dimanche 19 août 2007

Christian Grainer: great wines and superb food in Bavaria -- at good value

As you may have inferred from my last Acquarello blog, I was losing hope as far as fine, joyful dining in Bavaria is concerned. But then last weekend happened, and I had dinner at the restaurant of Christian Grainer in Kirchdorf. This is a big, very old house, across from the church in a village 70 km east of Munich. Unlike the coutryside and mountains south of Munich, this is not a tourist destination, but a genuine, farming, countryside: it was quite obvious this weekend as they were fertilizing the fields and the characteristic associated smell was all over.

As the story goes, the Grainer family has been your host in this house for five hundred years. Indeed everything about this place speaks about aging: pictures of Ludwig 2nd, deer skulls, old pieces of furniture, and old bottles of French wine are the salient elements of the setting, while the proportions of the rooms remind you of the age of the building and the state of the wall painting keeps track of the generations of smokers that have used this room. There are only two, tiny dining rooms, only three tables in the one where we dined, and indeed, it feels like you are in the Visconti movie and someone is going to enter the room and announce the mysterious death of King Ludwig. Neuschwanstein, my friend, will never be finished.

Christian Grainer was trained at Alain Chapel, and he still has on the wall, framed, the last menu he served there. Then he also worked at Bareiss, which Michelin this year rated as an "espoir" for three stars in 2008, and he came home in 1991 to take over the family business. There is little about his cuisine that is strikingly Bavarian, though his ingredients are. Classic French recipes are prepared in a modern fashion, relying on quality ingredients, the main impression being that there really is someone in the kitchen checking every plate before they are sent out. It may sound common, but I don't think it actually is. The modernity (if any) lies in the fact that, like at l’Astrance, you have neither the choice, nor the knowledge, of what you will be served until it arrives at your table. You just need to chose if you want a 3, 4, 5 or 6 course surprise menu. And also if you want to supersize it (you may want only three course but still a lot to eat).

But you have some latitude as far as the wine is concerned. I had a 1961 Pasquier Desvignes Vosne-Romanée, bottled in Denmark, for 99€, and the wine list includes such treasures as a Petrus 1994 for 950€, a La Tache 1995 for 890€, and a Mathusalem (6l) of Richebourg 1979 for 7500€. Of course you cannot know how the match with the surprise menu will be, but you can always ask them… or not really care. Our young waiter acted as sommelier, and he was knowledgeable and selected a Mosel Riesling and a Prosecco as aperitifs which were highly recommendable.

The Vosne-Romanée, which was the same age as the third wife of my father, was even more complex and instable. Between refills, they kept the bottle in the cellar to avoid the effects of the ambient temperature. Thanks. At first it tasted like nothing – say a very young Volnay. Then there was an explosion of truffle, and after ten minutes, powerful tannins. As time went by, flavours and smells of marrons glacés, of cherry, confit, leather, roast meat came and went. Granted, after two hours, the wine was exhausted, and it just tasted like some old wine again. But boy it was worth the trip. It also proved an excellent match with the two fish courses and the quail.

Speaking of which, the amuse was a big large plate with a fish mousse, a Pfifferlinge (Girolles, Chanterelles) terrine, and some apple dices, which actually played in the dish as a support of fruity flavours. Bread was quite good, and the butter was OK but fresh cheese and tapenade (olive-based paste) were also provided for spreading on bread. Then there was the same demonstration that there is something fruity in some fresh fishes with a char/samlet (Saibling, Omble – a fat river fish) served with tomatoes, beets, salad and a truffle oil foam. The cooking of the fish was perfect, tender, moist and even melty, not unlike some great wild salmons can be. The truffle taste was well mastered (not unpleasant, not overwhelming, but intense), and the play with the tomato was the most interesting part.

Another great dish, though hardly innovative, was a roasted quail, boned and stuffed with lentils and foie gras. I think roast fowl is a fine dining feature, as I will elaborate in a further post, because it requires a lot of skills, manpower and attention for a result that can be exceptional. The flesh was tender and juicy, the skin crispy, the juice intense, and the earthy character of the lentils worked, as well as you could expect with the saltiness of the bird, the foie as a facilitator. Lentils sometimes really are the “truffe du pauvre”. There was a quail egg on top, which was mostly cute, though its yoke possibly played as a taste vehicle. A very square and plain dish, served in a very square and plain plate.

It’s not a meal if there is no soup, is it? This one was Brittany lobster, a very classic, Robuchon-style soup, made mostly of lobster and butter, foamy, with bits of lobster inside. Just delicious. “Would like more?” they asked. You bet we do, bring it on, brother. Then a hare dish. They take game seriously in Germany, and they have it all year long (different species for each season). This was a Christmas dish, with spices on the cinnamon side, a rosace of roast potatoes that they pretentiously (and inaccurately) called “Maxim”, apple dices, blaukraut (chou rouge), porcini mushrooms (cèpes, Steinpilze), and a morel foam on top. Though slightly overcooked, it was textbook hare, just old enough so its flavours are not unpleasant or overwhelming and nicely harmonise with all the other elements in the plate.

There again, they offered a second serving, which featured a truffled potato purée instead of the fake “Maxim” potatoes and the morel foam. As the hare was a tiny bit drier this time, from having been kept warm (or rewarmed), the choice of the purée to balance the dryness was yet another sign of the utmost attention to each plate.

You know how you like a good coupe of Champagne with your fruit salad and a bit of sorbet (say elder tree flower)? Then why bother? Christian Grainer just spilled the fruit salad and the ice-cream in the glass, and there you go: just as good but with less dish washing. That works nicely as a pre-dessert. This is when I discovered that, compared to French practice, they swap coffee and cheese, the cheese coming after the dessert and the coffee before.

The dessert was, yet again, a classic rice pudding (riz au lait) with exotic fruits, in a modern fashion: on a rice and coco galette, a cylinder of vanilla rice pudding, rolled in coco, on top of it a quenelle of mango-passion sorbet (too small to be enjoyed through the whole dish), the whole thing trapped in a spiral made of biscuit, strawberry sauce and elder tree sauce all around in the big glass plate. It was light, with little or no cream and little sugar, and there was a fine balance of tastes and textures, as the lowest rice level was somewhat dense, the spiral was crispy, and some slices of mango also brought the texture and freshness of the raw fruit. It concluded perfectly that thoroughly enjoyable meal in this restaurant which really feels like, and really is, someone’s house. 280€ for this dinner for two, including beverages.

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