We were invited to have dinner at Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel last weekend and jumped at the chance, not only to see what the celebrated chef had in store for Berlin but, more prosaically, to have the opportunity to get dressed up and leave the house, not something we parents of a toddler do a lot these days.
The hotel is one of several buildings that have gone and are still in the process of going up in and around Zoo in an effort to change the area from a rather unlovely transitional neighborhood into a destination in what is now known (teeth-grindingly to, er, some of us) as City-West. Having grown up just a few subway stops away, I welcome the initiative, but it keeps catching me off-guard, too. To see gleaming new buildings and spit-shined sidewalks where junkies and shifty characters used to congregate. Such is life in Berlin.
Les Solistes is on the first floor of the hotel, just at the top of a winding staircase, tucked behind a wall of dark panels of wood and thick strips of glass. We were welcomed and ushered into the dining room by staff who was solicitous and ever-present without hovering or overdoing it. Our table was at the far end of the room, flanked by a chair (for Max) and a banquette (for me). Just as we were sitting down, the sommelier came around pushing a wheeled cart stocked with open bottles of Champagne. We opted for a glass of rosé Ruinart (so, so, so good) to whet our appetites and were served a small plate of amuse-bouches (a little too much on the sweet side for my taste) and other nibbles to start. A standout was a small bowl filled with a silky eggplant purée flavored with ras-el-hanout and served with whisper-thin crackers. The crackers were, in fact, so thin that they kept snapping off when we attemped to scoop up the eggplant purée, but it was a delicious pairing and a textural delight.
After that, we were given a basket of bread (from a Meisterbäcker in Hannover named Jochen Gaues - parbaked in Hannover and then finished off in the Les Solistes kitchen) and two dishes of butter, one plain and unsalted and the other salted and blended with algae. The bread was very good, though I do wonder why they aren't able to source bread here in Berlin (Brot & Butter's bread comes to mind, after all, it's equally good and just up the street from the hotel) and the butters were wonderful. The salted algae butter was more interesting, of course, but the plain one was excellent, too, tasting fresh and pure and clean, not always a given, even in high-end restaurants.
Next up was a plate of herbed, poached cod laid out on a bed of fennel salad surrounded by a smaller pool of Comté sauce and a larger pool of green herb sauce. On top was a perfect orb of hake mousse. (Pardon the color imbalance in some of my photos - the restaurant was on the dark side and my little lens could go only go so far.) The pairing of cheese with fish, though unusual, really worked. I loved the juxtaposition of the cool flakes of fish with the silky-smooth sauces and the creamy-velvety mousse on top. If this was how the meal was starting off, we were in for quite a treat indeed.
In fact, the next course, turbot poached in haddock-flavored milk, served on top of a tomato concassé and cloaked in an ethereal citrus hollandaise, was one of the best dishes I've had in memory. My husband and I, feeling both gauche and greedy, scraped our plates clean. I loved the combination of flavors, the sweetness of the tomatoes playing beautifully off the high citrus notes in the sauce, with the single grilled scallion on top of the perfectly cooked turbot anchoring it all in the here and now. This is one crowd-pleaser of a dish, both sophisticated and eminently edible.
To cleanse our palates between the fish and the main meat course, we were given a little entremet: foie gras mousse served with ever-so-tender calamari, bits of olives and chili served in a puddle of rich, dark broth, studded with a few chewy grains of barley (or farro?). It was salty and savory and very good. (Though at this point, I started to worry about how I was going to manage to eat even one bite more. I think I have may have mentioned my wussy little appetite over here the other day.)
Our meat course came plated separately. On the larger plate was a rich, gamy breast of pigeon from Poitou-Charentes served with a fantastically fruity-acidic sauce made with cherries, redcurrants and eggplant, of all things. Complex and delicious. On the smaller plate was the delicate pigeon leg, deboned and crisp-skinned, served with a little cluster of that old standby, green beans almondine, and a tiny orb of gelée made with the heart and kidneys of the bird. It was all rather spectacular, even though I could barely manage more than a few bites at this point.
But we were nowhere near the end. After all, there was still dessert.
It was forwarded by a little footed plate filled with petit fours: tiny raspberry tarts, green apple gelée, red-currant filled chocolates and (my favorites), brightly flavored lemon candy chips with strawberry "crunch". There was also a bowl filled with tiny, expertly made rose-flavored marshmallows.
The multi-course dessert started with the delivery of three dishes: the first, a tall martini glass filled with tiny pink and green meringues (rose and green-tea flavored) atop poached peaches, green tea cream and rose cream; the second, a bowl of quivering cubes of sesame parfait served with a gelée of red fruits and flavored with Indian spices (photo above); the third, a dish of citrus-poached apricots topped with julienned zucchini, a paper-thin slice zucchini encasing a grapefruit confit and a spoon of quivering Sauternes gelée.
I confess that I didn't love the martini glass concoction, though I suspect that has more to do with my feelings about rosewater than anything else. The second dish, the sesame parfait, was unusual and thought-provoking (the whisper of Indian spices against the bright, fruity berry flavor...) and very good, but the third dish, pictured above, was my absolute favorite. It was light and palate-cleansing and just what I wanted to eat after all those rich dishes. At first bite, I couldn't quite figure out what that orange tangle was. It had the silken quality of poached stone fruit, but the subtly bitter flavor of citrus. An inspired combination.
The next stage of the dessert course was two-fold. The first plate held a small narrow shot glass filled with white rum sorbet, melted rhubarb, some sugarcane syrup and hidden beneath the fruit, a single mint leaf and next to it was a large porcelain spoon holding a fine dice of browned and caramelized pear. The second plate was actually a bowl of a fanciful mixture of chocolate water, chocolate ice cream, yogurt (flavored with Gewürztraminer, unless I misremember), chocolate sorbet and caramelized nuts. I didn't expect to like the rum sorbet, but it was absolutely stunning. Somehow, the nose-wrinkling bite of the alcohol was entirely gone and all that was left behind was the fruited, complex flavor of the rum. Paired with that hidden mint leaf and the sweet-sour rhubarb, it was refreshing and interesting and just so delicious.
To cap things off, our waiter wheeled over a cart filled with metal canisters of tea and several pots of lush herbs to our table. We opted for a tisane and so, using little silver scissors, he made a mixture of sage, basil and lemon verbena for us. It was a fantastic combination (the basil adding a welcome savory note) and just the thing after our long meal.
It was truly a world-class meal - well-paced, modern, inventive, delicious - paired with excellent service that was, as I mentioned above, ever-present without hovering, solicitous without intruding. Certainly the finest restaurant I've had the pleasure of eating in in Berlin, the city is lucky to have Les Solistes join its stable. I can only hope it succeeds in luring diners from around the city to make their way over to our unlovely Zoo, to settle in and be whisked away.
Waldorf Astoria Berlin
Tel: (030) 814-0000