Schloss Berg is set in an attractive 12th century building that is rather jarringly placed next to a modern hotel and casino. Christian Bau gained three Michelin stars in 2005, and was sufficiently confident about this not being a fluke to have three stars tattooed on his arms. Fortunately he has retained the three-star rating ever since. Mr Bau’s cooking style is a mix of modern and classical, with influence from Japanese cooking, all based on top-notch ingredients.
Tasting menus were available at €200 (£173) or €245 (£212), and there was also a menu including wine pairing at lunch available at €215 (£186). The wine list arrives in a hefty book that can be flipped over to display either white or red selections. Sample wines were Markus Molitor Riesling Kabinett Zeltinger Sonnenuhr 2013 at €45 for a bottle that can be found in the high street for €17, J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2009 at €80 compared to its retail price of €36, and Vega Sicilia Alion 2008 at €135 for a wine that will set you back €60 in a shop. At the prestige end of the list there were labels such as Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Auslese 2006 €390 compared to its retail price of about €270, and Coche-Dury Les Rougeots Mersault 2014, which was a steal at €420 for a bottle whose current market value is €766. Another bargain was the Comtes Lafon Clos de le Barre 2004 at €270 given that you would pay €299 in a shop for it.
The meal began with an array of nibbles. A cereal cracker was topped with Bellota ham from Jabugo and mushrooms, the cracker itself having superb texture, the ham one of the finest that can be found. Alongside this was a delicate cornet containing tartare of ox, smoked fish cream and caviar, a nibble I have eaten here before and which is stunning. A macaron of duck liver with smoked eel and apple was rich and beautifully balanced. A pair of spoons were used to present foie gras mousse with Piedmontese hazelnut, and a further nibble of coffee with morello cherry, an unlikely sounding combination that worked really well. There was also a superb tartare of gamberoni prawns with Padron peppers that had terrific flavour. Often, even in high-end restaurants, the nibbles can appear a bit of an afterthought, but not here – these were some of the finest amuse-bouches I have eaten (20/20).
There was more to come. Sardines with green zebra tomatoes, miso and coriander was superb. I find it particularly impressive when a chef can take a relatively modest ingredient like a sardine and make something special from it. It is one thing to correctly cook a beautiful diver-caught scallop or live langoustine, but to elevate a sardine to the level of haute cuisine takes skill. Next was a beautiful presentation of thirteen different pickled vegetables with miso and yuzu ganache and iced coriander, a dish called “Japanese garden”. I have quite often seen variants on this kind of dish, which probably owe their origins to Michel Bras’ famous gargouillou, but to make the dish work it is more than just artfully tweezering a bunch of salad leaves and vegetables on a plate. What was impressive here was the balance between the sourness of the pickling juices and the sweet and sour ganache combined with the coriander – really top notch. A quail egg yolk with spinach truffle and ham completed the sequence of nibbles, itself a superb flavour combination, the ham egg and truffle combining beautifully (20/20). Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen and was terrific.
The first formal dish of the meal was sashimi of amberjack (hamachi) served with avocado, daikon and jalapeno sauce. The fish itself was superb, but was taken to a higher level by the careful balance of the subtle spice of the peppers, the bite of the radish and the richness of the avocado (19/20). This was followed by tuna belly (toro) with palm heart, dashi and truffle, an umami-rich dish with the palm heart and stock balancing the richness of the tuna (19/20).
Next was scallop with lardo di collonata, beetroot in assorted textures with oil from baby leeks. This was a superb scallop that had been precisely cooked, and the contrast between its inherent sweetness and the earthiness of the beetroot was very effective (20/20). Blue lobster was beautifully tender, served with a sauce with subtle Thai spices and with a little bergamot grated at the table. Lobster claw sashimi was wrapped up in cabbage as an additional element. The Thai flavours went really well with the shellfish and were very carefully controlled (19/20).
Even better was the next dish, turbot with morel mushrooms, crisp chicken skin, vin jaune sauce and peas. The turbot fillet was from a 6kg fish and had superb flavour, precisely cooked. The morels went really well with it, the chicken skin a nice touch and the sauce skilfully made. The peas (from the south of France) were actually marinated rather than cooked, and had great flavour (20/20).
Japanese beef from Kagosima (A4 grade) was served with aubergine miso, black garlic and paprika. The cut (“Schulterscherzel”) was shoulder scarf, also known as flatiron. This is a cut with a lot of flavour, but can be chewy if from a less than top class animal. Fortunately this Japanese beef was genuinely good, and was not excessively marbled, working well with the paprika and garlic. There was also a cube of slow-cooked short rib of the same beef, which had deep flavour (19/20).
The first dessert was “Japanese snowball”, which had a mix of peach pineapple, red shiso ice cream, sake, calpico (a Japanese soft drink) and yuzu. I was a bit anxious about the shiso but the combination worked well (18/20). An exotic fruit dessert had assorted fruit ice creams with slivers of pineapple tuile. Alongside this was a lovely rhubarb, raspberry and buttermilk dessert with white chocolate spheres, which was particularly good: the rhubarb was not too sharp and was an excellent foil for the buttermilk (19/20).
Pear spheres and a tonka bean cake came with red wine ice cream and meringue. This sounded unusual but actually worked really well, the pears dazzling, the tonka bean flavour superb (19/20). The final dessert was a Black Forest influenced one, with cherry ice cream, cherries and a dark chocolate concoction with a cherry liqueur. This was really lovely, a classic flavour combination (20/20).
The meal concluded with an array of petit fours. These comprised yuzu praline, raspberry cheesecake, white chocolate Buddha head filled with cassis, calamansi praline, orange and raspberry jelly, grapefruit macaron, and strawberry yoghurt with chocolate to complete the set.
Service was flawless, the staff being friendly enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The bill came to €300 (£259), but a typical spend per head might be around £210 or so if you drink modest wine. Obviously this will be more if you opt for the longer menu and drink better wine.
Schloss Berg combines modern cooking style with impeccable ingredients and top-notch technique. The dishes are appealing and nicely presented, but above all pack in tremendous flavour. This latest meal was one of the most flawless meals I can recall eating for a long time. It confirms to me that Schloss Berg is one of the best restaurants in the world, and deserves to be more widely recognised as such. Because of its out of the way location it does not get the foreign tourists that are drawn to places like San Sebastian, and so has a relatively low profile in the English speaking food world. It does not boast a striking location, and the dining room lacks the grandeur of some of the Parisian three stars. Yet based on several meals here, and this last one in particular, there are only a small number of restaurants on earth that can compete with it in terms of sheer quality. Mr Bau need not worry about changing that tattoo any time soon.