Among Germany’s top chefs Joachim Wissler is certainly unique. Regarded as one of the best chefs in the world he continues to push the frontier for new (and forgotten) ingredients, techniques and, most importantly, new and unique combinations of flavours. He is on the forefront of the development of a “New German Cuisine” in the last couple of years.
As part of the Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg in Bergisch-Gladbach near Cologne the Restaurant Vendôme is located in the small cavaliers’ house. It has been carefully renovated in 2007 to leave its Baroque and too overloaded interior behind. Now it better fits to the modern and refined cooking of Joachim Wissler. Interestingly, the whole team was involved in creating a truly harmonious, warm and also practical ambiance. Miguel Calero, the mâitre, told us that everything what’s needed (cutlery, napkins etc) is hidden somewhere except for the plates…
Joachim Wissler has one big advantage among the new generation of top German chefs as he didn’t have a big influential mentor. Thus, like Juan Amador, he was able to create his own distinct style over the years. Others, like Christian Bau, Klaus Erfort or Sven Elverfeld had first to emancipate themselves from Wohlfahrt or Müller.
Upon completion of his apprenticeship at the Traube Tonbach (Harald Wohlfahrt’s reign) he had several positions in Baden (although he is originally from Württemberg) before he became chef de cuisine at the restaurant Marcobrunn in Schloss Reinhartshasuen in the Rheingau in 1991. In 1995 the first star was awarded and in 1996 immediately the second. The Marcobrunn was the top location in the Rhine-Main region during this time.
After Thomas Althoff opened the Grand Hotel Schloss Bensberg he managed to engage Wissler as chef de cuisine of the gourmet restaurant Vendôme in 2000. Then, things happened quickly – first star 2001, second 2003, third 2005 – together with a 19.5 in he Gault Millau Wissler is now ranked among the top chefs in Germany and Europe. This year he made highest new entry in the Pellegrino Top50 list and got a prestigious 9.0 rating in Lo Mejor.
Whereas his cooking in the first years at the Vendome was still rooted in the French Grand Cuisine using its traditional techniques and its ingredient protagonists Wissler slowly introduced more rustic and somehow forgotten local products on his menus. Pigs’ feet, mouth, calf’s head in various interpretations to name just a few. Moreover, he began using modern molecular techniques to bring these “new” products to new glory. This year then he decided to offer a more traditional menu with luxury products (7 courses for €185) and a modern menu with less luxurious but still outstanding products which is more attractive from a price perspective (7 courses for €140).
Our surprise menu was a perfect balanced cross-section of the current menus:
We started with eatable paper from pork jus, wild samlet with pumpkin and bisquit, rilettes from Tafelspitz with escabeche vegetables and a crustacean creme in a roll.
The eatable paper was surprising and presented pork jus in a very condensed and almost encapsulated way. Aromatic and an amazing starter to accompany our champagne.
The second part of the aperitif companions was more traditional and a very good preparation for the meal to come due to its saltiness (samlet), intensity (crustacean creme) and freshness (Tafelspitz/vegetables).
We thought that the next courses were part of the menu but the printed menu said Amuse Bouche. These three courses were so spectacular and mind-blowing that we were actually a little worried where this would take us. But, Joachim Wissler did it by purpose and clearly showed his immense potential in these quite experimental and new courses. This was a clear attention step in the presentation.
First amuse: Gillardeau oyster with green apple and Sauerkraut pearls. This had it all: an interplay of sweat and sour flavours, different textures and, most importantly, an astonishing combination of the ingredients. It clearly shows that Wissler is a master of pairing flowers. Outstanding!
Second amuse: scallops with porcini naturelle, juice of palourde clams and foie gras slices. The dish of the day. The porcini were presented three ways: naturelle with an amazingly intense aroma, as a jelly which was kind of a backbone of the dish and, most surprisingly, a not too intense salt to distribute the porcini flavour across the whole dish. Scallops of outstanding quality were served marinated with some citric flavour and the smooth and rich sliced foie gras made an important counterpoint. Again the combination made it an absolutely outstanding dish. The idea is ingenious and masterly prepared.
Third amuse: warm octopus salad with sepia and seaweed, octopus marsh mellow – another stroke of a genius. This time the flavours were more denser yet distinct, very refined. As a contrast Wissler added some almonds for texture and sweetness. The marsh mellow is a prime example of the extreme technical skills of Wissler – he is clearly pushing the boundaries here. The skate wing a part with the tomato compote brought spiciness and fruitiness. Outstanding again!
Then the actual menu started with tuna belly with eucalyptus and cassis, almonds and apple/goose liver-ice cream. The combination is risky but it totally pays off – the different flavours literally dance in your mouth. It is hard to say where on the planet you are served a dish like dish… Essentially a land and see dish in a vanguard presentation. The tuna belly opens with fatty and intense tuna flavours, the ice cream brings balance and intensity but more on a sweet side. Rounded by eucalyptus (fresh and citric) and cassis (strong, crispy and a bit austere) it is very good dish. Only the proportions could be slightly improved – less ice cream and more tuna would elevate this creation even further.
Then a Wissler classic since it is continuously on the menu for some time now: mottled ravioli of mascarpone with périgord-truffles and old balsamico. After opening the ravioli the interior is a “ragout” of mascarpone, small chantarelles and truffles. It was just very yummy and excellent.
