For many years, the term “German Haute Cuisine” was considered to be an oxymoron, because of the prejudice against the stodginess of staple dishes such as bratwurst and sauerkraut. No one is claiming that their typical fare is superior to that of France, Italy or Spain, but unfortunately there is widespread ignorance of Germany’s leading chefs. How many people know that there are 11 three Michelin star restaurants in Germany, which is more than three times the number in Great Britain, once Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck temporarily migrates to Australia?
One of the least known is Aqua in Wolfsburg, tucked away in the middle of Volkswagen’s Autostadt – a 70-acre celebration of the automobile, complete with lakes, pavilions and museums adjacent to the world’s largest car manufacturing plant. Chef Sven Elverfeld, 45, has here, inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel, since 2000. He has held three Michelin stars since 2009 and since then, has also been continuously on the San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 restaurant list.
His restaurant is located on the ground floor, overlooking an over-sized swing which arcs over some manicured grounds and a canal with the gigantic chimneys of the original Volkswagen works looming on the horizon.
Just as first impressions are crucial when you meet someone, it is the same with the quality of amuse-bouches that a chef offers. These five first dishes served at Aqua are among the most innovative and captivating I have had anywhere. The trio of cornets immediately grabbed my attention –tuna tonnato; smoked salmon, blackberry and yoghurt and papaya, tamarind and pecan. In each case, they exuded powerful flavours of the produce, but with impeccable balance. As if this was not enough evidence of the chef’s prowess, this was followed by two small glasses of soup – the first was yellow tomato, buttermilk and cicely followed by a Bloody Mary with a spiced celery stick on top. Again, the juxtaposition of flavours was so perfect that the end taste of both was reminiscent of the poise and aftertaste of a great wine.
The first course was two virtually raw fillets of Breton mackerel with a paper-thin slice of cucumber and a clam on top of a rambutan and avocado purée. The overall impact of the dish
was quite Japanese, which makes sense as Elverfeld spent some time in Kyoto in his early twenties.
Next was a foie gras dish with white nougat on a foie gras emulsion and then a spectacular dish of char from Austria with vinaigrette of green herbs, peas and a poached quails egg. One of the most impressive aspects of Elverfeld’s cuisine is the precision of flavours, even though he plays with quite a number of different ingredients in the one dish.
This was followed by a medium-rare scallop from Norway, which interacted with a complete leek cooked in various ways, so its simplicity was a complete contrast to the previous dish.
The first meat dish was simply thin slices of charcoal grilled belly of young pork with homemade sauerkraut and apple chutney with pork scratchings and crispy miniature potato pieces on top. One of Elverfeld’s objectives is to reinvent conventional German cuisine and this shows how he manages it, effortlessly surpassing the flavour of the original.
This next dish of pigeon ‘Caesar’ was my favourite of the evening. Again, the chef has turned a dish upside down to create something challenging yet meaningful. One of my pet hates is pigeon sous-vide, because of the jelly-like texture it creates, but this one was properly roasted on the bone and then sliced off. All of the usual ingredients of a Caesar salad were present, only in this case the lettuce surrounded a delicious cream made of the pigeon’s heart and liver while a wrap of cabbage holds a confit of its legs. The entire dish rested in a light consommé made from the remainder of the pigeon with judicious amounts of radish, herbs and parsley.
The final three puddings were not filling and again, elegantly constructed, which shouldn’t be a surprise as Elverfeld first trained as a pastry chef. One of them consisted of two triple flavoured ice creams perched on the plate in homage to a popular children’s version. Another dish was of apricot, coriander and macadamia nut and a milk liqueur sandwich with rippled chocolate wafers holding it together.
After the meal, Elverfeld told me he always likes to put in “abnormal twists in his dishes. That is why diners have to be open-minded to appreciate my cuisine.” I can’t imagine any complaints. It is the thoughtfulness and skill with which he juggles so many flavours and techniques that makes a meal here so memorable.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel
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