CHRISTIAN BAU- VICTOR’S FINE DINING: Deep Flavors, Delicate Textures and Optimum Acidity
My wife and I have been visiting the gastronomic temple of Christian Bau since 2013 when we lived in Metz for a few months. The restaurant is in Perl-Nennig, 45 minues from Metz and very close to Luxembourg. We have always been impressed by the chef’s delicious cooking and his choice of excellent ingredients with two caveats. First, he had a tendency to experiment with avant-garde techniques, such as spherification, a tad too much, and some dishes were overly complex and somehow lacked clarity. Secondly, the service was too stiff and humorless. I still recall the presence of a waiter with dark gloves behind my chair, watching me eat. I am not Japanese, but I found this to be quite irritating, not to say insulting. Although he left after I asked him to do so, my appetite was ruined.
Fortunately, this is no more the case. The person in charge of the dining room is no more the same overly formal lady, but a very likeable young person, Mr. Felix, who approaches clients emphatically, rather than with a rigid mind set. The young sommelier, Ms Nina, is equally good. She offers good advice and adds value to the meal. As to Mr Bau, his cooking evolved and found perfect balance since 2013. Indeed, our two meals in mid-April and mid-October in 2022 proved that his dishes are incredibly balanced, rich, yet their deep flavors are undercut just by the right amount of acidity. Besides, he uses very good ingredients, and the quality is very consistent. That is, starting with the amuses, all of the ten courses or so, plus the cheese, quality are all very high. There was not a single flop or “so so” dish. Indeed, if one were to grade each course separately on a scale of 20, they all range between 18 to 20/20. Please note that we always take the Paris-Tokyo menu here.
The feast begins with very good nibbles. For example, we started with a duet of carrot soup and cod fish and infusion of green coriander. Secondly, we were served, also in a bowl, langoustine with yoghourt foam and curry sorbet. The spice element was imparted by the infusion, and the sorbet highlighted the sweetness of the carrot and the langoustine without taking over. These were good, but the next two nibbles were even better. One was a captivating tartlet of ox tartare with smoked eel emulsion, sliced radish, and oscietra caviar. Flavors were deep, the radish added spice, the smoked eel added complexity, and the caviar worked perfectly with the ox tartare. The second bite was also balanced and appetizing. They call it kimbap or Korean sushi. This is Hamachi tartare, sitting below sticky rice flavored by roasted sesame, encased in crisp nori, and topped by pickled daikon and shiso.
Among these four nibbles, the ox tartare tartlet was my favorite. But the next two amuses were on par, i.e. both examples of perfection: the king crab tartlet with nori algae and katsuobushi and the saba-mackerel waffle with yuzukoshu. In the first, sweet crab meat, iodized nori, and creamy fermented bonito foam (katsuobushi) formed a holy trinity. The crisp yet moist waffle was delicious too. The fatty and oily saba was perfectly balanced by the creamy-spicy acidity of fermented yuzu and chile pepper, and the addition of caviar from a reputable merchant (Kaviari) elevated this dish to the pantheon of “unforgettable bites”.
After these six small courses or amuses, one is served very good butter and homemade breads. Breads, especially the sourdough loaf, are irresistible, but it is a good idea not to over-indulge, as there are many more courses to follow.
The main courses follow a culinary logic. It starts with ceviche of fish or shellfish, as interpreted by Bau. This is followed by shellfish, such as sea urchins and langoustines. One may then have two consecutive servings of tuna parts. Then one may have a vegetable dish, such as green asparagus, before moving to a rich fish course, such as turbot. The savory part of the meal typically concludes with Japanese wagyu.
In the two visits, I have not found any dish which did not strike me by the remarkable harmony between sweet-acid-salt and fat. The umami element is always there, but never overused, so it does not tire the palate. Equally remarkable is that there is an overall harmony in the progression of the dishes too. Bau-style acidified cooking keeps the palate sharp and alive, so that one can appreciate the last two dishes which are the richest ones. My sole objection during the last two visits was quite minor. He has presented excellent quality diced chu-toro topped by Kristal caviar in a sea urchin shell. (The sea urchin tongues were used in the previous “line caught sea bass” ceviche to prepare the tiger milk vinaigrette.). The ponzu or shoyu sauce, a combination of rice vinegar and aged soy sauce, was a tad overused and too strong as it overwhelmed the sweetness of high quality, semi-fat tuna belly and the caviar.
Yet there were some dishes in each visit that I found outstanding. One such dish in October was the second serving of tuna. In the written menu this was called “Tuna-Goose Liver-Elderflower”. In this dish the chef used a leaner, center cut of tuna, called akami. Akami was pickled and thinly sliced at the bottom of the plate, sashimi style. It was topped by foie gras ice cream, a foie gras and elderflower vinaigrette and edamame beans. On top stood a crunchy chip garnished with frozen foie gras “snow” and edible flowers. The dish was very nice to look at but even better to taste, as the frozen foie gras, which was intense but less fatty than hot foie gras, blended superbly with the rich yet not too oily taste of akami and the fruity vinaigrette.
Another masterpiece which is a 20 out of 20 dish is the last sea food course before the red meat: Chawanmushi. It ius described as “katsuobushi-sea food-umami broth”. Now I had my share of many chawanmushi-egg custard with seafood in Japan, and I like the silky texture, refined flavors and a dash of umami depth. But I should confess that Christian Bau’s version was a class of its own. The base was classical egg custard and dashi, but the dashi was especially flavorful as it had acquired a depth from the long cooking of tuna bones and the braised cheek. The seafood consisted of the prized and sweet gambas rojas of Palamos, sea urchins, and oysters. The umami touch came not only from the dashi-broth but also from the judicious use of ginger, miso, and chili oils. The silky texture, intense yet well calibrated flavors and the aromatic complexity of Bau’s chawanmushi made a lasting impression.