As a benchmark how to integrate local products in a three star meal you could take the next course: catfish of the “Donau” with sunflower seed-cream, parsley-juice and beetroot. Wissler accompanied it with a surprising combination of sunflower seed cream based on a coco beans puree (nutty with a touch of sweetness), parsley jus (intense, herbal, lighter texture, austere) and a small raw beet root salad (texture, sweetness). The fish did stand up against those strong flavours especially due its glaze of sunflower coulis which made it a stronger element without wiping out the fish’s taste. That’s a clever use of a light “crust” which is so detrimentially used in most other gourmet restaurants. Excellent!
To serve red mullet with some form of bouillabaisse seems to be fashionable these days, but Wissler is able to stand out. His red mullet à la Bouillabaisse, sauce rouille and grean beans is a total winner. These were the best grean beans I have ever tasted thanks to a sensible use of “modern techniques”, i.e. condensing the flavour by converting it into a concentrated jelly. Very mediterranean indeed with mussels, bouillabaisse jus and a not too strong sauce rouille. Like Berasategui he serves the mullet with edible scales but roasts the mullet carefully in a pan instead of a continuous application of virgin olive oil to the white meat like Berasategui (the result of which can be seen here). The result is less pronounced as the crystallized scales in Martin’s dish and adds sufficient (and not too much) texture. Excellent!
Another stunning product was next in a very experimental combination: tuna marrow with yuzu and cocos, smoked ham jus. This is an interesting intellectual exercise with a lot of taste in the end – in contrast to most creations at Mugaritz where a dish like this would be more expected than in Bergisch Glabach. The marrow brings intense tuna flavour whereas the texture is like a very very light gnocchi. Together with the strong ham jus, yuzu and the coconut fat which was shaped over the hot plate (the “sweat” you can see around the actual dish) this was a strong intense surprising creation but personally I didn’t like the texture of the marrow that much. Very good to excellent.
Next up was another dish on the modern and vanguard side: slightly grilled Joselito Iberico pork, crispy ear and tail of pork, white cabbage and salted plums. For me this was the least compelling dish of a overall fantastic menu. Wissler treated the pork like a piece of tuna and grilled only for several second leaving it quite rare on the inside. Interesting as the transfer is, the pork stays a bit chewy due to its rareness and is thus hard to eat. And, I do not like plums at all. The crispy ear and the a part pork tail were super – all in all a decent dish, but just not my taste.
Before the actual mains came we received a pre-main: egg yolk with parsley-mousse, white truffles of alba and nutbutter-foam. There is some tradition in serving pre-mains at the Vendome: I pleasantly remember the spectacular goose liver shavings with perigord truffles, almond beignets and apple/licorice jus which you can see here. Wissler breaks with the tradition to serve a palate-cleanser before the mains – instead he serves a palate-activator. Brilliant.
How was the the actual egg yolk with nutbutter-foam you might ask? What a luxurious, extravagant and indulgent dish, just very yummy in the best sense of the word. It was so good that I forgot to fotograph it;-) Two minor points here: the portion was a bit too large and as the dish is quite heavy this makes it hard to have enough room for the courses to come. Second, the nutbutter-form itself could be less as it tended to dominate the truffles a bit. All together excellent nevertheless.
First main course was Juvelin suckling pig with lovage, Ligurian mountain lentils and boudin noir. Another characteristic of Joachim Wissler is that he uses the whole spectrum of cooking methods and was one of the first in Germany who (re-)introduced braised meat in the top gastronomy and also uses sous-vide techniques. On the one hand this dish shows his mastery of the different techniques (braised shoulder, sous-vide belly and roasted chop) and on the other hand it is a prime example of the more rustic and nevertheless luxurious style of his cuisine. At first sight the combination seems simple, but pairing the lentils with boudin noir and lovage is brilliant. Excellent to outstanding. A German product from the Münsterland by the way…
As a second main we got breast of veal of the “Holzberghof” braised 24 hours, oregano vegetables and polenta drops. An incredibly tender and tasty piece of meal cooked to absolute perfection which worked very well with the oregano beans and the mushrooms. Serving the polenta as drops makes them less heavy and is a very clever alternative because a normal polenta would have made this dish much too heavy. Excellent. Another local product, this time sourced from LandArt (Salzkammergut/Austria – see also here).
Also for the dessert it continued with strong flavours: the panna cotta of burned milk with caramel and tarte tartin ice cream was stunning and a nice accord of different aromas and textures. Very good to excellent.
As a perfect finale a chocolate-pepper soufflé with banana and curcuma ice cream found its way to our table. Again, I missed taking a picture – maybe I was too distracted as we got the chance to speak with Joachim Wissler while being served the dessert. Especially the curcuma ice cream was absolutely brilliant!
This was a feast for all senses, less playful and more rustic (and maybe more German) than the Roca brothers. Joachim Wissler is rightly among the best chefs in the world. His style is sometimes inspired by the Spanisch avantgarde – especially with respect to the three “amuse bouche” dishes. The actual menu was still modern, but not molecular – I had the impression that he gradually got rid of too many molecular elements and in fact uses them now only where needed. The cuisine is intellectual, but does not overstrain the diner (as in Mugaritz) and, in the end, it just tastes fantastic which is most important.
Service is one of a kind under Miguel Calero and young sommeliere Romana Echensberger did a great job in pulling out two nice bottles (which I forgot completly) to accompany our menu. Many thanks to the whole team for making this fabulous experience possible.
All this makes the Vendôme a very unique place, in Germany, in Europe and even worldwide. Quality, taste and intellectuality clearly stand out and makes it a destination no interested foodie should miss. A definite must – and maybe one reason more to explore and experience the “New German Cuisine” (together with Juan Amador, Christian Bau and Sven Elverfeld (in alphabetical order)).