Dining and drinking in Munich

Is this Western Europe’s most unlikely culinary capital? Rob Ingram uncovers the best – and the wurst – of dining and drinking in Munich. Prost!

Bavarians live for food. The main topic of conversation at mealtime is what they're going to eat at the next meal. And Dallmayr is where they go to seek inspiration, to give thanks and to keep dreams alive.
The inhabitants of Munich, my host tells me, are called Münchners. As a guest, I make no comment, but in the most surprising of culinary capitals, the main occupation certainly seems to be eating. It's a city noted for its robust economy and productivity, but at least half the populace seem to be on permanent lunch break - or is it munch break?
Food enjoyment is such a key ingredient in the Münchner make-up that in their minds they have created something called the "Weisswurst border".
It's an imaginary border that separates Bavaria's culinary and cultural heartland from the rest of Germany.
The Weisswurst border takes its name from the distinctive white veal and herb sausages with which all Bavarians seem to start their day. In a diverse and vibrant culinary landscape, weisswurst and bitter beer remain the pillars of the border crossing. But there is a third element that defines the Bavarian attitude to eating and lifestyle in general. It is called gemütlichkeit, and it translates as something that is informal, casual, easy-going and laidback. Münich yawns and stretches with gemütlichkeit. The quality of lifestyle is palpable here and, year after year, Germans vote Munich as the city in which they'd most like to live.
The paradox of the gemütlichkeit psyche is that while it embraces everything new and exciting, it also stubbornly defends the traditional. The best way to enter the spirit of the city is to join the Münchners in their veneration of the weisswurst. Münchners love nothing more than to dine outdoors. Even when the weather is bleak, they'll rug up and head to open-air markets, parks and beer gardens to graze from stalls and kiosks.
So we disregard the hotel's room-service breakfast menu and meet at the appointed (early) hour at the central food market - the Viktualienmarkt, behind St Peter's Church. Among the 140 produce stalls are food outlets that once just fed the marketeers but which have evolved into upmarket eating venues. At the famous soup kitchen that used to ply liver-dumpling soup to the market workers, today's dilemma is whether to try the truffled potato version or the carrot-coconut-ginger variety. But at whichever table you find a seat in the market grounds, there'll be a Münchner with weisswurst in a bun, either with sweet mustard and sauerkraut, or on a plate with a pretzel and a litre glass of beer.
But by now Dallmayr is open and we can elevate our expectations. Dallmayr doesn't look like Fauchon; it looks like one entire side of Place Vendôme. Inside, the elegance is breathtaking: the panelling is oak, the pillars are marble and the benches are velvet. Aside from the exotic food, confectionery, tea and coffee halls, there's Restaurant Dallmayr, the Lukullus Bar and Café-Bistro Dallmayr. The Café-Bistro offers a very nice breakfast of bread and croissants, baked ham, duck-liver cream, smoked salmon, shrimp in cocktail sauce, a jug of coffee or tea, and a glass of prosecco.
Its patrons are dining with an obvious relish (although there is also a less obvious papaya and jalapeño one available). We ask the bistro manager what the most popular breakfast choice is. With a shrug, he tells us it's the sausage - a duo of weisswurst with pretzels and wheat beer.
Café Frischhut, between the Viktualienmarkt and the Stadtmuseum, has the best endorsement - a queue stretching out the door. This is the spiritual home of another traditional Bavarian delicacy, schmalznudel. Dough stretched paper-thin is flash-fried into ethereal doughnut creations - you can watch yours being made - and there's something about the faces of the regulars that suggests schmalznudel is addictive. Great coffee here, too.
Tradition meets its dementia at the Hofbräuhaus, the world's most famous beer hall. Over 400 years old, it comfortably seats more than 3000 drinkers - at least until the oompah band starts. At home, I am invisible to bar staff if there are more than half a dozen people at the bar. At the Hofbräuhaus, staff circulating with trays of one-litre mugs are by your side as soon as you reach the 300ml level. Bavarian food creates a terrible thirst and Bavarian beer creates a terrible hunger. After a morning satisfying the tooth, however, I can manage only a whole pickled pork knuckle boiled in a spicy broth and served on sauerkraut with fresh horseradish and a potato dumpling.
Schuhbeck's is an entire culinary empire created by Michelin-ranked celebrity chef Alfons Schuhbeck (he's also known as Alfons Beck, which just goes to show what a gemütlichkeit sort of chap he is).
His restaurants and food shops showcase grown-up Bavarian cuisine - the essence of Bavaria expressed with international influences and modern ingredients. Schuhbeck has described his cuisine as Bavarian, which is traditionally heavy, but "looking towards the sun and the south". The menu at his signature restaurant, Südtiroler Stuben, ranges from baked calf's head on potato and chive sauce to alpine salmon with lavender salt on spinach with roasted coconut flakes, which suggests some movement in the right direction. His genius is more convincingly confirmed by a refreshing cucumber and dill creation from his ice-cream shop.
Happily, Münchners have embraced Mediterranean (or at least Italian) cuisine. Two of the most popular venues in the city are Due Passi and Café Tambosi, Due Passi for eating and Café Tambosi for seeing and being seen.
Due Passi is set in a former dairy and cheese shop dating back to the late 19th century and retains beautiful original tiles depicting rural scenes. The menu, too, respects the past, with pasta presented alla Emiliana (with ham, mushrooms and peas), alla puttanesca (with anchovies, capers and olives) and alla Piemontese (with mushrooms, Gorgonzola and truffle cream), all cooked with precision.
Café Tambosi, Munich's oldest continuously operating café, dates back to 1775. Mozart used to hang here and, while it's now a tourist magnet, the majority of its clientele are Germans nostalgically soaking up the old-world elegance of the place. There's a menu of the usual Italian suspects, but most people are here for coffee, cakes and confections.
At the top end of the Munich dining scene is the stunning Tantris, where Hans Haas guards the Michelin stars the restaurant has been amassing since 1973. Haas enjoys cult status in Germany (as does Tantris), the lapidary simplicity of his dishes having inspired critics to compare him with Picasso for his ability to remove all but the essential elements, then to make what's left dazzle. Lobster with pak choi and squid-ink gnocchi - a bargain at $110. Tantris is notable, too, for its 51-page wine list.
But to revel in Munich's new adventurous cuisine, seek out the little bistro-style establishments around Glockenbachviertel and Schlachhofviertel, not far from Marienplatz, or at Regerplatz, where Restaurant Garpunkt is setting the pace. Here chef Stefan Lechner and sommelier Nico Romano present a knock-out tasting menu of five courses, such as scallops with a macadamia crust in prawn broth, followed by roasted foie gras with beetroot, apple and Calvados, then crisp duck with ginger, carrot and wild rice coleslaw. Munich has clearly broken the shackles of tradition here. Each dish comes with a glass of wine carefully matched by sommelier Romano. "Wines that arouse the emotions", the menu states. And true enough, we leave feeling just a little emotional.