Restaurants & Bars 1

Auberge de L'Ill, Illhausen, France (V. long)

Limster | Dec 3, 200111:15 AM

This place needs no introduction here. I called 2 days ahead and thankfully snagged the last table.

At many of the best places I've been to, the hospitality was often perfectly orchestrated, but at Auberge de L'ill it seemed like something sprung from river and the earth, a warmth that is natural and genuine. A kindly old lady handed me brochures about the place that afternoon when she spotted me outside deciphering the menu with my phrase book. That evening, bright and happy greetings were extended by the staff of all ranks as I made my way there from front door across the lobby to the dining room. During dinner, one of the Haeberlins (I believe he's the chef's brother) surveyed the room and would stop occasionally to check with the guests. I was looking at the framed photos of various dignitaries after coming of the the unbelievably luxurious bathroom when he came by and pointed out a picture of the then Japanese Crown Prince, thinking I was also Japanese (I'm not) and we chatted a bit.

That lovely small town warmth opened the way to sophisticated dining, worthy of any metropolis. The amuse bouches are simple delightful affairs - a perfect gougere (sp?), a cheese puff that demonstrates why the taste of air is as important as the taste of pastry, a minature bite of pastry with bacon, and later, a crayfish bisque that drains away to reveal a piece of delicious fish.

The dimensions of the dishes here are very hearty. The first course lays out two slabs of savoriness. The top half of the plate is occupied by terrine of foie gras d'oie (goose) whose richness and flavor is perfectly paired by the surrounding fruit - a fig puree and a little salad of apples. A lovely piece of toasted brioche, still warm from the oven, is presented as the dish is served. The bottom half of the plate is dominated by a slice of gelee generously embedded with chunks of venison, their crimson interiors utterly juicy. The textures of the gelee and venison lend themselves to an interesting crunchy contrast from carrots and zucchini, also embedded in the gelee. This is really two courses worth of food and pleasure.

The venison in the opening dish might be unusual in the standard progression of light to heavy flavors, but it is actually relatively mild. Moreover, the richness of the foie gras practically cleans the palate.

The next course was going to be a fish, but I substituted that with one of the dishes listed under the chef's recommendations in the menu. I get Haeberlin's frog leg mousseline, a molded little cylinder of creaminess. I don't know how that soft mousseline could support the dice shaped chunks of frog within, but it holds together, not only physically, but also in flavor. The frog can be a bit fiberous as a meat, but the creaminess from the mousseline and wonderful cream sauce carrying chopped chives with tiny verdant snaps do good things to the frog.

Then, one of the two best lobsters I've ever had (ties with Lucas Carton's signature lobster w/ vanilla sauce). It's a half lobster stuffed back in its shell with a spicy, moist bready creole stuffing, all set in a pool of (I think lobster) broth. The translucent claw draped over the shell is a singular experience. The texture of the claw is utterly but delicately perfect - crunchy and yielding at the same time; the flavor is sweet and savory and all lobster.

All this while, I was drinking a fantastic riesling, possibly the best wine by the glass I got on this France trip - the friendly sommelier (reputedly one of the best in France, according to one of the guidebooks) pours me an '88 Hugels et Fils reserve personelle riesling; this is the house white. It's at a great age - sweet, complex, and already revealing a mild and nice smokiness. Put that together with the lobster and spicy stuffing and the effect is breathtaking.

Then game. A pigeon strudel with wild mushrooms and red wine sauce. Flaky pastry contrasts wonderfully with the meaty bird, and the game is celebrated by the dark complexities of the wild mushrooms.

Now the cheese course. A buttery brillat-savarin, a smoky munster made even more interesting by an accompaniment of fennel seeds, and a chevre that is almost as good as the one I got at Au Crocodile.

The first dessert is a intense cherry sorbet in pool of marc (assuming I heard correctly and competently). It's like eating a cocktail; the fruit matches its alcoholic "sauce" very well; the experience was novel and truly enjoyable.

Next comes the real dessert, a parfait carrying microscopic bits of nuts on a piece of what resembles shortbread. A paper thin wafer rests over it. Figs and a strawberry sauce provide sweet acid to cut the parfait's richness. There are also little tartlets and chocolates and other sweets.

It was a fantastic meal. I wouldn't split hairs over which dinner was better, but if pressed, I'd say that I liked Au Crocodile a bit more by the thinnest of margins, and that it was more or less the same as Guy Savoy and Lucas Carton (although asignificantly cheaper than the 2 Parisan places).

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