sepia / octopus marshmallow was another ‘old friend’ – this time the caramelized peanut jus was even more pronounced and worked particularly well with the octopus, sepia, sliced spring onion and cucumber salad. A part Wissler served a sepia marshmallow topped with sliced cuttlefish, cress and seaweed – primarily a mouthfeel effect which provides a nice contrast to the firmer salad elements. It somehow softens the whole dish. A showcase – simply outstanding.
Then, the star of the night: meadow / of mushrooms / glazed bone marrow. This is an ingenious play of textures with a tartar of mushrooms, mushroom crème and mushroom bread crumble with herbs accompanied with glazed bone marrow. The latter added significant depth to the dish and some meaty element. In spirit this is close to the Spanish avantgarde and its virtual landscapes – one can really imagine walking through a meadow with mushrooms in the morning. Divine.
For me, at this time of the meal it did not seem much different to a normal, yet extended tasting menu as the courses did not very much in size or had a surprising flavour dramaturgy. Hmm…
After these ‘entrees’ a couple of ‘intermediate’ courses followed. First, sweet water / lake trout / horseradish / char caviar. The trout from Bavaria was of outstanding quality, firm, not fatty at all and topped with its fried skin and the char caviar which added both texture and smokiness. The sugo of bay leaf, cucumber and chives made this quite special as the herbal notes literally carried the trout on a sedan and complemented the aroma spectrum with herbal, sour and fresh notes. Ultimately, the spheres of apple and horseradish took up the fruit theme and added some spiciness and, most importantly, a yet different texture and mouthfeel. Excellent to outstanding.
A prime example that ‘regional’ products can indeed play an important role in high-end cuisine. Of course, one needs an outstanding product which is the most difficult part as a perfect turbot is easier to source from the usual suspects. But to find a reliable small producer in Bavaria who can consistently deliver high quality is hard. Here, the German chefs begin to exchange addresses and work together if one has been lucky to find a suitable product.
Then, sea water / skate wing / curcuma – coriander sugo / rice gnocchi. Grilled skate wing topped with caramelized peas served with rice gnocchi, apple/celery ‘tartar’ and a wonderful sugo of curcuma and coriander. Admittedly, I like curcuma very much and that made the dish special for me. But, on the other hand, there was rice purée in the langoustine dish and apple turned up in several dishes before. However, I did not have the impression of this dish being repetitive as it showed a distinct range of flavours. Only the skate wing was a tad overdone – an excellent dish overall.
The next course was the first small bite: spheres of vineyard snails. A clear step-up in intensity which I found a bit distracting when looking at the previous and the next course – I would have served it before the mains. The sphere contained braised snails and snail sugo, accompanied by parsley purée in a morel jus and topped with a vinegar caramel some snail dust. For me, the caramell was a bit too dominating. In itself, the parsley somehow ameliorated the intensity and brought a bit freshness. Serving two spoons per head is not necessary, the idea is apparent after one – the second made me feel somehow full.
Given the intense flavours of the snails one would not expect tuna / fish & chips / pommes frites nicoise: tuna belly garnished with its bone, topped with capers, tomato powder on the left – black olive and sugar to the left served with french fries in a bowl of a cream of tomato, white beans and vadouvan.
For me, this was a quite controversial dish. I liked the presentation, I love tuna and french fries and I am open to eating with the hands. Even the flavour combination worked well. But, the dish turned out to be too fatty to me, even unpleasant to eat – for me, that is. Some minutes afterward I felt really full and nearly collapsed due to a combination of sensory overkill and the sheer amount of food so far. All those portions had not been amuse size…
Given my level of saturation the next dishes were hard to enjoy for me despite them being really good. I fought hard not to end the meal… In the end, it paid off…
The next course was a bit too soft given the intense and broad flavours of the previous dishes: cod – head to tail. My notes read tongue, cheek and the forehead – compared to Food Snob’s version of this, Wissler had included the forehead wrapped around chives which gave a nice fleshy – herbal counterpoint to the slightly sweet pea sauce. In the middle the cheek was served almost rare accompanied by two pieces of grilled tongue – a nice textural contrast. Covered by chives, radish and peas this was an excellent dish but more subtle and less remarkable than the previous fish courses. And, again, I would have served it between the sweet and sea water.
Interestingly, this is a good example that also ‘leftovers’ in the kitchen can make up an excellent dish. So, in this sense, this dish contributed to a more modern all-encompassing take on high-end dining and an abandonment of the terrain of the usual luxury product ingredients.
After that, a first (pre-)main course was served: Schweinerei zum Essen (hard to translate – a kind of word play – eatable swinishness, maybe). A braised pork tail, crispy resembling the essence of real pork taste, a strong pork jus, pickles of melon, melon salat and algae. Excellent if one likes this strong flavour. And, again, a bit on the fatty side.
