A big part of why I love this project is that every now and then, I'm lucky enough to have an experience that goes beyond a fantastic meal or an incredible afternoon or a perfect evening. Sometimes, when the stars align, I wind up with a truly transformative, once-in-a-lifetime impression that leaves me thinking about the place I've visited for days, or even weeks. Thomas Buehner's La Vie is such a place.
Having spent time working under Harold Wolfahrt at Schwarzwaldstube in the Black Forest as well as Kevin Fehling at The Table, Thomas struck out on his own in 2006. He ventured to Osnabrück, which is gorgeous but by Thomas' admission a touch out of the way. "Like gardening in the desert," was his characterization, and I found the incredible performance of his restaurant all the more impressive for its distance from any major city.
I found Thomas' style very unique—complex, with lots of considered groupings of flavors and textures, intense preparation and knifework, artistic presentation, and an atmosphere of comfort and playfulness that I find sorely lacking in the Michelin 3-star world. This restaurant is truly one of the, if not the, best 3-star I have been to. Period.
PRICE PAID: $440PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, AND INCREDIBLE WINE)
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Off a tiny street in classically beautiful Osnabrück, Germany, is the unassuming entrance to La Vie. Osnabrück itself is worth a day's visit—though it was largely destroyed during World War 2, it has been exquisitely restored to its medieval architectural roots and hosts a pretty exceptional Christmas Market in December.
The interior space at La Vie is comfortable, and strikes a great balance between formal and welcoming. The palette is neutral with high points of color that draw the eye; the blood-red centerpieces that subtly match the painting behind, for example. The linens were crisp and beautifully set; there was an effortless stylishness to the place that drew me in. The well-spaced-out dining room for around 30 people contrasts strongly with the submarine-like density of the kitchen, which we visited later in the meal.
... two half-coins of "goose liver cake" served alongside. The goose liver is very rich and delicate; presented on an interesting platform; it looks and feels like tea crackers made of foie gras. Soft and exquisite. A fantastic start. 9/10.
Salted French butter, Spanish olive oil, and some extraordinarily hearty German bread with a thick-crusted rind arrive. I'm a huge fan of bread, and this is a pretty excellent pan-European presentation. 9/10.
Another appetizer appears in the divot of a small plate; goat's cheese appetizer with milk bread cloth covering overtop. Strong, farm-like flavors go perfectly with the crunchy flake of milk bread. A lovely starter. 9/10.
This is probably the right juncture to mention what can only be described as the most amazingly-priced wine list for exotic, fine wines in (likely) the entire world. I am absolutely not kidding. Let me humor you with specifics:
- Chateau Latour 1992; average winesearcher.com average price: $449. La Vie price: €225.
- Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache 1991; winesearcher.com: $3,426. La Vie: €1,750.
- Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1986; winesearcher.com: $1,315. La Vie: €640. And on, and on.
Especially if you take into account that, as of the time of this writing, the Euro is approaching parity with the dollar, you'll hopefully agree that classic/ancient wines like these can't be had for comparable prices in any wine store in the world, to say nothing of a restaurant where markups are typically 100%. I would return to this restaurant just for the wine list, ignoring for a moment the fantastic food and service.
Next, some king crab with salsify sliced perfectly to look like fish skin. The warm broth has dollops of chive oil, which gives it an herbal and almost spicy note. Salsify is an excellent choice to accompany—from the dandelion family, salsify has a vaguely oyster-like taste that supports the seafood flavors in the dish. 9/10, beautiful presentation and colors with lots of intense knifework. Service had their chance to participate as well, with one of many beautiful pourovers. I created a video montage of their best such dishes on the right.
Mackerel, pickled and flambéed, is served with "snow" of kefir and a corn beer from Peru called Chicha poured-over tableside. The mackerel is still warm from its recent flame-bath, and the snow and beer (which has a delicious chipotle flavor from the spices the kitchen adds in) are quite cold, yielding a fun temperature differential. Bits of blackened roasted corn are placed throughout for texture, as well as to enhance the South American feel to this dish. The mackerel has a very soft texture and the fresh, oily flavor typical of the fish. 10/10.
