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Villa Merton in Frankfurt - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 87.
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Extraordinary (96-100)
Outstanding (93-95)
Very good to Excellent (89-92)
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Note: Villa Merton relaunched in 2015 with a new menu and a new chef, André Grossfeld. In the 2016 guide for Germany Villa Merton was awarded 1 Michelin star

Restaurant Villa Merton is housed in a neo-Baroque villa, located in the diplomatic district of Frankfurt. The villa is also the home of the 'Union International Club', a international service club. The villa was originally built as a family home in 1927 for the Jewish industrialist and politician Richard Merton. After having been persecuted by the Nazis for a number of years, Richard Merton managed to escape to England in 1939. Merton returned to Germany after WWII in 1948 and Villa Merton was returned to its previous owner. He sold it to the city of Frankfurt in 1953, who entered into a long-term lease with the Union International Club.

The restaurant of the club was renamed to Villa Merton in 2002. Executive chef at the time was Hans Horberth, who also got the restaurant its first Michelin star in 2003. Horberth left Villa Merton in 2008 and was succeeded by young chef Matthias Schmidt, who had started his career at Villa Merton in 2003. Matthias Schmidt (b. 1981) had left Villa Merton in 2005 to continue his training in the kitchens of two-star chefs Johannes King at Söl'ring Hof in Sylt and Martin Öxle at Speisemeisterei in Stuttgart (now closed). Schmidt managed to hold on to the restaurant's Michelin star after his return and and Villa Merton was awarded a second star in 2012.

Villa Merton is open for lunch and dinner Monday till Friday. For dinner the restaurant has two menus: 'Roh' (raw) and 'Stoff' (material). 'Rohstoffe' is German for 'raw materials'. From these menus you can select dishes (4 courses €98, 5 courses €113, 6 courses €126, 7 courses €138, 8 courses €150, 9 courses €162) and the same applies for lunch (2 courses €42, 3 courses €58 and 4 courses €72). I had dinner with my husband at Villa Merton on Thursday 5 September 2013 and we ordered dishes from both the Roh and the Stoff menus, which were all served outside on the terrace.

Dinner started with no fewer than eight amuse bouches. First up was a poached quail's egg hidden underneath a nest of shredded, semi-dried potato and fermented leek. Lovely flavours and nice saltiness and crunch from the potato. Next to arrive were goat's cheese and rowanberry bonbons and a few slices of air-dried Lüneburger Heide 'Heidschnuke', a type of sheep, presented on the Heidschnuke's horns. Then there was a biscuit tin with 'smancakes' topped with sour cream, juniper and spruce shoots and a nice and sharp beetroot soup, flavoured with sweet cicely (no photograph).

These amuse bouches were followed by a crayfish with a bonbon hidden inside. The bonbon had a lovely liquid crayfish bouillon and hazelnut oil filling. Presented alongside this was a white radish roll, covered with a dill paste and with a creamy eel, elderflower and horseradish filling. And finally there was a refreshing, iced apple wine, sekt and verbena bonbon (no photograph).

Bread and butter from Dottenfelderhof, a bio-dynamic farm some 8 miles outside of Frankfurt.

My first course was a dish from the Roh menu 'Aal, Holunderblüte, Erbse und Meerrettich'. Smoked eel, served with fresh, halved peas, pea puree, horse radish ice cream, an elderflower bouillon and garnished with pea shoot leaves, hollyhock blossom and ground ivy. A colourful dish with clean and delicate flavours. Nice fresh sharpness from the elderflower bouillon, subtle sweetness from the peas. The smoked eel was lovely and moist, but since it was the main ingredient of this dish I would have liked to find rather more of it on the plate.

This was followed by a dish from the Stoff menu: 'Weinbergschnecke, Blumenkohl, Lindenblütensud und Kerbel' - Vineyard snails, cauliflower, lime blossom 'sud' and chervil. On the plate were tender snails, roasted cauliflower puree, thinly sliced cauliflower, finely chopped celery, pickled elderberries and a light and creamy lime blossom sauce. Again a dish with very delicate and clean flavours, but in this case also lacking some depth. The roasted cauliflower had lovely caramelised flavours, but not enough to lift the dish.

My main course was 'Rehbock, gelbe bete, grüne Holunderbeeren und Weizengrasöl' - Roebuck, yellow beetroot, green (unripe) elderberries and wheatgrass oil. By this time it was starting to get dark outside, so unfortunately there is no photograph of this or most of the dishes that followed. Succulent, fillet of roebuck and raw roebuck rolls, served with two pieces of oven-roasted yellow beetroot, thinly sliced pickled beeroot and a delicious pure and concentrated jus. Everything on the plate was properly cooked, but it didn't work completely as a dish. There was so much beetroot on the plate that it overtook the roebuck as the main ingredient.

Next up was a pre-dessert of mustard caramel, sorb apple mousse. Nice and refreshing flavours with a hint of sharpness.

First dessert, from the Stoff menu: 'Handkäs mit Musik', a traditional German dish, Handkäs meaning cheese made from buttermilk and shaped by hand, marinated with chopped onions and caraway seeds. Villa Merton served a deconstructed version. The cheese came as a sauce and there were liquid onion-vinegar-caraway seed bonbons. Also on the plate were cubes of toasted brown bread, textures of onion, few-flowered leeks bulbils/caviar and pimpernel puree. The bonbons were overwhelmingly acidic and were fighting the creaminess of the cheese sauce and there was no richness that needed balancing anyway.

Second dessert and final course of this meal was 'Gurke, yoghurt und dill'. A clean-tasting yoghurt ice cream, served with dots of concentrated yoghurt crème, fresh cucumber ribbons, meringue shards and geranium leaves. A decent enough dish, although I have to say that at the end of summer, when there's fruit and vegetables in abundance, cucumber really isn't the most creative ingredient this chef might have selected for dessert.

Villa Merton's cuisine has been described in Germany as 'radikal-regionale Küche', I believe no translation is needed here and they take a clear stance about this on their website. The maitre d' told us on the night, that the restaurant only worked with ingredients from within a radius of 150 km. Someone recently explained the point of this approach to me as deliberate self-limitation in order to promote creativity. Be that as it may, not all restaurants which work along these lines get it right.

My meal at Villa Merton was a bit of a mixed bag. There were some nice elements and there were some less attractive elements. I sampled some interesting and original dishes, cooked with skill but without real authority. The flavours were cool, clean and precise, but there usually was a distinct lack of comfort on the plates. What was billed as the main ingredient did not always feature so on the plate. The flavours were sometimes extremely delicate, but the flavour contrasts were sometimes quite extreme. I was not really disappointed, but I wasn't really convinced either. Overall, it wasn't really what I had expected from a restaurant with two Michelin stars and rave reviews from the German press and culinary guides. Very recently, it was announced that Villa Merton will relocate later in 2014 or in 2015, because they feel they need a new environment to further develop their vision. I will be following proceedings with great interest.

Posted 27-01-2014


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