I cannot say whether I liked Victor’s more in Fall or Spring as the dishes vary, but the quality remains the same. His green asparagus, his turbot with peas and morels, and his Miyazaki A5 beef are all excellent. His turbot for instance is always cut from the bone; therefore, its gelatinous nature is kept intact. I believe they are cut from a large, possibly six to seven kilogram turbot. In Spring he served the turbot with seasonal fresh and sweet baby Spanish peas, earthy morels and an excellent, touch oxidative vin jaune sauce from Jura’s savagnin grape. The Fall preparation was different. He used a red wine sauce “beurre rouge” flavored by ox bone marrow, onion, veal jus, and shellfish foam. The pan roasted turbot was cooked very well in each case, and both the “vin jaune” and “beurre rouge” sauces added complexity, without compromising quality.
Turbot is always very good here, but in Spring, one may think that the green asparagus dish is the ultimate way to bring out the best qualities of this great product. The asparagus comes from the celebrated Hubert Blanc farm, near Pertuis in Provence, France. (Blanc has different qualities, and this is his highest level green asparagus that he sends to a few restaurants.) With the barely grilled asparagus, glazed by yuzu, Bau prepares a miso and kombu seaweed Hollandaise, together with kojyu or koju vinaigrette (grilled leek and onions with tapioca inside) and parsley root puree. The asparagus comes under the blanket of thinly sliced roasted Mangalitza porc, which, in my opinion, is the tastiest breed for porc chop. The amazing quality of the products, and the calibration between different elements containing citrus, herb, fat and umami, create a harmonious dish with extra depth only a very few chefs can achieve. I can’t think of a better green asparagus dish.
The langoustine, lamb and miyazaki wagyu beef dishes are also very good, and especially the langoustine is amazing. The langoustine is from Guilvenec. The quality is excellent and is grilled on a binchotan. The large tail is served, it is juicy-sweet, and the texture is not cottony. I also liked the spicy fermented pumpkin emulsion, palm hearts, XO sauce oil and fermented cabbage sushi stuffed with langoustine meat, and vanilla leaves (pandan) and broccolini with langoustine. Like in the dishes above, the balance between sweet, spice, and umami was optimum. I can see that when a chef uses so many elements in a dish and there is a strong umami-fermentation focus, the subtle langoustine taste may get lost, but not here. I recommend asking for a glass of good sake with this dish though. It is very hard to pair with wine.
Red meat dishes are also very good here, but compared to fish and shellfish, they may not be the ultimate statements in their respective categories. Grilled Miyazaki A5 beef is served with a deep sauce made by its jus, fermented black beans, bonito flakes, kombu, and soy. A deconstructed ratatouille (eggplant puree, tomato, zucchini, peppers and onions are placed on the left side of the dish) comes with it a piece of anchovy on top of the beef, together with anchovy cream on the right side. Two pommes souffles add crunch. The quality of the beef and cooking is perfect. Chef Bau cooks the sirloin piece on the binchotan, let is rest, then crusts it with butter in a heavy pan. The meat rests another five minutes and then is cut and served. This is a marbled and rich wagyu, but there is also a minerally-beefy taste. It is almost too rich at the end of the meal, and we felt that a touch acidity and some greens may have balanced the richness without compromising its depth.
We also tried the lamb from Sisteron here which is also very good, but the lamb did not impress me as much as Waldhotel Sonnora’s version. One quibble is that the sauce and accompanying ingredients are quite similar to the Miyazaki wagyu. But the anchovy is absent, which, in my opinion, would have added more depth to the lamb than it did to the already very rich wagyu. Apart from this, the sauce and garnis are good and similar to beef: eggplant and pepper puree, herb hollandaise, bulghur-tabouleh and jus with umami depth achieved by soy, kombu, and bonito flakes. The wonderful pommes souffles are also offered with lamb. The quality and the cooking of the saddle of lamb is beyond reproach, however I yearned for a more rustic touch in the dish, such as lamb sweetbreads and belly, as Bau used to offer in early 2010s.
Desserts are good and follow a logical sequence. First, we had something refreshing with citrus and herbs, such as yuzu with tonic water and hibiscus. Then, we were served a fruit driven dessert, such as a lemon verbena cake with frozen raspberries and peach sorbet. The trio ends with high quality sweets with some chocolate and Asian touches, such as praline chocolate, macaroon, miso crème brulee, etc. All are good, but somehow I think they don’t give the pleasure of the much simpler but heavenly desserts I have in Spain, such as the cheese cake of the now closed Zuberoa, the helado de queso with fresh berry coulis at Elkano, or an arroz con leche in Gueyu Mar or Casa Gerardo. This is a general problem with Michelin three-star restaurant desserts; they are usually a little over-wrought and trendy.
This said, there is a great way to conclude your meal here: “Raw Milk Cheese From The Trolley.” For an extra 30 Euro, you can have some of the best cheeses on the planet. Alternatively, for an extra 10 Euro, one can skip desserts and have cheese. The quantities are not unlimited, but it is the quality that counts. We choose different cheeses with my wife and share them: for example Morbier, Camembert, Crottin, Chablis and fourme d’Ambert on one plate and three different vintages of Bernard Anthony’s Comte, Beaufort and four years old parmigiana reggiano in the second plate. All the cheeses are mature and at their peak.
When we left the restaurant, we thought: when will we be back?