France/Alsace reviews: Au Tilleul, Le Strasbourg, L'Arnsbourg
Gastronomically speaking, the best thing about Paris is that by driving for five hours in any direction, you can actually get some good food. Here are examples from a long late-October weekend in the Parc National des Vosges du Nord, a lovely natural area north of Strasbourg. There are fascinating things to see here, great hiking, and the autumn colors are now at their peak. But this posting is about food, not leaves.
In this part of France, people are very serious about eating well, and they dont tolerate Parisian mediocrity. There is a good, solid auberge in practically every town. We begin with Friday lunch at Au Tilleul in the village of Philippsbourg. The dining room has a spartan elegance. The floor is tiled, true, but the tiles are surely from nearby Sarreguemines. The ceiling is supported by plain wooden columns, but each one is cleverly carved from a single tree trunk. The food is brought out in gleaming copper pans, and is transferred to warm plates at a rolled-up side table. There is no fuss or ostentation, its been done this way for a couple of hundred years. We are in the land of Madame Bovary.
Tables are well-spaced, and it's good to see that there is already a crowd of local notables and well-heeled German visitors (the border is a few miles away). On the menu, an embarrassment of choices. Anticipating a large dinner, I opt for a simple green salad and the plat du jour, a ragout de highland cattle. Sic. The authorities have imported a large number of the hairy beasts from Scotland to manage the marshy parkland in a more ecological manner, and I guess that some of the cows end up in a marmite. The sauce is full tiny onions and lardons - bits of smoked country bacon. For once, Im served a beef stew that hasnt been inundated with cheap red wine. The braising liquid must have been veal stock, with just a modest addition of (white?) wine. There is a copper pan with butter-browned gnocchi to go with the beef. Fantastic.
My wife has fish soup and a crayfish salad. The soup is a far cry from what is normally dished out in Paris, where the soup pot is a dumping ground for accumulated unmentionable bits of fish, and the nasty concoction is garnished with a slurry of sand and crushed shell, then served with stale croutons and a skinned-over rouille.
At the Tilleul, we split a marvelous dessert: almond cream, plus an ice made with fromage blanc (a relative of sour cream) and an arrangement of plums stewed in sugar and cinnamon. Coffee is a disaster, as always in France.
Our waitress is a soberly-dressed fiftyish woman. A real professional, it's a pleasure to watch her serve the beef stew from the side table. She could no more say how's everything goin so far? than she could herself eat grass.
The bill, which includes two glasses of wine and mineral water, is sixty euros. When I think that this is about what we paid the night before at Cafe Constant on rue Saint Dominique (a chowhound favorite) I can only bow my head and wonder why we even bother to go out in Paris.
For dinner, we move up a notch in style, quality, and price. Le Strasbourg is the pride of Bitche (pronounced, alas, beach) a small town spread out at the foot of a monstrous fortification. The citadelle was designed by (you guessed it) Vauban. It defended itself heroically in 1870 (translation: did not surrender immediately to the Prussians without a fight).
The dining room at the Strasbourg is a big place made somber with dark-stained wooden beams. Looks vaguely Japanese or Frank-Lloyd-Wrightish. The twenty-odd tables are large and the wicker chairs comfortable: this is a place for serious eating. Entering customers are given a careful once-over, and even their dogs get a dirty look if they do not measure up. Our pure blue-merle collie, cleaned up and fluffed up for the occasion, passes inspection easily.
The first amuse bouche is a tasty slice of blood sausage, the second a less-successful attempt at vitello tonnato. It tastes like tuna salad at Howard Johnsons.
We are tempted by a fancy roasted duck ( an AOC Prince des Dombes no less) whose thighs have been preserved in fat and are served separately. The filet of chevreuil for two looks good too, but it comes with crushed panais (a kind of carrot/parsnip) which I don't care for. We settle on a sandre (fresh-water pike perch) for two. It's baked whole (the best way to cook any fish), presented formally to the guests, then expertly taken apart by the hostess at a side table.
