Editor's note: In March 2015 it was announced that head chef Kevin Fehling was leaving to set up his own restaurant in Hamburg, which duly opened later in 2015.
Travemünde is a borough of Lubeck on the Baltic Coast, 83km (52 miles) north of Hamburg. It has a busy ferry port and also, within the Columbia Casino, the restaurant Belle Epoque, awarded its third Michelin star in the 2013 guide. Chef Kevin Fehling has an unusual culinary background. After having trained for eight months at the legendary Schwarzwaldstube in the Black Forest and then in Hamburg, he became executive chef on the cruise ship MS Europa for six years before moving to La Belle Epoque in 2005.
The dining room is on the second floor of the hotel, an initial lounge area leading through to the main dining room with a fine view over the beach. Tables were set with starched white linen and were generously spaced, just eight tables set in the carpeted room. The menu offered four courses at €120, six at €155 and eight courses at €185.
The wine list had over 700 selections, 400 of them from Germany. Selections included 2007 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Riesling Spatlese at €52 for a wine that retails at €24, Tignanello 2006 at €175 for a wine that you can find in a shop for around €86, and Roederer Cristal 2002 a relative bargain at €240 given that this is pretty much what it costs retail. Bread was a little white loaf, served warm, and having very pleasant texture (17/20).
A series of nibbles appeared: first was a “shrimp sandwich” with meringue fulfilling the role of the bread, the shrimp filling garnished with dill mayonnaise. This was pleasant, though the hint of sweetness brought by the meringue seemed a little odd to me (15/20). I preferred a spoon with a “farmer’s breakfast” of quail egg and ham tartare with little pieces of bacon (17/20). This was followed by hamachi (amberjack) tartare with Mojito foam and little “pearls” of iced green tea; on the side was a series of little “green flavours” including cucumber and green apple. This was good, the fish having nice flavour, and being complemented well by the cucumber, the dish prettily presented (17/20).
Next was a carpaccio of trout topped with diced celery, apple, walnut cream and mandarin jelly with further pearls of iced celery. This was described as being the condiments of a Waldorf salad, and certainly the apples, celery and walnut flavours went nicely with the fresh-tasting trout (18/20). The final nibble was lobster tartare wrapped in a cylinder of carrot, topped with caviar of char and yet more pearls, this time of frozen cognac, with a hint of lime. The lobster had really good flavour, and the carrot casing was delicate. The balance of flavours of the dish was particularly successful, creating a harmonious impression on the tongue (19/20).
Carpaccio of langoustines was prettily topped with anchovy jelly, capers, a garnish of parsley, lemon pearls and a cranberry jelly on the side. The langoustine had good inherent sweetness, balanced nicely by the lemon, the capers adding a piquant note (18/20).
Next was a goose liver foie gras dish with three elements. There was a slab of pan-fried goose liver with strawberry gel and a stock of woodruff (an aromatic herb), and a separate macaroon of goose liver. In between these two plates was the main presentation, a glass plate with goose liver pâté moulded into the shape of a violinist, with the name Strauss marked in the pâté. When I asked about the significance of this it is seemingly a reference to a Johann Strauss II operetta Waldmeister (woodruff). All very obscure, at least to me, but the main thing was that the goose liver had smooth texture and excellent deep flavour. It was complemented by strawberry jelly, almond cream, rhubarb and iced woodruff, the fruits providing a welcome acidic balance to the richness of the pâté (18/20).
Plaice with Bloody Mary sauce came with avocado, basil, hollandaise and pickled cucumber. I was not very convinced by the dish, the cucumber nice but the other flavours surprisingly muted; the fish itself, though accurately cooked, was not quite hot when it arrived (15/20).
Eel with frozen wasabi dust and a jus of cucumber and Granny Smith. The eel was nicely cooked, and the flavour combination was logical, though the wasabi dust seemed rather crude to me. It was made with wasabi from a tube (i.e. coloured horseradish paste) rather than from grated wasabi root, and so came across as one-dimensional heat. Apparently the kitchen has tried using fresh wasabi but this offers too subtle a flavour when frozen. Perhaps then it would be better to just use the grated wasabi as a dish element, rather than insisting on producing a frozen dust (16/20). To be fair to this dish, it is designed to come with oysters as well as eel, an element I declined as I am not fond of oysters, and perhaps this would have been better with the shellfish element.
A single large scallop was served with a generous blob of caviar on bone marrow, on a base of champagne foam with yuzu (Japanese citrus) gel, watercress puree. To the side was a cylinder of beetroot containing scallop tartare, topped with horseradish pearls. The scallop itself had good natural sweetness, the yuzu added some much-needed acidic balance and the caviar some salty luxury (17/20).
Sole came with a lime and coconut foam, pumpkin puree, passion fruit puree and miso pearls, with “sand” of shellfish crackers. This was very pleasant, the fish accurately cooked, the lime providing some freshness (17/20). Poularde with lemon was served with chickpea praline, couscous and kumquat puree, with a hollandaise flavoured with Moroccan spices. The chicken leg was served as a miniature pastilla (a sweet and savoury Moroccan pie). The subtle spices went well with the delicate flavour of the young hen (17/20).
The first dessert was “sun, moon and stars”, and very pretty it was too. A delicate sugar sphere was filled with mandarin and quark cheese foam and mandarin espuma. Mandarin ice cream was served in a biscuit ring. Orange jelly was shaped into a crescent moon shape; the overall effect was well balanced and refreshing (18/20).
The final dessert was “Japanese cherry blossom festival”. Chocolate ganache was served with cherry blossom puree, cherry gel, a cherry crumble and an ice cream of coriander seed. The ganache was certainly very good, though I was less sure about the combination with cherry blossoms. In Japan the cherry blossom season is celebrated due to its fleeting beauty, and in a sense epitomises the ultra-seasonality of Japanese cooking. I am not sure what a Japanese chef would make of serving this dish in mid-summer. That aside, cherry and chocolate of course is a logical combination, and the only element that seemed slightly out of place to me was the coriander seed ice cream (16/20).
The meal concluded with some petit fours, including a very good whisky sour, and an enjoyable pina colada macaroon with coconut pearls and pineapple parfait. Harder to love was a petit four described by the waitress as being the elements of a fragrance from Marc Jacobs called “Daisy”. This consisted of lychee sorbet, yet more pearls, this time of mandarin, and rose crumble with cream. I am not a huge fan of rose flavour, which for me was too dominant here, and I am not sure why a petit four needs a backstory from the fashion industry. The bill came to €333 for two (£134 a head). Service was excellent, with a friendly sommelier and pleasant, enthusiastic staff.
One thing I was curious about, given the considerable number of elements of the meal that had a reference to Japan, was that the chef has never worked in Japan, nor indeed visited it; perhaps this is a measure of just how much Japanese influence has spread into high-end western cooking. The cooking here shows a very high level of technique, and presentation of many of the dishes was beautiful. However to return to the Japanese theme, that style of cooking is all about celebrating ultra-seasonal ingredients of the highest quality, with minimal distracting intervention from the kitchen. This emphasis of simplicity is something that seemed quite at odds with the technical wizardry emerging from the kitchen here. This is clever cooking, though for example the endless use of “pearls” throughout the menu became a little jarring for me. With dishes taking inspiration from classical music, Japan, the solar system and fashion fragrances, I didn’t find the overall experience very coherent, for all the wizardry on display. However the chef is still only 36 at the time of writing, and I suspect will develop further and find his own style in due course.Book