Among the variables that can impact one's meal, the context of the dining experience might be the hardest one to quantify. Assessing things like quality of the ingredients or the skill of the chef might be an imprecise exercise, but those who are avid students of the craft of dining eventually learn how to make reasonable determinations. For example, one can leasily earn how to determine whether they are eating prime or choice beef. Or with a little practice, one can determine whether the ingredients they are eating deserve the lofty A.O.C. pedigree. One can even learn how to determine if the chef is doing his job properly. Has that sauce sitting under your filet been made properly or is it seperating and coming apart at the seams? All in all, there are numerous ways one can assess the culinary aspects of a meal. But when it comes to things that are ancillary to the cuisine, how does one go about measuring how much they impact your meal?
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that ambience makes food taste better. After all, Bresse chicken of a certain quality tastes like, er, Bresse chicken of a certain quality. But if there was a restaurant where ambiance and environment made a meal more enjoyable, a recent lunch at Auberge de L'Ill stated the best case I had ever experienced. The setting alongside the very delicate river Ill was picture perfect, and if weather was something you could order off the menu, I am certain this is the day we would have ordered. So before anyone says that Plotnicki has gone off the reservation and overrated this meal just because of the glorious day and setting, I thought I'd offer full disclosure that maybe, just maybe, it swayed me a little bit.
This was my second visit to the restaurant. My first visit in 1998 revolved around a classic service of foie gras terrine and roast Bresse chicken with truffles under the skin, along with a Zind-Humbrecht Vendage Tardive Gewurztraminer whose vintage and vineyard designation escapes me. The meal was delicious, but not inspirational to the point where I felt I needed to return anytime soon. And when you add a few reports proclaiming that the restaurant's performance had deteriorated over the past few years, it wasn't high on my list of places to return to. But a group of four friends were planning a gastronomic weekend in Alsace, and I had been annointed with the job of organizing our meals. When the other three told me, "let's try and eat all of our meals at three star restaurants", given the number of choices in the region, and given the fact that trying to fill up a sleepy Sunday in the French provinces is always a chore, I thought that an hour train ride from Strasbourg to Colmar, followed by a twenty minute taxi ride to Illhausern, seemed to be about the best way to kill off the day. And maybe we would get lucky with the food as well.
As long as I have raised the issue of things that are ancillary to the dining experience having a material impact on how much you enjoy your meal, I'll complicate matters further and tell you that when you walk though the entrance of the Auberge de L'Ill, you immediately feel like you've entered a three star restaurant. Not all three star restaurants evoke the same feeling. Just two nights earlier we had dined at Buerheisal in Strasbourg. And while it is set in a lovely park and the room has a luxurious feel, it just didn't exude the same feeling as Auberge de L'Ill. It is another thing that is hard to quantify, but I also get the same exact feeling when entering Troisgros or Michel Bras. You are overcome with the feeling that you are in a temple of gastronomy. Like you fare standing on the spot where thousands of superb meals have been served.
We arrived at about 1:20 and our table was the only table that was empty.The room was full of families, and Grand-Mere's or Grand-Pere's birthday seemed to be a somewhat to be a somewhat popular occassion on that particular day. One might think it odd that there are children in a three star restaurant, including some who are patrolling the aisles between tables while pulling at the arms of their mama or papa. But there must have been at least four tables with three generations of diners with children who were five years old or less. Leave it to the French to think of indoctrinating pre-schoolers to the pleasures of haute cuisine. Further proof that the French are geniuses when it comes to all things cultural. But you really couldn't beat the setting which was so glorious that I asked them if we could eat outside. "Outside is where you will take you coffee later Monsieur". The truth is it didn't really make much of a difference. We sat next to a large picture window and enjoyed the following view throughout our meal.
The classic setting put us all in the mood for a classic Sunday lunch. It's amazing how the setting dictated what we wanted to eat. No foams or deconstructed dishes for us. We were looking for good old fashioned French food. The menu didn't disappoint. I'm not sure how long the restaurant has been operating, but it is long enough for it to have amassed five signature dishes that they feature on their menu. We started with two portions of foie gras terrine split for four. Studded with cubes of black truffle and served with a port gelee. Usually a three star restaurant means that one orders a warm foie gras dish so the chef can show off his technical abilities. But having done that the past two evenings it was the time to have simple terrine. It was the right choice as the foie was so rich it was like eating a stick of liver flavored butter A bottle of 1997 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive was a perfect accompaniment for the foie. It's a wine I've had in the past and it was an excellent effort by Trimbach. And at 55 euros it was bargain for a restaurant wine list.
