Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Putting the 'fine' into fine dining

I admit that I didn't fly out to Berlin with any expectation that I was probably about to enjoy my finest fine-dine experience to date.

We'd walked past Gendarmerie on the eve of our arrival in the city and made a mental note. On the Sunday evening, we decided to give it a whirl – and fortunately, even without a reservation, we got a table outside.

The staff were excellent – very friendly and not in the least bit rushed. Indeed, dinner took us almost three hours with welcome breaks between courses.

I started with a terrine of black pudding and goose liver (foie gras, in essence), topped with a layer of tart, fruity jelly.

It was served with an apple chutney, spiced with a hint of cinnamon, and a small herb salad, with a slice of toasted brioche that was so light it almost fell apart.

Not only did this look stunning, it was fabulously well balanced, from the sweetness of the meat, through the less-sweet apple to the bitter herbs. It had texture, colour and, most of all, it had taste. Wonderful: I was close to orgasmic over it.

I'd had a glass of Champagne when we sat down, and being slightly better versed in the wine department, had selected a 2007 Dr Loosen Riseling. Which was jolly good too. I didn't really feel tempted to ask about the 1945 Rothschild that was listed – price on enquiry.

And so to the main course. The Other Half, having enjoyed a chervil soup, had lamb. I opted for a piece of cod, grilled, and served on a bed of puréed potato, with a halved fennel, a little tomato and a very light, frothy sauce, that never threatened to swamp the fish.

The cod itself was excellent – tasty and moist. And it struck me how much the tomato (hidden initially when the dish arrived) just added a little welcome sharpness to the dish – it wasn't simply there as some sort of afterthought or design point.

At this point in a restaurant meal (apart from in Barcelona or Collioure, where meal structure is perfectly suited to me), I'd usually have had to leave some of the main course, and wouldn't have a cat in proverbial hell's chance of being able to manage a dessert. However, I'd comfortably managed every crumb of what had been placed before me thus far and, when I saw desserts being carried to a nearby table, my mind was made up.

I opted for a chocolate torte that, despite the assertions of the menu, didn't arrive with a biscuit of Proustian fame, but a portion of utterly gorgeous strawberries. I wasn't complaining.

And the torte itself was perfection – rich and moist and utterly gorgeous. Our waiter, having told me that they didn't do dessert wines by the glass, suggested a glass of another Riesling – it turned out to be quite different – a grassy, light taste that complimented the dessert perfectly.

This was a first visit to a serious, chef-led restaurant. And it didn't disappoint.

Chef Axel Burmeister already has form – not least at the Esplanade in Berlin. And it's difficult to imagine him not making a hit of Gendarmerie, which had only opened its doors for the first time around three weeks before our visit.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can pay is that, after our most expensive meal ever, we decided to book again for our final night. And we weren't disappointed then either.

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