While visiting Markus Müller at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Heidelberg to work on on our paper with Cozmin Ududec, I strolled all the way through the old town from my hotel on Bismarckplatz, past the Holy Ghost church on the market square, throught the Karslplatz with the illuminated castle ruins looming on the hillside above, and on down the less frequented end of the Hauptstrasse to the Restaurant Zur Herrenmuehle. It was well worth the walk. In a former mill, from the 17th century (hence the name "at the old mill", or maybe "at Old Man Mill"). I had the four course version of the Landhausmenu. I tend toward vegetarianism with some fish, but am not completely strict about it, and suspended it here: there was a little bit of salted beef in the soup course, and the main course was venison. I suppose I rationalized it a bit by thinking that the deer at least run around free for most of their lives, rather than being cooped up in feedlots for a good chunk of them. The first course, if I recall correctly, was marinated salmon (essentially lox) with anise and pepper, pickled mango, and asparagus; the second was a smooth foamed pearl-onion soup with whole pearl onions and a few salt-cured beef slices; excellent, concentrated flavor (would have been excellent even without the beef). These went very well with a "Trocken" Riesling, Kabinett I believe, but I've forgotten the producer. (One of the Rhine regions, I think.) "Trocken" means dry, and refers to a more typically international method of winemaking that foregoes the traditional German süssreserve (sweet reserve) of unfermented wine added to end fermentation. This wine, however, tasted closer to a traditional German style than your usual West Coast US or Alsatian Riesling. The main course involved rare roasted or grilled venison and brussels sprouts flavored with real vanilla bean (a stroke of genius), as well as other delicious stuff. The final course was semolina pudding slices with pistachios, etc... When I ordered a glass of red wine to go with the venison, I mentioned two of the wines by the glass--neither German---that I was considering. The one I didn't mention was a Spätburgunder, a German pinot noir. The waiter recommended I have the Spätburgunder with the venison, and he was absolutely right. While still recognizably a little bit sweet and fruity (a style that can be annoying in Spätburgunder if done clumsily, which is why I was not considering it initially), it was balanced, rather velvety and refined, with a kind of graham-cracker-like texture to the somewhat softened tannins, and a little bit of minerality and complexity in addition to beautiful strawberry-ish fruit. Perfect complement, in the echoing-with-subtle-differences mode, to the venison. I love it when a restaurant knows what wines go with their dishes, and isn't afraid to tell you. I asked about the producer, and recall that it was fairly local, somewhat to the south of Heidelberg, I believe. But I didn't jot down the name, unfortunately. Probably one of those superb small local producers whose output is all spoken for by the local restaurants, wineshops, and customers, and not to be found in the US anyway (plus Spätburgunder may not be the best-traveling wine, freshness being a big part of its appeal). I ordered a brandy rather than a coffee as an after-dinner-drink, and ended up with a surprise, a Spanish brandy (wish I could recall the producer!) that was a glorious end to the meal, and turned out to be complimentary. The interior, as you can see by some of the pictures on the website, is elegant but still retains some of the rusticity of the old mill, for instance the wooden beams, and the bench seating around the edge of the room, even if not part of the original mill, lends a slightly rustic touch too. Service was perfect, friendly and not obtrusive, and everyone there obviously loves good food and is happy to be providing it at a really high level. I don't know if this restaurant has a Michelin star but I would definitely give it one (at least). This is one of those places that should be known to all in the international fraternity (sorority, egalité) of lovers of fine food matched with equally fine wines... it is obviously owned, run, and staffed by members of the same.
Arrived at New Orleans yesterday for the 2nd annual Workshop on Informatic Phenomena at Tulane, organized by Mike Mislove of the Math department and Keye Martin of the Naval Research Lab. What with a half-hour wait for the Airport shuttle, and a slow ride past the Superdome as the Saints-Jets game was letting out, and some time to decompress and check the jazz listings before going out for dinner, it was around 8 before I was ready to eat, and most of my favorite New Orleans restaurants (Bayona, Herbsaint, Stella!, Lilettte) are closed on Sunday. Rather than the old standby of oysters and a glass of white wine at the circular bar in the Bourbon hotel, I decided to check out Bacco, on Chartres a few blocks into the French Quarter from Canal, as it had looked promising from the outside on earlier visits, and the menu looked interesting online. It's run by Ralph Brennan of the famed New Orleans restaurant family (Dickie Brennan's, Mr. B's Bistro, etc.., etc..., etc...). Although I've enjoyed Mr. B's in particular, this gave me slight pause, as I'd generally expect the ne plus ultra in foodie bliss to be found in a place owned by a lone chef pursuing his or her passion, rather than associated with such a dynasty. And I've seen Bacco advertised in the New Orleans airport, another question mark. But I wasn't necessarily looking for the ne plus ultra, I was looking for an enjoyable low key dinner.
