Sunday, July 08, 2007

Alsace; the food, part 2. My first Michelin 3 stars!

Day two in Alsace bought further joys for the tastebuds. After a heavy morning's tasting (wonderful pinot noir at René Muré was a particular highlight), we were treated to lunch at Restaurant L'Esquisse in Guebwiller. The chef used to work at the Auberge de l'Ill (Alsace's only 3 star Michelin restaurant, more on which later). The food was beautifully presented and deliciously fresh. We started with a Gazpacho of tomatoes and marinated salmon which was topped with a frothy basil... froth. The accompanying tapenade toasts were the ideal accompaniment. This was a refreshing starter - the salmon added an unusual texture which grew on me as I progressed through the dish.

Next up was a fish called 'Rascasse' served on a bed of ratatouille. But this was no ordinary ratatouille - the vegetables were very finely diced and pan-fried for just a minute or so. The pleasing 'bite' was ideal with the flavoursome fish. Our French colleagues translated this fish as 'rock fish', but a quick glance in the Collins Robert tells me that it is, in fact, scorpion fish. In any case, it was delicious and a welcome lighter dish amongst the richness and excess of the trip to Alsace...

Pudding was a triumph. My beloved Fondant au chocolat. I just adore the way the chocolate oozes from the centre when the spoon in plunged in. Heaven. It was served with a grapefruit sorbet - equally delicious, but I wasn't convinced that it went well with the chocolate. I chose to eat the two separately.

This was an excellent meal. But nothing could have prepared me for the excitement of our final day. After a tougher-than-expected exam on the final day, we were rewarded with a six course meal at the Auberge de l'Ill. This stunning restaurant boasts the coveted three Michelin stars and was my first experience of such a celebrated eatery. Was I excited? Is Jimmy Saville slightly odd?

This glorious repast started in the garden with Crémant d'Alsace Brut, Cuvée St Julien from Dopff au Moulin. Dry, flavoursome and crisp it set the right tone. A few enticing nibbles were munched upon whilst sitting on the bank of the river Ill, flanked by glorious weeping willows. Here, the results of our 'exam' were announced. I was hugely surprised to be awarded third place (I had been fearing I would be sent to 'La Truite', a rather grim looking restaurant across the road which was to be the fate of any students who failed to impress!). After the short graduation ceremony, plus obligatory graduation photo....

...we were ushered into a very lovely timber-clad private room. Then the fun began. First a little amuse-bouche involving egg mousse and asparagus. Much more heavenly than it sounds. Then, onto the main event...

Terrine of Foie Gras 'Auberge de l'Ill' came first. Goose, of course. The very best. It simply melted in the mouth. It was accompanied by Pinot Gris Léon BEYER, Cuvée des Comtes d'Eguisheim, 2000. Interestingly, this was a dry pinot gris. Foie gras is commonly served with sweet wines - a glorious match, but not a great way to start a meal as it is hard to go from a sweet wine back to a dry. This worked remarkably well, proving that sweetness is not always necessary for a good foie gras match. I needed no more. I was already in heaven...

Next up was a speciality. A 'mousseline' of frog 'Paul Haeberlin'. Paul is the head chef. And this dish is masterpiece!

The 'mousseline' part was made of perch (I think). The frog (legs, I am presuming) was lovely and tender, but the true triumph was the riesling sauce, garnished with plenty of chives. Buttery, creamy and delicious. As Jean Trimbach said, 'why have olive oil when you can have butter'?! The accompanying Riesling JOSMEYER Grand Cru Hengst Samain, 1997 was superb. Pure, minerally and long, it went beautifully with this dish.

Next up, the fish course. Filet of sea bass with watermelon risotto and wasabi cream. Watermelon risotto? Really? Yes. Any good? Oh yes. The refreshingly crisp bite of the fresh watermelon was a welcome contrast to the creamy richness of the risotto. Trimbach's Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile, 1998 was equally wonderful.

You might be thinking that I was fairly full by this stage. Indeed. But we were only half way through this epic food odyssey. Next we hit some meat. An excellent excuse to head to MURE for some Pinot Noir. The Clos St Landelin, 2002 was an extremely fine and complex accompaniment to the pigeon, wrapped in cabbage, topped with a generous sprinkling of truffles and surrounded with crisp puff pastry. And the sauce. Oh. So rich and gorgeous it defies description

Time for a breather. A quick trip to the kitchen to meet the chef and see the workshop for these masterpieces. Then back to our table for cheese. Munster, of course. What else? Four variations on Munster this time - a small new potato filled with hot, runny Munster. Some young, fresh Munster and some more mature Munster, pungent and memorable. Accompanied by a very fine, aromatic Gewurztraminer from SCHLUMBEGER. Grand Cru Kitterlé, 2002 was still on the young side but it was easy to appreciate the potential.

Pudding was divine. A 'croustillant' of pear, chicory ice cream and caramel sauce was spectacularly good with the wonderfully sweet and exotically flavoured Gewurztraminer HUGEL Sélection de Grains Nobles 'S', 1997. You'd think, by this stage, we might have had enough. But oh no! The petits fours. Divine. Each person had a plate filled with various sweet treats. On the table were placed bowls of cherries, platters of freshly made chocolates and... the best... homemade marshmallows. Divine.

What a feast. Truly a meal of a lifetime. Huge thanks to our hosts, the Grandes Maisons d'Alsace for this wonderful experience.

Auberge de L'Ill, 2 rue des Colonges de Mont d'Or, Illerhausen

Restaurant L'Esquisse, 140 rue de la République, 68500 GUEBWILLER

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