Our first course has to be foie gras, the house specialty. Mine is goose instead of the more common duck. It has a darker flavor and a pleasing hint of bitterness. But my wife hits the jackpot: a mille feuille of sautéed duck livers served between thick slices of baked apple and quince, the whole structured kind of like a Big Mac. She has a long conversation with the sommelier. He offers her a glass of late-harvest Gewurztraminer Grand Cru from the Balon d'Alsace area. Not too sweet (ce n'est pas un bonbon says the sommelier) with a bit of saltiness - just right for foie gras. With the fish, we share a half-bottle of another local Grand Cru, a bone-dry Riesling. The sandre is served with bread crumbs fried in butter and lemon juice. It's garnished with the simplest boiled potatoes. In between courses there is a ball of Granny Smith ice, floating in some kind of eau-de-vie. Too sweet for me.
Cheese is a generous wedge of munster, just slightly melted in the oven and get this doused in flaming marc de gewurztraminer. I sometimes make this at home for guests and its always a hit.
We are full, and almost skip dessert, but gluttony is stronger and we end up splitting a warm cake of pineapple and quince. Pineapples in France come from the former colonies and are sweeter and more flavorful than the monsters that arrive in the US. The cake is marvelous.
A very satisfying evening. The addition: 105 euros, a fair price.
So far in Alsace, we have been enjoying solid, traditional food, prepared and served by people who respect the ingredients and respect the customer, people who pay attention to their work and take some pride in it. We must now reluctantly return to the reality of Paris but, for our last night in the Vosges, there is time to shine up the credit card and to blast off into the stratosphere, to briefly enter a different world: that of the planet's greatest chefs.
Jean-Georges Klein inherited the one-star Arnsbourg, but his hotel school training prepared him for administration rather than cooking. One day he decided to become a chef, and now he has added two Michelin stars.
The restaurant sits smack in the middle of an ancient forest. The dining room is stunning a perfect combination of elegance and luxury. Everything is marble, stone, fine wood, pure-white linen, crystal and silver. The outside walls of the room are plate glass, while the inner ones are of expertly-milled knotty pine. The overall lighting is low, but each table is lit from above by a recessed spotlight. The only false note of the evening is struck by the giant expensive-restaurant-grade abstract canvases. Who paints this hideous stuff?
There is a regular a-la-carte menu of some twenty items, but no one seems to look at it. Rather, the real choice is between to two menus degustation, each consisting of some two dozen abstract compositions by M. Klein. As listed below, these are like nothing else on Earth: tone poems in food, created according to some mysterious philosophy by one man who, unseen in his own restaurant, dominates the whole evening and, each night, holds a hundred or so wealthy gluttons in his grip. Some of the concoctions come in plastic pipettes, to be downed in one gulp. Others are served on a soup spoon whose handle is curled into a spiral. Others still are beautifully arranged on a standard plate or bowl. Madame Cathy Klein (Jean-Georges sister) presides over the staff. She has a stern eye, and the service is impeccable, as it has to be in a *** establishment. As soon as we sit down, Briar (the collie) gets a silver-gilt bowl of water, served on a china plate with her own napkin. Then comes the parade of dishes:
Part 1: Grouped on the printed menu as Petits Savoureux Apéritifs:
Two ices: beer and Picon (this is a joke, since beer/Picon is a French working mans cocktail).
A flaky biscuit with herring caviar.
A pair of fried parmesan wafers filled with parmesan mousse.
A gelée of cepes with a pine nut
Toasted sunflower seeds with sweet and salty glazes.
Round of celeriac with a balsamic filling, surrounded by a coffee-flavoured cream.
Thimble-full of foie gras topped with sweet chocolate.
Spoonful of pumpkin crème flavoured with reglisse.
Cooked oyster with a mystery sauce and a quenelle of whipped egg white.
Poached quail egg, ginger oil, sugar and nutmeg.
Part2: Eight items on the printed menu:
Carpaccio of langoustine, eucalyptus-flavoured cream, frozen mouse of quinoa and sea urchin.
Scallops in an artichoke broth, vinaigrette with apples and truffles.
Grilled foie gras, a wedged of citrus-flavoured cake, an emulsion of saffron-infused milk.
Rouget (a tender red fish) in its poaching liquid. Bouillbaisse-flavored mashed potato.
Spaghetti made from parmesan carbonara sauce.
Whipped carrot juice with concentrated citrus syrup.
