February 26 2012
There is one affliction The Gannet fears more than any other. It strikes without mercy, and usually at exactly the wrong moment. It is loss of appetite.
It last happened to me in August. A few miles outside Cologne, at the imposing Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg, 16 chefs – 29 Michelin stars between them – were cooking their favourite dishes for a crowd of gourmets; I, meanwhile, had already eaten at both Vendôme, Joachim Wissler’s three-star restaurant in the hotel, and at the nearby Lerbach, where Nils Henkel holds two stars; and I was full.
To open the Festival der Meisterköche, Wissler had devised a menu with Spanish chef Quique Dacosta, and jolly good it was, too. But dinner the previous night at Lerbach was particularly special, not just for the food – fillet of red mullet with an intense, savoury bourride and spiced couscous was especially memorable, as was saddle of lamb with a perfectly judged lavender jus and black garlic – but also for the German wines: the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) was a revelation.
Back at the Schloss, my appetite needed urgent help. Champagne and oysters failed to work their magic and I was reduced to taking a brisk stroll around the hilly village of Bensberg. It seemed to do the trick. When I returned, the hotel was crawling with gastronomes: all the seats had been cunningly reserved with copies of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a tactic that hardly defied the national stereotype.
The British were ably represented by William Drabble, once of Aubergine and now at Seven Park Place in London’s St James’s. Billy is a terrific chef, but his food is not for the faint of stomach, and I did blanch slightly at his deep-fried galette of pig’s head with impossibly buttery, Robuchon-style pommes purées. Happily, the galette was crisp and unctuous, the mash soothingly rich, and I managed two helpings. Stomach suitably lined, I went in search of more delicacies: Wissler’s slow-cooked leg of roe deer with fresh ceps and sesame cream was especially impressive.
Back in London, with appetite in fine fettle, I went for lunch at Seven Park Place. Housed in the St James’s Hotel and Club – owned, like the Schloss Bensberg, by the Althoff hotel group – Drabble’s restaurant is smart, clubby and intimate, and the food is terrific. Perfectly cooked, crimson-skinned mullet was paired with a little spring roll of garlic purée; sweetbreads with ceps, lardons of bacon and little onions were the essence of autumn, pulled together by a richly sticky demi-glace and topped with caramel shards of garlic. Pudding was a peerlessly wobbly “burnt lemon cream” and an intense but light-textured blackcurrant sorbet. A digestif, sir? A vigorous walk around St James’s Park, I think.