I was determined to order something from the list of signature dishes. The truth is, I could have ordered all of them had the others not restrained me. Being limited to just one, I inquired of our Captain, which do we choose if we only order one? He replied that the salmon souffle and the lobster dish were in a league of their own, and we opted for the salmon having not had any at all over the course of the weekend. It doesn't look like much. Sort of like quenelle in the shape of gefilte fish and served in a white sauce made from fish broth, Riesling, shallots and a bit of cream. Alongside is an oblong mound of tomato concasse and a small puff pastry. How does one create something that is light as a feather, but holds a fork and gives the sensation of eating solid food? A demonstration of the glories of French culinary technique. Up there with the Troisgros salmon in sorrel for compelling signature dishes that one wants to eat over and over again. We drank a 1976 Trimbach Clos St. Hune with it. One of the most famous Rieslings ever produced, and for good reason after samplng this bottle. I've had many vintages of Clos St. Hune but this had the most viscosity by far, without being late harvested. It was a shame that we didn't get to spend more time with it. The wine kept getting more complex by the minute and I suspect that had we had been able to open and decant it two hours before lunch, it might have been the single most compelling bottle of Riesling, or maybe bottle of white wine, I ever had.
Normally Sunday lunch would mean a roast chicken for me. But we had chicken at Buerheisal so I opted for the cote de boeuf which I split with somebody else. I used to love eating beef in France but I have found that since the Mad Cow scare of 1999, the quality of beef has dropped significantly. Still, I am ever the optomist when it comes to food and I figured if any place was going to have good quality beef, it would somewhere like Auberge de L'Ill. Well my suspicions were correct. Though a hair tough, the steak was flavorful and had a nice chew to it. About 85% of where the beef used to be back in 1998. And side dishes of pommes pont-neuf and a small crock of spring vegetables were terrific. After serving the steak and potatoes, they spooned out the richest and most glorious Bearnaise-style sauce that I had ever come across. We drank a 1996 Hubert de Montille Pommard Rugiens which competed with the flowers in the restaurant in terms of smelling pretty. Full of cherries, raspberries and violets, it was amazingly light on the palate and a joy to drink.
Desserts were terrific. Old school, overly rich and overly opulent. In fact we enjoyed them so much that I am going to post photos of everyone's dessert. I had the meringue with ice cream and red fruits. But the signature dessert, the apple with cream, really caught my eye and is at the top of my list for my next visit to the restaurant. Can you believe how rich it looks!
As promised, we took our coffee on the patio alongside the river. Usually pictures of the setting don't make it into my reviews, but this set of pictures merits special attention.
An important note on the wine service. The first bottle of the Clos St. Hune they brought us was hopelessly corked. The sommelier took one whiff of the wine and didn't try to convince us otherwise. Sure he was unhappy about it, but he didn't take it out on us in any way and his assistant showed up with a new bottle in about two minutes time. It was in contrast to what we experienced the night before at L'Arnsbourg, where we had what I will describe as a "close call" with a corked wine. After two of us deemed it corked on the nose, the sommelier, after tasting it, politely still tried to sell it to us telling us about how the wine is going to develop. It wasn't until I tasted it and pronounced it off that he offered to bring a new bottle. At the Auberge they couldn't have been more gracious about it and they didn't make us feel as if we were doing something wrong. And we aren't talking about a cheap bottle of wine either.
Having recently had my fair share of inadequate and ordinary classic French meals, what a pleasure it is to find a restaurant that still does classic the right way. From the warmth of the greeting, to the spectacular setting, to exuding the feeling of gastronomic pleasure, to serving delicious food that is completely without pretension, they have it down pat. It isn't something that is easy to find. Other restaurants who serve this type of cuisine seem so long in the tooth that they might as well have fangs. Not only was the meal a success, but as I had hoped, it was a glorious way to waste away a sleepy French Sunday. In fact we took the slow train back to Strasbourg and we didn't get back to our hotels until around 6:30 in the afternoon. Exactly the way I had planned the day. B+/A-