Breast of pigeon, carrot purée, straw-infused sauce.
Whipped mashed potatoes with truffles.
Part 3: Invitation à la Decouverte / Petites Gâteries de fin de repas:
Fruit cake type cookie
Meringue with pineapple and candied ginger
Chocolate cups with candied cherry
Lightly scrambled vanilla-flavoured egg with passion fruit sorbet
Apple compote with passion fruit
Fromage blanc millefeuille
Chocolate whiskey truffle
Some of the combinations are more convincing than others. The raw slices of langoustine, for example, I could have done without. But so what? I dont like every one of Chopins nocturnes either, and the man is still a giant.
A couple of further caveats.
First, it is very hard to know what to drink with all of this. The carte des vins is very impressive, but one is really far away from the known rules of matching food and wine. Plus, the prices are beyond astronomical. Cosmological? I know what some of these wines cost retail (on ebay, for example), and the multiplication factor here is surely four or five. On a previous visit, I chose a light pinot noir, but that wasnt right. I thought of having champagne this time, but one look at the right-hand column made me change my mind. This time I settled on a 1997 Cremant dAlsace (first time I ever saw a millesimé cremant of any kind) and was very happy. It was made from auxerrois grapes, not too heavily carbonated, with a pleasant burnt-toast, slightly sherrified flavour. With the pigeon, we had glasses of 2000 Haut Medoc.
Second, the meal lasts four hours and it is difficult to have a conversation about anything besides food. Maybe this isnt a problem for true chowhounds, but it would be difficult to come here to discuss romance, business or politics. I guess that is what the a-la-carte menu is for.
The bottom line is that LArnsbourg is a fabulous restaurant. Our evening out cost 360 euros, but one has to consider that our meal was composed of well over one hundred components, some of which required careful last-minute preparation, that our surroundings were spectacular, and that we were served by a small army of experts. I am not a habitué of the finest super-expensive French restaurants (I cant respond to chowhounds whose posts say Im coming to Paris: should I eat at Le Cinq or LAmbroisie?) but I have been to a few. It is difficult for me to imagine that better food is served anywhere.
Hi, maybe this topic isn't popular with anyone because the readership is maybe in the US, but I'd just like to say that my wife & I make it a habit to visit good restaurants and we're quite critical about them, having seen every conceivable variety in all corners of the world.
My rules for a 3-Star Michelin are simple:
- It has to be located far away from a major city.
- The chef has to be a perfectionist, and the sommelier too.
If the restaurant is still in existence after 5 years with both these conditions, then there is something special that brings people there and we'd be willing to try it. Experience has taught us that its hit-or-miss with the others.
By these measures, L'Arnsbourg is for me the best restaurant in the world. Jean George Klein is the only Chef I've ever seen that is up early for breakfast to personally slice dried ham for his patrons, cut the lawn of his hotel and rake his rock garden.
You can see it in every inch of the place, the detail that he and his family take care of. I have included a photo of him and his mother, as well as a photo of the restaurant.
A Crement to accompany all the savory courses?? Sorry, but this seems a bit strange too me. I have been to Arnsbourg several times and know the food quite well....
Re wine prices - I never had a problem of finding a reasonable priced Riesling, Gewurz or Pinot Gris from Alsace, the non-Alsace stuff is indeed overpriced.
It is a magical place, the interior is just beautiful and, for me, a benchmark, where I can relax and enjoy. The food is present but you can very well have other conversations than food... The strength of Klein is clearly his unique way of composing a menu, the single dishes vary in quality, but the whole experience is awesome. During my last vist I experienced some deficiencies in product quality and execution, but this was only once in numerous visits...
Absolutely third l'Arnsbourg as a must on any foodie's list.
With trepidation, we set off to Baerenthal. We remembered from last time that L'Arnsbourg is in the middle of no where, just trees and more trees and a road that barely allows for 2 cars to pass each other. With luck and cunning we arrived 45 minutes early for our lunch reservation.
L'Arnsbourg [the Klein family] has added Hotel K. The chef's wife is responsible for managing it. We hoped our room would be ready.
The lobby is beautiful with contemporary furnishings, very comfortable furnishings, sofas and chairs and a separate breakfast area. Unfortunately the room was not ready. Madame Klein was wonderful. Hospitality is at its best here in Baerenthal. She offered us champagne while we waited for the restaurant to open. [When we checked out the champagne was not on the bill--a treat from the owners. A very nice touch.]
45 minutes flew by. We walked down the hill to lunch.
The dining room is stunning with large windows over looking meadows and forest. Huge, 6' high and 5' wide vases are spotted around the two dining rooms with real orchids in bloom. The molded wood ceiling is absolutely beautiful. You are suspended in a natural setting.
Our plan was to have just 2 appetizers for lunch and save ourself for the big menu at dinner. Chef Klein, however, does something called "petits savoureux aperitifs". These are many small savory bites, before you even get to what you ordered.
1. In a curved handled spoon--veal "mousse" with bitter orange liqueur [picon]. On the side was a small tarte flambé.
2. A martini glass filled with sunflower seeds--salty and sweet.
3. 4 macaroons --2 black/2 white. We are asked to guess what is inside. We weren’t even close in our guesses. The white was a mixture of mustard cream and charcroute. The black was smoked eel with octopussy [repeating the server's words]. To the left was a pipette filled with mushroom gelee to be sucked out.
4. Croquant of parmesan--think of two crunchy squares perched on each side of a smaller frozen parmesan square.
5. 3 spoons presented on a rectangular plate positioned vertically. Eat North to South, top to bottom.
a. sweet corn bon bon topped with herring roe [salt flavor]
b. sweet corn bon bon sitting in a small pool of olive oil and lemon and topped with tomato [acid flavor]
c. sweet corn bon bon sitting in a small pool of olive oil and vanilla with a light-colored caramel crust [sweet flavor]
Please remember, we haven't gotten to the menu we have ordered for our "light lunch" .
6. Frozen scrambled egg with truffle oil and small crusty croutons served in an egg shell.
7. Oyster with 3 different kinds of grapefruit--dining instructions--slurp it at once.
The "Light Lunch" Menu:
Me - langoustine carpaccio with raisins, small cubes of feta cheese and chardonnay vinegar. Light, perfect and delicious.
My husband --emulsion of pommes de terre et truffes--absolutely decadent, light as air potato emulsion toped with lots of black truffles.
Palate Cleanser--In a martini glass, a bon bon of foie gras is served. Then a hot glacee of tarragon bouillon is poured on top. You wait about 45 seconds and eat the whole thing in one bite.
Back to the "menu"…
My Husband -frog's legs with tomato and coriander. Superb …
Me - -same as my husband's first course--the fabulous truffle course.
2003 Riesling Grand Cru Spiegel Dirler--great, solid, Alsacian Riesling…right on with the dishes we had.
A perfect 3 star start. We liked L'Arnsbourg the first time in September, 2002. Cathy Klein, the chef's sister and manager of the restaurant is delightful, charming and very knowledgeable. She orchestrated everything for us. She was well aware of our plans for "the big menu" at dinner. Of course, it is a take no prisoners environment. If you are a foodie, you better measure up!
We really enjoyed our lunch and figured that dinner would be sensational.
Dinner L'Arnsbourg--my birthday celebration
As we watched the parade of amuses being served to the other tables we noticed they were exactly the same as we had at lunch. Even though we enjoyed them, we did not want a repeat of 7 dishes. It would be disheartening, just like at Clos des Sens in Annecy, which we didn't like.
We should have known better. Chef Klein doesn't repeat himself with anyone any time, ever!
Petits Savoureux Aperitifs:
1. 4 macaroons--2 pink and 2 beige. Our guesses were still way off. Beige=foie gras, pink=campari+orange.
2. In a spoon with the curved handle, beer mousse…to the side a small pizza tart with pesto and tomato.
3. In a martini glass, pumpkin seeds, sugar and salt.
4. 2 stalks of asparagus coated with crystallized sugar and salt presented in a glass tumbler.
5. 2 cubes of freeze-dried parmesan coated with truffles and hazelnuts.
6. 2 spoons - one with grilled goose foie gras with carob and the other with lobster, white carrot and Asian spices.
7. 3 spoons to eat North to South positioned vertically on the rectangular black plate--
a. corn bon bon in a pool of lemon oil topped with small cubes of sherry brulee
b. cold foie with green apple gelee
c. thin coconut slices encased peanuts. John said, just thought peanut butter sandwich.
8. A spoon containing poached quail egg with ginger.
Scallop carpaccio with black sesame seeds, ¼" dice of green apple with eucalyptus cream. It was served with an onion croustillant to be eaten first. Wow!!
Pumpkin gnocchi and truffle oil gnocchi. 2 little white "balls" and 2 bright orange "balls" were presented in a bowl. Then the server poured black rice bouillon into the bowl. The bouillon was very strong and over-powered the gnocchi. We deconstructed the dish by eating the bouillon first and then the gnocchi.
Sauteed baby sole topped with chopped hazelnuts served with Jerusalem artichoke puree, parmesan foam and a small dot of balsamic reduction.
The sole was absolutely perfect and the Jerusalem artichoke puree marvelous.
Spaghetti parmesan "Alfredo"…this was the only complete miss of the night--we are not sure if it was really spaghetti, but whatever it was, it was mushy. The entire dish was bland and watery. The parmesan flakes [freeze dried] to the side were "OK" but nothing special. Not great.
Blue lobster with "parfums du magrebe". This was a complicated dish with a number of components. On the bottom, yogurt ice cream tarragon gelee and bulgar. A generous piece of lobster was placed on top then covered with couscous foam and a bright yellow sauce presumably with perfumes of Magrebe. (No real explanation. We are guessing a Middle Eastern spice.)
Grilled duck foie gras covered with Muscat foam. On the left a mushroom and jasmin bouillon and on the right a puree of quince and mustard. The quality of the foie was good, but nowhere near the quality of the foie at Arpege.
Palate cleanser--a red cabbage cornet filled with iced mustard cream.
Roasted breast of pigeon with a pigeon jus sauce. At the top of the plate a puree of parsnip plus green cabbage rolled into a cylinder. My notes say something about wakame, parsnip mustard, pumpkin and lemon butter, but by this point I am a little vague.
Cappuccino of potato and truffles--My husband loved it and ate every single bite. I was getting very full and ate about 75%???
"Invitation to Discovery"
The title refers to a succession of desserts.
I admit that the combination of a lot of food and wine left my note taking capabilities, which always decline around course 8, in very poor shape.
1. macaroon filled with apricot, coconut mousse and nuts.
2. A jellied something, chocolate filled with something and a tart of something with a cepe thin tuile.
3. a spoon filled with passion fruit sorbet [she thinks] and a green something…
4. pineapple something
After all of this the chef surprised me with a massive birthday cake
It was a masterpiece done in chocolate, chocolate stars, chocolate mushrooms, a chocolate sculpture over 24" tall.
We were so full we begged off eating the cake and told the staff to enjoy.
2002 Riesling Grand Cru Vorbourg Saint Landelin Mure--another solid Alsacian Riesling, delicious with all of the "introductory" dishes.
2000 Morey St. Denis "Rue de Verge" Domaine Perrot-Minot--excellent Burgundy. Nice with the later courses. It reminded us why we love to drink Burgundy with almost anything. Perfect bouquet of raspberries and strawberries. Smooth velvet finish.
We could not have found a more perfect spot for a birthday celebration. Both lunch and dinner were perfect. Sure some dishes were either off or only "fair", but the over-all food quality, inventiveness, and flavor came through at all times.
The complete different set of amuses at dinner. The total commitment to making the meal a "discovery" in every possible way. The birthday cake. Excellent service. And, an attitude of "we are excited that you are here and that you are excited about us" comes through loud and clear.
This is an exceptional place and a great family. The 3 family members, chef, Cathy in the dining room, and the chef's wife at Hotel K set the tone for everyone.
L’Arnsbourg embodies the true meaning of a 3 star restaurant – a destination restaurant, worth a detour.
This was definitely our best dining experience outside of Paris! Wow!!!
The "mushy" spaghetti was probably his take on Ferran Adria's "Molecular Cooking" - a jellified vegetable broth that is cooled and then cut. You can buy ready made packs in specialty stores in Europe nowadays.
