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.