Drving up the hill in Bensberg and reaching the very impressive Grand Hotel Schloss Bensberg, where the restaurant Vendome is situated, is quite strange thing. One moment you are in the most banal German little town, a few seconds later, you find yourself in a place that has about nothing in common with the rest of the town.
The restaurant itself isn’t even in the main building, but in the old stables, which are bigger and more impressive than most houses you come across nowadays. From the room you have a stunning view on Cologne and the sorroundings. The décor is very modern indeed, with photos of the place Vendome in Paris and the famous coloumn made out of the cannons, Napoleon conquered after the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. The tables are widely spaced and the napkins the biggest I’ve come across (they really are big).
The service is as good as it gets. Smiling, attentive, knowledgeable and charming. Miguel Calero is easily on of the best restaurant managers in Germany and leads his brigade in a most efficient way, that suits the cooking and the restaurant very well.
Joachim Wissler is certainly the most innovative and interesting chef in Germany, and one of the most singular chefs worldwide. His cooking is unlike anything else served in other restaurants of that level. He not only tends to use cuts that other 3* restaurants wouldn’t even dare to offer on their lunch menu, but he also goes for some really stunning, unusual, strange combinations, that work every single time. He also deserves praise for bringing pork into Germany’s 3* restaurants, with which he does some spectacular things.
Recently, the whole menu structure has changed, and you are now able to enjoy a 24-course meal, which is quite printed quite similarly to Alinea’s big menu. The only difference being the bigger portions here. Driving there from Luxembourg, the shorter menus didn’t even look like an alternative and so I was in for quite a ride…
The arrival of the amuses already showed how far German cooking has gone over the last few years. All of them were extremely well made and of impressive complexity. From the top, they were eel with figs, goat’s cheese with cress, mackerel with baked polenta and seaweed and poularde braised and stuffed into a crisp round of pastry. All were excellent.
After this, the first course came very quickly. Knäckebrot Krabben | Muscheln | Frankfurter grüne Sauce. A thin layer of bread, with some crevettes grises, mussels and herb sauce (from Frankfurt) marked a light, very good first course.
Blätterwald Gemüsekrokant | Ziegenjoghurt – Dip was a very thoughtful and innovative way of presenting vegetables. Out of the various varieties, cauliflower was the strongest, with the others being too sweet. The goat’s cheese dip was very good. All in all, whilst being good this didn’t figure amongst my favourites of the day.
Coralle Parmesan | Foie Gras | Basilikum – Pistou. This was a combination of a Parmesan “coral” , a foie gras panna-cotta and a pistou, a form of the Ligurian pesto originating around Nice. All elements were perfectly well made, and worked together, even if I’m dubious about the link between the foie and the other two elements. They certainly did bring different textures to the dish: The Parmesan coral being crunchy, the foie panna-cotta creamy and the pistou somewhat between liquid and velvety. The other characteristic feature of Wissler’s cooking, that this dish displayed, were the very present flavours. All of the elements had clear, pronounced, well-seasoned tastes, that make them stand out from some wishy-washy dishes you might get elsewhere.
Auster Grüner Apfel und Sauerkraut | d’Aquitainekaviar. This, following course, certainly doesn’t exist in many other restaurants. It was the first time for me to get Sauerkraut (in the form of pearls) served with caviar and oysters. But I hope it won’t be the last, as this was spectacular! Each flavour working remarkably well with the others and lifting the whole dish to (nearly) unknown heights. The products Wissler uses are of course of the finest, which won’t have to be mentioned in every single course. The accompanying green apple and wasabi foam gave the dish un peu d’air sur terre as the ad for a French fashion house states. Excellent.
Langoustine Sushi gegrillt | Tonic und Ingwer. Here came another strange concoction. This time, there wasn’t any German element in it, but instead of serving some sort of Langoustine bouillon, Wissler made a sauce out of tonic and ginger. The combination with the langoustine (topped with a cream made out the corail) worked fantastically well. However, the quality of the langoustine was not as great as it could have been. Despite this, the dish was still very good, as were the accompanying Dashi/shiso crisps.
