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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Zirbelstube (Bad Mergentheim)

The day: 29th February 2008, Dinner.
The place: Hotel Victoria, Poststraße 2-4, 97980 Bad Mergentheim tel +49(0)7931 593607
The venue: Zirbelstube
Closest airports: Munich
The food: Modern German (if this makes sense)
The drinks: The list focusses on selected areas, not too long but interesting and strong on locals

And here we come, with some excitement and anticipation, to our main dining experience in pretty Bad Mergentheim: German cuisine may not have a great reputation but there are some bloody good German chefs around. After entering Hotel Victoria we walk along the cellar-style corridor past the Vinotheke tried with success the previous week, to enter the Michelin starred (for many years) Hubert Retzbach’s venue that shares the kitchen and part of the staff with its less formal sibling. The atmosphere is soft, comfortable, elegant yet warm, with large and sometimes immensely spaced tables with alcoves.

As you can see, there really is a stube. Admittedly the soft atmosphere is also due to the fact that we are alone, around us only tables, tables, tables all around. This pains us, not because we love crowds, but rather because we think of all that wasted food and talent. We will remain alone for the entire evening, but the waitress assures us it’s not always like this. Anyway she is in for a heavy duty night since we do not speak a word of German and she’ll have to translate all dishes one by one – something that will be carried out with great charm, many smiles and genuine German meticulous dedication (none of our Mediterranean sloppiness around here).

The menu is short but with disparate materials (rabbit, pike-perch, pigeon, crayfish, trout, catfish, lamb, duck, beef). There is a 4 course menu at €76 and a 5 course one at €89. The choice among the four starters ranges in price from €18 to €28, whereas the seven mains are all n the mid-thirties (all prices are given net of a hefty 19% charge which we now know is tax). All mains can be had in small portions as well for about half the price.

While we contemplate the menu with utter incomprehension, the bread arrives:

This is OK if a little disappointing in an area where bread is clearly very highly valued, and where even supermarkets offer vast assortments of wonderful looking multi-seeded and multi-coloured breads. A Michelin starred chef ought to top that.

And after the gracious translation service has been provided, while we wait for our starters here comes the present from the kitchen:

It’s a variation of duck: duck ‘prosciutto’ with quince mousse; sliced breast; and a ‘liver truffle’ on GewurtzTraminer jelly. The truffle is sublime, its consistency and fatness level really remind one of a chocolate truffle, and the jelly tasted very neatly indeed of GewurtzTraminer (we have experienced so many muted jellies and foams…). The breast is also very good, rightly tender, delicate. The prosciutto is slightly stringy but its flavour is intense and the tartness of the quince is perfect. All in all, this is a startling start that gets the full attention of your senses and heralds a great dinner.

And here are the starters proper:

- Glaiserter Chicoree mit Zanderfillet und Artischocken-Chips in Pinienkern-Vinaigrette (Pike perch with a lot of stuff) €17

- Loewenzahnsalat mit Kaninchenrucken, grunen Spargel, Gansemblumchen und Kapern in Honig-Thymiam-Vinaigrette (Special Rabbit with a lot of stuff ) €18

The artichokes in the pike perch are strikingly flavoursome in both guises in which they come: braised and in very light and crispy deep fried ‘clouds’ (Woman thinks the only way to eat them is by hand, and nobody is there to watch anyway…). The chicory, caramelised, comes in two colours and lends not only colour and incisive flavour but also nice moisture. Some mega-pine nuts in there too. And the pike perch? Excellent, cooked perfectly, a non-obtrusive lead actor in an ensemble piece that strikes for the fine balance of consistencies and the use of vegetables.

The rabbit as you can see comes in various bits: kidney, liver, a fried shoulder ‘ball’ and the saddle, with an asparagus accompaniment. The cooking of the saddle once again is perfect, making it moist, tender. The liver, the kidney, but most of all the shoulder ball contrast this delicacy with an explosion of concentrated flavour. The asparagus is superb, too, all in a nice fatty and acidic condiment, with an interesting barley garnish. Another complex, deft ensemble of great balance.

For mains we have:

- Saibling mit seinem Kaviar und Petersilienwurzel-puree auf gelben Ruben in Weissweinbutter Sauce (Trout and beyond) €32

- Auf Rebholz geraucherter Waler mit Mergentheimer “Knaudele’’ auf Kartoffel-Barlauch-Puree in ApfelBalsamessig-Sauce (Catfish and beyond) €34

The trout is a simple looking dish, with the potential for some stodginess from the appearance of it. But the usual precise cooking and a dizzying lemony-vinous butter sauce with dandelions elevate it to a superior realm. The mash of parsley root (or did we misunderstand ‘parsnip’? Ehm) is much much better than the mash which we had in the Vinothek (another kitchen section at work?).

And the catfish is almost a work of genius. Everything is in place in a dazzling swirl and reinforces the rest, the smoky fish, the prosciutto on top, the artichokes, the fantastic black pudding tortelloni and the great crispy beetroot, and an assertive sauce. Many and strong flavours, many textures, so well assembled in this powerful dish: we doff our hat to the chef: it could have been such a bad mess, yet it’s so good.

And finally the desserts arrive:

- Schokoladen-Mohnflan auf Kompott von getrockneten Aprikoten und Mascarpone-Ris (Chocolate flan and more) €14

- Topfen-Nougatknodel mit Brettacher Appflen un Mandel-Nougateis (Nougat and more) €14

In the nougat, the icecream is decent but not special. However, the dumpling is airy, elegant, light, and the nougat strudel is special. The apple compote, the sugared and slivered almonds, and the acidic base help, once again, to make this a very balanced and varied chorus of ingredients.

And the flan: the mascarpone icecream is very eggy, which may not suit everybody’s taste but partners well a tasty lemony sauce. The flan itself has white instead of the dark chocolate which we were somehow expecting. Much variety and balance are in evidence in this dish too, with several nice little touches, such as the poppy seeds, the apricots, the thin biscuit (which in Italian we call ‘cat’s tongues’). A serious and seriously satisfying dessert.

With a bottle of Muller Thurgau trocken Taubenzeller Hassennestle Winzerhof Stahl (we just report everything on the label…) at €29 (bone dry, good), a steeply priced mineral water bottle (€7), and a 19% addition, the hit is €165, overstepping somewhat but not by too much our £100 threshold.

The waitress provided a friendly, cheerful yet very correct service cum translations. Once again we congratulate the chef. He definitely does not go for simple dishes with focussed flavours. His dishes are ‘full’, there is almost a ‘horror vacui’ and a fear of not having put enough materials, enough textures, enough shades of taste in. The potential is all there for a complete mess. And we think it is because of a great technique, thoughtfulness, sensitivity to flavours, precision and overall mastery of the trade that instead this cuisine comes across instead as powerful, neat, balanced. And remember, we say this as people who normally like simpler dishes! Go to Zirbelstube. We think the only reason why he does not have a second star is that the flowers are not fresh, and everybody knows that this is just what you need to seduce the inspectors :-)

Oh, we were forgetting: here are the petit four:

Great looking, and the few we tried were excellent on the palate, too!


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