Innovative cuisine through a personal culinary journey at Aqua

Yuuki Omura - 29/10/2012

Located in north Germany, the city of Wolfsburg is a place of reinvention and innovation – celebrating the past whilst looking forwards to the future. Set against the backdrop of the antiquated but still functioning 1930 power plant, dwarfed by its four imposing smokestacks, Volkswagen’s Autostadt, which symbolises cutting edge technology and innovation, is a juxtaposition of industrial and contemporary architecture.

Right at the heart of the park, at the junction of new and old, is the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel housing Sven Elverfeld’s highly acclaimed avant-garde restaurant, Aqua, holding three prestigious Michelin stars since 2009 and the 2012 title of 22nd Best Restaurant in the World.

Elverfeld’s cuisine is in harmony with its contrasting and innovative environment. His dishes are visibly influenced by the modern design and architecture abundant in the Autostadt and hotel. Yet, his cooking is much more profound and personal than first glance suggests, clearly influenced by his past travels and experiences working in various countries such as Japan and the UAE.

Ultimately he is able to produce exciting dishes through the deconstruction and reinvention of his vast culinary encounters. Elverfeld is the epitome of what many have come to describe as the New German School of cooking, representing hard work, creativity and most importantly flawless execution; something the German’s are certainly known for.

In the kitchen, Elverfeld is accompanied by his sous chef Jan Hartwig and a brigade of chefs. He has a formidable front of house team lead by Maitre d’ Jimmy Ledemazel who welcome diners into a relaxed ambience, whilst maintaining meticulous attention to detail. Sommelier Marcel Runge, completes the trifecta doing an exceptional job of showcasing some of the finest local wines Germany has to offer.

The menu for this particular evening started with various snacks that stimulated different tastebuds, with a recurring theme of contrasts in temperature, texture and flavours. The Asian influenced cold cucumber soup with yuzu, ginger and mint cilantro sour cream was very refreshing and clean on the palate, and a contrast against Elverfeld’s reinvention of the warm and creamy classical Italian antipasto of vitello tonnato with rocket foam.

The combination the smoked salmon with almond and iced orange and pickled celery with apple-vinegar and yoghurt served on spoons were original in flavour and a perfectly contrasting arrangement. Of all the amuse bouches, I personally found the carrot and anchoviesto be the most interesting as the sweet carrot and salty anchovy worked surprisingly well and had a wonderful crunch to it. Elverfeld certainly set a high standard and expectation early in the meal. My tastebuds were definitely ready for some more!

The first course was a beautifully plated dish of foie gras, plum, fourme d’ambert and hazelnut paired with a moderately sweet glass of 1998 Bernkasteler Lay Riesling Auslese, J.J. Prum, Mosel. I really enjoyed the crunchy texture of the hazelnut to the soft foie and thought the slightly tart element of the plum was a perfect accompaniment to cut through the rich foie.

What I admired a lot in Elverfeld was his courage in reinventing very humble and traditional dishes fit for fine dining. His take on a typical German dish, Herring & Spicy Elderflower marinade with pickle, radishes and cream of pumpernickel bread, demonstrated to me that he was not afraid to play with punchy bold flavours and modest ingredients to create outstanding dishes. I was amazed at how the herring and radish did not dominate the flavours.

Admittedly, I was initially surprised that Elverfeld had decided to use a US-prime beef for the onglet barley bread stock with Danieli butter, french beans and chanterelles. Onglet, or hanger steaks, are typically known for the tough texture but rather prized for the flavour. It requires very precise preparation and minimal cooking as it can easily be chewy if overcooked, but this dish was excellent! Not only did the meat have bags of flavour, but the texture was extremely soft and tender.

To top it off, Marcel did a superb job to match this dish with a delicious decantered medium bodied red wine, 2001 Château Le Gay, Pomerol, which had a note of black/blue fruit. As expected from Elverfeld, the Hand Formed Cheese – Iced “Homage to my native land” was not the traditional cheese course one would expect to find. His reinvention of this Frankfurter speciality was refreshingly cold, the cheese presented in its raw form as well as mixed through liquid nitrogen. The chopped onion, chives and powdered roasted onion served on top complemented the cheese rather than overpower it. An unusual but welcomed prelude to the highly anticipated dessert dish, something I had been looking forward to ever since I found out that Elverfeld trained initially as a confectioner!

The main dessert of Buttermilk & currant, liquorice and fennel was extremely light, refreshing and not to mention very appeasing to the eye. The composition of the aromatic flavours from the fennel and the currants worked in absolute harmony with the buttermilk and the complex nut flavour from the 2009 Traminer Auslese, Stiegler, Baden.

The watermelon sorbet & tomatowas a surprising marriage of flavours which was clean on the palate and a perfect ending to a very memorable meal. I would probably say that my only complaint that evening was not having enough sweet courses, but then again I am probably being just greedy. What is certain is that I wanted more!

I found my meal at Aqua to be unexpectedly quite personal and reflective of the flavours I have been accustomed to through my own extensive travels and mixed Eurasian background.

I loved the journey Elverfeld took me that evening from Germany, France, the Mediterranean and all the way to North America and even Japan. His ingredients were consistently top quality and he didn’t need to rely on luxury products to produce outstanding dishes. What makes him particularly stand out amongst the other current top chefs is that he has a very distinct style of his own and is not afraid to be daring. This is certainly one school of cooking that I can get used to. I look forward to seeing how his cuisine evolves in the future.