lundi 20 août 2007

Heinz Winkler, Italian master of nouvelle cuisine in Germany

La version française est ici.

Two reasons kept me from going to Heinz Winkler's sooner: bad reviews, claiming that he was the least good of the German three-star, even did not deserve them, and the pictures on his website, which make his place look like a huge fortress on top of a mountain, where one would expect to find a heliport or perhaps even a private runway for Bill Gates or the Sultan of Qatar.

Just driving there dismissed this latter impresion. Heinz Winkler's house, it turned out, is none of these neighbouring houses (yes, I did take too many pictures):

It is a big, rustic, house in the middle of a small village, a former postal relay at the feet of the Bavarian Alps. Herbs are grown in a little garden in at the back of the house, and the inside looks fancy more in a Bocuse way than in a Hotel de Paris way.

As far as the reviews are concerned, and as I argued for Bocuse, it is always an easy story to explain how the old masters are outdated and overrated. And, strangely, unanimity among reviewers make me rather doubtful, suggesting that the story ended up being more attractive than reality.

Winkler calls his cuisine "cuisine vitale", which makes him a sort of Alpine Guérard. Amuses immediately showed how serious this ambition of lightness is, starting with a cold gaspacho that was not even red, and positively aqueous. It was pure taste, without any sort of fat or texture, a sapid water, intensely welcome and refreshing on this sunny terrace. There was a mousse of cauliflower and Madeira, which was equally simple in composition and intense in taste, and finally a bite of marinated herring. Such a glorification of ingredient, in a manner which is yet not minimalist, but more of a streamlining and lightening of ancient knowledge, seems to me like a lost secret of the 1980s, and I confess a personal bias towards this approach.
A sweetbread salad with girolles was next, with some powder of trompettes/craterelles mushrooms on top (a gimmick that came back all over the meal: maybe those mushrooms were intended to play the role truffles would have played in season? Didn't hurt anyway). The sweetbread were sliced and quickly fried, and they had this lightness which I had come to think only happened at Rabaey – sweet, melty, but not meaty, without any trace of a liver-like taste. It felt like a sublime version of Chicken Mac Nuggets: crispy and melty, but with no sense of fat and weight. Salad and mushrooms were all the most welcome, and the taste of girolles was perfectly emphasised.

There was also some Brittany lobster with sepia ink noodles and a saffron sauce. This dish was interesting but I suspect that it was a bit compromised by a light undercooking of the lobster. The saffron sauce, where you would have expected something creamy and musk-like, had a light, emulsified consistency, and a taste on the bitter side. Come to think of it, I wonder if they did not use grapefruit instead of orange for the sauce. Anyway, with the firm pasta whose texture was that of Chinese noodles, it resulted in a lobster dish that was looking towards a very ethereal taste, all in duration and subtlety, instead of the habitual power, mitigated with noodles and cream. Maybe because the lobster was more pink-cooked rather than white, I had the impression that it was not a full success – definitely less so than the sweetbread.

Following a baroque recommendation from the captain, we got the coquilles saint Jacques and cèpes (scallops and porcini) dish. In an intense, this time not ethereal the least, though yet again not fatty, porcini cream, were sautéed American scallops with sliced dried porcini on top (and the mushroom powder). Not sure why a house of this calibre feels the need to offer a dish so obviously off-season. It was good, quite good, but of course there was none of the thrill you would have had with fresher ingredients. Though, on second thoughts, maybe the taste of super fresh French scallops would have conflicted with the mushrooms? The taste of these scallops, in any case, sure did not.
The pièce de resistance was no doubt the highlight of the show as well. A loup de mer en croute de sel, not a tiny one as you can judge, was cooked in salt, served to the plate. This may already be your favourite recipe for a good seabass – it is mine. The fish is cooked inside grey salt in a very hot oven, and it results in a very perfect cooking because flavours are trapped by the salt inside the fish, and the temperature inside is low and homogenous, and the flavours of the salt also perfume the fish. So the fish is moist and yet flavourful. A big advantage is that you do not have to do anything during the cooking. Another is that it is always spectacular to bring a solid mountain of salt to the table, break it with a hammer and reveal the food inside. The recipe works well with a whole chicken or any fish with a thick skin - scales are not taken off so that the result is not oversalted. Even works well with whole beets, judging from the Passard experience.

The recipe is simple and classic, but getting that fresh a fish is always tricky (and the fish had that distinctive and rich taste of super fresh wild seabass), and the perfect degree of cooking should also not be accounted for nothing.

Given the size of the animal, there were two servings. The first one was accompanied of a textbook parsley purée –there again, only water and parsley, some potatoes I guess as a concession to local expectations, and a great butter sauce of mustard seeds and tarragon. The mustard tasted like mustard but was not spicy-hot at all, the tarragon had a pure embrace with the fish, and the parsley worked as a great garniture, very distinct from the tarragon. Wow.

For the second serving, the fish, which had been kept warm (or reheated), was not at the delicious optimum cooking anymore, and had gone a bit drier. I therefore thought that it was smart from Winkler to serve it with a slightly richer and less flavourful sauce and a very fresh and moist tomato “caviar”, full of sun and tasty water. And the trompettes powder on top.

Gastronomical debate sometimes focus on the opposition between delicious and interesting. I like to make another distinction between two kinds of deliciousness: the “I want more” delicious, which could also be named the “I’m so sad I can’t have more” kind, I associate with Robuchon, Ducasse or Rostang, butter, sugar and cream. The “I’m so happy I had some and I don’t want more for it would alter my enjoyment” delicious is the other kind, and it is represented, in my opinion, by Senderens, Loiseau or Roellinger. Winkler clearly belongs to the second category.
I was actually surprised that the dessert was on par with the rest of the meal, for it seems that the exercise is in contradiction with the aesthetic approach I just mentioned. But the apple tart I had was a pure wonder: very simply made, as you can see, on order of course, it was served on a delicious Calvados cream which underlined the apple taste (brought also by the apple sauce between the dough and the apple slices), made it deeper, and had none of the alcoholic strength of the Calvados. This cream also moistened the freshly baked puff pastry, and the whole thing took a brand new dimension with the Lavender sorbet served on the side (obviously: temperature, texture, flavour and duration). A bit like if you got to eat the apple on the tree and walk in the imaginary lavender fields nearby at the same time (I am not aware of a place where the two coexist, and even so I am not sure if it would work season wise).

I did not order any wine and this kind of quasi-dietetic cooking stands it very well. But the real reason of course is that the prices are simply more than I call swallow, with, for instance, a selection of Cote-Rôties from Guigal oscillating between 600 and 800€ (you can have some La Tache at Christian's for this price -- plus the meal). The whole meal for two persons amounted to a bit less than 300€ à la carte, including intensely professional service and the kind of attentions you only find in palaces (e.g. they gave us the same table than the one we chose to take a coffee the day before).

It may be my own opinion and a concern that is mine only, but, since the death of Bernard Loiseau, I have missed this kind of cooking: healthy, light, pure, but not austere the least, and intense. I highly recommend Winkler. On a personal note, Winkler himself, with his sensitivity and his mixture of strenghth and insecurity is not unlike Loiseau was. With a bit of luck, there will be snow and it will be just the ideal place for Christmas.

Aucun commentaire: