Cologne is known for its hearty fare, which happens to go down really well with a few glasses of the local Kölsch beer. Dining out in the Rhineland is pretty much a guarantee for a tasty, down-to-earth experience in jovial surroundings. Having said that, Cologne offers ideal conditions for more exquisite culinary delights, also served up with the city’s typical hospitality. And even more so now that a new generation is manning the stoves: the vibe in their restaurants is more laid-back, which is much better suited to Cologne, where the locals have always been suspicious of stuffy, hidebound etiquette. But these days you no longer have to worry about which cutlery you should be using or whether you’re dressed up enough. Haute cuisine should be fun is the ethos here — so feel free to dip your bread in the rest of the sauce!
Cologne has always had a good reputation among gourmets, especially since the 80s when legendary French restaurants held sway. But as trends have always needed a while longer to arrive here, Cologne has often found itself overshadowed by other major cities. As open-minded as its locals are, high-end gastronomy has previously been more traditional than hip in this city. For many years the locals have been able to enjoy a taste of Italy at Alfredo (Tunisstr. 3), and French haute cuisine connoisseurs can reserve a table at La Société (Kyffhäuserstr. 53) or Le Moissonnier (Krefelder Str. 25), which even boasts two stars. Establishments like Maître at Landhaus Kuckuck in Müngersdorf (Olympiaweg 2) and Zur Tant in Porz-Langel (Rheinbergstr. 49) also offer first-rate cuisine. But now the time has come for a new generation to redefine the whole fine dining concept. Instead of lobster, caviar and champagne, they are focusing on old vegetable varieties, regional ingredients and surprising combinations, inspired by ideas from around the globe and even street food. One pioneer in this regard is maiBeck in the Old Town (Am Frankenturm 5). For their radically seasonal and regional menu, which manages perfectly well without prestige ingredients, Jan Cornelius Maier and Tobias Becker have already received a Michelin star — if you look carefully, you’ll find it discreetly displayed in a corner under the ceiling. Maier and Becker are enthusiastic about the quality of produce from farmers in the surrounding area. They remain in close contact with them and are familiar with their farms and operations. The restaurant’s menu demonstrates the confidence that the young chefs have in these ingredients — and in their own skill in preparing them. And so on the menu you might find chicken fricassee or Flönz (blood sausage) with rapini, but with an aromatic depth that you wouldn’t expect — all at very affordable prices for a Michelin-starred restaurant.
A prime example of how the young generation is changing people’s perceptions of top cuisine is NeoBiota (Ehrenstr. 43c). In the city centre, Sonja Baumann and Erik Scheffler are cooking up a culinary storm at both breakfast and dinner. Here the all-important first meal of the day is elevated to the league of haute cuisine and is a veritable symphony of flavour, just think homemade corned veal with spicy piccalilli and toasted bread. The two top chefs see haute cuisine as “feel-good cuisine”. In their eyes, food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. That could be a fillet of sturgeon with cucumber and fermented garlic, or smoked celery root with apple and pear. Barely six months after it first opened its doors, Neobiota has already been awarded a Michelin star.
And a fresh breeze has been blowing at the upmarket Excelsior Hotel Ernst next to Cologne Cathedral for quite some time now. At Taku, the stylish restaurant in the basement, culinary mastermind Mirko Gaul fuses a multitude of ideas he has brought back from East Asia with the highest product quality, freshness and a meticulous blend of flavours and textures. Despite this abundance of creativity, a clear line always remains recognisable, whether in the Thai bouillabaisse or flamed yellowfin mackerel with wild herbs, buckwheat, ponzu and garden cress. Michelin-starred chef Gaul has a relaxed approach and enjoys interacting with his clientele. Around the corner he has opened Poké Makai (Marzellenstr. 12a), a Hawaiian street food eatery with the same loving attention to detail as at Taku.
Style and high-end cuisine also go hand in hand with a relaxed atmosphere at Daniel Gottschlich’s Ox & Klee. With his tattoos and laid-back appearance, Gottschlich doesn’t really look how you would expect a top chef to. He has brought his very own brand of culinary cool to the ultra-modern Rheinauhafen (see also page 8). He showcases his ideas over two floors in the middle Kranhaus — one of the three imposing L-shaped buildings on the waterfront. Ox & Klee, which now has two stars, whisks diners away on a culinary journey of discovery with its surprise menu. But since special preferences are agreed on beforehand, you can fully trust Gottschlich to guide you. Alternatively, the swanky bar on the ground floor is the place to come for refined pairings of cocktails and small dishes, or simply for a nightcap after a delectable evening in the modern, dignified ambience upstairs.
At his eponymous restaurant (Johannisstr. 64) near the city’s main train station, Maximilian Lorenz has also created a timelessly beautiful interior where diners can relax and enjoy culinary artistry. The idea here is that nothing should distract you from what’s on your plate. The focus on German cuisine and German wines is more of a subtle detail that you won’t notice right away; the chefs prefer regional ingredients like quinces from Bergisch Gladbach or mushrooms from Langenfeld. Lorenz has long since earned himself the culinary freedom to present, for example, a dish that puts the spotlight on tomatoes from the surrounding area, accompanied by buttermilk and wild herbs. He even succeeds in elevating the typical Cologne brewery snack Halver Hahn (thick slices of gouda on a bread roll with mustard) to epicurean heights. Just one year after opening, the restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star. The team is also behind the adjoining heinzhermann wine bar, which shares the same culinary philosophy and has 1,500 wines to choose from.
By embracing the laid-back atmosphere of the city and its scepticism towards any kind of arrogance, this new generation is clearly enhancing Cologne’s haute cuisine factor — which is also attracting ambitious chefs from the nearby Ruhr region.
Enrico Sablotny and Lukas Winkelmann are treating Cologne to a blend of upmarket bistro cuisine and fine dining at their relatively new restaurant Pottkind (Darmstädter Str. 9) located in the south part of town. In what was once a rustic-style tavern, you’ll now find a more minimal interior and “modern bistronomy” serving up simple, but high-quality dishes like locally sourced beef brisket with endive and seabuckthorn. There is space for around 20 diners at the tables, but you can also eat at the bar — something that suits the whole Cologne mentality down to the ground and will give you the chance to strike up a conversation. In Cologne, after all, it’s extremely difficult to imagine good food being served without a friendly, convivial atmosphere.
(by Bernd Wilberg)