"Beer brewers and beer cellars are the best druggists in the world," said a Bavarian doctor back in the 19th century, after sampling what's known as "the liquid bread" of Munich. But the historic city where Wagner's "Meistersinger" and "Tristan" had their premieres is famous today for more than foaming beer with pretzels or pork sausage.
Munich now has two restaurants that have been awarded three stars by the very finicky Guide Michelin. And scattered among its many taste-tempting bistros, which serve everything from bouillabaisse to fondue, are a delicatessen and a takeout catering establishment with growing international reputations and a clientele to match.
The local sophisticates have said auf wiedersehen to sauerkraut and ja to nouvelle cuisine. Actually, it's called "nouvelle German food" and usually served with French wine. All this international criss-crossing of taste for jet travelers might be summed up as gemu tlich-French. The tourist casually driving through Bavaria who cannot bear the thought of yet another dumpling or slice of strudel should hasten to Munich.
Luncheon in Mu nchen just isn't the provincial meal it used to be, and ach, neither is dinner -- not at the celebrated Tantris and Aubergine restaurants.
As for midsummer picnics in the woods or by a purple-blue lake, Munich has two delicatessens -- Ka fer-Scha nke (Ka fer's) and Dallmayr -- where you can select from among 50 salads or 200 cheeses for an outdoor outing. Most visitors are aware of the marble hall in Nymphenburg Palace, masterworks by Rubens and Du rer at the Alte Pinakothek and the glockenspiel in Marienplatz. But surprisingly few realize that the palate can be pampered to excess here, not just during Oktoberfest, but all year round.
According to the culinary critics, and plain folks who just like to eat, German food was traditionally known for heaping portions of over-cooked meat, gooey gravy and boiled greens, sloshed down with beer. And such meals have not exactly vanished: The good burghers of Du sseldorf and Stuttgart do not gorge themselves nightly on quail and poached pears.
But within the past 10 years Munich's menus have undergone some radical changes. The "uncrowned king" greatly responsible for this revolution at the kitchen door is a modest and witty Austrian named Eckart Witzigmann, who first cooked at the Tantris and in the late 1970s became owner-chef of Aubergine, which he oversees with the help of his wife, Monika.
"At first nouvelle cuisine was -- well, pretty nouvelle for some of the residents," laughs Witzigmann, who has slaved over hot stoves in the world's grandest hotels and restaurants. "So I had to find customers who were understanding and adventurous. I took regional dishes and adapted them, with a French touch and my touch. For example: Germans like creamy sauces. Without a lot of sauce, they think, 'This is too simple.' I found a compromise. A chef always must adapt. But he must also instruct."
In the late 1960s, Witzigmann was lured to Georgetown with the promise of opening a new restaurant. Shortly after his arrival in the States, the financing collapsed and he cooked instead at the Jockey Club for two years. As the "second chef" he could not impose his taste or personality, of which he has plenty. "I would like to return to America," he says with a gleam. "The only places I'd consider are San Francisco and Virginia, near the capital. And it would have to be my restaurant, under my control."
The Aubergine (Max-Joseph Strasse 8, 8000 Mu nchen 2, telephone 089-59-81-71) is quietly elegant, with a staff of 30. It has two evening sittings, each of which serves 45 diners; reservations for dinner are often required two weeks in advance. The room has silver-paneled walls, large dark armchairs, huge bouquets of pink and purple flowers. The tables are covered in white linen. The china is white. "I like bright surroundings, so beautiful women can be seen in beautiful clothes. You see nothing in a restaurant where there is clutter and little light. And I choose white linen and china so the food can be seen. The meal should be an event." And indeed it is -- an event that he makes last, quite delectably, for three hours or more.
The courses, served by an impeccable staff in black tie, are arranged on the plates like still-life portraits. A sample dinner might include fresh asparagus, goose-liver mousse with truffles and aspic, a delicately flavored pea soup, tender pieces of lobster, followed by a sorbet and then melt-on-the-tongue sweetbreads, accompanied by mushrooms and spinach. Finally there's a selection of cheeses and brilliant-red strawberries floating in a silky strawberry sauce. (Dinner for one, depending on choice of wine, is about $60.)
Conversation at all tables is purposefully subdued, though such English phrases as ". . . on the Concorde" and ". . . at the Department of Defense . . ." -- uttered by international bigwigs, usually billeted at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten -- occasionally break the sound barrier. No one is smoking. Not even between courses. This is not France, after all, where the odor of Gaulois cigarettes can ruin many three-star dinners.
