Waldhotel Sonnora opened in 1978, set in a forested area in the Rhineland. When it opened the cooking was headed up by Helmut Thieltges, who led the kitchen to a Michelin star in 1981, a second in 1991 and a third in 2000. Chef Thieltges sadly died in 2017, and was succeeded in the kitchen by Clemens Rambichler, who retained the three stars for the restaurant and has continued to do so ever since. The hotel has recently been modernised, and the rooms at the back look down from the hillside over the little municipality of Dreis. The dining room seated around thirty guests at well-spaced tables, laid out with elegant Christofle cutlery.
The wine list had 635 labels and ranged in price from €62 to €5,850, with a median price of €142 and an average markup to retail price of just 2.3 times, an almost unthinkably low number if you are used to UK pricing. 43% of the wines were German and 41% French, with a good selection from Italy and Austria though somewhat a limited New World choice. A third of the list was priced below €100, and 59% below €150. With such a large selection of German wines, it is no surprise that there was plenty of choice in white wine, with just 40% of the list being red. Sample references were Weingut Franz Josef Eifel Trittenheim Trittenheimer Altärchen Riesling Kabinett 2019 at €62 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €28, Weingut Joh Jos Prüm Bernkastler Badstube Riesling Spätlese 2008 at €96 compared to its retail price of €52, and Domaine Ogier Côte-Rotie Mon Village 2017 at €92 for a wine that will set you back €47 in the high street. For those with the means there was Château La Mission-Haut-Brion 1999 at €380 compared to its retail price of €334, and Domaine Coche-Dury Meursault Les Rougeots 2019 at a serious (relative) bargain price of €480 for a wine whose current market value is €1,952. By my count there were 58 wines below their retail price on this list, some greatly so, albeit mostly at the high end of things. A wine like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Echézeaux 2015 may seem like a lot of money at €995 but perhaps less so when you consider that its current market value is €6,379 a bottle. Of course, you can simply, and not unreasonably, take the view that top Burgundy prices have become crazy in recent years. Nonetheless it is intriguing to see a wine list with wines sometimes a fifth of their retail price. You can be sure that in Mayfair they would be heavily marked up even from their already lofty heights. This wine list was a joy to read, with fine growers and plenty of older vintages on offer.
You could choose a la carte but we went for a tasting menu at €258 (£220) per person. This began with a sequence of canapés. Razor clams were marinated with citrus cauliflower and served in the clam shells, the acidity of the citrus balancing the natural delicate flavour of the clams. Even better was a little tartlet of veal with beetroot and horseradish, the pastry light and the veal working well with the earthy beetroot and the gentle bite of horseradish. A further sequence of canapés followed. An oyster was marinated with cucumber and garnished with caviar. There was a lovely concoction of crab, green apple and peppermint, and best of all was a gorgeous mousse of tomato, basil and tiny peas, which had remarkable depth of flavour (19/20 nibbles).
The bread service was not merely a few offerings in a basket but an entire trolley of breads prepared from scratch on the premises. These included a sourdough loaf, a remarkably good farmers bread, pumpkin seed with olive bread, a grain loaf, brioche with a hint of orange, fruit and nut bread, baguette, olive bread, puff pastry with olives and a remarkably good pretzel. The pretzel was soft and nicely salty, unrecognisable from the rock-hard pretzels that often appear in bakeries.
The first formal course was foie gras marinated in ice wine with walnuts and iced celery, served on a cream of apple, Muscat and champagne vinegar. This was a stunning dish, the foie gras silky smooth and beautifully complemented by the walnuts, the vinegar cream bringing just the right level of sharpness to cut through the rich flavour of the liver (20/20).
Also remarkable was a signature dish of beef tartare, caviar and rosti. While the beef was perfectly seasoned and superb and the generous portion of caviar (from top supplier N25) was as good as you can find, the star for me was the rosti, which had fabulous texture and was the ideal complement to the rich beef and caviar (20/20).
