In France, Michelin stars count for a lot. There’s always plenty of noise about the restaurants that just got their first one – this year in our neck of the woods it was L’Alchemille in Kaysersberg and Julien Binz in Ammerschwihr. News also comes of the ones that have held three of them for as long as anyone can remember – L’Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern celebrated 50 years in the stellar firmament earlier in 2017 (see my article here in FT Weekend). Of late we’ve learnt of one chef – Sébastien Bras in Laguiole – who has three but wants to hand them back. (Not as unusual as the press – and Michelin – would have you believe: Olivier Roellinger in Cancale did the same years ago.) Less often do you hear of the ones who lose their star(s).
The Cheval Blanc in the tiny winegrowing village of Westhalten south of Colmar had one for ages but mislaid it in 2012. It must have been a blow for the Koehler family (Gilbert is in the kitchen with his wife Raymonde, son Jérome and daughter-in-law Caroline alternating front-of-house) but you’d never know it. It seems they just rolled up their sleeves, went ahead with doing up the dining room anyway (it looks great, light and bright, with plenty of white and dove-grey to offset the dark beams), and continue to sock it to their (many) faithful clients. We lunched there recently with friends from the US, on a recommendation from Marie Zusslin after a tasting at Domaine Valentin Zusslin in the nextdoor village, and came away wondering vaguely: “Stars? Who cares about stars?”
They do a startlingly good-value lunch menu (weekdays and Sunday nights) at €28 with a choice of 2 starters, 3 mains and then either cheese (from ace cheesemonger Jacky Quesnot in Colmar) or pudding. There was general approval of both starters (a plump little ‘eclair’ stuffed with mussels; a slow-cooked/low-temp, liquid-yolked egg concealed inside a foaming potato purée with ceps), while the party member who went off-piste with a foie gras 3-ways creation (€37) was visibly delighted with his choice. For mains, both the seasonal civet de chevreuil (a fork-tender venison stew in a red wine sauce) and the nuggets of guinea fowl wrapped up in crisp brik pastry with melting leeks were sure hits. Dessert was a variation on griotte cherries, with a coconut ice cream (all for €28, remember?).
There are loads more menu options at prices ranging from €47 to €91 and on Friday and Saturday evenings a 6-course menu at €54. The wrinklies get a special deal too: the Formules Senior offers 2 weekday lunch menus with all beverages included at €52 and €75.
The restaurant is a member of the Slow Food movement and makes a virtue of supporting the local farmers, fishermen, butchers, bakers – and winemakers. Cue for the wine list, which gets a special round of applause (you can see it here). All my favourite local producers are present: Zusslin in Orschwihr, Dirler-Cadé in Bergholtz, Agathe Bursin in Westhalten, the Murés in Rouffach and Paul Kubler in Soultzmatt (nice to be reminded of his wines, it’s too long since I visited…) and many more.
To my delight and astonishment – in case you don’t know, this is dismally rare in France – they serve lots by the glass, using the Coravin system to keep opened wines fresh. Entry-level, jug wines? A bit of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Edelzwicker & Co? Far from it. Just picture the delight of our American friend for whom I’d organised a couple of days touring in the vineyards. He’d mailed me ahead of his visit that the one wine he’d really, really love to taste was the legendary Clos Sainte Hune (Trimbach) – only to find it on the Cheval Blanc’s list as an open wine (I think it was €15 per glass for the 2005 vintage, but I didn’t see the bill…). Other glass-wise hits included a succulent Muscat from Leon Baur in Eguisheim, a Pinot Gris from Paul Kubler and a Riesling from Josmeyer – not forgetting a Pinot Noir Clos St Landelin from Muré to go with the civet. Exemplary. Why don’t more restaurants do this?
Best news of all, specially for those of us who don’t live right next door: there’s a hotel too, with breakfasts of local fruit, yogurt, honey, bread and mini-kugelhopfs orchestrated by Raymonde Koehler, the chef’s wife. I’m looking forward to going back for one of those dinner options and staying over.
Restaurant Auberge du Cheval Blanc
20 rue de Rouffach, 68250 Westhalten.
Tel. 03 89 47 01 16
Closed Monday and Tuesday