Alsace vs Baden: which side of the Rhine has the best food?

Pan-fried pike-perch (Zander), asparagus and wild garlic sauce at Merkle’s Restaurant, Endingen, Kaiserstuhl

When we gravitated to the Upper Rhine region over 30 years ago, most of the sound and fury on the food front was coming from Alsace. Back then there were three triple-Michelin star restaurants (L’Auberge de l’Ill, Le Burehiesel and Au Crocodile) plus a host of young chefs following in their wake. Fine food in Baden, across the Rhine? Hmm. Gutbürgerlich, definitely; copious too. But fine? Nah! But times they are a-changing. In the past, Badeners in search of good eating came across to Alsace. Now the traffic is busy going into reverse: take a tally of the licence plates of the cars parked outside any of Baden’s (many) Michelin-starred restaurants and see how many are French.

My heart (and much else) still lies in Alsace – there’s some terrific eating to be done here, in places both great and small. But we’ve been surreptitiously joining that eastward flow of traffic and have had some memorable meals there of late. Here’s a selection (from both sides of the Rhine), which will join those already up on Eating Out: Alsace, Basel and Baden.

There’s never a dull moment at Thomas Merkle’s Rebstock in Endingen in the Kaiserstuhl, which got its first Michelin macaroon last year. Throughout the year, themed brunches follow Smoke and Soul (jazz-and-barbecue) lunches, wine producer evenings, beer menus, kitchen parties and cooking workshops in giddying succession. The two main menus, Einfach Merkle (‘simply Merkle’) and Einfach Regional (‘simply local’) form the backbone of Merkle’s cuisine. On a steamy April evening with dinner served out on the terrace, we went local with a quail/foie gras combo, a succulent stump of pike-perch (Zander) with crunchy green asparagus and pea puree (above), pork (tenderloin and slow-cooked belly) with a wild garlic crust, and, to finish, a rhubarb compote with strawbugs, coulis, a finger of warm hazelnut cake and fresh goat’s cheese ice cream. Wine pairings – all from the Kaiserstuhl on the regional menu – were topnotch, from top names like Salwey, Stigler and Knab. The only bum note was hard, dry, tasteless bread – it’s not enough for Brot to be hausgemacht, it has to be good. Dinner for 2 with wine pairings: €219

The Romantik Hotel Spielweg in Münstertal near Badenweiler has everything a Schwarzwald inn should properly have (and the Spielweg has far fewer frills and furbelows than most Romantik Hotels). The dining room is classic Black Forest, wood-panelled with a dark green tiled stove in the corner, smiling waitresses in Tracht (local costume) and a sommelier/maitre d’ who knows his stuff and loves to share (rather than impose) his knowledge of/enthusiasm for Baden’s vineyards. Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs is a Jeune Restaurateur de’Europe, cookbook author, cheese maker and hunter. His cuisine combines the best local, seasonal ingredients (trout from the local beck, Schwarzwald veal and Hinterwälder beef from a neighbouring farmer, wild garlic from the forest, asparagus – and wine – from Martin Wassmer) with modern flourishes (beef en carpaccio, wild garlic pasta, crème brûlée of rhubarb/strawberries). A great place to take (or in our case, be taken by) visitors. Lunch for 4: €235

I’m not an unconditional fan of the Nasti boys of Kaysersberg. Chambard, their starred Michelin resto in Kaysersberg, feels a bit like a railway carriage (long and thin), the food is clever (chef Olivier Nasti is a MOF) and the reception cool. The Winstub nextdoor offers red-and-white checked tablecloths, foie gras and choucroute, Baeckeoffe, coq au Riesling, sundry tartes and kugelhopf ice cream, while Coté-Cour in Colmar does brasserie food, with regular guest-chef appearances (great reunion with Emile Jung recently, formerly of Au Crocodile). Until recently, I hadn’t managed to get to Flamme & Co, subtitled Créateur de Tartes Flammées [sic]. The idea (le concept) is to take the Alsatian Flammekueche – traditionally a yeast dough stretched thin, spread with fromage blanc, sprinkled with bacon bits and onion and given a brief blast in a wood-fired oven – in all kinds of different, unaccustomed directions: toppings include baby spinach leaves + sun-dried toms + shaved Parmesan; scallops + broccoli; Munster + frisée (above). The decor is loud, red and geometric-modern, the table mats border on inflammatory and the loos are positively incendiary. A fresh [as in frech] look at Flammekueche, and one that’s raised a few eyebrows. Lunch for 5.5 (our 5 yr-old grandson counts as half): €160

At L’Atelier du Peintre in the beautiful old part of Colmar, chef Loïc Lefebvre (originally from Verdun, done the rounds of top chefs in France, won Best Restaurant in Scotland award for his work at Abstract in Inverness) does handsome, modern, intensely flavoured food based on local seasonal ingredients. From a recent lunch menu (€20 for 2 courses, €24 for 3) we fell for the perfectly poached egg poised on crunchy green asparagus (yay!) with truffle foam resting on a slim cream of foie gras. Mains were either flakes of pinkly roasted veal kidney on a puree of haricot beans with a shimmering, syrupy veal reduction  or cod on a courgette risotto with chorizo crumble and wild garlic emulsion. Pudding was a praliné ice topped with blobs of choccy mousse with a sort of eau-de-vie- infused crème anglaise. Great cooking, brilliantly executed and presented, at eye-rubbing prices with a warm welcome from the chef’s partner and sound advice from tall, bespectacled sommelier, wreathed in complicitous smiles. Lunch for 2: €84.50

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