The second main: Juvelin suckling pig / lovage / boudin noir / Ligurian mountain lentils – essentially the same dish as in October last year but with a big chunk of boudin noir (this time called Flönz on the German menu card which is a regional expression for boudin noir in the Cologne area) and some chanterelles, but without the pork chop. In essence, still excellent, but the boudin noir was too much and a bit dominating this time.
As I said on my last report, this is a nice signature dish for Wissler as it both shows the rustic side of his cooking, his love for pig dishes and German products.
The third main: Sauerbraten / of ox / sandwich of bread baked in a wood-fired oven. Sauerbraten is perhaps one of the most common German dishes: the Rhineland version of it was traditionally prepared using horse meat but today beef is used. The trick is to marinade the beef up to one week in red wine vinegar, red wine, mirepoix and bay leaf among other spices. It is then braised for a couple of hours and has a characteristic sour taste and should be tender enough to melt in your mouth. To be sure, there are also other variants of it…
So, what does Wissler do? He takes ox meat and marinates it traditionally but then cooks it sous-vide such that both the juiciness was preserved and tenderness ensured. In a way, the mouthfeel was similar to a traditional braised Sauerbraten yet it was light-years juicier. Successful modernization. On top, there were caramelized sunflower seeds which added texture but were a bit too overpowering the delicate meat. The Stielmus purèe (a regional vegetable) added herbal and fresh notes. I was not particularly fond of the sandwich of Sauerbraten jelly which again was more on the rich and fatty side. In my view, this nevertheless excellent dish could gain tremendously from some lightness and flavour contrast – maybe some fruity notes?
At an earlier point we had already cancelled the cheese course. Then, the dessert ballet started – eight ‘small’ dishes arrived quickly, some of them together. Somehow, this was unneccessary and disturbing as the diner at this very point of the grand voyage is at his limit. Thus, the capacity to really appreciate this sheer amount of different, very elaborate and excellent desserts is rather limited. Definitely, less would be more.
Haut kross von der Milch – a mascarpone cream served with crispy milk skin and caramel sirup. Intense, broad flavour, interesting textures. Then rose water sorbet and strawberry coulis – a really refreshing, light and really delicate counterpart after a couple of dishes more on the heavy side.
Another fresh and fruity dessert was next – snowball filled with strawberries, essentially an interplay of yoghurt and intense and fresh strawberries which continued on the side with strawberry salad with hibiscus ice cream. As a last strawberry element we were served goose milk-rice and Gariguette strawberry salad. All in all a very new declination of different strawberry flavours paired with crunchy, airy and soft element. Excellent to outstanding.
The macron of Fourme D’Ambert with raspberry sorbet was the least pleasant part of the whole menu – the strong cheese was overpowering everything and the macron was much too big. Finally we got a ‘Mohr im Hemd‘ – a choco soufflé with egg liquor. Very nice, intense, but a very heavy ending… Some petit fours including the Vendôme Magnum (a favorite ice cream) ended the meal.
We also did some drinking but in order to be able to concentrate on the culinary journey we chose to select a bottle of Christmann Idig, a nice present Riesling from 2004, and half a bottle Marinetti Barolo from 2001. Both were very nice companions during our meal.
In a meal of 20+ courses one rarely encounters this consistent high-end quality. Every dish was in itself well-thought through, technically masterly prepared and elaborate up to the utmost detail. Flavours were clear, distinct and unique and textures are there to enhance flavours not to be textures for their own sake. Especially the mushroom meadow really did impress me.
Coming back to the numbers from the beginning, €245 is a lot but given the amount and quantity of food it does resemble a good price-quality relationship – especially when compared to the most prestigious French houses. And indeed, the overall experience was much better than recently at Troisgros, Arnsbourg or even Bras (reports coming up)…
The only downside – the menu composition: on the one hand, after the initial fish courses the tuna and the pork turned out too fatty and kind of overdid it for me. With this sheer amount of food the whole tone of the menu needs to be lighter for me. On the other hand, rustic notes like in the pig dishes, the snails and the Sauerbraten are quite programmatic for Wissler. Thus, to bring a 20+ course menu and Wissler’s style together is a task which I found not yet truly accomplished. One possibility could be to go only for the medium version of the voyage or lighten up the overall menu without compromising Wissler’s style…
In this context, let’s come back to the beginning – the new menu concept. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the individual dishes is clearly beyond criticism but the dramaturgy was not that new – compared to what Grant Achatz is doing in breaking up the old menu dramaturgy. As Grant says in his book, with the traditional menu dramaturgy diners tend to get bored and overburdened. Not that I got bored at Vendôme but it clearly brought me to my limit to fully appreciate what I was eating. I would wish that Joachim Wissler will also innovate on his menu composition and maybe change something to make the grand voyage even more enjoyable. And, maybe less or smaller desserts would also benefit the experience.
If Wissler ‘fixes’ that and continues to create dishes at that level, maybe sometimes a little more playful, it will take the next stage. It is surely in sight. But then his New German Cuisine will be world-class, at least for me.