Posted on Thursday, 26th November 2009
On a recent visit to Berlin, I went to Margaux Restaurant, a Michelin one star restaurant which came highly recommended from Victor’s Gourmet Restaurant’s chef, Christian Bau. After having had perhaps the best meal of my life at the latter restaurant, I now rate Bau as one of my favourite chefs of all time. So when Bau recommends a restaurant to try, it’s a suggestion that’s pretty hard to ignore.
Located on Berlin’s main street of Unter de Linden, around the corner from the Brandenburg Gate, the restaurant is imposingly striking. There is sleek walnut panelling interlaced with creative ‘mother-of-pearl’ type lighting as the restaurant’s backdrop. The seating is of a mustard colour which complements the white linen tablecloths nicely, and there are other warm and sophisticated touches throughout.
The restaurant’s philosophy, as explained by the waiter when you first survey the menu, is a lighter type of cuisine, one that doesn’t leave you feeling so heavy afterwards. This is achieved through the use of different types of oil and less butter. There are two different types of tasting menus, a ‘Voyage de Cuisine’ for meat and seafood eaters (7 courses for €165, and 5 courses for €120), and a vegetarian ‘Voyage de Legumes (7 courses for €140, and 5 courses for €100), although it is possible to chose fewer courses for which you will be charged accordingly.
The amuse bouches began with sardines ‘Grenoble style’, a sardine marinated with lemon and capers and various other ingredients, on a soft buttery toast which dissolved on your tongue. There was also a ‘Toast Mimosa’ which consisted of a soft boiled quail’s egg, coated delicately in horseradish and served over a piece of toast set with slivers of carrot and chives. This was delicious.
The second amuse bouche included some beautifully seasoned foie gras pate, rich with the aftertaste of foie gras; a light quince jelly with dressed beetroot; and a creamy ice cream of quince and duck liver over a relish of apple and ginger, the combination of which was quite pleasant.
I selected six courses from the Voyage de Cuisine and began with a dish of charcoal smoked pollock, scallops, sea urchin and Gillardeau oysters which was stunning. The centrepiece was a piece of pollock, so meltingly tender it fell apart on contact. Pollock, perhaps not the most popular of fish, was very well done here. Surrounding the fish was a ‘salad’ of sea urchin, scallops and poached oysters served with mustard and lovage which was immersed in a liquid made from pollack juice and very finely chopped chives. Each of the individual pieces of seafood was so naturally sweet and flavoursome that it demanded that you lingered slowly with each mouthful and savoured every bite. Accompanying the dish was a parfait of oysters, made from oyster juice, which was topped with a chive foam. The parfait was light, delicate and not too briny, and it worked well with the aromatic chive foam. This dish was the ‘wow’ dish of the evening.
Breton lobster with apples and hamachi consisted of two juicy sweet pieces of beautifully cooked (in the slightly underdone sort of way) pieces of lobster. The hamachi, a thin sliver, had been accentuated delicately with the flavour of lemon juice and citron pepper, and for a little bit of a kick, there was also a touch of curry powder thrown into the mix. This was interesting for the highly complex way in which it had been spiced. It was accompanied by a lovely seafood jus, some tasty wafer thin pieces of slightly crunchy fairy ring mushrooms (pixie mushrooms), and a confit of raw and green apples. The ‘raw apple’ of the confit resembled an apple puree, mixed with finely diced pieces of apple. My thoughts on this were mixed. Made from green apple, it was slightly sour. It therefore gave the dish some acidity, but texturally it was mushy, and tasted similar to baby food which detracted from the elegance of the dish. However, despite my initial reservations, eating the apple together with the lobster grew on me over time, although I don’t think I would have missed it if it hadn’t been served at all.
