If you’re going to treat yourself to just one memorable outing in Alsace in the next weeks or months, consider the Villa René Lalique, north of Strasbourg in the little town of Wingen-sur-Moder. Silvio Denz, Swiss entrepreneur, vineyard owner and now CEO of Lalique, first created the Musée Lalique in town – which itself is well worth a visit. Then he set about restoring the celebrated glass-maker’s 1920s timbered and gabled family home and commissioned star architect Mario Botta to build a brand-new restaurant right next door. It’s a luminous glass pavilion braced by pink sandstone pillars and it serves as a glittering showcase not only for the famed Lalique crystal and glassware but also for some jaw-dropping kitchen fireworks by Chef Jean-Georges Klein, lured here by Denz from the triple-starred Klein family restaurant L’Arnsbourg in nearby Baerenthal.
I visited last September when it had just opened, for a piece in Decanter on the best places to eat out in Alsace today. There are several menus: Signature @ €180, Création (with 3-4 courses) @ €98 – 128, Végétal @ €149 and a Menu du Jour served at lunch only @ €78. Our meal was a magical succession of tiny surprises that combined and contrasted crunchy with silky-smooth, spicy with sweet-sour, piping hot with ice cold. The menu (fully annotated, above) will be different now, of course, with summer dishes to the fore, but my scribbled notes and memories of the standout dishes detailed below will at least give you a taste of what’s in store….
The éveil des papilles (palate-awakener) consisted of 3 tiny tapas in which smoked salmon, crusty polenta, a sliver of pork scratching, chutney, mussels and cream cheese played various parts:
Next came the oeuf argenté, a soft-boiled egg inside a silvery varnished shell topped with a warm whisky mousse and accompanied by a toasty “soldier” flavoured with squid’s ink for dunking into the runny yolk. (Dontcha just love that mother-of-pearl spoon?)
The déclinaison autour du fruit rouge turned out to be an intensely shellfishy shrimp bisque with a splodge of raspberry and a jaunty sprig of purple basil, accompanied by a sort of cannolo consisting of a jellied raspberry sheet wrapped around something savoury and white (?fresh cheese ?ricotta). (My notes also record that foie gras played a part, though you can’t see it in the picture.)
My favourite dish featured a chunk of snowy-white sea bass gently flavoured with bergamot and draped with a slender, jellied sheet of polychrome peppers, the whole floating on a warm elderflower vinaigrette enlivened with white Balsamic vinegar. On the side was a sinfully rich truffled mashed potato shaped like a spoon – difficult to eat tidily but mighty good. A tiny splodge of lemon jelly introduced a sharp, intensely delicious citrus note to the whole thing – a delightful play of contrasting colours and flavours.
The duck breast with a quetsch and almond layered creation and a jus infused with cardamom had rich colours and gorgeous flavour but it lacked a bit of crunch for contrast (cue for breadcrumbs? toasted nuts? crusty, not soft, skin?).
Cheese (from my neighbour in the Sundgau, the celebrated cheese affineur Bernard Antony) is served from an eye-catching, ultra-modern, black and white Lalique trolley. All I could handle was a thin slice of 2012 Comté punctuated with tiny crystals (of the kind found in aged cheese, not the Lalique variety), shaved from a generous slab – love it when they serve it like that, as you get an even better flavour hit than from a chunky piece.
The pré-dessert was like a crackly nest of sugar enclosing a grape sorbet while the signature sucrée was a half-crown of poached mirabelles sitting on a mousse which in turn sat on a kind of tuile with a mirabelle coulis: sweet alternating with sharp, soft with crunchy – and beautiful to behold.
The wine list is a hefty bible and is worth a detour in itself. It neatly dovetails Denz’s own formidable cellar (big on Bordeaux, where he owns vineyards, and the US) with award-winning sommelier Romain Iltis’ hand-picked Alsace selection. Rieslings are writ large, from headline-grabbing new wines from old-established names (Trimbach’s Grand Cru Geisberg, Hugel’s Grosse Laüe) to grands crus from relative newbies Paul Ginglinger and Henry Fuchs, whose GC Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé proved a satisfying partner for our various fishy dishes.
If you eat out regularly in Alsace (forget the rest of France), you’ll know that it’s extremely rare to find more than one or two Pinot Noirs on offer from the region. Romain Iltis is a fervent believer in Alsace’s Pinot potential and has persuaded Denz that it’s worth devoting cellar and list space to the best bottles. He has thus devoted an entire page to the subject of Rouge d’Alsace, venturing beyond the territory once exclusively the monopoly of Albert Mann, Muré, Zusslin & Co. to reveal budding Pinot craftsmen like Jean-Paul Schmitt and Schoenheitz. The latter’s Pinot Noir Linsenberg, grown in the granite soils of Schoenheitz’s vineyards above Wihr-au-Val (reserved, to my great chagrin, only for the restaurant trade) is a delight and did a fine job with the duck and its sweetish quetsch accompaniment.
Remember I said this is a temple not only to food but also to Lalique glass and crystal ware? The super-elegant contemporary Lalique glassware, from variously shaped wine glasses and water glasses through to the little glass bridge which cradles the corks from your bottle(s), provides the perfect complement to Jean-Georges Klein’s elegant, modern style of cooking.
Note that there’s a train from Strasbourg to Wingen-sur-Moder so you can make a day trip of it, take in the museum, feast on lunch at the Villa and not have to worry about taking the wheel afterwards.