After the Guides had been out it was clearly time to revisit the Restaurant Français at the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof, the only Grand Hotel in Frankfurt. After the hotel and the restaurant have been renovated before the Soccer World Championship in 2006 Patrick Bittner, the chef de cusine at Français, had been cooking with new esteem but the brigade and very much the atmosphere stayed the same.
We made a short-hand reservation and were surprised that a new face greeting us as both mâitre and sommelier. Mr Walter comfortably led us through the evening…
Classic but nevertheless with a modern touch the new Français is far brighter compared to the old interior. It is clearly positioned as a business restaurant with a reasonable lunch offering and opening times only during the week. The audience is truly international – a good showcase of the diversity of Frankfurt’s guests… This clearly limits the array of culinary adventures a chef could possibly create here. Just keep that in mind when reading about the menu. There is a clear need to serve this audience.
After years of being consistently rated at 17 points in the Gault Millau it seemed a matter of time when Bittner would be awarded a star in the Michelin. Somehow this did not happen for quite some years – and I must admit that my experiences in the past had been mixed and also sometimes inconsistent so that I can somehow understand the reluctance of Michelin bringing back to star to the Français where Burkhard Lindlar had this award before Bittner took over in 2000.
Bittner has been trained at Landhaus Scherrer in Hamburg, Hummerstübchen in Düsseldorf, acted as a sous-chef to the legendary Katherina Hessler in Maintal and finally took a stint at Dieter Müller in Bergisch-Gladbach before going to the Meisterschule in Heidelberg in 1999. Interestingly he was there at the same time as Nils Henkel who stayed on to finally take over in early 2008…
Among the younger generation chefs Bittner is one of a kind – as an active triathlete he does a lot of exercise also during the week when the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. Chapeau for this discipline! And, as a triathlete he knows that the finish counts – and got his star in November 2008!
For dinner there is an 8 course menu priced at €118 and a comprehensive a la carte selection. Naturally we opted for the menu:
The apero snacks were good whereas the home-made knäckebrot was particularly noteworthy – crunchy, light and a good palate activator!
The amuse marinated lobster with pearl barley salad and mustard-dill ice cream was one of the highlights of the whole menu. The very present but not too dominating ice cream made this dish special – herbal, fresh with a slight mustard note at the end this built a bridge between the excellent lobster and the pearl barley (texture!). This is exactly the direction Bittner should take his cooking – classic on the forefront with pleasantly surprising and unique combinations – excellent!
First course for me was foie gras from Alsace with orange, Florentine, brioche – interestingly the menu card doesn’t list the most important ingredient – hip as a confit and a jelly covering the foie. On first sight this could ring alarming sweetness bells but tasting reveals a different picture. Sweetness stems mostly from the hip whereas the orange adds acidity and balances the richness of the hip. The foie was of good quality and impeccably prepared. Only the Florentine on top of the foie was a bit too thick and dominating and I could have done without the two hazelnuts. Very good.
For mylady they served a nice variation of scallops which reportedly was very good as well. This consisted of lukewarm lentils with a scallopand a salad of herbs, roasted scallop with lemons and red onion confit, and cubes of orange jelly. Especially the contrast in temperature made this dish interesting – a dimension which I very often miss in purely cold starters and most desserts.
The second course was the weakest course – cappuccino of crustaceans, nutmeg, champagne. The soup was intense but too much bound with cream which then dominated the very clear crustacean flavour too much. The lobster a part was a tad overdone and did not really add much.
You wonder what the wheel symbol stands for on the porcelain? This is a very authentic commitment to Frankfurt as it is the brand symbol of Höchster Porcelain – there is no need to use Hering in Frankfurt;-)
Next up was Brittany sole on bouillabaisse puree, ratatouille, oven tomato. Bright and intense the Mediterranean flavours stand out like a spearhead – it was just a delicate pleasure to eat, the flavours literally danced in my mouth. Only the sole could have enjoyed less time in the oven. Very good.
Bar de ligne on spinach puree, spice crust, praline of pigs feet – this was a clever land & sea dish. Admittedly I like these combinations a lot but the praline of pigs feet brought intensity and depth to the dish whereas the exactly dimensioned crust made the bar strong enough to combat the praline and still let the fish shine. Here, Bittner shows a nice touch for proportions, flavours and ingredients and I am even tempted to say that using this to more extent could make his cooking even stronger. Excellent.
A classic was next: Perigord truffle with leek puree, guinea fowl egg yolk, bacon air. Very rich and delicate this was a bit too heavy and had too much truffles inside. Although very generous from the chef this was detrimental as the texture of the truffles was too dominating. Here, Bittner had lost his touch for proportions a bit.
With respect to menu dramaturgy the overall big portion makes it very hard to be open for more afterwards. However, in a sense Wissler does the same “mistake” serving too much of a normally delicate and indulgent dish which in itself is near perfection. For Bittner there are minor deductions due to the trufles overflow making this very good overall.
Talking about menu dramaturgy: very seldom main courses do really stand out these days. Quite often the starters, especially the cold ones, are more elaborate and leave a more memorable impression. Clearly, the palate and the diner’s mind are more open in the beginning and one can serve more complicated cold dishes as they can be prepared upfront and then only need to be assembled. Very often main courses tend out to be very classic and even boring.
Different here – despite the heavy pre-main the main was the star of the night as both the product itself and the preparation were superb: ox cheek of Jerusalem artichoke puree, shallots, veal head. Simply delicious and excellent to outstanding.
After a nicely presented champagne cream sorbet the dessert rounded a wonderful menu: Italian Moro blood orange with joghut mousse and gianduja nougat. Excellent.
Given the above limitations due to an international business clientele Patirick Bittner tries to push the boundaries and demonstrates that classic cuisine using the usual suspects (ingredients and techniques) does not need to be boring. Coupled with a the formidable and charming new mâitre Mr Walter this brings some light heartiness to this place and also gets rid of some of the previously experienced ‘stiffness’. The atmosphere, the whole team and also the cuisine seemed more relaxed and you can somehow feel that it is fun for them to celebrate fine dining.
And, it is only the beginning of a new chapter… If Patrick Bittner concentrates on his touch of balancing flavours and integrating unusual & surprising elements there is some upward potential but given the circumstances he needs to modernize step-by-step. Right now, this is one of the two top addresses in Downtown Frankfurt together with the formidable Alfred Fiedrich (soon to be cooking at Tigerpalast).