A beautifully cooked piece of meaty codfish, which had been steamed in olive oil, was accompanied by some sweetly glazed crunchy black salsify, fine shavings of autumn truffles and a light jus made from watercress. The accompanying dish was a salad of steamed cod cheeks and fennel, topped with finely shaved autumn truffle. The cod cheeks, gelatinous in texture, were quite tasty. The hint of aniseed was quite subtle and the cheeks worked nicely with the truffle. Overall, this was a very precise, clinically executed course. To some extent, it reminded me of the food served at Restaurant Bras – all perfectly cooked and very exact. But the lack of use of butter was evident for the dish lacked a certain richness that comes with buttery finishes – that something extra – and to me this dish bordered on being a little dull. But this is a very subjective matter – some people might prefer cleaner flavours to rich ones.
A dish of autumn vegetables consisted of steamed turnips, carrots, celery, chervil, fennel, kohlrabi, springs onions, lettuce and filled cabbage. Plated to maintain a consistent temperature across all the vegetables (which requires great care), this dish again reminded me of Michel Bras’ gargouillou. Similar in essence, but different in nature, the Margaux version differed from the gargouillou by having fewer vegetables and herbs and no flowers. Also it was finished with a lovely vegetable jus, a side of sautéed bread topped with a cream and jelly of vegetables, and a cup of vegetable jus. To eat this dish, you alternated mouthfuls between the three, the vegetables on the plate, the bread and the jus. The sautéed bread had a wonderful creamy texture, and the jus, reduced to a rich thick consistency, was heavy with flavour and natural vegetable sweetness. This was a very impressive vegetarian dish for the amount of flavour it delivered. Coincidentally, Michael Hoffman, the chef at Margaux has never been to Bras. I asked.
To the meat dish, which was lamb (loin and shoulder). The shoulder was topped with slivers of fried onion and sage which added lots of aroma and crunchiness to the very tender shoulder. The loin was also delicious and succulent. It was served with mashed pumpkin with fennel, cumin and smoked red pepper which was quite tasty, but a little cold, and an endive salad roasted in ‘gremolada jus’. There was a very pleasing aftertaste to the endive, made complex by the use of the herbs in the jus, which in this instance included not only parsley but orache and lovage as well.
Le dessert Voyage was a collection of small desserts created from seasonal products. First was a spiced pear with dried and candied orange and kumquat over a crème caramel puff pastry. The pear was nicely spiced and aromatic, and the puff pastry was flaky and light, but was not too buttery. On the smaller plate there was a white chocolate cup with vanilla, an excellent orange tart and a berry jelly.
The next selection included a variation of apples. From a clockwise direction, starting from the bottom right, there was a caramelised apple tart which had a lovely light sweetness to it and a pastry that was again flakey but not overly buttery; a refreshing apple granite; an apple beignet with Mumbai curry and a cox apple sorbet with apple chutney. The beignet was light and fluffy and very aromatic from the curry, although over time its doughy flavour got lost when eaten with the other apple sweets. The sorbet and chutney was also very refreshing and provided a nice contrast in textures.
To the final tasting dessert which was a chocolate and coffee ‘interpretation’ that included a coffee ice cream over a coffee biscuit, a chocolate mousse with a rum jelly, a chocolate tart and chocolate lolly pops. All of these were delicious, especially the ice cream, although the gelatinous nature of the jelly detracted from the creaminess of the mousse. To finish were some lovely petits fours and beautiful chocolates.
The service was excellent and incredibly friendly. The staff exuded a natural warmth and were very attentive.
Overall, the execution of the food was spot on and technically flawless, and the variety in the menu was very well thought out for there were many side dishes and an impressive array of desserts. A lot of detail went into the menu which was very impressive. The pollock dish was astounding good, and this dish made a visit to Margaux worthwhile, although I did question the apple accompaniment in the lobster dish. But while this meal was excellent overall and with good flavours, it lacked a certain flourish, that finishing buttery touch. The flavours were cleaner, lighter, and very pleasing, but it didn’t quite have that special richness. Like I said, I can’t fault the food in any way – it was technically flawless, but I would have preferred that little extra oomph. So the question of a lighter versus a slightly richer meal comes down to a matter of personal preference, which I suppose says a lot about me – that I’ve become a slave to butter.