Osnabrück? Where the heck is that? Well, for people interested in fine dining it is the home of the Restaurant La Vie where Thomas Bühner has been both chef and patron since April 2006. But, Osnabrück has more to discover…
Exactly 2000 years ago in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest near Osnabrück Arminius led about 11 Germanic tribes to defeat the Romans under Varus. The city itself was founded in 780 by Karl the Great and soon became a diocesan town. Thus, in the medieval ages it was a prosperous town, even part of the mighty Hanseatic league in the 14th century. In 1648 the peace treaty after the Thirty Years’ War was partly signed in Osnabrück (the Peace of Westphalia of Münster and Osnabrück).
Moreover, after the second world war it become the home of more than 160 paintings of Felix Nussbaum who was born in Osnabrück and murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Today, the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus of the magnificent Daniel Libeskind carries a nice collection of Jewish art. Right now, the special exhibition “The hidden trace. Jewish ways through modernity” reflecting Jewish life in the diaspora is worth the trip alone.
I can really say that I fell in love with Osnabrück even after having discovered only some of its treasures. Overall, Osnabrück today is a blend of old (timbered, neoclassical and rococo style) and modern buildings which is also characteristic of the cuisine of Thomas Bühner. Hm, quite a transition;-)
Interestingly, since Bühner was named chef of the year in the German Gault Millau in Nov 2005 it merely seemed a matter of time until the third star would be awarded. In the 2006 Michelin nothing happened simply because he announced to move to Osnabrück but held his two stars in the 2007 edition. The same was true in 2008 (promotion of Amador, Erfort and Lumpp) and in 2009 (promotion of Elverfeld). At the same time, Jürgen Dollase does not stop to praise Bühner’s cuisine and lately named him meal of the year in Germany in 2008. Enough to discover myself…
Located in the city center the restaurant is a blend of medieval walls and a neoclassical front but the interior has been carefully modernized. There are essentially two stories with the lower floor being more modern with a smokers’ lounge and the kitchen separated by a humidor and a wine cabinet. The upper floor houses a bar and a two more classical dining rooms. As I took no interior photos please have a look here to get an impression. Altogether there is room for 40 couverts.
There was no immediate wish or urge to became a chef, only after a lengthy test at the local employment office they advised him to start an apprenticeship as a cook which he did at the Schweizer Haus in Paderborn. After initial problems coping with the hard kitchen life he finally finished and went on to work under Günter Scherrer at the Hilton in Düsseldorf where he experienced a great chef and French cuisine. Then Bühner worked for Heinz Wehmann in the his infamous Landhaus Scherrer in Hamburg.
After stints in Lippstadt, again in Hamburg and at Jörg Müller in Sylt he was finally accepted to work at Schwarzwaldstube in 1989. Working for Wohlfahrt was clearly the most formative experience although both Müller and Scherrer are excellent chefs. As for many others Wohlfahrt discovered the talent and let Bühner grow.
Having obtained the master craftman’s diploma (“Meisterbrief”) as a chef from Heidelberg his first position as chef de cuisine was in Stolberg. He then received the offer to head the cuisine of the casino restaurant La Table in Dortmund-Hoyensyburg in 1991. Three years later the first star came and another three years later the second, then he was awarded chef of the year of the Gault Millau in November 2005. In April 2006 he opened the La Vie in osnabrück together with his companion in life Thayarni Kanagaratnam who leads the black brigade.
Well, one has to add that the venture is backed by Jürgen Großmann, now President and CEO of RWE and owner of Georgsmarienhütte which he once bought for two Deutsche Mark in 1993. He liked eating at La Vie as the former chef cooked at his wedding in Hamburg back in 1985 and then step-by-step invested in the restaurant until he finally owned it. He could convince Thomas Bühner to come to Osnabrück and take his whole team from Dortmund with him…
There are only two menus and no a la carte choices, not even a la carte prices. The small degustation menu comprises four courses for €114, the large one seven courses for €158. We ordered both menus to go every mile… I will restrict this report on the bigger one and comment on the smaller one at the end.
The print-out above has been given to us ex post – the small spoon dishes before each course are a secret up-front. The purpose is to best prepare the diner for the respective course. In a sense this concept is unique as I have never encountered something like that before along the whole menu. Well, at Alinea or el bulli there are also many different small and larger dishes but is not the pre and main strategy per se…
Immediately after we were seated at a beautiful table at the lower level dining room (first they wanted to place us up-stairs but I intervened) we were served four little spoon which whee all quite good, especially the black macaroon made of sepia.
Then, one amuse was served, a deconstructed caesar’s salad which consisted of a cold lettuce broth, parmesan ice cream and croutons. A nice idea we thought at first, but the broth was a bit to watery and not tasty enough to bring this dish into an equilibrium with the strong ice cream. I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more textures in different temperatures of the salad. Good.
The first course for me was foie gras in different textures and foie gras terrine with oyster as a pre-dish. Foie gras with oyster is an unusual pairing, only accompanied by a thin slice of bread. The problem was that the terrine was too much and dominated heavily, it was a too broad and too creamy to let the oyster shine which only became noticable shortly in the beginning and then in the aftertaste.