At the end of a meal, Witzigmann politely stops for a chat at each table. "I'm here to see that my patrons have a nice evening. If someone doesn't want sweetbreads, then I like to hear this. In America, I remember, the waiters are courteous, always smiling. I do not want dour-faced waiters. The atmosphere should be happy. Running a restaurant is teamwork, but the customer should never be conscious of it."
The Tantris, on the outskirts of Schwabing, the university quarter, is presided over by Heinz Winkler, who once worked for the Aubergine's owner. The Tantris looks rather like a ski lodge and has a curious decor that might be described as Polynesian, but probably isn't (Johann Fichte Strasse 7, 8000 Mu nchen 40, telephone 089-36-20-61). Whereas the Aubergine exudes an upper-crustiness, tempered by the geniality of its owner, the Tantris -- with its darker, more intimate lighting, bonsai plants and orange-black fixtures -- is larger and much more informal. It seats 90 on three levels.
Visitors tend to favor Aubergine (prices are about the same), but the Tantris, nonetheless, offers a fine pa te' of goose liver and artichoke blended into a vinaigrette sauce and a salmon gratine' in a creamy sorrel sauce. The Tantris is always crowded. Winkler says one of the most popular items on his menu is a concoction of his own: lobster with noodles. "You get three stars from the Guide Michelin if your basic menu is French," he observes, "but I like to experiment and keep the menu international. It is still the Winkler kitchen."
In downtown Munich, near the opera house, Dallmayr's is known as the city's first delicatessen that once kept the kings of Bavaria busy ordering takeout crayfish and deer. It also has a restaurant that is open from 9 a.m. to midnight (Diener Strasse 14-15, 8000 Mu nchen 2, telephone 2135-100). Here there are endless counters of chocolates and bonbons, hams from the Black Forest, fresh fruits, tortes and tarts, cherries marinated in Armagnac, butter cookies, nuts and dates, Corsican sheep cheese, white sausages and dilled shrimp.
For a rendezvous in the Alps, where climbing is combined with eating, or a memorable repast in a hotel room, Dallmayr's is a deli where everything is truly ready to go and shopping is made effortless by the building's spaciousness.
And finally, there is the one and only Ka fer's.
Many tourists miss Ka fer's because it's located across the River Isar in a smart residential community called Bogenhausen. With its red awnings outside, and trees and flowers and limousines parked by the curb, it suggests an expensive hotel. But it is a deli, a restaurant and also one of the most famous catering establishments in the world (Schumann Strasse 1, 8000 Mu nchen 80, telephone 41-68-1).
When former president Gerald Ford visited Germany and took a boat ride down the Rhine, his party was catered by Ka fer's. When Henry Kissinger and Queen Elizabeth are nearby and hungry, their minions telephone Ka fer's. If you charter the new Orient Express for a chug through Germany, Ka fer's will load the dining car with stuffed duck, venison, smoked salmon, goulash supreme and a choice of 300 different sausages.
Larry Hagman, Prince Philip and Constantine of Greece appreciate the fresh fish and vegetables flown in three times a week from California, France and Canada. During Oktoberfest, which starts Sept. 22 and lasts 16 days, Ka fer's even sets up a temporary annex near the fairgrounds. (Reservations should be made now through Brigitte Maibohm in Munich.)
Ka fer's has 10 private dining rooms, which can be booked ahead of time for no extra charge. They are a real kick. There's a Chimney Room, a Wedding Room, an Opera Room, a Banker's Room and so on -- each seating from 10 to 20 -- and flamboyantly decorated according to their names.
Ka fer's, with its vast restaurant, piano bar and buffet bar for appetizers, employs a staff of almost 500 who either prepare or handle about 20,000 different items a week -- from kiwi ice cream to dozens of breads and cheeses smothered in herbs. It even has a gift shop for the purchase of rag dolls, linens, dishes and French wines at as much as $230 a bottle. The big pinkish building is a maze of kitchens, bakeries, dining rooms and shops -- and it has been around for 52 years. A cab driver has only to be told, "Take me to Ka fer's . . ."
A visitor touring the building not long ago muttered, "This place is absolutely amazing."
The guide stopped abruptly, chin tilted high. "It is not." There followed a chilling silence. The two stared at each other in confusion. "I have been to New York," snapped the guide, "and this is not a Macy's."
Amazing, ja. Macy's, nein.