Perhaps it was a mistake to mention I was walking over from a hotel, and call from an out-of-state cell phone, for despite my being fairly smartly dressed, and the warm and elegant front rooms with windows on Chartres street appearing far from full, I was put in a less-elegant though OK back room with the trainers and tee-shirt crowd. An artichoke, oyster, and cream soup was excellent and different from expectations---smooth and buttery, but larded with bits of fresh artichoke and greens. The New Orleans/Brennans' touch was definitely showing in the richness and smoothness of this dish. I wouldn't want to eat food this rich every day, but it was a treat. It went well with a glass of 2006 Maso Canali Pinot Grigio from the Trentino region of Italy---an honest, fresh, grapey, not-overblown glass of wine with some finesse and a restrained fruitiness and perhaps a hint of bitter almond. Possibly this might have gone better with my next course, and the 2007 Nozzole Chardonnay "Le Bruniche" from Tuscany that I ordered to go with it, or the Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay (usually reliable, if not always exciting, with hints of butteriness, yeastiness, and lemon, and good balance) that was also on offer, would have gone better with the soup. The ciabatta bread was tasty, not too soft, although very fresh plain butter would have been better than the lightly garlicked butter they served with it.
The Chardonnay turned out to also be a nice example of Italian white winemaking. A bit racy, maybe even slightly grassy, it, like the Pinot Grigio, avoided the overbearing, high-alcohol impression that's all too common in lower-end Chardonnays with some pretensions, and had a little complexity to boot. (I didn't boot it, though.) I had it with a grilled black drum (that's a fish...) on a bed of risotto flecked with wild rice, the whole topped with thinly cut caramelized onions (or something from the onion family, anyway) and balsamic half-grapes. The grapes were a highlight, little sweet-and-sour flavor packets bursting in the mouth. The fish was good, done just right, and very mild. The dish was good overall but not a knockout. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was getting toward closing time on a Sunday and the kitchen was ready to close, the risotto was definitely underdone (no, I am not one for mushy risotto). The rice was tasty and large-grained, probably a high-end Louisiana risotto rice, but although edible, a bit too crunchy. It's possible---but not certain---that with perfectly-cooked rice, the elements of the dish would have melded into something sublime, but in the event, that didn't happen. Still a tasty dish. (Incidentally, the waitress' top dish recommendations had been the Maine lobster and gulf shrimp ravioli with champagne butter sauce and caviar, and the Bacco shrimp, so maybe I'll try one of those next time.)
While pondering whether to add unneeded calories by having dessert, I was offered dessert on the house. I had a chocolate panna cotta, with a raspberry sauce (or was it a coulis? Is there a difference?) and a bit of chocolate sauce, topped with a large curl of thin dark chocolate. I've had quite a few panna cottas in Italy, and the flavor and texture can vary quite a bit. This one was excellent, on the firm side but still light enough, with a slightly granular texture that for me was not a flaw, but added interest. Good strong chocolate flavor, but restrained enough to be able to taste the creaminess; the chocolate curl on top was high-quality and the raspberry sauce fresh-tasting. With decaf coffee (black), a perfect end, and a dessert I'd come back for.
The service was friendly, and very efficient. One of the waitresses topped up my water glass several times when it was nearly full, but that was the only slight misstep and it certainly beat letting it run dry.
Overall, the food blended traditional Italian elements with a bit of New Orleans influence and international trendy touches successfully. I didn't think it was quite on the level of Bayona, Stella!, or Lilette, but I'd go back, and ask for a table in one of the front rooms or---if one can dine there as well as drink---just eat at the large semicircular bar which, in an open, well-lit but warm room, looked comfortable. The food balanced tradition and imagination well, the style was a bit different than expected (more Creole-influenced smoothness and unctuousness) but in an enjoyable way; the wines available by the glass were interesting and well-chosen.
Update: The 310 Chartres street location in the French quarter closed in January 2011; the owner, Ralph Brennan, hopes to reopen Bacco somewhere else in 2011, but I'm not sure if it will happen, or has happened.