I still wonder how this should have prepared for the different foie textures. There were cubes of a terrine, an ice cream, shavings and an air of foie accompanied by some fruit cubes and coulis. The picture tells the story: the portion of the ice is so large, so dominant that the other elements do not into play much – it was even hard to find out what the fruit was (mango maybe?). The ice cream itself was delicious, but that was surely not the essence of the dish. I was also missing a more crunchy part like a crumble which is mentioned in this year’s Gault Millau… Overall tasty but missing the point a bit, at least for me. Maybe the binding element between the pre-dish and the dish itself was to show how a dominant foie gras can work;-)
Next I had a caramelized quail egg with ginger oil as a pre-dish for the scallops under salt with pumpkin. The egg with ginger oil and as topping was excellent and the ginger nicely paved the way for the pumpkin.
The scallops are already a kind of signature dish for Bühner. Three scallops are cooked under crude sea salt and served still covered by salt. The diner then picks each scallop with a stick and washes it in a brew of fish stock and pumpkin puree to free it from the salt. The “cleaned” and also slightly flavoured scallops are then served with pumpkin sugar and pumpkin puree. There it suddenly was, the moment of a memorable, unique dish that also abandoned completely with traditional French-oriented cooking. The scallops were so tender and worked really well with a creamy puree of the just right consistency. The pumpkin sugar added some sweetness, but, more importantly some texture. The salt was still palpable… Excellent to outstanding. Drinking the brew did not add much as it was much too fatty in my opinion.
After a tomato air I got a Loup de Mer de ligne with radish in a Lapsang Souchong jus. Lapsang Souchong is essentially a smoked tea from China hard to use in cooking as it is difficult to dimension. Bühner did it very well and the smoky flavours build a good and yet not dominating counterpart to the perfectly cooked fish thinly wrapped in radish. This was the clou of the dish: the radish was al dente but not too much and gave the fish a fantastic texture and thus mouthfeel much better than the frequently used grilled fish skin (which then turns out to be too crsip or too fatty). This alone made the dish outstanding – all the other sides were good but not really necessary.
After that there was a breach in logic as they served two pre-dishes in a row. A gin fizz with caviar was good but the amazing highlight of the complete meal was a vegetable muesli which was just awesome. Bühner thinly slices potatoes, parsley root, carrots, fennel and celery and fries the first three whereas fennel and celery are dried in the oven. Freeze-dried peas, broccoli and corn is then added to yield the muesli. The “milk” is flavoured by parsley root. This is served separately and then service pours the muesli over the milk at the table. Yes, it is simple, but astonishingly good. This dish alone is worth the trip.
Next up was a lukewarm veal tafelspitz with red and yellow beetroot. Traditionally Tafelspitz is made from the silverside of beef and slowly cooked in vegetable stock, very often served cold with horseradish. Bühner uses veal instead and, I suspect, cooks it sous-vide to ultimate tenderness – no knife needed here. The veal broth is the real star, intense and very aromatic building a bridge between the beetroot and the veal. Very yummy and excellent. (On the side: just before serving this they turned down the light and I had to use flash…)
The main course was fillet from reindeer back in mild garlic-coriander flavour with smoked apple puree and szechuan pepper jus. Compared to the dish I ate when Bühner cooked at the Rheingau Gourmet Festival in March 2007, this was developed further and brought to perfection. Again a very tender meat with distinct taste between beef and game it was just kissed by the garlic-coriander coating which is made using rice flour. This dish was made special through the interplay of tender meat with a backbone (the coating), slightly spicy pepper jus and smoky apple puree, with chestnut and white turnip adding texture. Excellent to outstanding!
Then, the service got things messed up a bit – I did not make it clear enough that I wanted both the cheese and sweet dessert so they brought a pre-dessert first and then inserted the cheese course. The Tahiti vanilla ice cream with olive oil was excellent, rich and creamy with a very intense vanilla aroma nicely elevated by a flavoured olive oil (grr, no notes here:-()
After a Parmesan croustillant the cheese course was served: Parmesan with tomato and sardine made of tomato compote covered with Parmesan cream, one cube of sardine and a bread chip. Although the cream was light it was too much and a bit too dominating. And, there could have been more sardine to bring some counterbalance in acidity and texture in. Still, very good.
Finale: gâteaux of liquid chocolate with banana and passion fruit. A weaker dish of the menu – the chocolate was cold and could not built up any suspense. This could have been excellent if there would have been hot chocolate involved. Good.
To conclude we got a series of petit fours and a really excellent variation of brittles (poppy and anis seed, passion fruit/cinnamon blossom, sunflower with dried raspberries).
It was an excellent meal overall – while there were some outstanding dishes like the vegetable muesli, the loup de mer and the reindeer the menu also had weaker moments, namely the sweet dessert and the foie. Bühner shows a lot of potential, yet some dishes just need to be worked on with respect to dimensioning. Conceptually, all dishes were clear in their composition and bright in flavour. Yet, it became more traditional towards the mains and I have the feeling that Bühner maybe needs to break completely with traditional French cooking. A two star plus experience on average with the potential for three.
The smaller menu had an excellent turbot infused with parsley, potato-tandoori puree and extract oil and a very good-excellent caramelized cannellono of crab. The main (bison) showed some weakness (the meat was not strong enough to cope with the brown butter) and had the same dessert. So on average, a maybe slightly weaker experience.
Service was not flawless – we had a big break until we could finally order as Ms Kanagaratnam was busy so that in the end the sommelier took our order. I also had the feeling that there was too much time between the pre and the actual dishes so that the connection between the flavours sometimes got lost. The whole atmosphere is nice and modern but in the end also a bit soulless – maybe it would have been better if the charming Ms Kanagaratnam would have shown more presence on the lower level.
So, this is worth a trip – especially since Osnabrück offers some cultural treasures to be discovered. Bühner’s cooking is modern, but not yet fully fully developed – there is enough potential to stay tuned.