"We have only five or six vodkas, but 35 different
mineral waters. Ten years ago nobody cared about mineral waters;
today everybody is talking about them." So says the youthful maitre
d' with the ready smile and barely concealed glint of amusement in
his eye as he leads us to a large window-front table at first
in Hotel Palace Berlin. He hands us a water menu, then presents his
card: Jerk Martin Ries, but quickly adds that while working in
California, he was known simply as Martin. We decide to call him J.R.
"Our selection of waters is the largest in
Germany," J.R. tells us. "Sparkling, medium-sparkling, and still.
They come from all over the world.
"Martinis have given way to mineral waters," he
continues, "especially at lunchtime. Why? A lot of people don't want
to drink and do business at the same time, and the water menu is a
nice alternative. Even with the increase in shipping costs, water is
still cheaper than liquor. And it is part of a lifestyle issue;
everyone is into the wellness attitude."
It would seem water has becomes the latest rage in
Germany's fine dining realm. How long before it reaches California,
we ask J.R. "It's probably there already," he responds.
To be honest, we're a bit surprised and not only
by a water menu. The dining room, a bright and contemporary space
with gleaming rosewood surfaces, fabrics of blue and gold, vivid
Chinese carpets, and tablecloths of a fleur de lis pattern is
appealing. But with only twelve tables, it is much smaller than we
anticipated. Moreover, according to J. R., there is only a single
seating for lunch and dinner. This in a big and brassy five-star
property of 250 rooms and 32 suites. Later we would discover the
hotel has other restaurants, and first floor, its gourmet dining
room, is linked to five conference rooms. But by then, our dinner
was nearly complete, and it had become clear that if the dining
room's dimensions are modest, its reach is great. Which accounts for
first floor's international following, its reputation as one of
Germany's finest restaurants, and its distinction of being the first
German restaurant to command a Michelin star -- an honor maintained
through the decade that has followed.
To dine at first floor is to be treated to an
experience that is organized, executed and delivered by a talented
trio we dubbed the "Triple Threat": the award-winning Chef Matthais
Buchholz and Sommelier Gunnar Tietz, and the irrepressible J.R.
Together they form a team that operates in unison, combining passion
with expertise to make of a dinner a memorable event.
Maitre d' "J.R."
Award-winning Chef Matthais Buchholz (cr.
|We opted for a tasting menu created by
the chef which began with an assortment of freshly baked
breads accompanied not only by the expected butter dish, but
also a little rectangular tray bearing three colorful
spreads. One was a paté of carrots, another cheese with
herbs, the third a combination of cauliflower and celery.
Unique and tasty, they proved harbingers of imaginative
combinations yet to come.
Matthais likes to make these different combinations," said
Uta Walther, the dark haired and soft-spoken public
relations and marketing manager of Hotel Palace who was
joining us for dinner. "The recipe is in his head; he knows
what it will taste like before he does it. He keeps the
original taste of food so that you know what you are eating;
nothing is disguised or covered up."
Germany's Sommelier of the Year: Gunnar
Uta's commentary was borne out through the courses
that followed: delicate ravioli filled with chanterelle mushrooms
that had just come into season; a terrine of tuna featuring
marinated tuna sprinkled with sesame seeds over Asian vegetables
with wasabi foam, and tuna sushi with melon-- again, that unique
combo; a miniature omelet stuffed with salmon and a tiny bit of
refreshing arugala; cod fish covered with a crust of shallots and a
puree of mint and peas (see recipe at end); and German beef served
with those irresistible chanterelle mushrooms.
"We are trying to keep the products German," J.R.
said as the tender, flavorful beef was presented. But this parade of
delicacies bore no resemblance to the German foods we remembered
from our childhoods -- there was no sauerbraten, no wiener
schnitzel, no heavy sausages -- although if requested, the native of
Bonn could undoubtedly whip them up. Instead, each course reflected
a tantalizing and aromatic mixture of ingredients into a light,
healthy, and delicious plate that needed no improvement -- which, in
all likelihood, explains the absence of salt and pepper from the
table. Named Best Chef in Berlin several times and winner of the
Five Star Diamond Award, Matthais is trained in classic French
cuisine, but, according to Uta, his creativity and feel for products
inevitably lead him in new directions.
Chef and his team taking a break (cr.
|Complimenting first floor's chef is its
sommelier. Tall, fair-haired, and with the air of a romantic
character out of Goethe, Gunnar Tietz is Germany's 2008
Sommelier of the Year. He introduced himself with glasses of
delightfully sparkling 2006 Kranz Rosé -- a more perfect
beverage for a lovely evening in June could not be imagined.
Like Matthais, Gunnar has been at first floor for a decade.
His role as sommelier, however, tells only half his
"A friend of mine, an asparagus farmer who
lives in a valley in South Africa, decided to grow grapes
and make wines," he told us as he opened a bottle of white
wine which, he promised, would go well with the tuna. "He
was making red wine when five years ago, he invited me to
join him and try to produce a white wine." We then had the
privilege of tasting Gunnar and friend's first vintage,
Ziguras: 2007, a blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Leomine,
and 25% Seminole White, wonderfully clear, not at all sweet,
and delicately aromatic. "And so, I have become a vintner,"
the lauded sommelier said.
But for our second selection, wine, Gunnar turned
to the Hotel Palace caveau, selecting from among the 1,400 bottles,
a Pinot Noir from Pfalz in southwest Germany. "I searched for the
best Pinot Noir in Germany, and found this one. It is of limited
production, very exclusive, has been voted the best Pinot Noir in
Germany for the past five years," he said of the elegant
"Appreciation of quality wines is growing in
Berlin," he added. "It's becoming a very good market." Capitalizing
on the increased interest, Gunnar has inaugurated the "Big Bottle
Party" that is held at the Hotel Palace the first Sunday in March.
