This is not one of these usual reviews about one specific menu in a restaurant – it’s praise for someone whose cooking emotionally moves me every time I dine there.
Someone who lets me participate in a revelatory and contemplative dining experience…
Someone who demonstrates that we leverage only a small percentage of the full spectrum of potential ingredients and flavors and that vegetables and herbs offer so much potential for enriching our cooking…
Someone who grows his own vegetables and treats them with utmost respect and immense knowledge…
Someone whose ideas and aroma combinations are singular…
Someone who is passionate about his cooking and takes no prisoners when it comes to product and execution quality…
Admittetly I was always a big fan of Michael Hoffmann’s cooking (see my 2009 post), but during the last year he has made such a significant progress such that my love for his cuisine grew even stronger. After both herbs and vegetables had been on the forefront of his cuisine for some years, he bought his own „garden“ (well, actually a nursery) and started to cultivate some 400 different kinds of vegetables. Now, herbs play a slightly lesser role in his cooking and vegetables do more of the dance! He even signs his menu cards with “Chef and Gardener” instead of “Cuisinier”. This own garden gives him the opportunity to experiment with harvesting times and will further deepen his understanding of vegetables.
Mentally he also made an important step forward. Having been underrated at the Michelin and Gault Millau for some years, he continued to walk his way – against all odds (especially in the Berlin scene) and without having a sound financial backing of a big corporate or private sponsor. This year he seems even more confident and freed from the verdict of the guides. If it doesn’t work out here in Berlin-Mitte in a true Gourmet temple there is always the option to open a more rustic restaurant somewhere in the rural outskirts…
Most importantly, he has refined his unique handwriting: until early this year his cooking reminded a bit of Pierre Gagnaire in that he improvised around a common theme across different plates. Compared to last year’s stellar performance (LINK) his dishes have significantly matured and grown up being much more purist, clearer in construction and more to the point. Moreover, as he is very concerned about sustainability, some products are off the menu card: there is no goose liver, no tuna, no turbot, no sole, to name but a few.
Let’s look at some of Mr Hoffmann’s this year’s dishes to understand what has been going on and to show different facets of his creative process and thinking:
Modernization/new context: Berliner Löffelerbsen (originally a rich version of a pea soup so thick that a spoon could stand therein) comprised a rice chip with an espuma of yellow peas (used for the original recipe), dried pea zests and Melissa. This yielded a concentrated pea experience opened by the crunch of the chip and closed by the zests all beautifully flavored by Melissa. Light, intense, refreshing.
Elevation: radish with ‘crispbread’ (actually a light baiser-based version) consisted of a raviolo of jellied radish jus filled with radish and yoghurt thrones on a ragout of cucumber, radish and candied citron accompanied by a refreshing sugo of apple, horseradish and lovage. A bit like a traditional Abendbrot with bread, radish and cucumber, this revealed the utmost precision Michael Hoffmann uses in all his creations as proportions worked out so perfectly that the small amuse was pure pleasure, delicate and showing the potential of ‘boring’ radish.
De- and new-construction: Escabeche Salad with chickweed. Hoffmann combined a sliced jelly of braised and smoked bell pepper, shallots cooked in sea salt in combination of glazed bean stripes and savory and, last but not least, a wonderful ice cream of chickweed. On the one hand this was a very clever deconstruction of the spectrum of an Escabeche salad and on the other hand a premier showcase for chickweed that was clearly the cornerstone of the dish. So, in a way dish construction was turned upside down: the chickweed was king and all the other ingredients emphasized different shades of the herb itself (nutty, corn and spinach flavors). Although this being a recent dish (and was part of the 19. Gourmetvision) it was a little more programmatic of the herbal phase of Hoffmann’s œuvre but with a clearer structure. Well, needless to say that Hoffmann used the whole claviature of temperature and texture contrasts but only in the background.
Vegetables shine: Rondini, olive oil and truffles. Hoffmann served boiled compote of Rondini (a special pumpkin (gem squash), which looks a bit like zucchini), marinated wild herbs and Croatian truffle along with black radish cooked in salt. A very ragout-like dish building on the slightly nutty and mild taste of the Rondini flavored by the herbs and the strong salty black radish, which had to be dosed quite carefully as the saltiness, could have become problematic.