Next up was a Wissler classic: Octopus Sepia | Tintenfisch Marsh Mellow. This dish didn’t have any odd flavour combinations, but a Squid Marsh Mallow certainly isn’t part of your everyday feast. All of us were stunned by this little gimmick, that was at least as good as the “main” part of the dish. Here, again, he delivers the most fun and unexpected sensations for all of the senses, the dish being of great complexity and the flavours working remarkably well. Outstanding.
This was another German element. A rather posh, but very classic dish: Leipziger Allerlei Bachkrebse am Waldrand. All of the classic components of the dish were present, albeit in slightly altered form. The crayfish were pan-fried and accompanied by a bisque, the asparagus featured as a mousse and salad, the morels just pan-fried and some green beans provided another sign of spring. First of all, the idea of serving such a local classic in a 3* deserves praise. If it’s that well made, it really does stand out. The crayfish and the bisque were truly divine, the asparagus too, the only problem were the cold morels and the dominance of the crispy bread. As the photo shows, there was a bit too much of that. Excellent.
After these German products, came another German product: süsses Wasser
Seeforelle | Meerrettichkren | Saiblingskaviar . This lake trout from Bavaria was gently cooked and served with the Austrian Kren (which you traditionally get with the Tafelspitz amongst others). With it came some char-roe, the crispy skin of the fish, cucumber, rape-seed oil and a clear spiced broth. All in all the flavours were very clean and light, especially after the powerful dishes that preceded it. The skin was great, crispy without being greasy, the roe had the lovely exploding texture one always seeks in it and the cucumber and horseradish gave it some fresh note. Very good.
After the sweet-water comes the salt-water (fish). salziges Wasser Rochen | Kurkuma – Koriandernage | Reisgnocchi. This piece of skate was of pristine freshness and delightfully firm. The coriander/curcuma sauce gave it some power and the rice-gnocchi and soy-sprouts could be described as decent garnishes. Excellent.
After some relatively big portions (for a 24-course menu), came a small serving of Weinberg Schnecke umhüllt . These snails were encased in their jus and served with vinegar caramel, morel powder and some parsley puree. Perfect combination of flavour and texture resulted in another excellent dish (can’t rave about it as snails don’t really make me that happy).
The following course sounds really interesting when being read: Thun Fish & chips | Pommes frites nicoise. However, the expectations were not met. Not at all. The chips were soggy and greasy. The tuna was oily, but remarkably tender and tasty (which I greatly enjoyed). The tomato powder, and the dip were very good, but the latter did come quite heavy. Unfortunately, this was a missed opportunity, as good chips really aren’t that hard to make and the dish could have been a nice little nod to the other side of the channel. Ok.
Kabeljau vom Kopf bis zur Flosse. Reading this, you might wonder what will come – at least if you understand German. Now, cod has some very tasty parts, it’s liver, kokotxas or tripe do feature on some menus, but I never came across cod tongue. This however, was amazing. The accompanying fillet, peas, lardo and pea veloute were equally well made, but the tongue just completely blew me away, both taste-wise and texturally.
Great to see, that Wissler still tries to look for other ingredients, that you might not get in any other 3*. Outstanding.
This next dish has a great title: Schweinerei zum essen. A Schweinerei is some kind of mess in German and you might know that Germans do like their pork. This was unlike anything porky I ever came across. One side of the plate held a piece of pork paper (made out of pork-jus), the other a spoonful of pork-liver “Berliner Art”. The paper was incredibly fragile but unbelievably tasty. The liver, with mash, fried onion rings and apple pieces was a spoonful of heaven. A serving of ten of these would have done me right. Divine.
Having started on the pork-orgy, we certainly didn’t want to miss out on another Wissler classic: Juvelin – Ferkel Liebstöckel | Flönz | Berglinsen. This dish presents three different cuts of pork, each of them treated differently. On the left, was a cutlet on top of a melon salad, in the middle the braised chin with crackling and Castelluccio lentils and behind this, a piece of black pudding with Jerusalem Artichoke. Besides this, was a bit of lemon salt. I do not know where to start as all of the elements were just beautiful. The crackling, which Wissler and his colleague Dieter Mueller serve are certainly some of the better ones you can find. The process is as complicated as a whole dish elsewhere and the result just knocks you off your socks. All of them, culet, chin and black pudding were as good as you could hope to get. Divine. Again.
