There are loads of reasons for loving living in Alsace. One of them is that we can nip up to the Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern once in a while for lunch. Why lunch? Two – no, three – good reasons: first, Illhauesern is a bit far from us for dinner. Second, they do a great lunch menu. And finally, by day you get the views of the gardens and the sleek River Ill, views captured so beautifully by the late Jean-Pierre Haeberlin in his watercolours that illustrate the house menus.
The lunch menu is not just good, it’s astonishingly good value. For as long as I can remember it’s cost the princely sum of €99 and for the quality offered, it’s something of a snip. Okay, not for just any old day, but for a treat – to celebrate spring, say, or a new commission, or a job well done, or even a small birthday…or just if you’re up in the vineyards anyway refurbishing the cellar (Ribeavillé, Riquewihr, Bergheim et al are all dangerously close)…
This week we could claim all those excuses except the birthday one. The menu (which barely moves in composition as in price – my records show the same dishes now as in 2008) offers three choices each for starters and for mains, followed by cheese, and then a choice of three puds.
MWS went for the Auberge’s legendary duck foie gras, two heroic portions scooped out of their great big pot and curled lasciviously onto the plate, with some kind of jelly (Gewurztraminer?), accompanied by a glass of typically Trimbach (i.e. fine, upstanding, discreet, and dry) Gewurz Vendange Tardive ’05. I went for the scallops en croute de sesame with a ‘cannelloni’ of mango and crab – sweetly succulent scallops (tho’ not quite enough crunch to the croute) and a fine slice of mango cradling dressed crab. Yum.
For mains I went with lamb (baby cutlets from a pinkly roasted rack + fragrant little heap of Asian-inspired salad leaves) and MWS plumped for a nugget of veal with some kind of veggie galette and a green pea in its pod on a puree of same, worthy of a picture (here it comes).
For pud there was a chocolate extravaganza with a deep, dark sorbet of astonishing intensity, swirls of dark choc, a milk chocolate ice and twizzles of chocolate and creme anglaise and twirls that must have kept the pastry chef happy for some time while he waited for us to finish our cheese (an oozy Muster, 2 year-old Comté, a washed-rind goat, a beautifully chalky Chaource).
As ever we chose wines by the glass – when eating à deux, which single bottle will take you comfortably through foie gras/scallops/veal/lamb/cheese/chocolate/pineapple without flinching? And anyway, it’s lunch, and we have to drive…As ever, the by-the-glass decision brought patchy results. (France seldom ‘gets’ wines by the glass, even at these elevated levels.) The Trimbach Gewurz VT with foie gras was spot on and the Dussourt Riesling with the scallops was also a good choice. Then there was a debate about whether to have a glass of red each, or a half bottle.
We decided on a glass each. First, Peyrat Fourthon: decent Bordeaux, Haut-Médoc, nothing too ambitious and fine with the veal (€13). With the lamb, the choice boiled down to a Cabernet Sauvignon from Los Boldos (Chile); a Burgundy; the abovementioned Peyrat Fourthon; or a Pauillac, Les Tourelles de Longeuville 2000 (2nd wine of Pichon Longueville Baron). The sommelier flinched visibly at the idea of a Chilean Cab. Sauv. with baby lamb; I didn’t feel like Burgundy and wanted something different from the Peyrat Fourthon. I could feel the sommelier willing – nay daring – me to go for the Pauillac (lamb? Pauillac? no-brainer, I could almost hear him saying.). At €33 a glass, I figured it must be something pretty special, memorable even. It wasn’t. Not especially fragrant, or fine, or long-lived, just a bit flat (who knows when it had been opened). Damn. Safer (and cheaper) to have settled for that half-bottle, something like a Pinot Noir Les Neveux from Hugel. I never learn.
But the food hit its customary high spots, the views were as good as ever and the service was unswerving – just the right balance of professionalism, friendliness and understated luxury. A nice detail: the Auberge is the kind of place where you get up to go to the bathroom leaving a dishevelled napkin on the table and return to find a brand-newly laundered one neatly folded at your place. In an age when most of us can’t even be bothered to bring out the cloth napkins any more, that’s luxury.