It's a magical place - I once booked 2 nights there and ate myself silly.
My wife thought I was nuts when I booked 2 nights there. We made a mistake, though - we ordered the big degustation menu on Night 1 and were stuffed, then we had breakfast (see attached) the next where I ordered my favorite melted chocolate and sliced wild ham fed on chestnuts, which stuffed me even more.
Even with 2x of my workout routine in the afternoon and walks around Strasbourg, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was still full for Night 2. Nevertheless, with slight belt adjustments, we went to dinner and ordered the mini-degustation dinner.
The next time we book 2 nights, we'll do a mini-degustation on Night 1 and A la Carte on Night 2!
You all have stimulated my appetitie. Earlier this year I was trying to decide where to go in Paris for our 3 star dinner during our honeymoon but the prices, were somewhat disconcerting. Based very much on lizziee's recommendation, we decided to go with Arnsbourg and have a reservation for November! I can't wait especially after reading this thread!
You'll be pleasantly surprised.
There is a very talented, young sommelier named Claire there. She's not the main one, but what she's able to conjure for us in combination with the food was unbelievable. She's studying to be a sommelier and I will keep a watch for her in the food scene. I'd definitely ask for her when I'm next there.
I've put a couple of indistinct photos to not spoil the surprise for you when you get there, which communicate the warmth (but not detail) of what to expect.
PS: A car with GPS is the way to get there.
I'm envious. Its a great time to go there - very atmospheric. We went at the same time of year when we first visited there.
Don't forget the car with GPS, although nowadays there are signposts to the place (small ones).
There are 2 entries in Google Maps with the exact location of the place, one has the wrong place. This is the right one:
My car GPS system had no entry for the restaurant (although its 1 year old), so I programmed the intersection of Muhltal and Untermuhltal. That took me right to the entrance of the hotel (that's where the signs came in handy).
Thank you all for this great thread! My husband and I are flying to Frankfurt in a few weeks and based on your recommendations, we decided to hire a car and spend a few days in Alsace instead of going to Berlin. Yes, our friends think we're crazy for planning our destinations based on restaurants we want to eat at.
We are doing a night stay/dinner at L'Arnsbourg, then heading down to Colmar/Riquewihr for another night. I'm thinking that we could stop and have lunch at Wohlfahrt, Le Bistrots des Saveurs or le Cerf on our way to Colmar. If anyone has been to any of them, what would you recommend? Bear in mind that we will most likely have just eaten the breakfast at L'Arnsbourg, unless we are so stuffed from the dinner from the previous night that we don't, but I doubt it. We will spend a night in Colmar and will likely do dinner there. It soundsl like l'auberge de l'ill is everyone's favorite there. Are there any other stellar places that you would recommend or should we do l'auberge?
This trip back to Europe is basically an eating extravaganza/visiting family for the holidays. We now live in Asia and although we enjoy all the great Asian cuisines, French cuisine still holds a strong hold over us. My most recent French meal was at Pierre Gagnaire's in Seoul. He opened a restaurant here in 2008. The meal was fine but, I would be lying, if I did not say that I was a bit disappointed. I've had better meals at non-Michelin restaurants in Tokyo, Quebec, NYC, Singapore, Beijing and San Francisco. Again, thank you all for these tantalizing threads on the great eats in the Alsace/Strasbourg area. Happy eating!
right in the area of l'Arnsbourg are two other very good places, Auberge du Cheval Blanc in Lembach (1 star) and le Cygne in Gundershoffen (2 stars), suggesting you might want to extend your stay in the Vosge du Nord area, these are really good. And, across the Rhine, maybe 100 KM from Lembach you will find the fabulous restaurant at the Hotel Bareiss in Baiserbronn Mittletaal (3 stars). Although in Germany this is most definitely a French restaurant.
I have eaten at le Cerf three times, is a good choice too.
You are so lucky to live in that part of the world! I miss it! Thanks for the additional recommendations. I'm really disappointed that there isn't enough time in the day to have more than 3 full meals! Unfortunately, we can't extend our stay in Alsace because we have family plans for the rest of our trip. I checked out the websites and they all look great! I am just counting the days...
Thanks again for the insight and tips!