La Vie (Osnabrück, Germany) – Explorations
Evocative of landscapes, Thomas Bühner’s dishes encourage trailblazing through his crawling plates. Using the main ingredient as guide, pairing complements and opposites in random walks, dimension and nuance are explored. Each bite might differ – a stinging acidity and unexpected sweetness might dance back and forth before settling on a nutty tempered finish. Symphonic, as Bühner himself aspires to, where complex dishes balance a variety of flavors, textures, and sometimes, temperatures; all integral to the final work. “And wait until the main dish arrives,” High End Food said before walking away.
While meandering curiosity and endless interpretation defined the majority of the savory menu, Pure Venison was swift, bold, and unabashedly final – this is venison. And this is the final say. The essence of venison was captured and amplified to a rich, extracted, and ultimately heady blend of iron-y tea. Yes, this was (finally) a concluding meat course convincing in its domination – a statement, and signature.1
And its jarring finality provided a sudden clarity for earlier dishes. Sometimes ingredients played star, bright in focus, carrying a dish; others blurred, acting more as bridge and background. Quite good, the menu lacked a powerful point of view until the venison – which then brought the entire menu into acute focus. Bühner was purposely holding back, dodging, and hinting at what was to come; and composed a drama that climaxed in the big bang. Technical, precise, and delicious.
A group of writers were invited2 to learn about the cooking of the Neue Deutsche Schule3 – a reclamation of German haute cuisine from its French roots by applying the German virtues of precision, perfection, and ordered creativity. The chefs are linked not stylistically but by their approach to cooking and creativity; and, as we would discover, the cooking of the four main proponents of this school was wide-ranging, ambitious, and unique to each.
Marinated Mackerel, passion fruit, & black sesame ice cream
Two pieces of mackerel sat on the plate, one alone, the other in the thick of action; a possible clue to eating through Bühner’s food – taste, sample, and compare. It is nonlinear in approach. The flavors began bright, with pickled brine and fruity acidity, complementing the cool ingredients lying across the plate. The black sesame ice cream was intense, an ever so slight ice that at first sung with the acids but quickly tempered them with cream and nutty flavors of sesame, and toasted sesame crumbs, with just hints of sweetness. Minor umami and vegetal notes lingered in the background.
Marinated mackerel showed few stylistic similarities to Aqua the previous night, as seen here by Ulterior Epicure or DocSconz. But both chefs were clearly precise in their approach. Here, the flavor and textural profile was strong and deliberate – a crisp sea spike that bled into a creamy nuttiness.
Shrimps from Büsum crowded one side of the plate, as if just washed up by the surf, replete with beach sand. Here, the sweet shrimp were paired generously with leek and asparagus, equals in portioning. Sips of the intense, briny shrimp tea brought out more of the inherent sweetness of the shrimp.
If there were headphones, one might hear Sound of the Sea.4 There were stylistic similarities to Blumenthal’s dish but this had Bühner’s sense of forging paths, of walking down the coast, arguably an improved concept on the original. One combed through in accidental fashion but inevitably arrived at the same endpoint – purity of taste via the shrimp tea. It shows a willingness to explore ingredients, to let the diner loose but never stray too far; and, in this case, anchored by the purity of the ingredient.5
Langoustine with smoke, green tomato & ricotta, Iberico bacon, bulgur
With the langoustine, front and center, its faint smoke pulled the dish together. It bridged the sweetness gulf between langoustine and fatty bacon. As it lingered in the mouth, it complemented the nutty notes from the chew of bulgur. Tangy bites of green tomato broke through its fog.
Guinea fowl wings seemed misplaced. The spice was strong enough to perk through the smoke but it seemed random – suddenly, where was the meal going? It was an interesting dish for its composition – more parts supporting cast than wings – but the flavors carried none of the brightness, or nuance, of earlier dishes – it was a middling dish.
A quick small dish, not pictured, set the stage for the venison course – Potato foam and pumpkin curry ice cream. This was small but impactful – cold, racy ice cream buried in a hot, luscious foam. The curry spice built on the fowl, hitting a quick earthy note before it melted in the mouth.
Pure Venison – venison, juice, beetroot, mushroom “earth”
When the waiter placed the venison down, it looked out of place – brilliant red meat, a green leaf, and a few beets adorned the plate. A cup of tea sat in one corner. Pure venison. Where were the nooks and crannies of earlier dishes? Commanding – a meat course that belied its simplicity with complex aromas and deeply rich tastes. The tea was an extraction of venison that drank like wine – a complex long finish with viscous body. The meat itself was cooked sous vide with red wine and spices. While sous vide has its detractors, QLI argues that the texture for this dish is the right choice. It preserves the purest form of the meat. And they are right.