This was followed by a huge langoustine tail that had been grilled and sautéed in beurre noisette, with a compote of braised pointed peppers and physalis (cape gooseberry), with a reduction of crustaceans flavoured with oriental spices and a vinaigrette with just a touch of fresh wasabi. This was all garnished with a little preserved almas caviar (a rare golden caviar from an albino sturgeon, a product that makes white truffles seem cheap). The langoustine had superb natural sweetness, flawlessly cooked and complemented by the gentle bite of wasabi and spices. There was quite a lot going on in this dish but the flavour balance was still there, the spices carefully controlled (20/20).
Next was a dish of medallions of Brittany lobster with white asparagus, late season morels and a sauce of almonds and old sherry. I was wondering how the lobster would show after the dazzling langoustine but it was also superb, beautifully tender and the white asparagus was exceptional, having lovely flavour. The sauce managed to knit together the shellfish and asparagus flavours very effectively (20/20).
This was followed by fillet of turbot caught in La Rochelle. The fillet was from a very large 7.8 kg fish that had been killed using the Japanese ikejime method to preserve its flavour. The fish came with a crisp watermelon disguised as a slice of tomato and flavoured with black pepper, topped with basil and resting in a creamy sauce. The turbot was impeccable but although the watermelon was technically clever I am not sure it was the ideal match for the turbot, which was of such high quality it arguably did not need the rich sauce. Still, I am quibbling here as this was still an objectively very good dish (18/20).
The first of two meat courses was carree (rack) of lamb from Limousin in central France, served with jus made from the calf head, along with lamb tongue and dried tomatoes with a hollandaise of garden herbs. There was also a selection of seasonal vegetables including very tender baby broad beans. There was also an ethereally light pomme soufflé. The meat has superb flavour and the garnishes complemented it beautifully (20/20).
The final savoury course was saddle of venison from Eifel in western Germany, with a buckwheat crepe filled with foie gras, pistachio gremolata (parsley, lemon zest and garlic), orange flavours and Rouenaise sauce, a Bordelaise sauce (made from red wine, bone marrow, shallots, butter and demi glacé) with puréed duck liver. There was also a remarkably impressive baby turnip (it is not often that I get to used “turnip” and “impressive” in the same sentence). The venison was perfectly cooked and had fabulous flavour, while the rich sauce was nicely balanced by the earthy turnip and the lightness of the zingy gremolata. The crepe with foie gras was also a triumph, the buckwheat bringing a contrast to the richness of the liver. This was an elaborate but beautifully balanced dish that was superbly executed, a delight to eat (20/20).
A cheese trolley brought a selection of classic cheeses from France as well as a few from Switzerland and Austria. These were in lovely condition, served with more gorgeous bread. The initial dessert was a ragout of port wine flavoured cherries with black pepper ice cream. The seasonal cherries were superb, the gentle bite of the pepper enhancing their lovely natural flavour (19/20). The final dessert featured French gariguette strawberries, “fromage blanc” of rhubarb and marscapone ice cream, along with lightly jellied vinaigrette of rhubarb, pine nuts and basil oil. This was also excellent, the lovely fruit flavour of the gariguettes working well with the marscapone and rhubarb (19/20). A coffee menu featured several options from Difference Coffee, including the sublime Panama Gesha, arguably the best coffee in the world. This was accompanied by a fine selection of petit fours including a little lemon tart, a delicate miniature beignet, coffee cream, chocolate covered almonds and a gariguette tartlet.
Service was fabulous throughout, remarkably attentive yet unobtrusive, the staff friendly and knowledgeable. The bill came to €739 (£631) per person, but that was with some fairly excessive amounts of very fine wine. If you went a la carte and shared a modest bottle of Riesling then you could eat here for around €300 (£255) per person, which is barely half the price of a Paris three star. This was a remarkable meal, showing tremendous technical skill and utilising impeccable luxury ingredients, the dishes often quite complex yet always balanced. It is exceptionally rare to experience essentially flawless dish after flawless dish, even at three-star Michelin level. I have always loved this restaurant but the cooking seems to have become even more refined recently, and it is clearly the product of a perfectionist chef who is not resting on the laurels of his three stars but is constantly striving for improvement even at this elevated level. The menu today was cheaper than several London restaurants yet featured the ultimate in ingredient quality. The value for money factor was backed up by the superb wine list, which was packed full of bargains. This is a restaurant operating at the top of its game.