Yet another German dish was to served before dessert: Sauerbraten vom Ochsen “sous vide” | Holzofenbrot – sandwich. This one really comes from the region and was beautifully modernized. The piece of beef is marinated in vinegar (hence sauer) and then slowly cooked sous-vide. Along with it came a sandwich filled with vinegar jelly, minced beef and the toasted. Also on the plate, a piece of delicious bone marrow and Stielmus-puree. Sorry for not having a translation for Stielmus, but I came across it anywhere but the Ruhr-region. Another outstanding dish.
Having a whole cheeseboard in a menu of such length wouldn’t really make sense, so Wissler serves a small cheese course, which shows equally interesting combinations than the rest. In this case, it was Fontina Auberginentatar | eingelegte makrele, which was very good indeed. The aubergine, mackerel and Fontina went together very well, even if this probably wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite. Very good.
Haut kross von der Milch. This first dessert was quite spectacular. The milk-skin was incredibly pleasant to eat and the mascarpone mousse going remarkably well with it. This really showed, how pleasant avant-garde cooking can be. Excellent.
After this came another German favourite: Käsekuchen Eis | Mürbteig – Krokant. Here the Kaesekuchen was turned into an ice cream and served with abricots. Simple but excellent.
It seems to be a trend among chefs to serve snowballs as desserts. This particular version must have been the best I have come across. Schnee ball gefüllt. It was just perfectly well made and showed how good a rhubarb dessert can be. The little macarons were just as amazing as the rest. Divine.
Having a cake as ice cream is a nice idea, at least if it is as well made as this one (again). Crème catalan tarte Tatin – Sorbet. This, second ice creamed-cake, with it’s burned milk panna-cotta was simple and excellent. The burned milk gives it some slight bitter background, beautifully counter-pointing the sweetness of the rest. Excellent
Speaking of unusal elements: Macaron Fourme d’Ambert | Himbeersorbet. I’m sure this too, isn’t what most would like to have in their dessert. The fourme d’Ambert macaron, filled with raspberries was remarkably well balanced. The raspberry “earth” next to it gave the dish some crunch. Excellent.
Schaum kussbeschwipst. You might have to be German to understand this, but it was very well made too (what a surprise!). The rum cream was simply encased in some dark chocolate. This was a acloholised version of a German sweet, that has the politically un-correct name of Negerkuss. Here Wissler plays with his clients’ childhood memories, as this wasn’t as good as the others. Very good.
The next part was equally reminiscent of our childhood: Magnum Vendôme am Stiel. I guess Magnum ice cream has traveled over Germany’s borders, but in Germany it is part of any summer. Here, it was coco ice cream with plain dark chocolate. Very good.
To close the deal, you get another German dish: Mohr im Hemd
Zartbitterschokolade | Eierlikör. This name is another racist dessert name, but in the end it is a chocolate cake (warm), which was served with Egg-nogg. Excellent.
The petit-fours were as good as the rest. Here too, you could see, how much effort goes into this kind of restaurant, as there was a multitude of different varieties of pralines. All made in the patisserie.
Wow! After around 6 or 7 hours of such stunning food, you can’t be anything but dazzled. It takes some time to reflect on all of this, as the cooking here is taken to another level. Wissler is one of the very rare German chefs to really go into German culinary traditions and explore them. He does so with great intelligence and uses his (immense) skill to create little sensations. Another Leitmotiv of his, is the sensoric element in cooking and eating. Most dishes have some play on textures in them, which do make it that much more exciting to eat.
A third thing he likes, are cuts and flavours that not many other chefs dare to use. This and the essentially German dishes make Wissler and his cuisine truly unique.
Even if the portions might be a touch too big for such a long menu, this restaurant offers a complete experience, where service, kitchen and ambience all add up to something amazing. Wissler and Calero show, yet once more, how spectacular German cooking is these days. All I can suggest is: Go there!