What I'm really enjoying about Buehner's style at this moment is that, though complex, each part of the dish has a role to play, and nothing feels extraneous. Mackerel, with its strong flavors, is never an easy fish to pair with, but it's handled beautifully in this dish.
Next, a delightfully bright dish of Red Gamba (a type of prawn), served with sunflower seeds and lots of assorted roots, fruits, and flowers. The prawn is smoky, mesquite-flavored almost. It's super fresh, and the rice on bottom gives this dish a hearty feel. The fruits are crisp, bright, and beautiful. Though the flavors aren't what you expect on first glance, there's nothing I would change about this dish. 10/10.
Next, series of dishes titled "A Touch of Autumn."
First, a gorgeous, fresh salad with radish, lettuce, white strawberry, citrus, and fig, all beautifully though perhaps excessively sliced. Each ingredient is impossibly fresh for December in Germany, which makes the ensemble all the more impressive. 9/10.
This next dish, presented under a layer of mint leaves and flowers, was strongly driven by the white garlic and mushroom components; very strongly scented. Equally strong (almost felt like Vicks Vapo on the nose, in a good way) were the mint leaves themselves, which gave the dish an interesting balance. On bottom was an excellent, hearty broth; almost like a beef or red wine reduction. Another fascinating combination of flavors and textures. 9/10.
Next, some Imperial Caviar (AKA "Golden Osetra"), the rarest type of caviar sourced only from albino or white sturgeon, and prized for its golden tint and earthy, nutty, champagne-like flavors. To the side, a lovely thick ragout of sweet potato and chestnut mixed with squid fond that pairs nearly perfectly with the eggs. A truly, almost excessively, luxurious dish. 9/10.
An interesting take on this rich poultry dish. The chef describes the preparation as "Étouffée," a cajun/Creole style usually involving shellfish served over rice, this pigeon tastes like an otherwordly-amazing combo of chicken and bacon together, so it's basically perfect. Not too salty, perfectly cooked, temperature is presented just right. 10/10.
A delightful bonus course; we are invited back to the kitchen for a passion fruit and Woodford Reserve cocktail. The chef introduces himself and proudly points out the extreme diversity of his large (15-ish people) staff, hailing from Asia, Europe, North America, etc; folks from all over the world who have come all the way to Osnabrück to learn. After seeing the amazing quality of what they're able to produce, I can't argue.
For the final savory course: a plate of absurdly well-marbled, masterfully-cooked Wagyu, Topinambur (also known as Jerusalem artichoke, or Earth's Apple), and an herb the menu describes as "sour portulak" (we would call it purslane). Further demonstrating his mastery of complex flavor pairings, the Jerusalem Artichoke is the perfect contrast to the beef, enhancing and enriching the flavor of the main without making it excessively buttery or rich. The coin-shaped portion of egg at the center of the dish enhances richness even further but takes it a bit far for my taste. 10/10.
The cheese course arrived next; some Phébus cheese from the Pyrenees mountains served with pine nut ice cream. Strong cheese flavors go perfectly with the savory pine nut ice cream and puffed barley that gives it a Honey Smacks-like flavor. 9/10.
The first dessert on the sweet side: pumpkin with yuzu and yogurt ice cream. The citrus elements of the yuzu blends with the gourd-y pumpkin flavors in perfect harmony. Yet another in what is a long list of creative, inventive pairings that don't necessarily sound great on paper, but are absolutely stunning in execution. Lots of careful knifework, as you can see—the pumpkin almost looks like it has been scrolled from its source. 9/10.
Next, check out the stunning colors in this gorgeous follow-on dessert of beetroot with, in the words of the menu, "a little bit of coconut." Spiced cookies and parsnip round the plate out a bit and serve as platform to display more gorgeous, colorful prep work. I feel like a broken record saying this, but beet and coconut don't seem like natural compatriots... except this dish proved to me that they totally are. The sweet earthiness of the coconut paired perfectly with the earthy-earthiness (yup, I meant to say that) of the beetroot. 10/10.
Lastly, a long series of final bites, each more artful than the last to conclude a meal as close to perfect as I could imagine. My favorite small chocolate bites (the ones with the faces) have five different Indian spices; the "Legos." are super bright and fruity white chocolate.
If you ever have he the chance to go here, don't hesitate. Just go.