No clear protagonist: mackerel, cucumber and buttermilk. Hoffmann first pickled the mackerel with Indian spices and then steamed it slowly to perfection whereas the accord with the buttermilk (as a yoghurt replacement), cucumber and garden herbs worked sensational.
Clear and straightforward, purist: turnips and purslane. Programmatic of the more mature and purist Michael Hoffmann this dish is inspired by the work of René Redzepi where he dined this year for the first time. But rather than just copying Redzepi’s unique work, Hoffmann cooked the turnips in grape seed oil and served them with a purslane salad (like spinach). The resulting combination of slightly sweet turnips with the slightly sour, salty and nutty purslane was ingenious and perfectly put into spotlight by a rich grape sabayon emphasizing both sweet and sour facets of this dish.
New paths: ‘bar de ligne’, Sashimi and tarragon. A dish completely relinquishing a traditional jus – ingeniously Michael Hoffmann uses a jelly of tarragon vinegar and soy/honey to marry the sea bass (cooked in tarragon butter) and the new sashimi of couscous, fennel, red leak and turnips. As the jelly melts with the warm elements it works like a concentrated jus but in the exactly right dosage. To be fair, Grant Achatz has also worked extensively with jelly that he used to coat entire dishes but he used broth-based jellies. Hoffmann’s approach is more effective and precise.
Seasonality: Summer Vegetables. Of course, seasonality plays a major if not the most important role in Michael Hoffmann’s creations. The seasonal versions of his signature dish “Vegetables” ingeniously show how he manages to solicit the best taste and effect from each and every vegetable used. He carefully cooks them separately in mineral water and serves them with the most intense vegetable broth I have ever come across, some dried vegetables for textural effects and a spicy bread with different thin stripes of the vegetables which in itself is delicious yet a bit strong in my opinion. Compared to Bras’ gargouillou it’s more transparent and thus offers more insight into the different vegetables used. Chapeau!
New vegetable cooking techniques: eggplant, coriander and Jerusalem artichoke. Hoffmann changed the character of the eggplant by candying it over a couple of days and slowly roasting it in olive oil. So it gained the character of a dried fruit, concentrated and intense that was perfectly counterbalanced by the smokiness of the smoked puree of Jerusalem artichokes and herbal nature of the crispy salad stems as well as the coriander crème.
Vegetable main courses: potato sandwich and leeks’ ash. What defines the character of a main course? It is not necessarily the existence of a solid piece of beef – it should have highlight character and enough substance to stand out like the third act in a classical drama. So it must have power to excel, suspense and mark the turning point of the menu – build a bridge towards the desserts. Interestingly, with the eggplant Hoffmann had already prepared us for sweeter nuances. And this violet potato sandwich delivered, yes indeed!
Essentially a millefeuille of ultra-thin layers of violet potatoes, a royale based on spicy cucumbers, confit of violet potatoes, raw-marinated potatoes with garden herbs accompanied by a cream of the very same garden herbs partly accentuated by leeks’ ash. Last but not least, there was an intense broth of turnips to ground and aromatize the whole dish. The main course nature was caused by the complexity of the different potato variations (suspense) and the richness of the royale (power) whereas the herbal notes made it delicate. Moreover, as the violet potatoes are slightly sweet the acceleration towards the desserts somehow continued.
Vegetable desserts: tomato-air-bread with candied vegetables and Parmesan. Already a Hoffmann classic this brilliantly shows the potential of vegetables in sweet courses. A new context for vegetables but the broad variation of taste and flavors and the potential ways of treating them yield a very enriched spectrum of possibilities.
Dear fellow foodies, this is one of the most interesting cuisines in Europe – putting it in the “new naturals” drawer would fit but in effect fall short of the pure spectrum of Michael Hoffmann’s cuisine. It is truly unique with its very own philosophy, very elaborate and uses only the very best products available in combination with a cooking precision far beyond most new naturals chefs. Most importantly, he is not following a trend he is cooking “Hoffmann” and nothing else.
So go and experience it yourself – it is worth any trip!
Unter den Linden 78 (Entrance Wilhelmsstraße)
Tel: +49 (30) 22 65 26 11