Eighty-six wineries participate in what has become one of the best
known wine-tasting events in Germany.
We had the pleasure of tasting a white Wassmer
from the region between the Black Forest and the Rhine, oaky and
like a dry Chardonnay, and then, to go with the beef, a fruity
At first floor, there is a pre-dessert course:
iced cappuccino and biscuit crisp followed by dessert, again a
rectangular tray bearing a striking trio: in this case the strong
Austrian cottage cheese tuphen, rose-petal soup and raspberry sorbet
accompanied by a strong rum-based liqueur from Guatemala served over
ice -- a new fashion in Berlin.
And if all this were not enough, a dessert trolley
appeared, a beautiful assortment of miniature delicacies too
tempting to resist.
Throughout this dining extravaganza, J. R. was
hardly forgotten. Not only did he oversee the seamless arrival and
departure of dishes, change of flatware, and re-filling and
replacement of glasses, he introduced some of the 35 waters in his
domain, pointing out both obvious and subtle differences among them.
For instance, how the gently sparkling Austrian water from a spring
that dates back to the time of the Romans compares in taste to Sylt,
the medium sparkling water named for the island -- a fashionable
destination -- on which the 115-foot-deep spring was discovered, and
to sparkling Lauquen from high in the Andes Mountains of Patagonia
-- the southernmost spring in the world,
|J. R. refrained from serving Iskilde, a
still water from Denmark, until we were having dessert.
"Effervescence is acidic and therefore not suited to the
sweetness of desserts," he told us.
Also, we suspect, he hoped Iskilde (the
Danish word for "cold spring") would leave the most lasting
impression. "I come from a very small town in northern
Germany, right next to the Danish border, so I have a
feeling that this water comes from my hometown," J.R.
admitted. "It's a very interesting water. The spring was
discovered five years ago, but they think the water was
there since the Ice Age.
"And it has oxygen inside. When you open
the bottle, you can hear a 'pfft' sound. But it is not
carbonation. The little bubbles you see are oxygen; you can
taste it on the tongue like champagne.
"I never would have imagined, water has a taste,
but it does. And different waters have different tastes," J.R.
concluded as he walked us to the door after dinner. We could see
part of the caveau, tall shelves where first floor's
14,000 bottles of wine rest. The arrangement caught the eye. But the
topic, once again, was water.
"Why not?" asked J. R. "Water is pure. It is
healthy. We look into water. We come from water." He smiled, then
added "It is so amazing!"
Amazing indeed. The entire evening had been
amazing. Exceptional food, excellent wines, extraordinary service --
and running through it all, the taste, the sense, and a newly
acquired appreciation of life's major element: water.
N.B. The following recipe
provided by Chef Matthais contains some European terminology and
measurements. But if the reader is game, the result will be well
worth the bit of research required.
Codfish in an Egg Shallot Crust
with a Pea and Mint Puree
- 4 pieces of codfish - 80 to
100g, without skin
- 1 l olive oil
- ˝ bunch basil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 spoon of pink pepper
- 1 spoon of sea salt
- 2 star anise
- Heat the oil up to 60°C, let it
then cool down to 50°C.
- Marinate the codfish with all
other ingredients for 15 to 20 minutes.
12 crawfish tails
1,5 kg sliced carcass
200 g carrots
˝ fennel corm
0,15 l Sauternes
0,15 l Noilly Prat
0, 25 l white wine
1 l crustacean stock
1 l fowl stock
0,5 l fish stock
80 g celery
2 pieces of star anise
1 clove of garlic
1 twig of rosemary
- Let the carcass adduct with the
olive oil for a short while. Afterwards add the sliced shallots,
carrots, fennel and tomatoes and let it adduct again.
- Extinguish everything with
Noilly Prat, Sauternes and white wine and reduce it thereafter
- Now add crustacean stock, fowl
stock and fish stock, star anise, garlic and rosemary and let all
brew on low temperature for one hour.
- Pass this stock through a fine
sieve so that a slightly viscous texture results. Add some flakes of
butter and pitch it under this sauce.
Pea and Mint Puree
- 300 g frozen peas
- 30 g butter
- 3 leaves of mint chopped
- salt and sugar
- First blanche the peas and then
puree them with mint. Then pass it through a sieve.
- Let the butter melt until it is
gold-brown. Let it rest for a short while so that the brown whey
- Now put all butter into the
puree and fold it with a gum spoon very quickly.
- Season to taste with salt and
sugar, optionally some mint.
- Egg-shallot crust
- 200 g butter
- 60 g bread crumb
- 1 yolk
- 5 shallots, sliced and aduccted
- 4 boild eggs, parted and choped
- salt and pepper
- Hit the butter until it has a
foamy structure and then add the raw yolk. Season to taste and add
the bread crumbs. Now add first the chopped egg white and then
secondly add the chopped yolk.
- Season to taste again and apply
it onto parchment paper. Put it into the fridge until needed again.
- Then when everything is ready
put this crust onto the codfish and cook it “au gratin”.
- Then arrange the puree on the
plate and put the au gratin cooked cod fish on top. Put the craw
fish tails around and extract some of the crustacean glacé on it.
first floor at Hotel Palace Berlin
Budapester Str. 45
Phone: +49 (30) 25 02 0
Photographs (unless otherwise
noted) by Harvey Frommer