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 Food, Wine, and Water at the first floor, Hotel Palace, Berlin

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 

"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 floor 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." - click to enlarge
Maitre d' "J.R."

Award-winning Chef Matthais Buchholz (cr. Hotel Palace) - click to enlarge
Award-winning Chef Matthais Buchholz (cr. Hotel Palace)

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.

"Chef 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 Tietz - click to enlarge
Germany's Sommelier of the Year: Gunnar Tietz

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. Hotel Palace) - click to enlarge
Chef and his team taking a break  (cr. Hotel Palace)

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 story.           

"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 ruby-colored wine.

"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 Cabernet Sauvignon.

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 

Codfish

  • Ingredients
    • 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
  • Preparation
    • 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.
    • Crustacean Glacé
    • Ingredients
12 crawfish tails

1,5 kg sliced carcass

3 shallots

200 g carrots

˝ fennel corm

2 tomatoes

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

butter

  • Preparation
    • 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 somewhat.
    • 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

  • Ingredients
    • 300 g frozen peas
    • 30 g butter
    • 3 leaves of mint chopped
    • salt and sugar
  • Preparation
    • 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 sediments.
    • 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
  • Ingredients
    • 200 g butter
    • 60 g bread crumb
    • 1 yolk
    • 5 shallots, sliced and aduccted in butter
    • 4 boild eggs, parted and choped
    • chive
    • salt and pepper
  • Preparation
    • 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.

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first floor at Hotel Palace Berlin
Budapester Str. 45
10787 Berlin
Germany

Phone: +49 (30) 25 02 0
Web:  http://www.palace.de

Photographs (unless otherwise noted) by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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