Waldhotel Sonnora was opened in 1978, in a pretty woodland setting in the Rhineland of Germany, just 69km (43 miles) north east of Luxembourg airport, which is the nearest airport to fly to if you are visiting from abroad. There are twenty rooms to stay for guests that don’t want to have far to travel after dinner.
The kitchen was headed up since the opening by Helmut Thieltges, who led the kitchen to a Michelin star in 1981, a second in 1991 and a third in 2000. Mr Thieltges tragically died on July 27th 2017, and has been succeeded in the kitchen by Clemens Rambichler, who has retained the third star for the restaurant. Mr Rambichler was previously the sous chef and had worked at Sonnora since 2011, having previously worked for three years at Michelin-starred Le Ciel in Vienna. Born in 1988, Mr Rambichler is one of the youngest chefs ever to earn three stars for a restaurant. The record, incidentally, is held by Massimiliano Alajmo of Calandre, who gained three stars when at 28.
The extensive wine list, with 498 full bottles and plenty of halves and some magnums as well, had great depth in German Riesling as well as having a good choice of bottles from France, Italy and beyond. Fully 43% of the list was from Germany. The list ranged in price from €48 to €2,100 with a median price of €124 and an average mark-up to retail price of just 2.1 times, which is very fair indeed by the standard of high end restaurants. Sample labels were Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett 2015 at €56 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €44, J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2004 at €82 compared to its retail price of €60, and Egon Muller Scharzhofberg Riesling Kabinett 2016 at €124 for a bottle that will set you back €106 in a shop. Grander bottles were available for those with the means, with for example Tenuta San Guido Sassacaia 2001 at €420 compared to its retail price of €307, and Etienne Sauzet Chevalier Montrachet 2004 at €680 for a bottle whose current market value is €410. There were a few serious relative bargains tucked away in obscure corners of the list. Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese 1995 was priced at €280 for a half and is currently pretty unobtainable, but its last known price on the Winesearcher database was €3,884 (not a typo).
There was a tasting menu at €210 (£194) or a full a la carte selection. The meal began with a mousse of vine tomato with shrimp, gazpacho cream and cucumber. This was excellent, with a high quality shrimp and tomatoes that actually tasted of tomato, and the mousse having smooth texture. This was followed by vichyssoise (cold leek and potato soup) with Madeira jelly and Imperial gold caviar. This was gorgeous, the jelly in particular having deep flavour, and the luxurious touch of the briny caviar contrasting nicely with the earthiness of the leek and potatoes. Finally there was poached quail egg with parsley jus and Perigord truffle jus and a garnish of truffle, the egg and truffle chicken combination working superbly, and the truffle flavour really lifting the dish. This came with “label rouge” Scottish salmon that had been marinated with lime and ginger. These were very high-class nibbles (19/20).
Bread was, with one exception, made from scratch in the kitchen. It was an impressive display, with dark rye bread, sourdough, ciabatta, pumpkin seed bread, baby baguette with grains, focaccia with thyme and sea salt, a pretzel and finally some brioche. These were lovely, the focaccia being exceptionally light and precisely flavoured, but all of them were very well made indeed (19/20).
Terrine of foie gras was laced with strips of celeriac and Perigord truffle with two different vinaigrettes, one of Bari fig and the other of pine kernels, the terrine served with toasted brioche. The terrine was top of the range, the foie gras having silky texture and deep flavour, its rich flavour nicely balanced by the earthy flavour of celeriac and the sharpness of the vinaigrettes (20/20).
Beef tartare was a definite step up from the classic bistro dish. Here the fillet of a local cow from Wittlich was used, a breed called Fleckvieh that is part Simmental, in this case the cow being a “färse”, a young female yet to have a calf. The beef was placed on a bed of rosti and topped with a layer of Imperial Gold caviar. This was very impressive, the rosti in particular extremely delicate, and providing textural contrast to the meat, the seasoning spot on and the caviar lending a luxurious touch (20/20).
Next was a huge Brittany langoustine from Loctudy, served on a bed of Savoy cabbage that had been flavoured with mango and a little chilli. This came with a lime butter sauce, and on the side was a langoustine cream soup flavoured with vadouvin, a French spice mix. The langoustine was a magnificent specimen, precisely cooked and having lovely inherent sweet flavour that contrasted nicely with the cabbage. The langoustine soup on the side, made from a stock of the langoustine shells, was deeply flavoured and just lifted a little by the gentle spices. This was top of the range classical cooking, making the most of a really top-notch ingredient (20/20).
Crab salad came with Thai curry, Granny Smith apple and lime jelly. This was prettily presented and featured top-notch crab, its natural flavour nicely paired with the gentle acidity of the lime and apple (18/20). I then had fillet of a turbot from a large 7kg fish caught in the waters off Vendee in western France, served with baked fennel and mussels with saffron sauce. The fish was beautifully cooked and the sauce was rich, though for me the unexpected star element was the baked fennel, which had terrific flavour (19/20).
The final savoury course was veal sweetbread “Rossini” with pan-fried foie gras, glazed onions, leeks, chanterelles, Madeira truffle sauce and a macaroni noodle filled with goose liver. This was a fine piece of classic cooking, the sweetbreads lovely and the chanterelles in particular having lovely flavour, the sauce deep and rich. Perhaps a little more greenery might have been beneficial given the richness of the dish (19/20).
The cheese trolley boasted an impressive selection of options, and it was nice to see several German cheeses, such as a Bavarian hard cheese and a German version of Camembert, as well as the usual array of classic French cheeses, plus Stilton. These were in lovely condition and presented with considerable skill and knowledge by the waitress, who had worked at Chewton Glen in Hampshire and spoke flawless English.
A pre-dessert was presented in a coffee cup and had iced coffee with cocoa bean ice cream and foam of Tahitian vanilla. This was a case study in balance, the slight bitterness of the coffee precisely matched by just enough sugar, the textures lovely and the vanilla and coffee flavours deep and working harmoniously together. It would be interesting to see this dish with a really top-notch coffee (19/20). Finally there was a refreshing dessert of tropical fruits, with marbled coconut and mango ice cream, pineapple in several texture and basil and lime sherbet. This was an attractive and enjoyable way to end the meal, the basil flavour mercifully subdued, allowing the fruits to be the main attraction (18/20). Coffee, perhaps surprisingly in such a high-end restaurant, was Illy.
Service was absolutely top notch, silky smooth and friendly. This was a thoroughly enjoyable meal, the kitchen transition to Clemens Rambichler having happened seamlessly, and the quality of the food here being every bit as good as it was in the former kitchen regime. In an age where so many chefs seem anxious to serve ever odder ingredient combinations in an attempt to show their originality, Sonnora is happy to celebrate classic dishes made with top quality ingredients and faultless technique. It is a delightful place.
The bill came to €473 (£437) per person, but that was with plentiful quantities of fabulous Riesling, including that Markus Molitor Trockenbeerenauslese 1995. I’m afraid we drank the only bottle left; it was too good an opportunity to miss. If you ordered a la carte and shared a modest bottle from the very fairly priced wine list then a more typical cost per head might be around £240. The tasting menu here is barely half the price of a three star place in Paris. This was a very enjoyable overall expereince.