Powerful and focused, it cast the entire menu in new light. With each dish, Bühner was exploring ingredients, suggesting possibilities, but always maintaining precise control with ebb and flow. The shrimp tea was a clue. And then his menu unfolded with Pure Venison – a statement on his ingredient cuisine; one searching for moments of absolute clarity.6
Gravensteiner apple – warm, cold, ice cold, hazelnut cookies, yogurt, & powder
Desserts were reversed, the chocolate needed first to hold up to the venison’s intensity – a technique also used at Town House to great effect. The liquid milk chocolate was sufficiently sweet, but creamy, with the acidic cherries piercing both to the right degree. But just as important were textures – the contrast between liquid, honeycomb, and crunchy caramelized quinoa – nice bits of variance.
Despite being a touch too precious, the Gravensteiner apple course was quite good for its temperature contrasts and acidity. It sat stunning and beautiful, casting reflections in the afternoon light. Its blown sugar shell collapsed into cold apple, and maybe yogurt, powder. It bore similarities to the Pear, Sage, Yogurt dessert at Atelier Crenn. The sensation of eating the cold powder with its warm apple puree base evoked a crisp fall evening. And there, with its cold acidity, the meal ended where it began – symmetry.
Thomas Bühner’s plates draw you in and invite exploration through their pathways of ingredients. They are suggestive and open for interpretation but manage to maintain a precision and purpose with each bite. It is a modern plating style but his compositions, orderly creative, somehow maintain balance and intrigue with most bites. Patterns can be easy to spot when purposely looking for them but the internal structure of this meal continued to resonate long after its delicious consumption, most likely in ways I have failed to describe.
Shortly after this visit, La Vie (deservedly) earned its third Michelin star. Osnabrück is a long journey from many places, but autobahns make it especially worthy of a special trip.7 Go.
1 – Long-time readers know that I find diminishing value in the final meat courses of most meals for various reasons of portion size and predictability. Sometimes, there are surprises. Not only was this course that big punch at the end; it reveled in its ambition.
2 – The German National Tourist Office, working with High End Food, invited a group of us, including but not limited to, Ulterior Epicure, A Life Worth Eating, DocSconz, Gastros on Tour, Cookcooning, and Very Good Food, to experience the New German School of cooking – Neue Deutsche Schule.
Is ChuckEats selling out? How could you say no to such a great opportunity? And, rest assured, if Japan ever comes calling – signed, sealed, and sold.
3 – The four main chefs are Thomas Bühner, Nils Henkel, Christian Bau, and Sven Elverfeld. We saw demonstrations by each at the Chef Sache and all four collaborated on a meal for our group (which will be written about in a later blog post.)
4 – Is Everything a Remix? I disagree. There is influence, appropriation, and homage; and these are accelerating quickly in our increasingly networked world. Access is paramount. But a remix is more intentional – it uses the actual source material to re-work the original. King Tubby flows in these veins.
5 – It is worth noting La Vie has its own gardens (you can see pictures in this Very Good Food post.) While nothing new in 2012, I think it shows that a chef cares more about what they are putting on the plate. By working with the plants, or animals, more intimately, there is a greater understanding of their essence. And we have seen too much inspired food to paint this as a cliched trend.
6 – It is en vogue to talk about telling a story with food. The human mind is hard-wired to make connections, even when none exist. But what is the story for food? It is often unclear what chefs mean – are they engaged in metaphor to discuss the sequencing of dishes (the season, the place); food re-creations of literal stories (childhood memories); post-modern observation (deconstruction, irony); or dramaturgy between combinations of flavors, tastes, textures, and temperatures – units of language?
High End Food argues in this 2010 review that there are two sides to Bühner’s cuisine – the modern and the pure; but, and perhaps it is with an additional year to fuse the two sides together, the dishes here integrated well with each other, highlighting similarities and differences between them, culminating in the mastery of the pure venison. There was but one menu with different approaches used to create tension, suspense, and surprise.
7 – I am a proponent for no speed limits and super highways – drive at your own risk, pay by the mile, and stay out of the fast lane. You have not lived until you are bombing down the Autobahn at a respectable 110-120mph, limited only by the aerodynamics of the rental agency’s poor management. And then imagine getting passed by a screaming Ferrari 458. A red blur shook the truck (a truck?!?) and roared the few seconds before it disappeared into the future. Always check your rear-view on the Autobahn, two or three times, and press the gas to pass; for there is always someone oh so much faster!