Unexpected culinary diversity in this southwestern German city
By Ron Stern
Located between the Rhine and Neckar rivers in the sunniest part of Germany, Mannheim is one of those cities that many have heard of but few really know, especially in a gastronomic sense.
Almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, Mannheim has slowly rebuilt itself, adding rich and culturally diverse dining options along the way. So foodies, take notice, this is one city that grabs your taste buds and doesn’t let go.
One of the largest cities in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Mannheim was laid out on a grid system and is sometimes known as the city of squares. Instead of street names, letters and numbers identify the locations, which are rather easy to figure out once you are here for a few hours.
Notable inventions came from here, including the bicycle in 1817 by Karl Freiherr von Drais and Karl Benz’ automobile, for which he received a patent in 1886.
The Mannheim Baroque Palace is the largest in Europe (by one window) after the Palace of Versailles, and one of its most notable landmarks is the 200-foot-tall Wasserturm (water tower) that is surrounded by beautiful art nouveau-style architecture.
As the city grew, it integrated 170 countries into its cultural mix, and through innovation and creativity, many have carved out their own niche eateries throughout the city. Those with a keen sense of smell might even notice the sweet scent of cocoa in the air. Is it just your imagination running away with you? Nope. When the wind is blowing just right, visitors can inhale the aromas from the roasting cocoa beans at the local chocolate factory near the river.
But this is just the start of this counterintuitive city that has culinary surprises hiding in plain sight among the squares. Here are a few that will get you excited about planning a visit:
Eis Fontanella (gelato pasta)
You might say that gelato is in this family’s blood. It all started with Michelangelo Fontanella, who founded Gelateria Pasticceria in an area near Venice, Italy in 1906. In the early 1930s, his son Mario decided to move to Mannheim and establish his own gelateria in this part of Germany.
In 1969, Mario’s son Dario, while eating a dessert called Mont Blanc, became intrigued with how chestnut puree would look like spaghetti when squeezed through a spaetzle press. He wondered if the same idea might work with gelato. After experimenting at his father’s shop in Mannheim, Dario then invented the original Spaghetti Eis, a dessert made to resemble pasta with tomato sauce.
The idea took off, and today, thousands of people flock to the shop, now run by Dario and his wife, to indulge in this creamy bit of ice cream paradise. First, a bottom layer of thick whipped cream is topped with vanilla gelato that has been squeezed through the press. Tangy strawberry sauce is added and topped with white chocolate crumbles meant to resemble cheese. The final presentation looks so much like the real thing that children sometimes cry when it is placed before them, thinking they received pasta and not the ice cream they ordered. That is, of course, until that first cool bite of deliciousness turns frowns into surprised smiles.
Keller’s Weinrestaurant (German food and wine)
Located in the heart of Mannheim, Keller’s Weinrestaurant offers a wide variety of local wines together with traditional German cuisine. Many local specialties include favorites such as sour noodles, spaetzle and fried port schnitzel with potatoes.
If you are fortunate enough, as we were, to be visiting during the spring, then you can indulge in one of Germany’s culinary offerings that is almost a national obsession. What is it? White asparagus or spargel, as it is known here. For two months each year, sometime in April to mid-June, Germans go crazy for this vegetable, sometimes offered with every main meal.
At Keller’s, they serve a hefty and tasty portion (1 pound) of white asparagus with ham, new potatoes and melted butter for around €24 ($27).
Der Kaffeeladen & Die Schokoladenwerkstatt (coffee and chocolate)
This charming little shop is run by two gentlemen whose passions are coffee and chocolate. Located midblock in the Lindenhof District at the Windeckstraße tram stop, it is somehow a little hard to spot.
Andreas Lehmann and Wolfgang Zumkeller decided to offer something special in Mannheim — 24 of the best coffee varieties from around the world, including beans from Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Brazil, Guatemala and Jamaica. Additionally, they offer a line of wine, tea and whiskies.
If you are a chocolate lover, then you have also come to the right place. Using top quality ingredients, Lehmann and Zumkeller create wonderful blends made right in Mannheim, including one made from white chocolate that looks like white asparagus.
Using more than the typical amounts of cocoa as well as natural cocoa butter ensures that the chocolates here will likely be among the best you have ever tried. They have an indescribable melt-in-your-mouth quality that lingers on the tongue, with a difference you can truly taste.
Wanting to offer something that truly represented his city, Lehmann also created the Mannheimer Schlosspflaster. These chocolate squares are meant to resemble the cobblestones surrounding The Mannheim Baroque Palace.
If you have ever wanted to learn how to make chocolates, Lehmann and Zumkeller also offer workshops that will teach you how to do it. Business has been brisk since opening, and last year, the partners sold more than 1½ tons of chocolate. Stop by to satisfy your chocolate craving and save room in your suitcase to bring some back home.
Die Metzgerei (Picnic baskets on the Rhine)
Located just around the block from Der Kaffeeladen & Die Schokoladenwerkstatt, this bistro was named after its previous incarnation as a butchery.
You can pre-order a complete picnic basket for two and then walk several hundred feet down to the shores of the Rhine River to enjoy.
They have thought of everything for you, and your basket comes complete with wine and glasses, silverware, napkins, a colorful blanket, and delicious food. You will have a choice of several baskets from which to choose, including the Sophia Loren, Wellness, the French Lovers or The Palatine (the area’s traditional fare). The latter comes with mini-meatballs and potato salad (sweet and tangy), baguette with ham and cheese, fresh fruit salad and one bottle of butcher wine (red or white) for €29 ($32.66). What better way to spend a lazy, sunny afternoon than enjoying a delightful picnic under shade trees overlooking the sparkling waters of the Rhine.
Opus V (Michelin two-star elegance)
One of the marquee attractions in Mannheim is the Engelhorn Department Store with 40,000 square meters of shopping bliss. This is also the location of Mannheim’s two-star Michelin restaurant, Opus V, and Germany’s youngest (31) Chef de Cuisine, Tristan Brandt. It also happens to be the only department store in the world with a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Overseeing four restaurants in the same complex, Brandt has proven that hard work and creativity pay off. He was the runner-up for the 2011 Chef of the Year Award where he competed with 400 of his peers for this distinction.
Serving modern Asian cuisine with French influences, Brandt starts with just three menu ingredients as a playful introduction, to which he then adds other locally sourced ingredients. These could be something like fish, chives and radishes or asparagus, honey and seaweed.
Diners visiting Opus V will no doubt be impressed with the attention to detail, flavor sensations and a little surprise or two.
Mannheim has grown into itself over the years and has attracted a loyal culinary clientele. Visitors should take the time to sample the local fare and get to know Mannheim’s other most important asset — its people who are as warm and sunny as the weather.