I love the French expression “une valeur sûre”, meaning “a sure thing”, “a safe bet”, or even “a slam dunk”. It’s how folks around here describe the Auberge Paysanne in Lutter, buried in the bucolic southernmost corner of Alsace known as the Sundgau. This classic hotel-restaurant, dripping with geraniums from May to October (the window boxes have just been planted up), is owned and run by Christiane Litzler and her daughter Carmen. I’ve long since lost count of how many times we’ve eaten there (it’s one of our locals) and it never fails.
What’s smart about this small, family-run French country inn is that it manages to offer something for everyone and for almost every occasion. Sunday lunch? The perfect place for that most French of institutions (go for the châteaubriand, done to pink perfection, carved at the table and served with foaming hollandaise and gratin dauphinois/frites and crunchy-tender vegetables). A birthday or an anniversary? They’ll rise to the occasion with a special table, a private room or even the whole place (and they’ll do a celebration dessert or cake too).
But the Auberge is not just for Sundays and special occasions; it’s also good for an impromptu supper out under the pergola on a warm summer’s evening (the chef’s home-smoked salmon, maybe or a plate of asparagus with all the trimmings?) – though be sure to book, as demand for the few tables far outstrips supply. Or you might fetch up here hungry and thirsty after a long hike in the foothills of the Jura or a punishing bike ride, when only a pression (draught beer) on the terrace with a plate of charcuterie or a slab of the house terrine will do. Leave room for the tart of the day – rhubarb right now, bilberries later, apples in autumn – with ice cream, of course.
A final – not insignificant – point in their favour is their policy on wines by the glass. (If you visit these pages regularly, you’ll know this is a familiar beef of mine.) Restaurants around here generally offer most of the Alsace varieties as ‘open wines’, plus a few generic/anonymous/generally undistinguished offerings labelled variously Côtes du Rhône, Bordeaux or Beaujolais. Carmen does things differently. At a recent lunch, she came up with the idea of a crisp Chenin Blanc from the Loire for starters (“makes a change from Muscat or Pinot Blanc”) followed by two red, by-the-glass candidates, a Cab Franc/Syrah/Merlot/Grenache blend from Alain Maurel’s Château Ventenac in the small Languedoc appellation of Cabardès and a St Emilion, Clos Trimoulet.
We had fun tasting both, exchanging glasses and comparing which went best with our châteaubriand (the Ventenac was meaty, robust and full of southern sun; the St Emilion more restrained and elegant – and each managed the beef with apolomb). Can’t understand why so few restaurants in France do this. All that’s needed is the imagination to put themselves in the diner’s shoes, particularly those dining à deux (who wants to get stuck with one bottle between two, for all courses, least of all at lunch?); a willingness to open an interesting bottle or two (which if from a lesser-known appellation will probably cost them all of €7); and the confidence and knowledge to sell it (“today’s special/a new discovery/something we’re trying out on our list”) to interested customers.
Last thought: if you need a bed for the night (after altogether too good a dinner?) or if you’re looking for a sympathetic billet for visiting friends and don’t have room for them at home, there’s a handful of hotel rooms too. Housed at the edge of the village in a typical Sundgau farmhouse building dating from the 17th-century, which was moved here and patiently reassembled (think Ecomusée) timber by timber, it’s done up with gorgeous kelsch fabrics (locally spun linen in bright, primary coloured checks) and furnished with antiques scoured from around Alsace.
Note that the Auberge will be closed from 29 June to 13 July
Auberge et Hostellerie Paysanne
1, rue de Wolschwiller
Tél.: 0033(3) 89 40 71 67